The Great Famine and the Black Death | 1315-1317, 1346-1351 | Lectures in Medieval History (2023)

The 14th century was an era of catastrophes. Some of them man-made, such asthe Hundred Years' War, the Avignon Papacy, and the Great Schism. These werecaused by human beings, and we shall consider them a bit later. There were twomore or less natural disasters either of which one would think would have beensufficient to throw medieval Europe into a real "Dark Ages": the Great Famineand the Black Death. Each caused millions of deaths, and each in its waydemonstrated in dramatic fashion the existence of new vulnerabilities in WesternEuropean society. Together they subjected the population of medieval Europe totremendous strains, leading many people to challenge old institutions and doubttraditional values, and, by so doing, these calamities altered the path ofEuropean development in many areas.

The Great Famine of 1315

Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), an English political economist, wrote apowerful treatise called An Essay on Population. In it, Malthus stated that, sinceproduction increased arithmetically (2, 4, 6, 8, 10) and populationincreased geometrically (2, 4, 8, 16, 32), the population of a region or aworld will eventually increase until there are not sufficient resources tosupport it. From 800 to 1300, the total production of Europe had increasedsteadily. Although there had been local food shortages in which manypeople died of starvation, the standard of living in Western Europe as awhole had risen even while the population had steadily increased.

By the beginning of the 14th century, however, the population had grown tosuch an extent that the land could provide enough resources to support itonly under the best of conditions. There was no longer any margin for cropfailures or even harvest shortfalls. At the same time, however, the WesternEuropean climate was undergoing a slight change, with cooler and wettersummers and earlier autumn storms. Conditions were no longer optimum foragriculture.

We have noted that there had been famines before, but none with such alarge population to feed, and none that persisted for so long. A wetSpring in the year 1315 made it impossible to plow all of the fields thatwere ready for cultivation, and heavy rains rotted some of the seed grainbefore it could germinate. The harvest was far smaller than usual, andthe food reserves of many families were quickly depleted. People gatheredwhat food they could from the forests: edible roots, plants, grasses,nuts, and bark. Although many people were badly weakened by malnutrition,the historical evidence suggests that relatively few died. The Spring andSummer of 1316 were cold and wet again, however. Peasant families now hadless energy with which to till the land needed for a harvest to make upfor the previous shortfall and possessed a much smaller food supply inreserve to sustain them until the next harvest.

By the spring of 1317, all classes of society were suffering, although,as might be expected, the lower classes suffered the most. Draft animalswere slaughtered, seed grain was eaten, infants and the younger childrenwere abandoned. Many of the elderly voluntarily starved themselves todeath so that the younger members of the family might live to work thefields again. There were numerous reports of cannibalism, although one cannever tell if such talk was not simply a matter of rumor-mongering.

You might remember the story of Hansel and Gretel. Abandoned in thewoods by their parents during a time of hunger, they were taken in by anold woman living in a cottage made of gingerbread and candy. They saw thatthe old woman was bringing in wood and heating the oven, and theydiscovered that she was planning on roasting and eating them. Gretel askedthe woman to look inside the oven to see if it was hot enough, and thenpushed her in and slammed the door. Like most of Grimm's FairyTales, this is a rather late tale, but it is illustrative of the grimpossibilities with which the old tales for children are fraught.

(Video) History of the Black Death - Full Documentary

The weather had returned to its normal pattern by the summer of 1317,but the pople of Europe were incapable of making a quick recovery. Animportant factor in this situation was the scarcity of grain available tobe used as seed. Although historians are still unsure of the validity ofthe figures, records of the time seem to indicate that a bushel of seedwas needed in order to produce four bushels of wheat. At the height of thehunger in the late Spring of 1317, starving people had eaten much of thegrain normally set aside as seed, as wall as many of their draftanimals.

Even so, any of the surviving people and animals were simply too weak to work effectively. But about ten to fifteenpercent of the population had died from pneumonia, bronchitis,tuberculosis, and other sicknesses that the starving sufferers' weaknesshad made fatal, and there were consequently fewer mouths to feed. SoEurope was able to recover, although only slowly.

