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27 Jul

Medieval Famines

The Medieval Europe was characterized by frequent local famines as well as by fear from starvation. Slow progress of agricultural technology and medieval social order held back the economic progress and resulted in the constant insecurity.

Medieval famines were predominantly local with exception of the Great Famine of 1315-1317 which struck almost whole Europe although it did not occur at the same time nor in the same magnitude all over Europe. Medieval famines were notable for being unpredictable and perpetual at the same time. Famines occurred because of bad harvests which were not caused only by natural disasters such as floods, aridity or climate changes but occurred periodically in every three, four or five years. These were not so dramatic, less fatal and local but they always resulted in the famine although in lesser magnitude. Every disturbance created a vicious circle: bad weather conditions or natural disaster resulted in poor harvest and latter in the rise of food prices which affected the lower classes of medieval society the most severely. They were forced to eat food of low quality, flour and vegetables inappropriate for consumption, contaminated food, dirt and in worst case turned to cannibalism what severely damaged people’s health and frequently resulted in the outbreak of epidemics and death.

Lack of roads, low traffic, numerous taxes which had to be paid for crossing of a bridge and for every transition through certain places or crossroads, and numerous robbers and bandits additionally worsened the situation. The majority of population during the famine depended from the good will and mercy of landlords who were the only ones having greater amounts of food which could save their serfs from starvation. It was not in interest of any landlord to leave his serfs to starve or to die because there was more land than of the labour force but the landlords took care for their own needs first, while their food storages could provide supply only for about one year. Medieval food storages were often also exposed to natural or animal destruction, while landlords were not able to renew their food storages if bad harvest repeated in the next year or two.

The victims of famines and epidemics were predominantly the lowest classes of the medieval society but famines also greatly affected the nobility. Without agricultural surplus the incomes of the landlords stagnated or declined and thus they could not afford what they normally could.

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