Revisiting The Great Famine of 1315 and The Black Death of 1347

This is a longer post, but I thought I would take some time to write about the Middle Ages and how this lost era relates to modern society. I fear that certain events, though not inevitable, might occur that would be analogous to the disasters of the 14th century in Europe, for there are certain parallels between our society and the society of Europe in 1300. See below for details.

A tapestry of medieval battle

The Era of Brutality

It is difficult for the modern person to wrap their mind around the sheer brutality of the Middle Ages. At a basic level 30-50% of children died either in infancy, or at some point before adulthood. There was no concept of modern medicine or even of what a germ or a disease was, so medical care was atrocious. One crop failure could doom an entire town to starvation, so weak were communications and distribution of food. And in many places, war was endemic.

It was difficult for liberal values to thrive in this environment. Take the area of capital punishment, for instance. Here are some ways in which capital punishment was administered in the Middle Ages:

  • Boiling alive
  • Burning at the stake
  • The Breaking Wheel
  • Crushing to death by stone
  • Beheading with an axe
  • Flaying
  • Impalement
  • Sawing in half (often from the bottom up)

One unfortunate who attempted to overthrow the king of Hungary was forced to sit on a heated iron throne until he fried to death. Overall, this was a society in which it was extremely advisable to know your place and stick to it.

"The Rack"

The long economic boom (1000-1250)

By any standard, these were impoverished times. However, beginning around 1000 AD there was a substantial economic expansion in Europe. Population expanded rapidly, new land was cleared, and the economy improved from the depths of the Early Middle Ages. The most important factor was a period of warmer weather, allowing for improved agricultural yields. This was the base that supported a larger population and more integrated political structures.

The modern remnants can be seen in the preservation of this era’s Gothic cathedrals, most notably Notre Dame in Paris.

Construction on Notre Dame began in 1163 (not completed until 1345)

Unfortunately, the new economic arrangement worked so well that Europe’s population was soon stretching its agricultural capacity. By 1250, society was in a holding pattern. Many people were chronically malnourished, and population ceased to expand. For many years Europe rested one event away from disaster and famine, which leads to the next section of this article.

The Great Famine (1315)

Disaster, when it occurred, came at the hand of nature. The good, warm weather that allowed Europe to sustain good yields suddenly broke in 1315. The spring of 1315 was exceptionally wet and cool, delaying the planting of crops. When crops finally did go in, it was very late in the planting season. Unfortunately, the bad weather continued throughout the summer and it soom became evident that a massive crop failure was at hand. Prices for food soared and many of society’s poorest members simply starved to death. It is estimated that 10% of the population (VERY roughly estimated at around 15 million people) died in Europe, a catastrophe on the magnitude of the Holocaust. Cannibalism and infanticide were rampant. Many people began to slaughter their own draft animals for food.

By the time the situation stabilized, Europe had suffered death on a massive scale. The economy suffered immensely, life expectancy dropped, and society took a turn for the brutal. Unfortunately, the worst was far from over..

Death rains down from the sky

The Black Death (1347)

In 1347 a group of Genoese were routed from the Crimean city of Jaffa by Mongol armies. They fled to Italy, bringing with them the most devastating disease that Europe would ever see. People were stricken with swollen lymph notes, rotting black skin, massive fever and pains, shock, delirium, coma, and death. The average victim was gone within three days. So many died that bodies were simply piled in the streets.

Italy in 1348

Needless to say this left the economy in shambles. Productive workers from all walks of life were struck down. Fields lay idle. Armies were decimated. The administrative apparatus of society was torn apart. It would appear that such events would lead to a degeneration of society back into the dark ages. Counterintuitively, the exact opposite occurred. The aftermath of The Great Famine and The Black Death led to Europe’s greatest economic expansion since the time of Rome.

The Aftermath

When the authority of Rome collapsed, Europe fell into 600 years of depression and near anarchy. The population fell by over half. The Colosseum was filled with wild animals and weeds. Why did the same not happen after the Black Plague? Recall that the Renaissance happened only a century later.

Indeed, society emerged leaner and meaner from the calamitous 14th century. The agricultural system could suddenly provide food in abundance for the survivors. Freed from the overpopulation and stagnation of the 13th century, the economy had room to focus on non-agricultural pursuits. Wages increased, freedom for workers increased, and technological innovation continued to take hold. Given the improved state of society after the Plague concluded, in a very real sense about 30-40 million Europeans “took one for the team”. To me this almost brings up a question of moral value and fate. Is it better for 2 to be unhappy or 1 to be happy and 1 to be dead? Does life in and of itself have moral value? To me the answer is that 1 should be happy, and that life has no value if life is miserable.

The Lesson

There are few better case studies for mankind running up against the limits of nature then the 14th century in Europe. I write this because it is too easy to fear that the same may be happening in modern times. The world population has tripled since 1900 and may hit 10 billion by 2050. Populations at these levels, again, will leave society with no margin for error with agricultural yields. We are at the complete mercy of nature, whenever there is a situation where a volcanic explosion or strange weather pattern can cut crop production and lead to mass starvation. Consider that if 10% of the population today were to starve to death, it would amount to 600 million fatalities. These are the stakes we’re playing with by allowing free reign to the world’s population.

A second point is, that with the world’s population stretched to its limits, society may be better off in the long term if such a calamity does occur. Imagine if there hadn’t been a Famine and Plague in the 14th century, and society muddled along in stagnation. We would be living in dirt huts, farming for subsistence, with no electricity or culture at all. The leaner and meaner society that emerged from these disasters is the society that produced the Renaissance, the conquest of America, the Industrial Revolution, and the benefits of modern society.

It is conceivable, with modern technology, that similar events today could lead not to the collapse of society but rather to a golden age of expansion. I’m not offering a moral opinion on whether this is desirable, but I am offering this scenario as a possibility.

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