It was not until about 1325 that the food supply had returned to arelatively normal state, and population began to increase again. Europeanswere badly shaken however. The death rate had been high, and even noblesand clergy had perished from hunger. The world now seemed a less stableand "gentle" place than it had before the Great Famine. Another folk talethat arose about this time suggests a new and more violent attitude amongthe populace, the story of The Mouse Tower of Bingen

The land of the prince-bishop of Bingen, a district on the Rhine riverabove Cologne, had suffered a severe short-fall in its harvest, and foodwas in very short supply. Nevertheless, the bishop demanded that everyonepay him their full rents and taxes in money and in kind. He then used themoney to buy up what food remained in the market, and stored all of it inthe fortress tower in which he lived. He dismissed all of his dependentsand servants, and then shut and locked all of the gates and doors to thetower in order to be sure that people would not try to enter and steal thefood he had hoarded there. But he need not have worried about that -- thepeople were all gone. They had eaten every blade of grass and every kernelof grain in the land. Some had died, while others had fled and left thebishop as the only living person in Bingen. Just as he was congratulatinghimself on having been clever enough to have survived the great hunger incomfort, he heard noises outside and at the doors. He rushed to the top ofthe tower and saw a terrible sight. All of the starving rats and mice fromthe entire region had smelled the food and were hurrying toward his tower.

There is an old stone tower in the German city of Bingen, and it isstill pointed out to visitors as the famous Mouse Tower of the Bishop ofBingen.

The Black Death of1347-1351

During the next few years, the European economy slowly improved, andagricultural and manufacturing production eventually reached pre-faminelevels. This return to normalcy was suddenly ended in the year 1347 by adisaster even worse than the Great Famine.

Since the failure of Justinian's attempt to reconquer the lands of theWestern Empire in 540-565, Europe had been relatively isolated, itspopulation sparse, and intercommunication among its villages slight. Itwas as if the continent were divided up into a number of quarantinedistricts. Although many diseases were endemic (that is, they were alwayspresent), contagious diseases did not spread rapidly or easily. So thelast pandemic (an epidemic that strikes literally everywhere within ashort time) to strike Europe had been the one brought to the West byJustinian's armies in 547. By the 14th century, however, the revival ofcommerce and trade and the growth of population had altered thatsituation. There was much more movement of people from place to placewithin Europe, and European merchants travelled far afield into many moreregions from which they could bring home both profitable wares andcontagious diseases. Moreover, the diet, housing, and clothing of theaverage men and women of Western Europe were relatively poor, and ashortage of wood for fuel had made hot water a luxury and personal hygienesubstandard.

(Video) The Plague Medieval Documentary

Contrary to popular belief, medieval people actually liked towash. They particularly enjoyed soaking in hot tubs and, as late as themid- thirteenth century, most towns and even villages had public bathhouses not unlike the Japanese do today. The conversion of forest intoarable land had reduced the supply of wood, however, and the bath housesbegan to shut down because of the expense of heating the water. They triedusing coal, but decided that burning coal gave off unhealthy fumes (Theywere right, by the way) and abandoned the use of the stuff. By themid-fourteenth century, only the rich could afford to bathe during thecold Winter months, and most of the population was dirty most of thetime, even if they did not enjoy being so

The Black Death seems to have arisen somewhere in Asia and was broughtto Europe from the Genoese trading station of Kaffa in the Crimea (in theBlack Sea). The story goes that the Mongols were besieging Kaffa when asickness broke out among their forces and compelled them to abandon thesiege. As a parting shot, the Mongol commander loaded a few of the plaguevictims onto his catapults and hurled them into the town. Some of themerchants left Kaffa for Constantinople as soon as the Mongols haddeparted, and they carried the plague with them. It spread fromConstantinople along the trade routes, causing tremendous mortality alongthe way.

