Famine in the Middle Ages

In the agrarian societies that predominated during the Middle Ages, there were a limited number of options available for avoiding the famines that would periodically strike due to the normal variation of food production. One solution was to migrate to other areas, which often involved armed conflict, since inhabitants in the new areas were loath to allow strangers to work the land and strain their resources.

The famines that occurred in the east Asian steppes during the early and middle periods of the Middle Ages were chief factors in causing the migrations and invasion of eastern peoples of Islamic, Byzantine, and western Europeans kingdoms.


Another solution involved storing food during times of plenty for period of scarcity. But the techniques of food storage, particularly of grains, were not well developed, and generally required a sizable amount of capital to build storehouses and granaries. The wealthy in an area may have been able to afford these facilities, but the best the poor could do was borrow from the wealthy at usurious rates, which deepened the indenturedness and vassalage of the peasants. Not until the 13th century, and then mainly in the cities of the Hanseatic League in northern Europe, did governments undertake the systematic storage of food supplies for the general population.


A third solution was a trade – to build an economy in which goods were created that could be sold to areas of better food production. Since adverse weather was likely to reduce food production over a wide area, only those cities and principalities that conducted trade over long distances could avail themselves of this solution. Coastal cities like Venice and Genoa imported grain from as far as Russia; landlocked cities such as Florence found such trading difficult. During times of extreme famine in Europe, Venice in particular controlled the price of grain through its massive imports, at times (in 1273 and again 1380) using this control to defeat its military adversaries.


There were three major periods of famine in Europe during the Middle Ages: the first in the first half of the 6th century, the second in the beginning of the 10th century, and the third in the 14th century. These cycles mirrored the climatic cycles of Europe, though they were also influenced by the political landscape. In these periods, travel, and thus trade, were restricted by war, invasion or the simple closing of borders, making the importation of food difficult.

By far the worst period of famine experienced in Europe was in the years 1315 to 1317, when unusually heavy rains  devastated crops and created famine throughout  the region. reports from the period indicate that in many towns, over ten percent of the population died of starvation. In several German towns, soldiers were required to guard  the gallows to prevent corpses from being cut down and eaten. The death rate climbed so high that many of the dead could not be buried, which led to the spread of disease, a factor in the outbreak of the Black Death later that century.

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