A quantitative hydroclimatic context for the European Great Famine of 1315-1317

Tree-ring based reconstructions of soil moisture conditions can enable quantitative and precise characterizations of the climatic drivers behind past catastrophes

A global pandemic is a good time to reflect on the reality that history is full of greater misery and strife. Even by the standards of Medieval Europe, when death by war, famine, and disease were common, the volume of calamity in the 14th century is heartbreaking. The Great Famine, the Hundred Years’ War and the Black Death make it a most miserable century (miseri saeculum).

Figure 1: A memorial stone at the Church of Schmidtstedt, Germany, commemorates the terrible loses in just one community alone. It reads: In the year of the Lord 1316 here were buried 100 x 60, 33 x 60, and 5 [7985] humans, who have died in the years of dearness. God have mercy on them.” Photograph by Dirk Urban, Angermuseum Erfurt.

The Great Famine was of particular interest to us as climate scientists because it was associated with a period of prodigious precipitation that began in 1314 and continued into the early 1320s in some locations. But how do we know it was so wet? While there are surviving historical accounts of the weather during the Great Famine, there is also the personal living testimony of trees. The story of our paper, “A quantitative hydroclimatic context for the European Great Famine of 1315-1317,” thus begins with the decades of work by dendrochronologists (tree-ring scientists) who have scoured Europe to find living trees that were alive for various parts of the last millennium and relict wood from early buildings. These woody witnesses of the past respond each year to the prevailing climatic conditions and, like a tape recorder, preserve a continuous record of past hydroclimate imprints on their growth. 

A few years ago, several of us from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University led a large effort to compile the many dendroclimatic records across Europe and use them to construct a gridded map of soil moisture conditions that stretches back more than a thousand years. The Great Famine was well captured in this Old World Drought Atlas (OWDA) and our new paper represents a detailed assessment of just how wet the years that accompanied the event actually were. Spoiler alert: they were soddenly, soggily, soakingly wet! The years of the Great Famine stand out as some of the wettest years of the last millennium. Historical records report that excessively wet conditions made planting difficult, crop yields poor, and what could be harvested frequently could not be transported to market. Famine spread across the British Isles, France, the low countries and Germany and approximately 10-25% of Europe’s population perished. It seems that only the trees did well and put on some extra wide rings. Interestingly, the pattern of moisture that accompanied the Great Famine was the dominant hydroclimatic pattern during very wet (and the reverse pattern during very dry years) over most of the last millennium. One of the only times when the pattern didn’t dominate was the 20th century, which raises questions about why the pattern has changed and if the Great Famine pattern will eventually become dominant again.

If these questions get answered it will most likely be because engaged and interested students will continue the charge. Our work on the Great Famine was led by undergraduate and graduate students. George-Costin Dobrin and Jacob Naimark compiled the Great Famine documentary evidence and compared it to the OWDA. Serena Scholz’s research on the leading patterns of hydroclimatic variability in the OWDA informed our thinking about how to interpret the hydroclimatic patterns during the Great Famine. Hun Baek took on the job of synthesizing and analyzing the many bits of work that had been completed prior to his involvement. Each of these students contributed significantly to the success of our study and provide testament to the central role of student engagement in the scientific enterprise.

Figure 2: An old oak from Norfolk, England that was used in the construction of the OWDA. Photograph by Richard Cooper, University of East Anglia.


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