The Great Famine and the Black Death | 1315-1317, 1346-1351 | Lectures in Medieval History (1)

The disease was transmitted primarily by fleas and rats. The stomachsof the fleas were infected with bacteria known as Y. Pestis. Thebacteria would block the "throat" of an infected flea so that no bloodcould reach its stomach, and it grew ravenous since it was starving todeath. It would attempt to suck up blood from its victim, only to disgorgeit back into its prey's bloodstreams. The blood it injected back, however,was now mixed with Y. Pestis. Infected fleas infected rats in thisfashion, and the other fleas infesting those rats were soon infected bytheir host's blood. They then spread the disease to other rats, from whichother fleas were infected, and so on. As their rodent hosts died out, thefleas migrated to the bodies of humans and infected them in the samefashion as they had the rats, and so the plague spread

The disease appeared in three forms:
bubonic [infection of the lymph system -- 60% fatal]
pneumonic [respiratory infection -- about 100% fatal], and
septicaemic [infection of the blood and probably 100% fatal]

The plague lasted in each area only about a year, but a third of adistrict's population would die during that period. People tried toprotect themselves by carrying little bags filled with crushed herbs andflowers over their noses, but to little effect. Those individuals infectedwith bubonic would experience great swellings ("bubos" in the Latin of thetimes) of their lymph glands and take to their beds. Those withsepticaemic would die quickly, before any obvious symptoms had appeared.Those with respiratory also died quickly, but not before developingevident symptoms: a sudden fever that turned the face a dark rose color, asudden attack of sneezing, followed by coughing, coughing up blood, anddeath.

(Video) The Late Middle Ages - Lesson #11 of Introduction to Medieval History | online course

It is a popular (although incorrect) belief that this latter sequenceis recalled in a children's game-song that most people know and have bothplayed and sung:

Ring around the rosie,
A pocketful of posie,
Ashes, ashes
All fall down!

According to this conception, the ring mentioned in the verse isa circular dance, and the plague was often portrayed as the dansemacabre, in which a half-decomposed corpse was shown pulling anapparently healthy young man or woman into a ring of dancers that includedman and women from all stations and dignities of life as well as corpsesand skeletons. The rosie is believed to represent the victim withhis or her face suffused with blood, and the posie is thesupposedly prophylactic bag of herbs and flowers. Ashes, ashes isthe sound of sneezing, and all fall down! is the signal to reenactthe death which came so often in those times.

Some Consequences of the Plague

The disease finally played out in Scandinavia in about 1351 [see IngmarBergman's film TheSeventh Seal], but another wave of the disease came in 1365and several times after that until -- for some unknown reason -- the BlackDeath weakened and was replaced by waves of typhoid fever, typhus, orcholera. Europe continued to experience regular waves of such mortalityuntil the mid-19th century. Although bubonic plague is still endemic inmany areas, including New Mexico in the American Southwest. it does notspread as did the Black Death of 1347-1351.

The effects of that plague and its successors on the men and women ofmedieval Europe were profound: new attitudes toward death, the value oflife, and of one's self. It kindled a growth of class conflict, a loss ofrespect for the Church, and the emergence of a new pietism (personalspirituality) that profoundly altered European attitudes toward religion.Still another effect, however, was to kindle a new cultural vigor inEurope, one in which the national languages, rather than Latin, were thevehicle of expression. An example of this movement was Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron, a collection of tales written in 1350 and set in acountry house where a group of noble young men and women of Florence havefled to escape the plague raging in the city.

A Short Conclusion

These were natural disasters, but they were made all the worse by theinability of the directing elements of society, the princes and clergy, tooffer any leadership during these crises. In the next few lectures we willexamine the reasons for their failure to do so.

And Innocent Merriment

It was once the custom to follow every drama with a farce or ballet. Isuppose that the theory was that the emotions of the audience were soexhausted by the passions that had been enacted, that they (the audience,not the emotions) needed a bit of good clean fun to restore the balance oftheir humors (I really should tell you about humors sometime). Followingthis venerable tradition, The Management now offers you a bit ofdoggerel.

(Video) The Medieval Great Famine 1315 - 1322 (Documentary) | Part 1: Chastisement by Rain and War

"A sickly season," the merchant said,
"The town I left was filled with dead,
and everywhere these queer red flies
crawled upon the corpses' eyes,
eating them away."

