The Great Famine:


The Great European Famine of 1315 to 1317 was the first of a series of large scale crises that struck Northern Europe early in the fourteenth century, from the Pyrenees to Russia and from Scotland to Italy; it caused millions of deaths over an extended number of years and marks a clear end to an earlier period of growth and prosperity during the eleventh to thirteenth centuries.

Starting with bad weather in the spring 1315, universal crop failures lasted throughout 1316 until the summer harvest in 1317; Europe did not fully recover until 1322; it was a period marked by extreme levels of crime, disease, mass death and even cannibalism and infanticide; it had consequences for Church, State, European society and future calamities to follow in the fourteenth century.

“When God saw that the world was so over proud, He sent a dearth on earth, and made it full hard.
A bushel of wheat was at four shillings or more, Of which men might have had a quarter before....
And then they turned pale who had laughed so loud, And they became all docile who before were so proud.
A man's heart might bleed for to hear the cry Of poor men who called out, "Alas! For hunger I die ...!"

Poem on the Evil Times of Edward II, c. 1321.

Famine in those days meant that people died of starvation on a massive scale and as brutal as they were, famines and hunger were familiar occurrences in Medieval England; the main years of famine include 1315 to 1317, 1321, 1351 and 1369; though hunger was nothing new either; for most people, the poor, there never seemed enough to eat and life expectancy was relatively short and many children died.

According to records of the Royal family, amongst the best cared for in society, the average life expectancy in 1276 was 35.28 years; between 1301 and 1325 during the Great Famine it was 29.84, whilst between 1348 and 1375, during the Black Death and subsequent plagues, it went down to only 17.33.

The Great Famine was mostly restricted to Northern Europe, which included the British Isles, northern France, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, Germany and western Poland.

During the Medieval Warm Period, the period prior to 1300, the population of Europe had exploded, reaching levels that were not matched again in some places until the nineteenth century, parts of France today are less populous than at the beginning of the fourteenth century.

However, the yield ratios of wheat, the number of seeds one could eat per seed planted, had been dropping since 1280 and food prices had been climbing; in good weather the ratio could be as high as 7:1, whilst during bad years as low as 2:1, that is, for every seed planted, two seeds were harvested, one for next year's seed and one for food; by comparison, modern farming has ratios of around 30:1.

The Great Famine:

There was a catastrophic dip in the weather during the Medieval Warm Period that coincided with the onset of the Great Famine; between 1310 and 1330 northern Europe saw some of the worst and most sustained periods of bad weather in the entire Middle Ages, characterized by severe winters and rainy and cold summers; these changing weather patterns, the ineffectiveness of medieval governments in dealing with crises and a population level at a historical high made it a time when there was little margin for error.

In the spring of 1315, unusually heavy rain began in much of Europe and throughout the spring and summer, it continued to rain and temperatures remained cool; these conditions caused widespread crop failures; the straw and hay for the animals could not be cured and there was no fodder for the livestock.

The price of food began to rise; food prices in England doubled between spring and midsummer; salt, the only way to cure and preserve meat, was difficult to obtain because it could not be evaporated in the wet weather; it went from 30 shillings to 40 shillings; grain prices increased by around 300 percent and peasants could no longer afford bread; stores of grain for long term emergencies were limited to the wealthy; because of the increased population, even lower than average harvests meant some people would go hungry; there was little margin for failure.

People began to harvest wild edible roots, plants, grasses, nuts and bark in the forests; there are a number of documented incidents that show the extent of the famine; Edward II, stopped at St Albans on 10 August 1315 and no bread could be found for him or his entourage; it was a rare occasion in which the King of England was unable to eat; the French, under Louis X, tried to invade Flanders, but being in the low country of the Netherlands, the fields were soaked and the army became so bogged down that they were forced to retreat, burning their provisions where they left them, unable to carry them out.

In the spring of 1316, it continued to rain on a European population already deprived of energy and reserves to sustain itself; all segments of society from nobles to peasants were affected, but especially the peasants who represented around 95% of the population and who had no reserve food supplies.

To provide some measure of relief, draft animals were butchered, seed grain was consumed, some elderly people voluntarily refused food in order to provide nourishment needed for the younger generation to survive and many children were abandoned to fend for themselves, just like Hansel and Gretel 'Grimm's Fairy Tales'; in the earliest versions of the story, it was Hansel and Gretel’s mother who suggests that they abandon the children, not a stepmother, and both parents participated in the decision; it would seem that in Hansel and Gretel’s case the abandonment could have easily been due to famine, which would explain the theme of food, which runs throughout the entire narrative.

