In 1258, as baronial opposition to Henry III erupted and the government became locked in constitutional conflict, the country found itself in the grip of a serious food crisis. To blame was a run of bad weather and failed harvests. Thousands of famished famine refugees flocked to London in quest of food and charity, where many of them perished and were buried in mass graves. The multiple burials recently discovered and excavated in the cemetery of the hospital of St Mary Spital highlight the plight of the poor at this time of political turmoil. Was their fate part of a global catastrophe precipitated by the VEI7 explosion of Samalas Volcano, Indonesia, the previous year or was powerful solar forcing of global climates responsible for the unusually unstable weather? The answer depends in large measure upon establishing the precise chronology of how the crisis unfolded, drawing upon the surviving documentary record of prices and harvests, the comments of contemporary chroniclers and a range of high-resolution palaeo-climatic proxies. Reexamination of this episode illustrates the potential of environmental history to shed fresh light on familiar historical events and its capacity to place them in a global environmental context.
This paper is dedicated to Christine Beavon. Christopher Whittick provided invaluable assistance with the Latin chronicles, Richard Cassidy alerted me to relevant entries in the close and patent rolls, Francis Ludlow advised on the 1252 drought and, with Mike Baillie, contributed dendrochronological data.
1 The Mail on Sunday, 6 Dec. 2014, www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2863693/I-seen-hunger-stalks-country-shocks-Africa-Stop-wasting-food-feed-poor-says-ARCHBISHOP-CANTERBURY.html, and www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/5459/archbishop-of-canterbury-on-hunger-in-britain, accessed 31 Aug. 2016.
2 www.trusselltrust.org/news-and-blog/latest-stats/, accessed 31 Aug. 2016; All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Hunger, Feeding Britain: A Strategy for Zero Hunger in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (2014), https://feedingbritain.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/food-poverty-feeding-britain-final-2.pdf, accessed 31 Aug. 2016.
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11 Campbell, ‘Nature’, 294–5; Campbell, ‘Four Famines’, 25–9, 36–42, 44–5, 66–7; Smith, R. M., ‘Dearth and Local Political Responses: 1280–1325 and 1580–1596/7 Compared’, in Peasants and Lords in the Medieval English Economy: Essays in Honour of Bruce M. S. Campbell, ed. Kowaleski, M., Langdon, J. and Schofield, P. R. (Turnhout, 2015), 377–401 .
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13 Campbell, ‘Four Famines’, 45, 48–9.
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16 See below, pp. 94–112.
17 Campbell, Great Transition, 136, 160–2, 167, 253.
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22 Post, J. D., The Last Great Subsistence Crisis in the Western World (Baltimore and London, 1977); de Boer, J. Z. and Sanders, D. T., Volcanoes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Major Eruptions (Princeton and Oxford, 2002), 138–55; Oppenheimer, C., ‘Climatic, Environmental and Human Consequences of the Largest Known Historic Eruption: Tambora Volcano (Indonesia) 1815’, Progress in Physical Geography, 27 (2003), 230–59.
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24 Britnell, R., ‘The Winchester Pipe Rolls and their Historians’, in The Winchester Pipe Rolls and Medieval English Society, ed. Britnell, Richard (Woodbridge, 2003), 1–13 ; Records of Cuxham, 16–29.
26 For a map of the estates see the preface to Winchester Pipe Rolls.
27 Hampshire Record Office, Winchester (HRO), 97097 Titow Research Papers 97M97/B.
28 Farmer, ‘Prices and Wages’, 779–89; University of Saskatchewan Archives, ‘The Papers of David Farmer’, MG 145 (hereafter ‘Farmer Papers’), vols. 14–16.
29 Clark, Prices and Wages, drawing upon ‘Farmer Papers’.
30 The Chronicle of Bury St Edmunds 1212–1301, ed. and trans. A. Gransden (1964), 22; Keene, D. J., ‘Crisis Management in London's Food Supply, 1250–1500’, in Commercial Activity, Markets and Entrepreneurs in the Middle Ages: Essays in Honour of Richard Britnell, ed. Dodds, B. and Liddy, C. D. (Woodbridge, 2011), 52 .
