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The 14th century was an era of catastrophes. Some of them man-made, such asthe Hundred Years' War, the Avignon Papacy, and the Great Schism. These werecaused by human beings, and we shall consider them a bit later. There were twomore or less natural disasters either of which one would think would have beensufficient to throw medieval Europe into a real "Dark Ages": the Great Famineand the Black Death. Each caused millions of deaths, and each in its waydemonstrated in dramatic fashion the existence of new vulnerabilities in WesternEuropean society. Together they subjected the population of medieval Europe totremendous strains, leading many people to challenge old institutions and doubttraditional values, and, by so doing, these calamities altered the path ofEuropean development in many areas.The Great Famine of 1315Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), an English political economist, wrote apowerful treatise called An Essay on Population. In it, Malthus stated that, sinceproduction increased arithmetically (2, 4, 6, 8, 10) and populationincreased geometrically (2, 4, 8, 16, 32), the population of a region or aworld will eventually increase until there are not sufficient resources tosupport it. From 800 to 1300, the total production of Europe had increasedsteadily. Although there had been local food shortages in which manypeople died of starvation, the standard of living in Western Europe as awhole had risen even while the population had steadily increased.By the beginning of the 14th century, however, the population had grown tosuch an extent that the land could provide enough resources to support itonly under the best of conditions. There was no longer any margin for cropfailures or even harvest shortfalls. At the same time, however, the WesternEuropean climate was undergoing a slight change, with cooler and wettersummers and earlier autumn storms. Conditions were no longer optimum foragriculture.We have noted that there had been famines before, but none with such alarge population to feed, and none that persisted for so long. A wetSpring in the year 1315 made it impossible to plow all of the fields thatwere ready for cultivation, and heavy rains rotted some of the seed grainbefore it could germinate. The harvest was far smaller than usual, andthe food reserves of many families were quickly depleted. People gatheredwhat food they could from the forests: edible roots, plants, grasses,nuts, and bark. Although many people were badly weakened by malnutrition,the historical evidence suggests that relatively few died. The Spring andSummer of 1316 were cold and wet again, however. Peasant families now hadless energy with which to till the land needed for a harvest to make upfor the previous shortfall and possessed a much smaller food supply inreserve to sustain them until the next harvest.
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