Abstract: The introductory comment revisits older discussions in medieval studies about the “Crisis of the Fourteenth Century,” connecting it – as recent studies suggest – to a general increase in the intensity and frequency of natural extreme events between the turn of the century and the ravages of the Black Death in mid-century. New approaches to this period of transition examine how societal phenomena coincided with rapid or gradual environmental changes and attempt to establish the relationship between causality and correlation; these methods challenge – albeit without reverting to climatic or environmental determinism – established historiographical paradigms that have tended to explain social facts via other social facts (Durkheim). Hence, the introduction discusses new theoretical tools in environmental history like consilience, resilience, vulnerability, and man-nature-interaction models, such as, for example, those developed by the Vienna School (Winiwarter), but also approaches which have received less attention, like Luhmann’s ecological communication, the Panarchy model (Gunderson/Holling), and Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. In the interest of promoting a pragmatic heuristic perspective, the editors expand on the idea of societal teleconnections of meteorological extreme events (Moser/Finzi Hart), as this concept integrates delayed effects and feedback loops, acknowledges spatial crosslinks, and avoids hierarchical impact-levels. Applying the meteorological term “teleconnection” in social historical studies allows for the discovery of “strange parallels” (Lieberman) in the socio-economic development of otherwise unconnected areas of the world, and these synchronicities, in turn, open avenues for the further development of a global pre-modern environmental history.
- Pages: 24–42
Abstract: Although many extreme weather events were documented throughout the medieval period, few are known in great detail due to a lack of detailed documentary and archaeological evidence. A case study with a high volume of evidence is the windstorm of 15 January 1362 which primarily affected southern and eastern England. Its effects and the responses of contemporary society in its aftermath are documented relatively widely across the British Isles, with standing building evidence supporting the written evidence at certain locations. As a result, it is possible to trace the short to medium term impact of this event including how the event was perceived, what reactions were taken across the different layers of medieval society and to what extent any preparations were made against ‘the next storm’.
- Pages: 43–61
Abstract: The fourteenth century is known to have witnessed several significant environmental and climatological events. This paper analyses Swiss narrative sources to appraise their potential for further study of medieval historical climatology. It examines a number of sources – dating to the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries – and their references to these fourteenth-century events. These sources mention major historical events including the Great Famine of 1315 to 1322, the Black Death, floods, and an extremely cold winter. Although they describe some extreme weather events at length, not all of the texts examined mention all the major events, and there are errors in the dating, as well. Such sources do not regularly refer to the weather in general. A reconstruction of the climate in the area of modern Switzerland relying solely on these historical documents is therefore impossible, but they do provide valuable information on various aspects of fourteenth-century environmental and climate history, especially when correlated with other types of climate reconstructions.
- Pages: 62–79
Abstract: Medieval calendars contain a great deal of information concerning not only liturgical feasts but also the movements of celestial objects, the beginning of seasons, and other natural phenomena. This case study analyzes approximately 500 Roman and Fenno-Scandinavian calendars with especial attention to their mention of seasonal conditions. This material reveals some general trends in the seasons’ gradual shifts earlier or later in these calendars, depending on the century and location. The general pattern of these shifts gives some indication of how climatic and social changes of the fourteenth century became recorded in a practical tool for organizing time such as a calendar. Comparing these shifts at the opposite ends of Christendom also reveals how differently the same phenomena were perceived in different parts of the continent.
- Pages: 80–99
Abstract: This article demonstrates how tree-ring material can be applied to historical research using the climate-driven crises of the fourteenth century as a case study. Medieval northeastern Europe is a promising case study for such a purpose, because climate-sensitive tree-ring data are readily available for this period and region. Whereas large areas of western Europe were affected by continuous heavy rains and bitter winters during the 1310s, this dendrochronological evidence suggests that northeastern Europe was not. Favorable climatic conditions prevailed in northeastern Europe in the late 1310s, and, more generally speaking, during the first half of the fourteenth century, as well. The juxtaposition of this new information from tree-ring analyses with the established understanding of the development of the region challenges the view that the crises of the fourteenth century reached the northeasternmost corner of Europe. The case study demonstrates how teleconnections of climate and society, like the crises of the early fourteenth century, can materialize on a societal level very different ways in different locations.