31 Farmer, ‘Prices and Wages’, 789.
32 J. Z. Titow, ‘Land and Population on the Bishop of Winchester's Estates 1209–1350’ (Ph.D. thesis, University of Cambridge, 1962), 15, 21–2, 50; B. M. S. Campbell, ‘A Unique Estate and a Unique Source’, in Winchester Pipe Rolls, 27.
33 Broadberry et al., Economic Growth, 333.
34 The National Archives, PRO SC6/1141/22.
35 Campbell, ‘Nature’, 297–301.
36 British Isles oak dendro-chronology provided by M. G. L. Baillie. In northern France, the widest oak growth rings occurred in 1256 (data supplied by Francis Ludlow).
37 Robock, A., ‘Cooling Following Large Volcanic Eruptions Corrected for the Effect of Diffuse Radiation on Tree Rings’, Geophysical Research Letters, 32 (2005), 4 pp.
38 Keene, ‘Crisis Management’, 55.
39 Wilson, R. J. S., Miles, D., Loader, N. J., Melvin, T. M., Cunningham, L., Cooper, R. J. and Briffa, K. R., ‘A Millennial Long March–July Precipitation Reconstruction for Southern-Central England’, Climate Dynamics, 40 (2012), 997–1017 , www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/study/12907, accessed 19 Aug. 2016; Cooper, R. J., Melvin, T. M., Tyers, I., Wilson, R. J. S. and Briffa, K. R., ‘A Tree-Ring Reconstruction of East Anglian (UK) Hydroclimate Variability over the Last Millennium’, Climate Dynamics, 40 (2013), 1019–39, www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/study/12896, accessed 19 Aug. 2016; Luterbacher, J., Werner, J. P., Smerdon, J. E., Fernández-Donado, L., González-Rouco, F. J., Barriopedro, D., Ljungqvist, F. C., Büntgen, U., Zorita, E., Wagner, S. and Esper, J., ‘European Summer Temperatures since Roman Times’, Environmental Research Letters, 11 (2016), 024001 , www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/study/19600, accessed 19 Aug. 2016.
40 Ortega, P., Lehner, F., Swingedouw, D., Masson-Delmotte, V., Raible, C. C., Casado, M. and Yiou, P., ‘A Model-Tested North Atlantic Oscillation Reconstruction for the Past Millennium’, Nature, 523 (2015), 71–4, www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/study/18935, accessed 31 July 2016; Cook, E. R., Seager, R., Kushnir, Y., Briffa, K. R., Büntgen, U., Frank, D., Krusic, P. J., Tegel, W., Van Der Schrier, G., Andreu-Hayles, L., Baillie, M., Baittinger, C., Bleicher, N., Bonde, N., Brown, D., Carrer, M., Cooper, R., Čufar, K., Dittmar, C., Esper, J., Griggs, C., Gunnarson, B., Günther, B., Gutierrez, E., Haneca, K., Helama, S., Herzig, F., Heussner, K. U., Hofmann, J., Janda, P., Kontic, R., Köse, N., Kyncl, T., Levanič, T., Linderholm, H., Manning, S., Melvin, T. M., Miles, D., Neuwirth, B., Nicolussi, K., Nola, P., Panayotov, M., Popa, I., Rothe, A., Seftigen, K., Seim, A., Svarva, H., Svoboda, M., Thun, T., Timonen, M., Touchan, R., Trotsiuk, V., Trouet, V., Walder, F., Ważny, T., Wilson, R. and Zang, C., ‘Old World Megadroughts and Pluvials during the Common Era’, Science Advances, 1 (2015), e1500561 .
41 Jones, W. Lewis, ‘Latin Chroniclers from the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Centuries’, in Cambridge History of English Literature, i : From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance, ed. Ward, Sir A. W. and Waller, A. R. (Cambridge, 1907), 178 . For a compendium of contemporary comments on the weather, see C. E. Britton, A Meteorological Chronology to a.d. 1450, Meteorological Office Geophysical Memoirs 70 (1937).
42 Matthew Paris's year ran from Christmas to Christmas.
43 Matthew Paris's English History: From the Year 1235 to 1273, trans. and ed. J. A. Giles (vols. ii and iii, s.l., 1853 and 1854), ii, 446, 465–7; Matthai Parisiensis, Monachi Sancti Albani, Chronica Majora, ed. H. R. Luard (vols. iv and v, 1872 and 1880) (hereafter Chronica Majora), v, 240, 258, 263–4, 265–6. Paris makes no mention of the severe start to winter 1251 reported in Ireland by the Annals of Lough Ce: Britton, Meteorological Chronology, 99.
