The Great Famine and Pestilence 1315 – 1322

©Bryan Phillips May 2023

This was a catastrophic time for Milton Abbey, not only had the fire of 1309 caused great destruction, but Edward II took no notice of the poverty of the abbey, adding several corrodians to the demands on its charity, although the Abbey managed to deny the requests of the Pope for other corrodians in 1320 and 1323.(Traskey, 1978, p96) 

From the official documents of this time concerning Milton Abbey that have survived, one would not know the extreme difficulties that this Abbey and the whole country was in. It seems that both the crown and church assumed normal business, mostly demands for money of course. There is an exceptional document and a rare survival, the Custumal of 1317, which lists the peasants and their tenancies for thirteen of the Abbey’s estates, but from this one cannot appreciate the difficulties which must have arisen. The making of this administrative document at such a critical moment does suggest that it was made for a purpose – possibly to ensure that the convent could extract as much money and services as was possible. It is known that other major landholders, the magnates and the church, were getting rid of their servants, reducing the size of their households, and  reducing alms giving at this time to reduce their costs. As an example, Bolton Priory halved their servants and famuli, and Winchester Abbey stopped all alms giving.(Kershaw, 1976) It is possible that the Milton Abbey Custumal of 1317 was an attempt to record the labour services which were due to the Abbot by the custom of the manor, but were actually unenforceable because of the famine.

The later 13th century saw a general rise in population, prosperity and land values despite the wars of Edward I, particularly against the Scots, but after the famine and pestilence of 1315 to 1322 these trends were reversed especially after the Black Death pandemic of 1348 and its recurrent episodes thereafter. The rise in wages after this along with the fall in grain prices resulted in tenancies falling vacant and arable land being abandoned forever.(Kershaw, 1976) This was a time when villages were being abandoned or deserted which seems to have been a long slow process, not a mass exodus to towns, along with a declining population. The Black Death is now known not to have been the only cause of settelement abandonment. The well known and thoroughly excavated Wharram Percy, Yorkshire, a deserted medieval village had a survey carried out in 1323 as part of an inquisition post mortem. This showed that both water corn-mills were derelict and that two thirds of the demesne bovates were worth little even if they could be let.(Smith, 2006, p122)

The early years of the reign of Edward II saw substantial price increases of livestock, dairy produce and most other foodstuffs. It is thought that this was due to a depreciation in currency brought about by an influx of foreign silver which was coined. By 1309 the prices were about 25 per cent up on those of the previous recoinage of 1299. The grain harvests of 1309 and 1310 were poor, also leading to higher prices.

Of course, in a predominantly agricultural economy as Europe was at this time, with maximum sustainable population, any reduction in harvest yields would be problematic, and there were many such episodes. The successive harvests of 1315, 1316 and 1317 were poor across Europe north of Pyrenees due to rainfall and flooding, they were catastrophic for the population, and the worst known famine in the medieval period.(Lucas, 1930) and possibly the worst in the last two millennia.(Slavin, 2012, p1239) All the chronicles which have survived give graphic evidence of the problems, and the evidence is best, but not exclusively, documented in England. Throughout the middle ages famine was often accompanied by murrain of sheep or cattle or both, possibly as a result of weakened immune systems due to malnutrition.(Creighton, 1891, Vol 1, p16) and the famine of 1315 – 1322 was no exception as we will see. Very broadly an average of 50 per cent reduction in the grain harvest over successive years led to a fourfold increase in prices demonstrating that the normal state of affairs where the harvest was only just sufficient to feed the population. England in 1313 was on the brink, a disaster waiting to happen. One aspect which historians have not explored is the contribution, and conversely the impact on Edward II’s governance. There is much written about his favourites and wars with Scotland, surely the terrible famine must have had a political impact. One problem that Edward’s governance did cause was his heavy taxation and habit of ‘purveyance’, that is to collect goods, including cattle, to feed his peripatetic court and his armies wherever they happened to be. Such goods were rarely paid for and would be considered an unjust burden on his subjects. Such tactics did not help the restocking of cattle following the famine and pestilence.(Newfield, 2009, 156, n6)

It seems that the global climate began to change around 1300 from what is known as the Medieval Warm Period, and there followed what is now known as the ‘Little Ice Age’ (c. 1300-1850) with wide-spread cooling from around with average global temperatures dropping by as much as 2°C, particularly in Europe and North America.  Climatologists believe that this was caused by a combination of reduced solar output, changes in atmospheric circulation and increased volcanism,  although other factors have also been put forward – orbital cycles, altered ocean current flows, fluctuations in the human population in different parts of the world causing reforestation or deforestation, and the inherent variability of global climate. The Little Ice Age is evidenced in tree rings and ice cores.