Andrea Kiss, Ferenc Piti, Ferenc Sebők and Éva Teiszler
- Pages: 100–129
Abstract: This paper provides an initial overview of the failed harvests, food shortages, and famines reported in fourteenth-century sources from the Kingdom of Hungary and also with some reference to the countries of the Hungarian crown. It examines what might have caused these crises and looks for signs of socioeconomic consequences. Following a discussion of the primary sources – including an overview of the terms which contemporary authors used and of the methodology of interpreting direct and indirect indicators – the paper proceeds with a survey of the potential causes of food shortages. These include both those fourteenth-century meteorological and climate-related events (e.g., weather extremes, floods, fires) and biological hazards (e.g., locusts invasions, plague/ pestilence) which have been established for this period, as well as some significant social factors (e.g., feudal anarchy and wars). Finally, it discusses those years for which there are indications of bad harvests, food shortages, dearth, and famine as separate cases studies on the 1310s to the early 1320s, the late 1340s to the early 1350s, early to mid- 1360s, (1373-)1374, 1381, and the early to mid-1390s. Those periods which experienced food shortages (e.g. the 1310s and 1374) show thought-provoking parallels with some of the food crises that occurred in central and western Europe during this same time.
- Pages: 130–152
Abstract: This paper assesses the severity of the crisis of 1315-1322 in the Bresse region of France. The economic documentation for this region is exceptionally good during the period in which it was under the control of the Duchy of Savoy. The accounts of many castellanies are continuously preserved from the end of the thirteenth century to the fifteenth century, which makes it possible to analyze the potential impact of the Dantean anomaly on the rural economy of this region in full detail. To date, scholars have never studied the impact of the depression of 1315-1322 in this region. This paper presents a classical analysis of four series of manorial rolls (Jasseron, Treffort, Pont d’Ain, and Pont-de-Vaux) for the period of 1300-1330. Particular attention is given to variations in crop yields and vineyard production, as well as to price fluctuations and the indirect demographic evidence that the rolls provide.
- Pages: 153–168
Abstract: Although climate science suggests that the Yuan era in China witnessed a number of natural disasters, historians have yet to consider such data in their accounts of the Yuan dynasty’s rapid fall. The dominant view largely blames their quick demise on extravagant grants to the Mongolian aristocracy and army and excessive expenditures on war, but even a perfunctory analysis of the data reveals these behaviors had effectively disappeared decades before the dynasty collapsed. This study highlights two neglected climate-related factors that played a much greater role in the dynasty’s demise than has been previously established. First, the sheer size of the Yuan Empire, which included the territories of modern central and southern China, along with the Mongolian steppe to its north and other territories to the northwest and northeast, made it vulnerable to many different sorts of climatic disasters. When a series of such catastrophes struck, the emperor Kublai extended the ancient Chinese Confucian policy of huang zheng (disaster relief) to all parts of the empire. The situation became so dire, however, that this official relief across such a vast area consumed as much as one-third of government revenue in bad years. Although well-intended, the policy ultimately undermined both the wider economy and the government finances. Second, serious flood damage to the Yangtze delta occurred at a critical moment when this rich granary was badly needed to support other stricken areas. Four-fifths of the Yuan population lived south of the Yangtze, and the area’s production of grain, cotton, silk, and salt were all crucial for government revenue and general wealth accumulation. Typhoons and floods here ultimately cost the court far more than its support for hard-pressed Mongolian refugees. These disasters drained increasingly scarce resources from other areas while negatively impacting the dynasty’s capacity to support the empire as a whole. In the end, it was the pressure of a major disaster here that sparked the revolt that overthrew the Yuan.
- Pages: 169–189
Abstract: In recent years, medieval climate history has become the subject of interdisciplinary research by scholars and scientists throughout Europe. This research is an opportunity for historians of the Middle Ages to contribute insights gleaned from their work with the written historical record and offer the unique perspective of their own discipline. Moreover, the contribution of Italian historiography can both highlight regional differences compared to the rest of Europe and explain some epistemological aspects of the relationships between environment and history, such as different forms of adaptation in the face of rationing crisis. The case study of Florence in the first half of the fourteenth century focuses on these historical aspects and presents the opportunity for an interesting and relevant case of political-economic argumentation. Although documented natural events between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (excessive rain, cold, flood) confirm the strong climate variability of this era, the famines before the Black Death struck were rationing crises triggered mainly by trade mechanisms. Faced with famine and shortages, the city of Florence managed to curb hunger by adopting rationing policies, creating special magistracies, and using communal purchases to control prices. This study outlines the accounts of these events in the chronicles of Domenico Lenzi and Giovanni Villani before discussing the causes and describing the material remedies that were introduced. These remedies were indicative of a growing civic consciousness, new forms of solidarity, and strengthened political communication.