44 Annales Monastici, ed. H. R. Luard (5 vols., 1864–9), i, 147 (Annals of Tewkesbury, 1252): ‘In the same year drought prevailed for four months, causing the grass to disappear.’ Brut y Tywysogion or The Chronicle of the Princes of Wales, trans. and ed. J. W. ab Ithel (1860), 337: ‘the heat of the sun was so great that all the earth became so dry therefrom, that no fruit grew on the trees or (crops in) the fields and neither fish of the sea nor of the river was obtained’.
45 Cook et al., ‘Old World Megadroughts’, map for 1252.
46 Annales monastici, i, 189 (Annals of Dunstable, 1253): ‘in many places a quarter of wheat sold for 8 shillings, and more; but at Dunstable for 5 shillings’. On the Winchester estates, the harvest of barley, oats and dredge was down by 10 per cent: calculated from HRO 97097 Titow Research Papers 97M97/B.
47 Paris's English History, ii, 514–15; Chronica Majora, v, 321. Brut y Tywysogion, 337, stresses the extensive and destructive flooding that occurred that autumn in Wales.
48 Paris's English History, iii, 60; Chronica Majora, v, 420.
49 Paris's English History, iii, 96; Chronica Majora, v, 465.
50 Paris's English History, iii, 110–11; Chronica Majora, v, 483. Towards the end of the year, a deadly murrain of horses struck in both England and France: The Flowers of History, especially such as Relate to the Affairs of Britain. From the Beginning of the World to the Year 1307. Collected by Matthew of Westminster, ii: From a.d. 1066 to a.d. 1307, trans. C. D. Yonge (1853), 340.
51 Cook et al., ‘Old World Megadroughts’, map for 1255.
52 Paris's English History, iii, 115, 120; Chronica Majora, v, 488, 495.
53 Paris's English History, iii, 121, 155–6; Chronica Majora, v, 496, 536–7.
54 Cook et al., ‘Old World Megadroughts’, map for 1256.
55 Paris's English History, iii, 175, 212; Chronica Majora, v, 561, 607.
56 Paris's English History, iii, 207; Chronica Majora, v, 600.
57 Paris's English History, iii, 207; Chronica Majora, v, 600. In April the following year, Matthew Paris reports that Earl Richard of Cornwall, while waiting to take ship at Yarmouth, had to pay over the odds for essential provisions: ‘a measure of wheat was sold for fifteen shillings, and the same quantity of oats for six shillings; fowls and ducks were very scarce and extremely dear; and beef and mutton were sold at any price that the venders chose to fix’, Paris's English History, iii, 228–9; Chronica Majora, v, 628; Chronicle of Bury St Edmunds, 21.
58 Paris's English History, iii, 207, 255–6; Chronica Majora, v, 600, 660–1.
59 Paris's English History, iii, 230–1; Chronica Majora, v, 630.
60 Spring-sown barley, oats and dredge on the Winchester estates fared unevenly, with output down by at least 10 per cent on over a third of the bishop's demesnes: calculated from HRO 97097 Titow Research Papers 97M97/B.
61 Rerum Britannicarum medii aevi scriptores or Chronicles and memorials of Great Britain and Ireland during the Middle Ages, xiii: Chronica Johannis de Oxnedes, ed. Sir H. Ellis (1859), 212; Chronicle of Bury St Edmunds, 22.
62 Paris's English History, iii, 242, 255–6; Chronica Majora, v, 644–5, 661.
63 Paris's English History, iii, 255–6; Chronica Majora, v, 661.
64 Paris's English History, iii, 255–6; Chronica Majora, v, 661.
65 Lavigne et al., ‘ad 1257 Mystery Eruption’. A dark total lunar eclipse reported at Genoa on 12 Nov. 1258 bears testimony to the continuing suspension of volcanic aerosols in the atmosphere and implies that the eruption had occurred sometime during the previous eighteen months: Guillet, S., Corona, C., Stoffel, M., Khodri, M., Lavigne, F., Ortega, P., Eckert, N., Sielenou, P. Dkengne, Daux, V., Churakova, O., Davi, N., Edouard, J.-L., Zhang, Y., Luckman, B. H., Myglan, V. S., Guiot, J., Beniston, M., Masson-Delmotte, V. and Oppenheimer, C., ‘Climate Response to the Samalas Volcanic Eruption in 1257 Revealed by Proxy Records’, Nature Geoscience, 10 (2) (2017), Supplementary information S4.
