Climate, Plague, and the End of the Middle Ages

Okay, that title sounds a bit dramatic. At the moment I am teaching the medieval and early Modern World. Since it is outside of my specialty I am writing a short introduction to each lecture. I hate reading things out in lecture, but I am using this as a tool. I have not edited this too much or used any citations.

Introduction to Lecture 2


The fourteenth century was a watershed period in European and Medieval History. Although it is difficult to draw a sharp line between the Medieval and the early Modern worlds, events in the 1300s would play a key part in this transition. Though few would have guessed it in 1300, the coming century would witness disasters and challenges that many contemporaries would compare with the Biblical Days of Noah and the flood. In fact, in the aftermath of multiple famines and waves of devastating plague that culled perhaps half of Europe’s population, devout medieval people cannot be blamed for believing that the end of days foretold in the New Testament was at hand.

In large part to famine and disease, Europe’s 300 years of dramatic demographic growth from 1000-1300 came not only to a screeching halt, but careened into a tailspin that would not see the population return to its previous levels until, at least, the 17th century.

As we can see by this slide (5), the population between Sicily and Scandinavia and Russia and Ireland had increased significantly from around 40 million in the eleventh century to around 75 million in the fourteenth century. This population growth was matched by an emergent and increasingly confident Europe on the world stage. Next to China, the globe’s economic heartland in this period centred on the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Despite rapid gains, in comparison to the Byzantine Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate, Europe remained an economic and cultural backwater. The magnificent Christian-Byzantine city of Constantinople and the Muslim Caliphate’s capital in Baghdad, were at least ten-times larger and far more monetarily and culturally richer than the pride of Europe…Paris.  Despite this economic and demographic disparity, a deft blend of religious conviction teetering on fanaticism and martial capabilities and military innovations acquired warring amongst themselves, had allowed the Europeans to create a powerful war-machine that took a largely divided Muslim world by surprise. This led to a relatively united Western Christendom under the banner of the Pope in Rome recapturing Jerusalem in 1099 after nearly 500 years of Muslim rule. Though increasingly bickering amongst  themselves, the Western Crusaders had managed in a few short years to carve out a series of kingdoms in the Biblical— and more recently Muslim and Byzantine—heartlands in the Levant. Though subsequent crusades would never match the success of the first, the crusader’s triumphs, though ephemeral have had long-lasting impacts that continue to resonate.

Slide 7


More lasting were the Christians gradual absorption of Muslim Spain. Though largely a local movement, outside crusaders had played a role in the successful Christian Reconquista that culminated with the unification of the formerly independent Christian Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon in 1469 and the defeat of the Emirate of Granada in 1492.

Slide 8

We know some of the reasons behind the sharp rise in population and, as a result, Western Christendom’s wealth and power. Advancements in agricultural techniques, technology, urbanisation, wealth through the growth of medieval trade and commerce, and a warmer climate all contributed to expansion.

In England, the population increased over these three centuries from about 2 to 5 million

In France, from 6 to 14 million

In Germany, the estimates are from 4 to 11 million

By modern standards, Europe in 1300 was not overpopulated at all. But it was fully populated in relation to the existing technology and patterns of soil exploitation. That is, there were more people than the soil could care for – over-stretched resources. Like medieval Donald Trumps, one finds contemporary authors continually complaining about over-population…..those damn Frisians and Venetians they are eating all of our grain!

Indeed, population increased rapidly in rural areas especially, and the subsequent overpopulation in the countryside generated a steady stream of migration from these rural areas to the emerging cities that had begun sprouting up since the new millennium. In the twelfth-century half of most city’s or town’s population came from somewhere else.

Slide 9

Though filthy, crowded, fire-prone and dangerous, these urban areas offered an escape from the power of the local lord and church…and for some a chance to find a craft or skill that could lead to service in one the many guilds that was changing the social and economic structure of northern and southern Europe in the High Middle Ages. Indeed, most major towns had severed feudal obligations to secular and ecclesiastical lords alike. In these urban areas techniques had improved to create taller buildings…though mostly windowless and cramped these residences contained fewer people than the typical filled to the brim rural housing of the age. Moreover, from the 11th century larger settlements had taken the first steps to improve fire safety and sanitation. London established public latrines by 1100. After 1212, London required that roofs be made of tile rather than highly flammable thatch and straw. Despite these advances, fertility rates remained much lower in these urban areas than the countryside.

Slide. 10

The city in the High Middle Age was like a castle on a grander scale. As we can see in this slide of medieval Genoa most urban areas in Western Europe were highly fortified. Particularly in the Italian city-states, wealthier families constructed great towers which dominated the skyline. Like castles in the country side, these medieval skyscrapers both protected the urban elites interests and advertised their wealth and position in hierarchal local society. As John Cots posits, while beautiful to look at, these towers “testify to the relative weakness of public authority in some urban areas” in Western Europe in the High Middle Ages.


These growing populations in the cities and country-side in Western Christendom of course needed to be fed. By the dawn of the fourteenth century, technological advance, however, often failed to keep pace with increasing demands for food. In an attempt to grow more food, fields were frequently over-exploited and yields fell. Consequently, the price of grain in the first half of the 14th century skyrocketed. As we see in Hatcher’s book, this caused a real problem for the majority of the population who was dirt poor. Moreover, for those new migrants to the towns and cities things could be even worse, since most produced no food of their own, so were particularly vulnerable to shortages and famine.


As we can see in this slide, Western Europe’s population declined sharply after 1300. Famine in the early decades. contributed perhaps to a 10% decline, whilst as we discussed above, in the middle of the century, plague culled a further 30 to 50%.

Slide 11

An important factor to consider here is the climate. As we can see here, the years from 1000 to 1250 had been unusually warm. Indeed, grapes are reported being grown in Southern England.

Agriculture is always subject to climatic conditions, and a gradual change in the environment directly influenced levels of agrarian production. Even small drops of temperature can lead to shorter growing seasons and thus smaller yields. Of course, climatic condition occurred only gradually, as we recognise today with the modern issue of Global Warming. But one thing is for sure: The climate played a major part in the mischief 70 or 80 years before the Black Death.

Slide 12

Climatologists have described the period from the early 14th to the late 19th centuries, as the Little Ice Age. According to recent research, volcanic eruptions just before the year 1300 triggered the expansion of Arctic sea ice, setting off a chain reaction that lowered temperatures worldwide. Europe bore the brunt of its ill effects, experiencing harsh and fickle weather for several centuries.

Intense cold led to advances of polar and Alpine glaciers; high rainfall caused a rise in the Caspian Sea. Wheat, vine, and cereals were crippled and virtually extinguished in places like Iceland, England, and Denmark. Greenland, which had been settled by the Norsemen in the late tenth century had to be abandoned by the 15th. This colder and wetter weather led to a number of disastrous harvests, particularly in England, where famine was reported in 1272, 1277, 1283, 1292, and 1311.

But the great calamity struck between 1315-1317, when a great famine struck Western Europe. In 1316, when the harvest seriously failed, and almost every country in Europe lost the whole of their harvest

After a reported 150 days of straight rain, followed by draught, we can understand why this might have happened. Just as many today live pay check to pay check. In the fourteenth century people lived harvest to harvest…..there were no tinned foods or Woolworths!

Consequently, in the winter, many people died of starvation and from diseases commonly afflicting a starving population. These conditions would have serious consequences for the generation that grew up in the shadow of famine. In fact, as we will discuss in greater detail in a future lecture, some modern scientists conclude that this frailty may help to explain, in part, the plagues’ devastating effect on an already weakened population.


Let us now look at how the people we find in Hatcher’s book survived in this period.



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