The problem of excessive rain began in 1315 with such a wet summer that it was with great difficulty that wheat could be harvested. A contemporary chronicler has this to say:

“By certain other portents the hand of God appears to be raised against us. For in the past year there was such plentiful rain that men could scarcely harvest the wheat or store it safely in the barn. In the present year worse has happened. For the floods of rain have rotted almost all the seed, to such an extent that the prophecy of Isaiah might seem now to be fulfilled, for he says that ten acres of vineyard shall yield one little measure and thirty bushels of seed shall yield three bushels. And in many places the hay lay so long under water that it could neither be mown or gathered. Sheep commonly died and other animals were killed by a sudden pestilence. It is greatly to be feared that if the Lord finds us incorrigible after these scourges, he will destroy at once both men and beasts; and I firmly believe that if the English church had not interceded for us, we should have perished long ago.”(Childs, 2005)

Of course with the rains came problems also for pasture, on some manors it was not possible to either cut the hay nor dry it. What was cut could not be dried and suffered from rot due to fungus. Some chronicles describe the problems to cattle caused by the putrefaction of the herbage, and to humans by the ruining of foodstuffs.(Slavin, 2012, p1246) There was some mention that the poor were so hungry that they were forced to eat hay. It seems most likely that the rains of 1315 to 1317 and consequent lack of fodder for the cattle resulted in their weakening and susceptibility to disease. Along with lower summer temperatures the cattle required more calorific intake to stay warm, further weakening them. With their malnutrition came delay in growth, reduced musculature, sterility of bulls and cows, and spontaneous abortions.(Slavin, 2012, p1246) 

The price increases resulting from the dearth in grain harvests led the clergy and barons to ask Edward II in the parliament held at Westminster in January 1316 to draw up a schedule of prices not to be exceeded. This was sealed by Edward on 1 March and the county sheriffs instructed. Needless to say it had no effect as most such measures of governmental price control throughout history have shown.

The rains of summer 1314 were as nothing compared to the following years. It began raining at Pentecost, 11 May 1315, and continued through the summer and autumn. The resulting floods of Biblical proportions were believed by William of Malmesbury, a Benedictine monk, to be as predicted in Isaiah 5:25:

 “…the anger of the Lord was kindled against his people, and he stretched out his hand against them and struck them, the mountains quaked and their corpses were like refuse in the streets….”. The weather of 1315 was the same all across northern Europe – low temperatures, cloudy skies, constant rain.and the result being universal failure of crops. (Lucas, 1930)

One wonders what the monks of Milton Abbey thought, probably the same as most people – that the famine was a fact of life, visited by God, likely caused by the sins of people for not observing the sacraments and angering their God. The cure – penance, humility, prayer……The reaction of church and people was to increase processions led by their priests. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered that the religious should go barefoot in procession on every Friday to go to church bearing the blessed sacrament and sacred relics accompanied by the ringing of bells, chanting of the litany and celebration of mass, to encourage people to atone for their sins, fast, give alms and thus appease the wrath of God.(Kershaw, 1976) In Milton Abbas it is likely that the monks of the monastery encouraged all parishioners on their estates, both men and women to process, carrying the abbey’s relics of the bones of St Sampson and St Branwalader in their reliquaries in front of the procession in reverence and chanting prayers for better weather and good harvests.