Finally, in the summer of 1317 the weather returned to its normal patterns; however, this was also the height of the famine, by now, people were so weakened by diseases such as pneumonia, bronchitis and tuberculosis, and so much of the seed stock had been eaten, that it was not until 1325 that the food supply returned to relatively normal conditions and the population began to increase again; historians debate the toll but it is estimated that 18% of the population of many cities and towns died.


Those that were near starvation ate what they could find, the last of their livestock, cats, dogs even vermin, and then finally fellow human beings; cannibalism manifested itself in prisons, urban settings and in the countryside; the practice of cannibalism was seen as a survival measure rather than a true crime by those who had nothing else to eat.

Cemeteries had to be guarded against cannibals, hungry peasants would steal bodies, or parts of, for food; the livers, lungs, and other body parts were stolen from medical dissection rooms and prison guards would feed prisoners with the bodies of those who had died; in some places when the food supply was really low, meat pies were filled with meat and offal from the dead; whilst sales were stopped if officials found out, many hungry people would have become unknowing cannibals;

Why was it called The Great Famine:

The famine is called the Great Famine not only because of the number of people who died, or due to the vast geographic area that it affected, or the length of time that it lasted, but also because of its lasting consequences.

The First consequence was for the Church: In a society where the final recourse to all problems had been religion, no amount of prayer seemed effective against the causes of the famine, which undermined the institutional authority of the Catholic Church; this helped lay the foundations for later movements that were deemed heretical by the Church because they opposed the Papacy and blamed the failure of prayer upon corruption within the church.

The Second consequece was the increase in criminal activity: Social violence, where rape and murder were nothing new at the time, but with the famine, even those who were not normally inclined to criminal activity would resort to any means to feed themselves or their family; after the famine, Europe took on a tougher and more violent edge; it had become an even less amicable place than during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; the effects of this could be seen across all segments of society, perhaps the most striking in the way warfare was conducted in the fourteenth century during the Hundred Years' War where chivalry was tossed aside, versus the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when nobles were more likely to die by accident in tournament games than on the field of battle.

The Third consequence was the failure of the Medieval governments to deal with the crisis: Just as God seemed unable or unwilling to answer prayers, the earthly powers were equally ineffective, with the famine eroding and undermining their power and authority.

The Fourth marked a clear end to an unprecedented period of population growth: The growth that had started around 1050 was halted, although some believe that this had been slowing down for a few decades already, there is no doubt the Great Famine was a clear end of high population growth.

The Final consequences: The Great Famine affected future events in the fourteenth century such as the Black Death when an already weakened population would be struck again.

The Food of the Wealthy:

In the middle ages the wealthy ate a lot of wheat bread and meat, but ate few fresh vegetables and very little fresh fruit, unprepared food of this variety was viewed with suspicion; vegetables that were eaten would have been cooked in some form of stew, soup or pottage and if fruit was served it was usually in pies or preserved in honey.

One of the most vital features of wealthy medieval feasts were trenchers, which were used as medieval plates, they were cut from stale loaves of bread and used to hold food, salt, and even candles during the feast; these pieces of hard bread would soak up the blood and liquids from the chicken, turkey and other meats.

Every diner at a medieval feast ate off one and there were servants whose specific task during mealtime was the carving and presentation of trenchers, the finest and most delicate were given to the king or ranking nobility; used trenchers, full of blood, sauces and covered in bits of food, were given to the festal dogs or presented to the poor as alms, who waited hungrily outside.

In general vegetables, which came from the ground, were only considered fit to feed the poor; therefore, only vegetables such as rape, onions, garlic and leeks graced the tables of the wealthy; most dairy products, apart from cheese, were also deemed as inferior foods and were therefore usually eaten by the poor.

Little was known about nutrition at that time; therefore, the Medieval diet of the wealthy lacked Vitamin C and fibre, which led to an assortment of health problems such as bad teeth, gout, skin diseases, scurvy and rickets.

The food was generally highly spiced, with Anise, Caraway, Cardamon, Cinnamon, Cloves, Coriander, Cumin, Garlic, Ginger, Mace, Mustard, Nutmeg, Pepper, Saffron, Salt & Turmeric; in some cases the food was disguised with spices to hide the taste of rotten meat; salt was too expensive for the poor and only rich people had access to it; in fact, when eating in a medieval castle, the salt, which would often be in a huge fancy salt cellar, would be placed near the wealthiest people so that they could easily use it, whilst the poorer people sat further down the long table and were not allowed to use the salt; the phrase 'Above the salt' still means a rich person.

The diet of the wealthy would have included Manchet bread; a variety of meats such as Beef, Goat, Hare, Heron, Lamb, Mutton, Pork, Poultry, Rabbit, Swans & Venison; a variety of fish such as Cod, Eel, Herring, Pike, Plaice, Salmon, Trout & Whiting and a variety of shell fish such as Cockles, Crab, Mussels & Oysters.