66 Paris's English History, iii, 255–6; Chronica Majora, v, 661.
67 Paris's English History, iii, 312; Chronica Majora, v, 728.
68 Chronicle of Bury St Edmunds, 22.
69 Ibid.; Keene, ‘Crisis Management’, 51–2.
70 Chronicle of Bury St Edmunds, 22.
71 Close Rolls of the Reign of Henry III Preserved in the Public Record Office, iii: a.d. 1256–1259 (1932), 212: on 16 Apr. 1258, orders were sent to the sheriffs of Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex to bury paupers without the need for a coroner's inquest. The next month, report was made that many vagrants were dying due to famine: Annales Monastici, i, 441–2 (Annals of Burton, 1258).
72 Paris's English History, iii, 266; Chronica Majora, v, 674.
73 Paris's English History, iii, 299–300; Chronica Majora, v, 710–11. Matthew Paris and Matthew of Westminster both report that torrential rain in late June caused the River Severn to burst its banks, resulting in devastating flooding from Shrewsbury to Bristol: Paris's English History, iii, 283–4; Chronica Majora, v, 693–4; Flowers of History, ii, 357.
74 Paris's English History, iii, 265–6; Chronica Majora, v, 673.
75 For the proactive response of the Florentine authorities to the food crises of 1329–30 and 1347–8, see Jansen, K. L., ‘Giovanni Villani on Food Shortages and Famine in Central Italy (1329–30, 1347–48)’, in Medieval Italy: Texts in Translation, ed. Jansen, K. L., Drell, J. and Andrews, F. (Philadelphia, 2009), 20–3.
76 ‘Chronicles of the Mayors and Sheriffs: 1257–8’, in Chronicles of the Mayors and Sheriffs of London 1188–1274, ed. H. T. Riley (1863), 31–42, British History Online: www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/london-mayors-sheriffs/1188-1274/pp31-42, accessed 20 Aug. 2016.
77 Paris's English History, iii, 283–4; Chronica Majora, v, 693–4; Annales Monastici, i, 166 (Annals of Tewkesbury, 1258).
78 Bengal Famine of 1943 – A Photographic History – Part 2, www.oldindianphotos.in/2009/12/bengal-famine-of-1943-part-2.html, accessed 6 Sept. 2016; Sen, Poverty and Famines, 52–85; Ó Gráda, Famine, 45–8.
79 Paris's English History, iii, 280, 291; Chronica Majora, v, 690.
80 B. Connell, A. G. Jones, R. Redfern and D. Walker, A Bioarchaeological Study of Medieval Burials on the Site of St Mary Spital: Excavations at Spitalfields Market, London E1, 1991–2007 (2012), 229; Paris's English History, iii, 280; Chronica Majora, v, 690, 701–2.
81 Connell et al., Bioarchaeological Study, 36, 38, 271–2.
82 J. M. Bennett, ‘Women and Poverty: Girls on their Own in England before 1348’, in Peasants and Lords in the Medieval English Economy, ed. Kowaleski, Langdon and Schofield, 299–323.
83 Paris's English History, iii, 280; Chronica Majora, v, 690.
84 Ó Gráda, Famine, 98–102, 178–84, 190–3.
85 Keene, ‘Crisis Management’, 54; MOLA, ‘Cataclysmic Volcano’.
86 Brooke, Climate Change, 382; Oppenheimer, C., ‘Ice Core and Palaeoclimatic Evidence for the Timing and Nature of the Great Mid-Thirteenth Century Volcanic Eruption’, International Journal Climatology, 23 (2003), 417–26; Oppenheimer, Eruptions, 261.
87 De Boer and Sanders, Volcanoes, 13, 256.
88 Witze, ‘Volcano Mystery’; Lavigne et al., ‘ad 1257 Mystery Eruption’.
89 Guillet et al., ‘Climatic Impacts’, Supplementary information S4.
90 Oppenheimer, Eruptions, 54–66.
91 Mann, M. E., Fuentes, J. D. and Rutherford, S., ‘Underestimation of Volcanic Cooling in Tree-Ring Based Reconstructions of Hemispheric Temperatures’, Nature Geoscience, 5 (2012), 202–5.