Another reaction to starvation of the peasants was an increase in crime. Robbery with assault became common, anything that could be used as food was stolen as was anything that could be sold. The government of Edward II responded by commissions of oyer and terminer to hear the cases brought.(Lucas, 1930)

In 1313 wheat had sold for 5s per quarter but by early 1315 it was at 20s per quarter, and by 24 June was at 40s. Other foodstuffs such as beans, peas, oats, barley and malt had also become expensive. Salt had also increased, in fact more than quadrupled due to the lack of sun at the evaporation pans such as Milton Abbey held at Ower, Dorset. From 3s per quarter average in the decade before the famine to 13s during 1315 and 1316.(Kershaw, 1976) It was a vital commodity for preserving fish and meat. The harvest of 1315 was a disaster with the ruination of the grain and hay crops. By Christmas the prices rose even further and by spring 1316 reached unprecedented heights throughout England. Only the more rain tolerant crop of oats was available at reasonable prices, this grain had previously been used for cattle fodder but now was eaten by the poor leaving the cattle to fend for themselves, resulting in their inevitable malnutrition. and susceptibility to ‘pestilence’. Dairy products also increased in price. With the crop failures of 1315 and 1316 the manorial records show that the net yields of wheat, barley and rye were approximately half of normal. The manors of the Winchester estates have good continuous records which have enabled the statistical analysis of crop yields. Indeed, there are over 3,000 manorial accounts surviving from the period 1310 – 1350 giving the best insight into the events in Europe.(Slavin, 2012, p1241)

Accompanying the famine of 1315 and 1316 was a widespread sheep murrain. ‘Murrains’ as recorded by manorial documents and the chroniclers are unspecified diseases of livestock, also known as distemper. Of course, sheep are particularly prone to wet weather with many diseases such as foot rot, flukes, streptococcal infections and ovine rinderpest. Other livestock were not so badly affected as sheep in these two famine years, but worse was to come. The loss of sheep varied around England, but lambs and yearlings were particularly badly affected even  on chalk downlands.(Kershaw, 1976) Milton Abbey was a major dealer in sheep and its income may have suffered severely. England’s wool exports were down by 30 per cent and customs revenues also down by 30 per cent, adding to the difficulties of Edward II’s finances, and they were still twenty percent down throughout 1325  to 1336. This sheep murrain was one of many recorded since the Norman conquest, but was believed to be one of the worst.(Kershaw, 1976)

The winters of northern Europe were also noted as being the worst for many years, with snow lingering and very low temperatures. As one commentator put it:

“A thusent winter ther bifore com nevere non so strong….”

“Com nevere wrecche into Engelond that made men more agaste.(Wright, 1839, p342)

At last the harvest of 1318 was a good one bringing to an end the misery and problems of the poor. But not for long. The wet autumn of 1320 brought another poor harvest, followed by a disastrous one in 1321.(Kershaw, 1976) The latter probably caused by a prolonged dry spell, although not well recorded by the chroniclers of the time due to their preoccupation with the political events of the time. Remembering the disastrous campaign of Edward II against the Scots in 1314, culminating in the humiliating defeat at Bannockburn on 23 to 24 June that year, and the following years of raising taxes to pay for renewed attempts to defeat Scotland which came to nothing. Add to this the continuing struggles between Edward II and his magnates over his favouritism to the Despensers which involved much political to and fro and continuous and fruitless negotiation amongst the various factions. Enough to keep the scribblers occupied with recording all this.

The concomitant effect of malnutrition with insanitary conditions on humans was reports of death through disease coming suddenly and in such numbers as to cause problems with burial. Reports of high fever and foetid infection in the throat may have been caused by dysentery or typhoid. Malnutrition was also responsible for the many other unidentified diseases to which the poor succumbed, likely were St Anthony’s Fire or erysipelas, and anthrax. Death from anthrax may have been caused by eating infected animals or contaminated foodstuffs from the fields the cattle grazed and results in bodies decomposing rapidly and odiferously. Damp grains are also susceptible (particularly rye, but also wheat) to the ergot fungus which results in a serious human disease of ergotism when eaten.(Lucas, 1930) The enteric diseases affected both rich and poor, but the mortalities due to disease and malnutrition cannot be separated.(Kershaw, 1976) Unfortunately mortality was not recorded in England at this time, although it is estimated that ten  per cent of the population succumbed.