The Food of the Poor:

In the middle ages the poor, which was almost everybody, ate mainly whatever they could find or grow, they were unable to afford luxury items such as spices, even salt was often too expensive for many, and only the wealthy were allowed to hunt deer, boar, hares and rabbits; doing so was classed as poaching and the punishment for poaching was severe, it could result in having your hands cut off, or even death.

Their diet of the poor would have included Barley or Rye Bread, Oatmeal, Pancakes, Pizza and Pottage, a type of stew; a variety of dairy products such as Milk and Cheese products; a variety of meats such as Beef, Pork and Lamb; a variety of fish, basically anything that they could catch in nearby streams and rivers; a variety of home grown vegetables such as Beans, Carrots, Onions, Cabbage, Garlic and Peas; a variety of home grown herbs such as Basil and Rosemary; a variety of of fruit from local trees or bushes, such as Apples and Pears, and Honey and Mushrooms; most poor people drank Barley ale as well.

Food Preservation:

Food was preserved in a number of ways, it was Dried, Jellyfied, Pickled, Salted or smoked:

Dried Preservation:

Most meats , fruit and cereal grains such as wheat, oats, barley and rye were preserved through drying; today we understand that moisture allows for the rapid microbiological growth of bacteria, which is present in all fresh foods and which causes them to decay; but it isn't necessary to understand the chemical process involved in order to observe that food that is wet and left in the open will quickly start to smell and attract bugs; so it should come as no surprise that one of the oldest methods of preserving foods known to man is that of drying it.

Grains like rye and wheat were dried in the sun or air before being stored in a dry place; fruits were sun dried in warmer climes and oven dried in cooler regions; meat was also preserved through drying, usually after cutting it into thin strips and lightly salting it; in warmer regions, it was a simple matter to dry meat under the hot summer sun, but in cooler climates air drying could be done at most times of the year, either outdoors or in shelters that kept away the elements and flies.

Jellyfied Preservation:

Cooking in Gelatine, or Jelly, which solidified to form a gel, was a way of preserving cooked meat or fresh fish; some foods naturally form a protein gel of their own when cooked, such as eels.

Pickled Preservation:

Pickling in a salt brine was a standard method of preserving meats and fish; typical pickling agents included brine and vinegar; fruit and vegetables were also pickled; although, some fruits were candied, turned into jam or stored with honey.

Salted Preservation - salting was done by using one of two methods:

Salting was the most common way to preserve virtually any type of meat or fish, as it drew out the moisture and killed the bacteria; vegetables could be preserved with dry salt, as well, though pickling was more common.

Dry-Salting involved using salt that was pounded to a powder with mortar and pestle; the food was either buried in a bed of salt, or it involved pressing the dry salt into pieces of meat or fish and then layering the pieces in a container, like a keg, with dry salt completely surrounding each piece; if the salting was done in cold weather it slowed down the decomposition whilst the salting took effect, the food could then last for years; vegetables were also preserved by layering them in salt and placing them in a sealable container.

Another way to preserve food with salt was to soak it in a salt brine, known as Brine-Curing; this consisted of immersing the food in a strong salt solution; whilst not as effective as Dry-Salting, it served very well to keep food edible through a season or two.

Whatever method of salt preservation was used, the first thing a cook did when he got ready to prepare the salted food for consumption was soak it in fresh water to remove as much of the salt as possible; some cooks were more conscientious than others when it came to this step, which could take several trips to the well for fresh water; it was next to impossible to remove all the salt, no matter how much soaking was done; many recipes took this saltiness into account and some were designed specifically to counteract or complement the salt flavor; still, most of us would find preserved medieval food much saltier than anything we're used to today.

Smoking Preservation:

Smoking was another fairly common way to preserve meat, especially fish and pork; in one way the food would be cut into relatively thin, lean strips, immersed briefly in a salt solution and then hung over a fire to absorb the smoke flavoring as it dried; another way was to use a smokehouse, which was basically a small enclosed shelter, a place in which a fire could be kept smoldering for a few weeks, which would only slowly release its smoke, and in which the smoked meat could hang safely away from vermin and thieves; the norm was to firstly pack fresh cuts of meat or fish in tubs of coarse salt for about six weeks, allowing the salt to draw most of the water from the flesh, and then to hang the cuts in a smokehouse.

The result was dried, long-lasting, smoke-flavored meat that would age in the same smokehouse for two years before it was eaten; occasionally meat might be smoked without a salt solution, especially if the type of wood burned had distinctive flavoring of its own; however, salt was very helpful because it discouraged flies, inhibited the growth of bacteria and hastened the removal of moisture.

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