92 Anchukaitis, K. J., Breitenmoser, P., Briffa, K. R., Buchwal, A., Büntgen, U., Cook, E. R., D'Arrigo, R. D., Esper, J., Evans, M. N., Frank, D., Grudd, H., Gunnarson, B. E., Hughes, M. K., Kirdyanov, A. V., Körner, C., Krusic, P. J., Luckman, B., Melvin, T. M., Salzer, M. W., Shashkin, A. V., Timmreck, C., Vaganov, E. A. and Wilson, R. J. S., ‘Tree Rings and Volcanic Cooling’, Nature Geoscience, 5 (2012), 836 : ‘Reconstructing simulated temperatures in the same manner as Mann and colleagues, but using a well-tested tree-ring growth model and realistic parameters provides no support for their hypothesis.’
93 Stoffel et al., ‘Volcanic-Induced Cooling’, Supplementary, Table S4.
94 Paris's English History, iii, 312; Chronica Majora, v, 728; Britton, Meteorological Chronology, 108.
95 Calendar of the Patent Rolls Preserved in the Public Record Office: Henry III 1258–66 (1910), 73; Close Rolls, iv: a.d. 1259–1261 (1934), 52, 172.
96 Annales monastici, iv (Annals of Oseney), 127. And in spring 1261, the baronial council observed that the kingdom had been impoverished by ‘evil years’: Documents of the Baronial Movement of Reform and Rebellion, 1258–1267 Selected by R. E. (i.e. R. F.) Treharne, ed. I. J. Sanders (Oxford, 1973), 221.
97 Campbell, Great Transition, 38–58.
98 Wagner, S. and Zorita, E., ‘The Influence of Volcanic, Solar and CO2 Forcing on the Temperatures in the Dalton Minimum (1790–1830): A Model Study’, Climate Dynamics, 25 (2005), 205–18.
99 Keene, ‘Crisis Management’, 55.
100 Treharne, Baronial Plan, 1–63, 64–81.
101 Ibid ., 64–81; D. A. Carpenter, The Reign of Henry III (1996), 183–98.
102 Paris's English History, iii, 265–6; Chronica Majora, v, 673–4.
103 Keene, ‘Crisis Management’, 56.
104 For the limited relief measures subsequently adopted by late medieval English governments and administrations, see Sharp, B., ‘Royal Paternalism and the Moral Economy in the Reign of Edward II: The Response to the Great Famine’, Economic History Review, 66 (2013), 628–47; Keene, ‘Crisis Management’.
105 Treharne, Baronial Plan, 412–39; R. F. Treharne, Simon de Montfort and Baronial Reform: Thirteenth-Century Essays, ed. E. B. Fryde (1986); Carpenter, D. A., The Battles of Lewes and Evesham 1264/65 (Keele, 1987); Carpenter, Henry III; Maddicott, J. R., Simon de Montfort (Cambridge, 1996); Sadler, J., The Second Barons' War: Simon de Montfort and the Battles of Lewes and Evesham (Philadelphia, 2008); A. Jobson, The First English Revolution: Simon de Montfort, Henry III and the Barons' War (2012); R. Brooks, Lewes and Evesham 1264–65: Simon de Montfort and the Barons' War (2015); Maddicott, J., ‘Who Was Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester?’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 26 (2016), 43–58 ; Keene, ‘Crisis Management’; Connell et al., Bioarchaeological Study; Hoffmann, R. C., An Environmental History of Medieval Europe (Cambridge, 2014).
106 Campbell, ‘Nature’.
107 APPG, Feeding Britain; House of Commons, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Oral Evidence: Winter Floods 2015–16, HC 666, 11 Jan. 2016, http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/environment-food-and-rural-affairs-committee/winter-floods-201516/oral/26721.html, accessed 6 Sept. 2016; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report (Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), ed. R. K. Pachauri and L. A. Meyer (Geneva, 2014).
* This paper is dedicated to Christine Beavon. Christopher Whittick provided invaluable assistance with the Latin chronicles, Richard Cassidy alerted me to relevant entries in the close and patent rolls, Francis Ludlow advised on the 1252 drought and, with Mike Baillie, contributed dendrochronological data.
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