"Fair make you sick," the merchant said,
"They crawled upon the wine and bread.
Pale priests with oil and books,
bulging eyes and crazy looks,
dropping like the flies."

"I had to laugh," the merchant said,
"The doctors purged, and dosed, and bled;
"And proved through solemn disputation
"The cause lay in some constellation.
"Then they began to die."

"First they sneezed," the merchant said,
"And then they turned the brightest red,
Begged for water, then fell back.
With bulging eyes and face turned black,
they waited for the flies."

"I came away," the merchant said,
"You can't do business with the dead.
"So I've come here to ply my trade.
"You'll find this to be a fine brocade..."

And then he sneezed.


What was the Black Death of 1346 1351? ›

The Black Death (also known as the Pestilence, the Great Mortality or the Plague) was a bubonic plague pandemic occurring in Western Eurasia and North Africa from 1346 to 1353. It is the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history, causing the deaths of 75–200 million people, peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351.

What was the great European famine of 1315 1316 and 1317? ›

The Great Famine started with bad weather in spring 1315. Crop failures lasted through 1316 until the summer harvest in 1317, and Europe did not fully recover until 1322. Crop failures were not the only problem; cattle disease caused sheep and cattle numbers to fall as much as 80%.

What caused a famine 1315 1317 which preceded the Black Death in Europe? ›

The period known as the Great Famine of 1315–1317 was a direct result of the Little Ice Age in much of Europe north of the Alps, an area of roughly 400,000 square miles. This widespread and prolonged food shortage prompted one of the worst population collapses in Europe's recorded history.

What caused the Great Famine and the Black Death? ›

Grain had to be imported from the Middle East and many of the ships bringing the grain also brought rats carrying the bubonic plague. As a result of plague-carrying rats being introduced from the Middle East, an outbreak of the plague erupted across Europe, North Africa and Central Asia in the mid 1300s (map below).

How did the Black Death affect Europe around 1347 1351? ›

Best estimates now are that at least 25 million people died in Europe from 1347 to 1352. This was almost 40% of the population (some estimates indicate 60%). Half of Paris's population of 100,000 people died. In Italy, Florence's population was reduced from 120,000 inhabitants in 1338 to 50,000 in 1351.

What happened in 1346 that was important? ›

Battle of Crécy, (August 26, 1346), battle that resulted in victory for the English in the first decade of the Hundred Years' War against the French. The battle at Crécy shocked European leaders because a small but disciplined English force fighting on foot had overwhelmed the finest cavalry in Europe.

What were the effects of the Great Famine of 1315 1316? ›

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.

What was the effect of the Great Famine of 1315 1317? ›

In some regions of Europe, the Great Famine of 1315-17 killed a tenth of the population, shattering social norms and local economies. Villages were abandoned, religious houses were dispersed, and minor feudal lords pawned their land to whoever could pay. Peasants and the urban poor were left to fend for themselves.

How did the Black Death end? ›

How did it end? The most popular theory of how the plague ended is through the implementation of quarantines. The uninfected would typically remain in their homes and only leave when it was necessary, while those who could afford to do so would leave the more densely populated areas and live in greater isolation.

Who caused the Black Death in Europe? ›

What caused the Black Death? The Black Death is believed to have been the result of plague, an infectious fever caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. The disease was likely transmitted from rodents to humans by the bite of infected fleas.

What did people eat during the Black Death? ›

They ate a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, all of them seasonal, though they would sometimes be preserved. A great deal of the meat they ate was also preserved by pickling, drying, smoking or salting and fresh meat was only available in the winter months after the animal was slaughtered.

What caused the spread of the Black Death to Europe? ›

The medieval Silk Road brought a wealth of goods, spices, and new ideas from China and Central Asia to Europe. In 1346, the trade also likely carried the deadly bubonic plague that killed as many as half of all Europeans within 7 years, in what is known as the Black Death.

What ended the Great Famine? ›

HERB-1, they believe, was responsible for the Great Famine and hundreds of other potato crop failures around the world. It wasn't until the early 20th century that improvements in crop breeding yielded potato varieties that proved resistant to HERB-1 that the deadly infection was stopped in its tracks.

