Such a mortality of men in England and Scotland through famine and pestilence as had not been heard of in our time.The Chronicle of Lanercost 1272-1346
In the autumn and winter of 1314, Britain experienced a period of extreme wet and “bizarre” weather; torrential rain flooded the fields, rotting crops and drowning livestock. The staple food of the time was of course bread, but the ‘daily’ bread was becoming more and more scarce as stored grains either went mouldy or were “innutritious”. In a good year, one might expect a good return on grain planted: for each grain sown, you could get up to seven grains back. In 1315 the return was devastating: now you reaped one grain for every two planted – had they known it, they would have been better off not sowing seeds in the spring, but of course they did not know that this spell of bad weather would devastate crops for almost two years.
What could be causing this? Naturally at this time, all eyes turned to God – it was obvious He was punishing the English, but what could they have done to deserve this? One answer could be found in the King’s Vita. Edward II was on the throne, and at this time all kings had a running commentary-cum-almanac written about them and their times called a Vita, and his Vita placed the finger of blame directly on the English people themselves. Apparently, the English “excel other nations in three qualities in pride, craft and in perjury. All of this comes from the wickedness of the inhabitants.”
In reality, it wasn’t just the English who were affected by the weather, it was widespread, hitting the whole of the British Isles, Northern France, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, Germany and West Poland. At the time, each country seemed to think the ordeal was happening only to them, and all of them insularly blamed their own nations for their own personal famines.
During winter of 1314/5 people quickly realised that if they were to keep aside some of their grain to sow in the springtime there was very little spare to grind into flour for bread. This was not uncommon; England is, after all, wet and warm a lot of the time. Things usually picked up the next year and as long as there were some seed and livestock reserved for the new farming year all would be well. The problem was the weather did not change in the springtime and produced next to no crops. It was obvious a real famine was on its way.
In response to this, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Walter Reynolds, ordered Parish Churches throughout the realm to partake in some ‘solemn processions’ in an attempt to curry favour with God. King Edward and his Parliament tried something a little more practical and attempted to stave off, or at least put off, the famine by rationing and regulating food prices so that everyone could get at least something. Parliament fixed the price of wheat, sheep, cattle, chickens and eggs. It cost 12 shillings for ‘a live fat cow’ and a penny for two dozen hens’ eggs.
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This was a great idea in theory, but in reality, it was a disaster; there was so little food that traders’ and farmers’ businesses were no longer viable. Things really were at a stretch, even the King, when he turned up with his household at St Albans for a visit, something that kings loved to do – they would turn up with their entourage and expect their hosts to house, feed and water them opulently. It was a great honour to have this thrust upon you, and dukes and earls of the land all dreaded finding out the King was coming to them. They knew the royal party would clean them out and have them haemorrhaging money for the entire period. Well not this time – August 1315 – for his host could barely find enough bread to feed them.
As the year progressed price fixing was ditched, and prices increased hugely. Now, a quarter barrel of wheat (a bit under 13 kg) rose in price from five shillings to forty shillings, and all you were getting for a penny now was “2 little onions”. By 1216 there had been two years without a harvest and the Archbishop of Canterbury was forced to sell his holy relics to pay for food.
If you didn’t fancy your chances stealing food, you could have a stab at some foraging. The trouble was much of the undeveloped lands were boggy and filled with rotting vegetation too. People tried digging up roots, eating grass and even the bark from trees.*
Sheep and cattle were killed from outbreaks of ‘murrain’ (a highly virulent disease, probably food-and-mouth); in Berwick, starving soldiers boiled and ate the carcasses of their diseased horses for sustenance. Animals all around the country died in their thousands, and the people literally could not eat them fast enough. In a normal year when animals were killed their meat was cured in salt to preserve it, but because of the extreme weather it was too wet to dry salt, causing a shortage making it extremely expensive so they rotted.
For England, it was worst in the north (it is ‘grim Up North’, after all). Northumbria had to deal with constant raids from starving Scots and were reduced to eating “dogs and horses and other unclean things”. There was even talk of cannibalism: “others stole new-born babies to devour.” Hopefully this story was apocryphal.
One in twenty died during the famine but for those who survived, insult was added to injury because a “great pestilence” came and devasted a population weak with malnutrition and dysentery. The next year would improve a little, and in 1318 there was bountiful harvest. However, it took years for the livestock population to recover from murrain. As for the people, they were affected by cold winters, poor harvests and disease much more than before the famine; the Great Famine had left Europe in a weakened state for several decades and “[t]here would be really no sustained growth for a hundred years.” Quite so, because little did they know that soon Europe would be hit by its first wave of the Black Death, which devasted those countries hit by the Famine even harder that the rest.
Today, we cannot imagine being at the mercy of the elements like this; with modern technology and farming methods, we reckon these events are things of the past – in the Western World at least. To some degree I am sure it is true, but today we have never been so UNaware of how our food is grown and processed. I wonder just how many narrow squeaks we have had. I expect they are not infrequent.
*this might seem a little far-fetched, but deer commonly strip and eat the bark and its inner green layer in times of hardship such as wintertime. I wonder if folk observed this behaviour and thought it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try too.
‘10 Things to Know About the Great Famine’, Medievalists.net website https://www.medievalists.net/2019/06/great-famine/
‘Edward II: The Unconventional King’ (2017) by Kathryn Warner
‘The Great Famine’, halinaking.co.uk website: http://www.halinaking.co.uk/Location/Yorkshire/Frames/History/1315%20Great%20Famine/Great%20Famine.htm
‘The Great Famine: Northern Europe in the Early Fourteenth Century’ (1997) by William Chester Jordan.
‘The Great Flood and Great Famine of 1314’ by Ben Johnson from Historic UK website: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/The-Great-Flood-Great-Famine-of-1314/
‘The History of England Volume I: Foundation’ (2012) by Peter Ackroyd