The sheep epidemic was mainly over by 1317, but a new problem was first observed in England in Essex around Easter 1319 – an epidemic affecting bovines and causing their death in large numbers, probably arriving in England from France (Kershaw, 1976) but thought to have originated in Mongolia and spread west into eastern Europe by 1315, Germany, France and the low countries in 1317.(Slavin, 2012, p1240) Now bovines at this time were multipurpose animals – they produced milk and cheese, meat, manure for arable crops and, just as important, pulling power for ploughs and carts. A large reduction in numbers of bovines thus had a catastrophic impact on many agrarian activities. Just imagine the problem if, losing half their number, only half the previous area could be ploughed, only half the goods could be transported, there was only half the quantity of fertiliser available, and half the amount of milk and cheese available (the peasants did not have the luxury of eating beef except perhaps as a harvest perquisite). Distribution may have also been impeded by the rain soaked road network. The pulling power was partly replaced by an increase in the number of horses, but this was not an overnight remedy. Horses had to be reared, corralled, fenced, tethered, trained and harnessed, all jobs requiring money and skill and time, and they still did not provide milk, cheese or meat. The balance between horse and ox must have been a difficult decision for the benefit of the family in changing circumstances, and of course to the reeves of the demesnes of the great estates. The expansion of the numbers of horses however, was a temporary phenomenon, by the late 1320s their numbers were back to pre-pestilence levels. whereas by 1331 the numbers of oxen had reached 85 per cent.(Salvin, 2012, p1250)

One of the earliest English records of the cattle pestilence was by Johannis de Trokelowe, a monk and chronicler at St Albans monastery, he writes –

“In the course of the same year [1319] a great pestilential mortality of cattle grew strong through all of England, as no one had seen before. In this pestilence a miraculous thing occurred whereby both the dogs and birds that were feasting on the bodies of the dead cattle swelled up right away and died of infection. After this, there was no person who presumed to taste bovine flesh lest having been infected he might succumb from the carrion. Indeed at Easter the plague began at Essex and continued through the whole year. It was also said that at the same time all of France was infected with the same disaster”.(quoted in Newfield, 2009, p165)

The cattle murrain was devastating and widespread and occurring at a time of great human distress. From the symptoms described by the chroniclers it seems most likely that the disease was rinderpest. This is a viral disease, now only the second disease after smallpox to be eradicated globally, as declared by the FAO in 2010. The disease is contagious, usually by the cattle drinking contaminated water. Due to an incubation period before symptoms are noticeable cattle move about and contaminate the water supplies. There were no effective measures known in 1319, and rinderpest has just such a high mortality rate which can reach 100 percent. It is also extremely unpleasant to witness ending in diarrhoea and death. In an extensive statistical analysis it has been shown that neither the number of cattle on a manor, nor the density of cattle affected the mortality rate, the most significant effects were the yields of oats and barley on the demesne in the years of rain 1315 to 1317. It is suggested that during these years the reeves had cut down on oat and barley allowances to oxen, thus reducing their nutrient intake, which is particularly problematic for draught animals.(Slavin, 2012, p1245). The lack of grass for all cattle in these years was also of course a problem.

The peasants and monks really must have believed that their God was punishing them and that perhaps the end of times was upon them.

In every manorial record of the time and all the chronicles comes evidence of the widespread problems wrought by this disease. For example on the Benedictine Abbey of Ramsey, the manor of Broghton reported forty-eight died leaving just six, on the Upton manor forty-five died leaving two.(Kershaw, 1976) Such high mortality makes recovery really difficult and it took twenty years for this abbey to recover its stock levels. There are similar reports from other monasteries – not only did it take time to recover stocks, but the capital investment needed was also economically difficult. The strain on Milton Abbey and its tenants is unimaginable. Many monasteries responded by reducing their demesne, and the land not being taken up by tenants went out of use, both arable, due to lack of draft animals, and pasture due to the reduction in cattle and lack of manure. Some monasteries in the drier parts of England, notably Ely, Winchester and Caterbury who did manage to produce grain actually made greater profits from 1319 to 1323 than normal, although this did not last beyond a decline after 1325.(Kershaw, 1976) Other estates found that their income from rents was down by thirty per cent, and that tenants had abandoned their holdings because of poverty or were too poor to cultivate them.

