William Chester Jordan, The Great Famine. Northern Europe in the Early Fourteenth Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. Hardback. Maps. 317 pp. $29.95.
Readers of this important book will be struck first by the attractiveness of the dust jacket, then later by the fact that almost half the pages are endnotes and bibliography. The subject is one known only to medieval specialists, and even then usually referred to obliquely, as to something suspected or imperfectly understood. No more. The dearth years 1315, 1316, and 1317 are now thoroughly documented, and demonstrated to be not a local phenomenon, but a regional catastrophe. From Ireland to the Baltic harvests failed three years in a row, a natural disaster that reduced much of the rural population to hunger, starvation, and even cannibalism.
The foremost cause of the famine was rainy weather. Fields were waterlogged, flooded, and eroded. Some crops could not be planted, others drowned, and yet others could not be harvested. With normal yields as low as two measures for every one planted, it did not take long before farmers failed to recover even the seed corn; moreover, wetness undoubtedly led to ergot poisoning (from fungus). Draft animals died of anthrax and rinderpest, perhaps partly from the damp hay, but undoubtedly more from undernourishment and the extraordinarily cold winters.
A secondary cause was war, especially the English-Scottish conflict, which not only resulted in destruction throughout the border regions, but also spread pirates across the seas. To the east, there was war in Brandenburg. These regional conflicts disrupted trade, making it difficult to transport grain to famine regions. No government was fully effective in providing relief, but Livonian rulers responded to the crisis by allowing merchants to import grain from Berlin-Kölln (reversing the normal outflow of grain to the west), then by regulating prices to protect the poor. Not that this was sufficient: in the Baltic the famine lasted until 1322.
This disaster came unexpectedly to a region that had seen unprecedented growth and prosperity in the thirteenth century. Where once forest and swamps had been predominant, now stood villages and towns; where once pagan gods had reigned, church bells sounded. Intrepid captains carried wares across the seas, merchants sailed into the interior for trade, and farmers could provide lords with grain and taxes and still have something left over for themselves. However, almost unnoticed, this increase in well-being was slowly down significantly. Just as Frederick Jackson Turner had noted in the United States in 1893, the medieval frontiers had closed, both for internal colonization and for eastward migration; and just as surely, this closing of the frontier would have consequences in the medieval North, just as it did in North America centuries later, consequences which may have been more significant for attitudes and social organization than for economic relationships.
Jordan is indefatigable in amassing references to starvation, then breaking the citations down into categories: the impact on prices and wages, the peasantry, the lords, the towns, and the ways that people tried to cope with the situation. Given the sources and the fact that he has written for a British/American audience, it is no surprise that he has more information about England than the Baltic, more sources for city life than the countryside, and more speculation about the long-term effects than facts. There is simply a limit to what a historian can conjure up from surviving records. Nevertheless, it is marvelous what he has been able to find and organize. This is a volume that every library should possess, and at a price most libraries can afford.