Johannes Preiser-Kapeller and Ekaterini Mitsiou
- Pages: 190–220
Abstract: This paper discusses written historical documentation and paleoenvironmental evidence in order to explore connections between climatic and socio-economic change. It focuses thereby on the Byzantine Empire and the eastern Mediterranean more generally in the period between the collapse and “restoration” of Byzantine rule in Constantinople (1204-1261) and the beginning of Ottoman expansion in the Balkans in 1352, which roughly coincided with the outbreak of the first wave of the “Black Death” in 1347. The paper entails juxtaposing various older scenarios of “fatal” social and political developments in Byzantine history with new studies based on proxy data from regions across the Balkans and Asia Minor and comparing these events with developments in other polities of the region during the transformation from the “Medieval Climate Anomaly” to the “Little Ice Age.”
- Pages: 221–246
Abstract: The formation of villages and the introduction of systematic three-field crop rotation transformed the landscape of western central Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These processes have often been seen as an important progress of the medieval agriculture. This paper examines these developments from the perspective of human ecology. There is some evidence to suggest a connection between village formation and the transformation of the cultural landscape in the High Middle Ages on the one hand and the Black Death in the late Middle Ages on the other. Recent archeological data suggests that these changes to the cultural landscape were in fact major factors in or preconditions for the fourteenth-century crisis.
- Pages: 247–262
Abstract: During the first half of the fourteenth century England was hit by various environmental impacts such as extreme weather events, outbreaks of murrains and Rinderpest, and flooding of coastal areas. The paper addresses the question, in what way contemporaries talked and wrote about these environmental impacts. In what way was weather described, explained and used as argument? Are there certain narrative patterns describing the effect of these events on the society? So far research focused chronicles, annals and other narrative sources to answer those questions. In contrast, manorial accounts and other documentary sources are often not seen as narrative texts but only as the source of quantifiable data. But these texts were composed in a distinct communicative setting that created certain narrative patterns. The paper identifies and analyses descriptions, explanations and arguments brought forward in this type of sources. In a second step they will compared with narrative patterns of chronicles and annals. The variety of these narratives reflects the manifoldness of their perceptions and their societal consequences.
- Pages: 263–279
Abstract: The paper surveys the possibilities and limitations of identifying the impacts of the Little Ice Age (LIA) in the Kingdom of Hungary in the late medieval period. Using a variety of written sources, scholars working on western and other parts of central Europe have documented weather events and environmental processes associated with the LIA. Despite the scarcity of some of these genres of written evidence – notably narrative sources – for historians working in the Hungarian region, there are indications of similar, if less pronounced, contemporary phenomena in the Kingdom of Hungary, which covered most of the Carpathian Basin in the late medieval period. This paper discusses two case studies, beginning with the problem of the appearance of the so-called “Great Famine” of 1310s in this area. Despite the lack of contemporary domestic narrative accounts of the events, legal evidence and other sources suggest that some aspects of this weather-related crisis had a similar effect on the Hungarian kingdom as on other parts of central Europe (Bohemia, Poland, and the German lands). These sources, however, mention virtually nothing on the extent of the famines – they may have been only local or regional problems. The second part of the paper discusses the research potential into the long-term impacts of the Little Ice Age; while information on the climatic processes is limited, a clear shift in the water table resulted in changes in the suitability of certain altitudes and areas for settlement in the late medieval period.
Richard C. Hoffmann
- Pages: 280–288
Abstract: As to be expected in collective volumes organized around a theme like this one, the concluding commentary aims to compare and contextualize the chapters. Scales, locations, sources, and methods of the studies vary but two main conclusions can be drawn: natural events are found to have had significant impacts on fourteenth-century societies; and the likelihood of some linkages among both widespread and local natural and cultural phenomena deserves continued purposeful investigation. Analytical concepts of ‘teleconnections’ and ‘crisis’ are explored and critiqued as tools for understanding this historic period. Some directions for further research are indicated.
- Pages: 289–296