Cattle murrains had been less frequent than sheep murrains since the Norman conquest, but this one of 1319 to 1321 was certainly the highest mortality. It is estimated from the manorial accounts that 62 per cent of cattle died in England in the accounting years 1319 and 1320, this is an astonishingly high figure and on eleven of the 165 demesnes every bovine died.

There were many factors which led to the severity of the famine. It seems that population growth had nearly outstripped production of grain, it is estimated that the population of England after the Conquest was about 1.5 million, and had risen to 5 million by 1300. (Jordan 1996) Although there had been improvements in agricultural yields over this period they were nowhere near sufficient to maintain the same diet. Any reduction in output would have resulted in problems. Such problems could be a reduction in draft animals restricting transportation, roads impassable due to persistent rain, bridges washed away or not repaired, robbery increased by poor governance, inability to dry hay and grain due to damp, fungal disease of grains such as ergot in damp weather. In fact the famine of 1315 – 1322 was a perfect storm of many factors lasting an unprecedented seven or eight years, and the worst crisis since the beginning of manorial records at the beginning of the thirteenth century.(Kershaw, 1976)

Recent articles suggest that the malnutrition during the Great Famine so weakened the population that the consequences of the Black Death some 33 years later were worse than could have been expected.(DeWitte 2013) Without birth and death registers it is difficult to know the human mortality during the famine and pestilence. On some manors it is possible where the manorial court records survive to compare the number of deaths before, during and after, by counting the number of heriots taken, or the number of tenancies surrendered. These records generally do not refer to the landless, the sub-tenants or the poor who were most likely the biggest sufferers of the famine. However, there are just two manors of the Glastonbury monastery estate where the surviving Hocktide tax lists do show how many men over the age of twelve, who did not hold land, called garciones, were present on the manor, although it requires considerable work to extract the relevant numbers. On one of these manors – Longbridge Deverill, the mortality rate was double the normal in 1316 – 1318, whereas it was normal on the other manor – Monckton Deverill. The mortality rate of the garciones was estimated at about 17 per cent during these famine years, compared with ten to fifteen  percent of tenants elsewhere in England.(Ecclestone, 1999)  Another estimate is that between one quarter and one half a million people died during the famine.(Campbell, 2006) The number of property transactions recorded in many surviving manor court records shows a very noticeable increase due to either the tenant’s death or his inability to pay debts or having to sell his tenancy to buy food. The following chart shows the number of holdings surrendered on four manors – Park, Codicote and Barnet, Herts, and Chesterton, Cambs. On the manor of Hindolveston, Norfolk belonging to Norwich Cathedral Priory, three times the number of tenancies changed hands compared with average years. As an example which may be typical, Michael Gorman of Codicote surrendered his two pieces of land and one messuage during 1315 to 1317, and by November 1321 he died in poverty as the court roll details – “no heriot because he had nothing.” Of course, the better off tenants could benefit by acquiring these tenancies and build up larger holdings, a free burgage tenant of Codicote acquired twenty-two pieces of land totalling over sixteen acres.(Kershaw, 1976). But mortality was not the only problem for the human population – protein deficiency was most likely during the cattle pestilence with the lack of dairy produce, especially cheese. This can have serious consequences for the young and their development. The dairy provided the largest portion of protein for the poor. Milk production was depressed until 1331 having fallen by as much as eighty per cent, and the ‘protein famine’ for peasants lasted some thirteen years.(Slavin, 2012, p1258)

NB the years run from Michaelmas to Michaelmas (29 September).(data taken from Kershaw, 1976 Table III)

Clearly showing the disturbances caused by the famine and pestilence to tenants’ land holdings.

It is interesting to note that we know about the deaths of animals and the transfers of tenancies because they appear in the manorial accounts, but we know much less about the social impact on communities – were the people that died the poorest in their community? did they receive alms? did the community remain strong? how did the church alleviate the suffering? But these were not the concerns of the monastic chroniclers nor the clerks of the manorial courts.

There have been many studies during the second half of the twentieth century on the impacts of malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies on health, development, learning, fertility, immunity, disease, etc on humans but these are not at all known in historical contexts. It will require further study to determine if the Great Famine really did lead to the huge mortality of the Black Death, but would be really useful to know.


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