Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
21.04.24 Slavin, Experiencing Famine in Fourteenth-Century Britain

The Medieval Review

21.04.24 Slavin, Experiencing Famine in Fourteenth-Century Britain


Over the past few decades, the Great Famine of 1315-1317 has become one of the cardinal events in numerous narratives and debates about the fourteenth century. The magnitude, uniqueness, and timing of the disaster have made the famine an excellent laboratory to assess questions about poverty, environmental change, land tenure, peasant resilience, health, in short, numerous and diverse aspects of society. It also stands as one of the worst disasters of the Middle Ages, overshadowed largely by occurring only a few decades before the Black Death. The famine struck areas from Ireland to Poland, and from the Alps to Norway, but in this work, Philip Slavin focuses largely on England with the routine inclusion of evidence from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. By narrowing the geographic focus, and drawing heavily on the copious documentation from English manorial accounts, Slavin delves deeply into many of the myriad causes, outcomes, and impacts of the famine years.

The level of detail supports Slavin's theoretical arguments for how we should study famines in general. The introduction argues that famines should be understood as complex disasters which cannot come about due to only a single cause. Famines, according to this text, are fundamentally caused by the combination of three main elements: environmental disturbance, poverty and population, and the failure of institutions. The increasing climatic volatility of the fourteenth century helped create the severe weather in 1315 that struck a precarious population impoverished by overpopulation and land hunger. When the weather turned bad and significantly reduced available crops, human institutions then failed to provide relief, often exacerbating the unequal distribution of resources and driving the poor further into starvation. Previous research leans toward one or another of these causes as the most important cause, although it seems overstated to say that other scholars ever ignore the multiplicity of factors (and here I suppose I should confess that I would count among the "institutionalists").

After an historiographic introduction, chapter 2 lays out the main triggers of the famine (coming from the environmental leg of the tripod described above). The terrible weather--storms, heavy rain, and cold--depressed multiple facets of agricultural production and kept it low for three years. The bad weather combined with weakened animals, poor haying, and disease to further reduce animal food sources just as the crops failed. While the broad strokes of the weather are similar to those described by William Chester Jordan in his earlier work on the Great Famine, Slavin expands the level of detail with an abundance of recent climatic research that now allows us to better quantify levels of precipitation and cold than was possible even a couple of decades ago. Climatic variation within calendar years also provides a better explanation for some of the variations in seasonality between winter and spring grain, where summer grains performed better, though not well enough to prevent the crisis (49-51).

The next four chapters lay out the failure of multiple aspects of the English food supply system, including agricultural production, trade, transportation, storage, and the influence of military conflicts--these give shape to the many institutional failings that contributed to starvation. The core of the research revolves around an astonishingly long list of manorial accounts. The manorial accounts have famously been used by many scholars (notably by Bruce Campbell but by many others as well) to create a more fine-grained view of English agriculture than we possess for any other region of medieval Europe. Here, Slavin has mined accounts from across England during the famine years for their quantification and description of the production of grain, animals, and any other edible product, as well as for market prices, crimes, taxation, and other related questions. The third chapter quantifies just how poor the famine harvests turned out to be, as measured against production levels in surrounding decades and compared across regions.

Chapter 4 spells out how those failed harvests translated into an extreme price seasonality in both 1316 and 1317, with prices rising constantly and rapidly from the failed harvest until the subsequent year's harvest time in August. Calculating the prices against wages, the real wage levels reveal not just the depth of the crisis in 1315 but also provide a point of direct comparison with later famines, demonstrating that the Great Famine was likely more extreme than almost any other crisis in European history, rivaled only by the Irish great famine of the nineteenth century (112-120). The chapter also provides one of the more nuanced discussions of hoarding and regrating (buying up grain to sell later for profit) during a market shortage. The source show how many instances of attempts to make money by purchasing grain actually originated with poorer members of society, rather than from the wealthy using capital to buy up scant resources (140-145). As such, laws targeted at regraters often punished people barely able to afford food, rather than actually reducing the economic strain of the famine. In contrast, lords did hoard their own production, often keeping their harvests stored in their barns, only allowing them to be sold later in the agricultural year when prices had risen. Sometimes, however, the rain forced their hand by wrecking or inundating barns, necessitating more immediate sales (146-151).

Chapters 6 and 7 move from core levels of production and trade to reductions in food security at the margins. Both transportation and storage involved loss (to loss, pirates, and especially because of the rain, to rot). While the quantities were not large, in a year of shortage, even these losses further reduced the foodstuffs available for human consumption. Next, chapter 6 provides an excellent and important look at the influence of war on the famine itself. While war and famine are constant partners in the twentieth century, medievalists have not written as much about the connection. Slavin describes how the war with Scotland and Edward Bruce's invasion of Ireland worsened the disaster for those in the path of the fighting. Warfare's impact did not have the same geographic breadth as the weather. However, the more focused destruction or theft to feed soldiers of resources like herds of pigs and cattle (resources that could potentially compensate for lost grain), could seriously worsen the crisis in the areas of conflict. Especially along the Scottish-English border, there were numerous reports of stolen animals, often in large numbers. Additionally, much of the grain imported from abroad (although that quantity was a surprisingly small amount, overall [156-157]) went towards provisioning soldiers rather than relieving markets. Even some local grain was requisitioned by royal authorities to support the war effort (221-223). It is easy to see how purveyance and taxation for a war effort could create deep resentment and resistance in a time of scarcity.