What were two of the main causes of the Great Famine? ›

Between 1845-52 Ireland suffered a period of starvation, disease and emigration that became known as the Great Famine. The main cause was a disease which affected the potato crop, upon which a third of Ireland's population was dependent for food.

How did the Black Death change society? ›

The plague had large scale social and economic effects, many of which are recorded in the introduction of the Decameron. People abandoned their friends and family, fled cities, and shut themselves off from the world. Funeral rites became perfunctory or stopped altogether, and work ceased being done.

What were 3 impacts the Black Death had on Europe? ›

The effects of the Black Death were many and varied. Trade suffered for a time, and wars were temporarily abandoned. Many labourers died, which devastated families through lost means of survival and caused personal suffering; landowners who used labourers as tenant farmers were also affected.

How did the Black Death help end the Middle Ages? ›

The Black Death brought about a decline in feudalism. The significant drop in population because of massive numbers of deaths caused a labor shortage that helped end serfdom. Towns and cities grew. The decline of the guild system and an expansion in manufacturing changed Europe's economy and society.

Why was the Black Death so significant? ›

Killing more than 25 million people or at least one third of Europe's population during the fourteenth century, the Black Death or bubonic plague was one of mankind's worst pandemics, invoking direct comparisons to our current coronavirus “modern plague.”1, 2, 3 An ancient disease, its bacterial agent (Yersinia pestis) ...

Why was the Black Death the most important event in history? ›

The high number of deaths had a dramatic effect on the world's population at the time and shows the ability of diseases to spread widely in society. The next significance of the Black Death was the knowledge that modern societies have learned about preventing and stopping the spread of pandemics.

What are 3 interesting facts about the Black plague? ›

Black Death facts
  • It destroyed the highest proportion of the population than any other single known event.
  • The plague killed between 30 percent to 60 percent of the European population.
  • It is estimated around 50 million people died as a result of the plague.

What was the most important outcome of the Black plague? ›

The consequences of this violent catastrophe were many. A cessation of wars and a sudden slump in trade immediately followed but were only of short duration. A more lasting and serious consequence was the drastic reduction of the amount of land under cultivation, due to the deaths of so many labourers.

What were 3 effects of the famine? ›

Famine is a widespread condition in which many people in a country or region are unable to access adequate food supplies. Famines result in malnutrition, starvation, disease, and high death rates.

Who suffered the most during the Great Famine? ›

Forty years ago China was in the middle of the world's largest famine: between the spring of 1959 and the end of 1961 some 30 million Chinese starved to death and about the same number of births were lost or postponed.

Who was most affected by the Great Famine? ›

As a direct consequence of the famine, Ireland's population fell from almost 8.4 million in 1844 to 6.6 million by 1851. About 1 million people died and perhaps 2 million more eventually emigrated from the country.

How did the Great Famine have an effect on the Black Death? ›

A widespread famine that weakened the population over decades could help explain the Black Death's particularly high mortality. Over four or five years after arriving in Europe in 1347, the pandemic surged through the continent in waves that killed millions.

How did the Great Famine affect the US? ›

Between 1845 and 1855 more than 1.5 million adults and children left Ireland to seek refuge in America. Most were desperately poor, and many were suffering from starvation and disease. They left because disease had devastated Ireland's potato crops, leaving millions without food.

How did the famine of 1315 1322 influence the impact of the Black Death on Europe? ›

How did the Great Famine of 1315-1322 influence the impact of the Black Death on Europe? The population of Europe was weakened by hunger as a result of the Great Famine and more vulnerable to disease. What king is credited with beginning the unification of France? What was the reconquista?

Was the Black Death ever cured? ›

Unlike COVID-19, we have clear treatments for the bubonic plague. Additionally, the disease is rare with a few cases every year found in the United States. This means there's pretty much no chance we'd ever see a pandemic play out like the one in the 14th century.

What if the Black Death never happened? ›

Without the Black Plague, feudalism would persist and the class division in Europe would never end, similar to other parts of the world that stunted their development. One of the most significant features of an overpopulated feudalist society is that labour is cheap and hence easily accessible.

