The Great Famine (1315–1317)

What happened?

  • In 1314 and 1315, the majority of Europe experienced massive crop failure. Just prior to this, there was a period of population growth triggered by an expansion in agriculture, and the sudden lack of food for the large number of people led to a famine. About 5-12% of the population of northern Europe died from starvation or related disease.
  • Famine led to class warfare and political strife that destabilized entire regions. The prices of everyday items, such as grain, wheat, barley, oats, bread and salt soared, so that many people could not afford them even when they could find them. People resorted to abandoning their children and stealing from and murdering others just to feed themselves. Others were forced to eat dogs and horses, and there were even rumors of cannibalism.
  • This famine exacerbated the effects of the Black Death, an outbreak of the bubonic plague that struck Europe, North Africa, and Central Asia in the early to mid 1300s, and was the first of many crises that Europe would face during the Late Middle Ages. 
  • Crop harvests returned to normal in 1317, but it would be another five years before food supplies were completely replenished. 

How is this related to climate?

  • Just prior to the Great Famine, Europe experienced the Medieval Climate Anomaly (MCA), a period of global climate variation during the Middle Ages.
    • North America, Europe and Asia experienced warming between 830 and 1100 CE, while South America and Australia experienced warming between 1160 and 1370 CE. The tropical Pacific, on the other hand, experienced cooling. 
    • Hydrologic cycles also changed: the US, Mexico, southern Europe, equatorial Africa and the Middle East were drier, while Northern Europe and eastern South Africa were wetter.
    • These changes in temperature and precipitation were driven by an increase in solar radiation and a decrease in volcanic activity. Volcanic eruptions can lead to short-term global cooling because the ash they release into the atmosphere blocks the sun, and this time period experienced very few volcanic eruptions. 
    • The generally warm weather during the MCA allowed farmers to plant crops on land that was otherwise unsuitable for farming. As a result, there was a crop surplus that supported a population explosion that tripled the number of people in Europe at the time. 
  • The warm period ended in the northern hemisphere in the 1300s, with the beginning of the Little Ice Age. The Little Ice Age, a period of widespread cooling and a drop in average global temperatures, brought cold weather and torrential rains to Europe. The rains were particularly harmful to food supply in Europe, as they rotted crops and promoted diseases that infected livestock. This lack of a consistent and plentiful food supply led to the famine. 

References and additional resources