A very medieval cost of living crisis

The many disasters that beset Europe in the fourteenth century, following its golden age of expansion, innovation and economic growth, are surprisingly familiar today, with echoes of the last two decades — and the current cost of living crisis — resounding down the years.

A Medieval famine scene. Credit: The Print Collector / Alamy Stock Photo.
A Medieval famine scene. Credit: The Print Collector / Alamy Stock Photo.

The first of the fourteenth century’s many disasters — one that set the tone for the disastrous next eighty years — was the Great Famine of 1315-1317. Climate change had caused a series of terrible harvests; increasingly destructive wars broke supply chains and devastated the countryside; unsustainable population growth caused a surge in demand and put terrible strain on the environment; and heavy taxation to finance military spending led to uncontrolled inflation. In short, our ancestors faced a gigantic and cataclysmic ‘cost of living crisis,’ and lacked the political structures and the technology to deal with it. Indeed, although in most respects the periods differ beyond recognition, our medieval visitor may well empathise with the continual sense of crisis that has characterised the 2010s and the early years of the 2020s and recognise a sense of regression following decades of relative stability and prosperity.

The famine was cataclysmic. Up to 15 per cent of the English population died. Crime rose four-fold as the desperate took to theft, murder, and even (reportedly) cannibalism and infanticide in the desperate search for food. Life expectancy, which had been 35 in 1276, fell to 30 by 1325 and just 17 by 1375. Progress in virtually every area of quality of life went into a dramatic and punishing reverse.

The problems began in the spring of 1315, the beginning of a period of constant rainfall and low temperatures that continued, unabated, for over two years. In these conditions crops could not ripen and they rotted in the ground, causing distress and hunger across northern Europe from the Pyrenees to Russia. The price of grain rocketed by 320 per cent in Lorraine in France and 600-800 per cent in parts of England, which was the best-documented and worst-affected country.

By the time the weather finally improved in the summer of 1317, the countryside was devastated and the towns hollowed out. The surviving population were emaciated and weakened by disease, all of which was made worse by the breakdown in public order. An English monk called John of Trokelow wrote in his chronicles that the ‘poor and needy’ were ‘crushed with hunger, consumed with famine’ and, when he entered a once-thriving town, ‘lying stiff and dead in the wards and streets.’ Poor harvests were reasonably common in the Middle Ages, and when they happened people went hungry. Yet famines on this scale were not. In England, no other food shortage has ever come close.

To add to the shock, the preceding 250 years had been a golden period of unprecedented economic growth, innovation, and farming expansion, all fuelled by benign weather and bumper harvests. The period between 1050 and 1300, known as the ‘medieval warm period,’ saw temperatures consistently above average across Europe. The population consequently exploded, in England also rising from 1.7 million in 1086 to 4.5 million in the 1290s.

This era of stability and surplus gave rise to many of the medieval era’s greatest achievements, from the flowering of Gothic architecture, including the Notre Dame and the elegant spires of Lincoln’s cathedral — then the tallest building in the world, to the founding of great universities in Paris, Oxford, Cambridge and Bologna.

The seeds of trouble had long been sown, however. Ultimately, the land could support only a limited number of people in the pre-industrial age. In the south of England there were signs that population size was already unsustainable by 1290, and yet little was done to avert disaster. Instead, the longer the period of bounty continued, the more risks people took and the more complacent they became. Socially ambitious farmers struck out on their own at an ever earlier age but their ever-smaller plots of land could barely support a family; were over-farmed until the land was exhausted; and were particularly vulnerable to any future downturn. By 1315, the entire agriculture system required only one nasty shock to collapse entirely — and this came in the form of climate change and the sudden end of the medieval warm period.

The first warning sign came in 1303, when the Baltic Sea completely froze over. Data from tree cores tell us that the entire first two decades of the fourteenth century were unusually cold and wet. Even when the weather improved after 1318 the sustained benevolence of the medieval warm period did not return, and temperatures did not return to those levels again until around 1850, half a millennium later.

To add to these woes, there were two other man-made evils affecting the population — war and taxation. Population growth and the greater supply of manpower that came with it, combined with an increase of the power and sophistication of the state, meant that wars became more ambitious and larger in scale and disrupted increasingly vital international trade.

In England the ambitious King Edward I (r.1294-1307) committed his country to wars of outright conquest. Patrolling his empire was expensive — he spent £78,000 (over £50 million today) on castles in the three decades to 1304, for example, while his predecessors had only spent around half of that in the sixty years to 1215.

There was only one way to raise that kind of money — taxation. There were seven levies on movable goods between 1294-1297, compared to three between 1216 and 1290. Another special levy was enforced between 1311 and 1317 to pay for wars in Scotland, hitting at the exact same time as the change in climate. The result was catastrophe. The ‘Husbandman’s Song,’ a medieval form of protest anthem, sums up the situation: ‘…to seek silver for the king I sold my seed, wherefore my land lies fallow and learns to sleep.’

This first crisis ended in 1317, but its effects lingered on. The population did not recover before the next and even more serious cataclysm — the Black Death, which killed up to 50 per cent of the European population in the 1340s. Even before Covid, scholars have suggested a link between the causes of famine and subsequent pandemic, pointing to frequent occurrences in history where major outbreaks have followed periods of climate change, such as the deadly plague of Justinian in the sixth century, which followed a period of cooler weather caused by a volcanic eruption.

What’s more, faith in the established social and political order of medieval Europe had been badly shaken. Calamity fatigue led to bitterness, disillusionment and increasing callousness towards suffering, which can, at least partly, explain many of the century’s other misfortunes, such as the polarising Papal Schism, and the horrifically brutal conduct of both sides towards civilians in the Hundred Years’ War.

Today, modern technology has given us an ability to innovate that our medieval ancestors could only have dreamed of, and — so far — that has meant we have avoided the outright disasters of the fourteenth century, even though we share many of the same pressures. But the crisis of 1315-17 should be remembered as a cautionary tale, and a reminder (as if we needed another one)  that human progress is not a given, but something to be protected against adversities that come its way.


Laurie Purnell Prynn