Did anyone recover from the Black Death? ›

A new study suggests that people who survived the medieval mass-killing plague known as the Black Death lived significantly longer and were healthier than people who lived before the epidemic struck in 1347.

What was the Black Death caused? ›

What causes bubonic plague? Bubonic plague is a type of infection caused by the Yersinia pestis (Y. pestis) bacterium which is spread mostly by fleas on rodents and other animals.

What plague was in England in 1346? ›

The Black Death was a bubonic plague pandemic, which reached England in June 1348. It was the first and most severe manifestation of the second pandemic, caused by Yersinia pestis bacteria. The term Black Death was not used until the late 17th century.

How many people died in 1346? ›

1346 – the year the plague reached and spread through cities along the coast of the Caspian sea, south into Astrakhan and Azerbaijan, and west to the Crimea, a major trading area of importance to Muslim and Christian merchants alike. 85,000 – the number of people said to have died from plague in the Crimea in 1346.

How many people died from the Black Death in 1346? ›

Sicilian authorities hastily ordered the fleet of “death ships” out of the harbor, but it was too late: Over the next five years, the Black Death would kill more than 20 million people in Europe—almost one-third of the continent's population.

What happened as a result of the Black Death? ›

The consequences of this violent catastrophe were many. A cessation of wars and a sudden slump in trade immediately followed but were only of short duration. A more lasting and serious consequence was the drastic reduction of the amount of land under cultivation, due to the deaths of so many labourers.

How was the Black Death stopped? ›

The eventual weakening of the pandemic was likely due to the practice of quarantining infected people that originated in Venice in the 15th century and is with us to this day. Improved sanitation, personal hygiene, and medical practices also played a role in ultimately slowing the plague's terror march.

How long did the Black Death last? ›

The first wave, called the Black Death in Europe, was from 1347 to 1351. The second wave in the 1500s saw the emergence of a new virulent strain of the disease.

Why did the Black Death spread so quickly? ›

The unceasing flow of sea, river, and road traffic between commercial centers spread the plague across huge distances in what is known as a “metastatic leap.” Big commercial cities were infected first, and from there the plague radiated to nearby towns and villages, from where it would spread into the countryside.

What ended the Black Death in England? ›

In 1666 the Great Fire of London destroyed much of the centre of London, but also helped to kill off some of the black rats and fleas that carried the plague bacillus.

Could the Black Death happen again? ›

No. Bubonic plague killed at least one-third of the population of Europe between 1346 and 1353. But that was before we knew it was caused by the bacterium Yersina pestis. Bubonic plague does still occasionally occur in small flare-ups of a few dozen cases, but we have antibiotics to treat it now.

Where did the Black Death start? ›

Historians traced the epidemic's path — it apparently began in China or near the western border of China and moved along trade routes to Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

How many died in Black Death? ›

The Black Death was so extreme that it's surprising even to scientists who are familiar with the general details. The epidemic killed 30 to 50 percent of the entire population of Europe. Between 75 and 200 million people died in a few years' time, starting in 1348 when the plague reached London.

How many people get the Black Death today? ›

Over 80% of United States plague cases have been the bubonic form. In recent decades, an average of 7 human plague cases are reported each year (range: 1-17 cases per year).

Who did the Black Death affected the most? ›

At face value, these results might suggest that compared to normal medieval mortality, the Black Death disproportionately affected young adults and very old adults.


1. Medieval Plague, Modern Pandemic: The First Day“What was the Black Death and its immediate impacts?”
(Roger L. Martínez-Davila)
2. The Great Famine of 1315-7
3. Medieval Europe: Crash Course European History #1
4. Dorsey Armstrong The Black Death The World's Most Devastating Plague Part 01 Audiobook
(John Winters)
5. The Irish Famine Lecture Series: Famine Roads
(Armagh City, Banbridge & Craigavon Borough Council)
6. The Secrets Of Medieval Plague Pit Victims | Medieval Dead | Absolute History
(Absolute History)


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