The final two chapters pivot to the consequences of and responses to the famine rather than its causes. Chapter 7 begins by calculating the relative levels of poverty and shrinking land resources created by overpopulation--the final leg of famine causality from the introduction. It also lays out the numeric evidence for mortality rates, arguing for a higher death rate of around fifteen percent, at least twice as much as previous estimates. The chapter, drawing on new work by archeologists, also lays out the many pathologies we can detect in skeletons of both victims and survivors. The evidence helps reinvigorate the argument of how the weakening of the population during the famine may have worsened the Black Death thirty years later. While Slavin admits in the epilogue that more evidence and research, especially from archaeobiology, is needed to prove any connection, it also seems that such an argument would need to take into consideration a much wider geographic scope, including areas in the Mediterranean untouched by the Great Famine but which clearly suffered the same mass death from the plague.

The final chapter covers some of the social effects generated by people attempting to survive. Increasing levels of crime (especially theft) point to a general fraying of social ties and the breakdown of even familial connections in the face of the disaster (295-302). There is also a short but informative discussion of food riots, contrasting their supposedly urban character (and thus more political nature, more associated with E. P. Thompson's Marxist conception of public action) with the increase in rural protests and attacks on lords and their storage barns. Slavin produces new evidence to support Ray Bush's ideas that rural actions, while different than urban "food riots," should still be considered as forms of directed protest. Like their urban counterparts, these moments of violent resistance often involving targeted destruction and theft of food resources from those in power. Finally, the chapter lays out the evidence for other forms of economic stress, including land sales, extensions of formal and informal credit, and the reliance on alms and assistance from both religious and secular sources. Slavin argues, in contrast to previous suggestions about the famine, that the sources show only very weak support for an increasing wealth disparity caused by well-to-do peasants buying up small parcels of land put up for sale by the starving (323-324). Instead, the small areas (usually less than an acre) enriched only very few people, not enough, the argument goes, to constitute greater stratification than before the famine.

Overall, the work is incredibly thorough and constantly demonstrates Slavin's intensive gathering of sources. In the realm of secondary sources, there are routine and often useful comparisons with multiple other global famines from different time periods (although sometimes more mileage might have been gained by comparing the data with scholarship on the Great Famine from other regions). For primary sources, beyond the manorial accounts that provide the core of the research, the work incorporates court rolls, tithe accounts, port customs, sheriff's accounts, episcopal registers, and royal and hospital accounts. The thorough evaluation of the sources allows Slavin to comment on and even provide educated guesses for numerous questions. It also means the work includes many small details often not included in a larger work (such as including the value of fruit and honey [68-70], or the trade in salt [161-165]). The text also engages with multiple small arguments related to famine such as the prevalence of cannibalism (the conclusion is there was likely very little or none [256-258]), the proper calculation of the ratio between harvest levels and prices (113-115), or peasant uses of credit (328-333).

However, the details occasionally create impediments to understanding. There are occasional theoretical or quantitative methods left unexplained such as the Gini coefficient and the coefficient of variation (both measures of the level of variation in a data set on pages 19 and 48 respectively), or the very limited explanation of the Bouniatian's formula (a method to measure price responsiveness to harvest failure on page 112). Engaging with the text means being willing to do the math. A couple of final complaints, while somewhat minor, also prevent the work from being as clear as it might have been. First, while the numerous charts are often helpful, the use of uniform symbols in grayscale can often make them difficult to interpret (for example, see page 56 or 117). Differing shapes for the data points would have improved readability. More notably, there are only two maps, both in the section on war (197 and 222). However, the entirety of the text contains numerous geographic references based on the wide coverage of the manorial accounts (for example pages 45-46). Especially considering the generous allotment of charts and tables, the inclusion of a general reference map or even several chapter-level maps would also have made several sections easier to follow.

Despite these few complaints, the work is an impressive and comprehensive look at the most significant famine of the medieval period. The documentation available for England suits Philip Slavin's style and provides a robust base for the economic and demographic arguments. The inclusion of environmental and archeological materials clearly demonstrates the need to understand famines from multiple viewpoints. Slavin offers a forceful example of how to consider famines as complex phenomena, involving multiple triggers, and filtered through the many institutions that give society its shape, not merely disasters brought on by climate or population. Famine historians of other regions can aspire to similarly complex descriptions and hopefully in the future we will see more such studies on other events, covering other regions of Europe.