The Great Famine: Northern Europe in the Early Fourteenth Century
ReviewThe early 1300s must have seemed like the end of the world to the unfortunate inhabitants of Europe: brutally severe winters gave way to lightning storms and torrential, crop-destroying rains in spring, followed by cold summers and then bitter winters again. "The whole world was troubled," wrote one Austrian chronicler; yet that was only the beginning. Princeton University historian William Chester Jordan reconstructs the terrible decades when climatological change led to famine, disease, rampant inflation, and social breakdown across the European continent, a time when every prayer for relief was met by even crueler turns of fate.
From Publishers WeeklyEver since the publication of Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, many readers have had a sneaking suspicion that the 14th century is uncannily similar to our own. Anyone who takes up this book in hopes of finding a new Tuchman will find something better, though: a work of great depth written in a scholarly though engaging way. While there is plenty here about the population strain, catastrophic weather, soil exhaustion, ruminant disease and so on that caused the Great Famine that affected the Baltic countries, Scandinavia, France and Britain from 1315 to 1322, the author makes his focus the transformation of community life that resulted from the famine. What makes his treatment stand out is the additional moral dimension. Jordan, a Princeton professor and author of Louis IX and the Challenge of the Crusade, hopes that by looking to the past contemporary readers may find new sympathy for the needs of others. Such a reawakening did not happen in the 14th century, when circumstances were so like those of our own, but one can perhaps hope that this time things will be better. This moral subtext should not lead readers to ignore the impressive scholarship that deserves to be appreciated for its own merits. Among the many virtues of this readable work are the corrections of many common misperceptions of the Middle Ages and a bibliography that is extensive and impressive in both primary and secondary sources.
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