World History 1 253 - 16.2.1 The Effects of Climate Change in the Fourteenth Century

Perhaps the greatest challenge in grasping the impact of climate change on the past is the limitations of traditional historical sources. Texts and other written source materials often provide scant information about environmental fluctuations of earlier centuries. To overcome these barriers, the field of historical climatology focuses on reconstructing and analyzing climates of the past and comparing them with modern conditions, allowing scholars to expand the traditional source base of historical research. Historians study references to crop yields and weather fluctuations in weather journals and tax records, along with scientific data drawn from tree rings and organic material trapped beneath ice sheets in different parts of the world, which offer information about past temperature fluctuations and rainfall patterns (Figure 16.9).

A drawing of a tree sliced horizontally to reveal the rings inside, each with a very dark brown line in between, is shown. Two dark brown rings are seen in the middle with the innermost one labelled “First-year growth.” The next five rings are a slightly lighter shade of brown, A thick darker brown ring follows with two light brown rings next. Then seven beige rings follow, the second one labelled “Rainy season” and the fourth one labelled “Dry season.” A black area between the second and third ring in this section is labelled “Scar from forest fire.” A light brown ring follows at the end. A thick, dark brown ring on the perimeter of the circle has black serrated bumps on the outside. A small section toward the edges of the rings is circled and enlarged at the left. One label points to the light brown ring and is labelled “Spring/early summer growth” and a label points to the dark line between the rings and is labelled “Late summer/fall growth.”
Figure 16.9 Because trees can live for hundreds or even thousands of years, during which they experience a variety of environmental fluctuations, clues about these changing conditions are often hidden within the rings in their stumps, which historical climatologists can analyze. (credit: modification of work “The color and width of tree rings can provide snapshots of past climate conditions” by /NASA Climate Kids, Public Domain)

The investigation of such historical clues hidden in the natural world has enabled scholars to identify the ways in which environmental conditions and patterns of human migration and settlement have together shaped the course of human history. In the case of the calamitous fourteenth century, a series of unusual climatic changes led to a chain reaction of competition for resources and desperate attempts to mitigate the damage and despair that defined the century’s first decades.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century, subtle shifts in global mean temperature and rainfall had a profound impact on the climate of the Northern Hemisphere, unleashing devastating famines and plagues across Afro-Eurasia. These events caused significant human hardship, disrupted commerce, and contributed to the decline of once-great empires, even the seemingly impenetrable Mongol dynasty. Although premodern people did not understand these extraordinary environmental shifts, their lives were no less affected by them. In an era during which many people survived on subsistence agriculture, even the slightest change in seasonal weather patterns could devastate crops and result in widespread malnourishment and starvation. Poor nutrition weakens human immune systems, which—together with poor sanitation and the close quarters in which people lived in medieval towns—undoubtedly left many more vulnerable to the ravages of epidemic diseases. This was especially the case when the bubonic plague struck much of Afro-Eurasia by the middle of the century.

To place the dramatic meteorological changes of the fourteenth century in context, we must understand how they relate to larger climate patterns. Long-term weather fluctuations, during which periods of relative warmth and cold alternated over hundreds of years, have long been part of Earth’s ecological landscape and the narrative of environmental history. Within these longer periods of gradual climatological change, however, less predictable short-term fluctuations have also resulted from rapid changes in wind patterns, ocean currents, and seismic activity. From time to time, such erratic climatological shifts resulted in devastating reversals of typical weather patterns.

In the fourteenth century in particular, the Little Ice Age, a period of unusually cold weather that affected most of the Northern Hemisphere (Figure 16.10), led to significant variations in normal rainfall and a general drop in the mean annual temperature. Preceded by a Medieval Warm Period, a span of more temperate climate across the globe from the tenth through the thirteenth century, the cool temperatures and, in some areas, droughts radically reduced available resources and food supplies. Aggravated by rising population levels and declining agricultural productivity, food shortages caused significant hardship and financial distress as famine became commonplace and competition for resources intensified.

A chart is shown with tick marks along the x axis and the y axis labelled “Change in temperature (⁰C)” with three horizontal lines drawn to the right of the label. These numbers are listed across the x axis: 1000, 1200, 1400, 1600, 1800, and 2000. Other tick marks in increments of 50 are drawn but not labelled. A label with “Medieval warm period” is highlighted from 900 to 1300 and a “Little Ice Age” is indicated from 1300 to 1850. A black dashed line runs through the middle of the chart in a horizontal line and a red line runs up and down in the chart. It rises above the dashed line during the Medieval warm period and dips below the dashed line during the Little Ice Age. It rises back above the dashed line after 1900.
Figure 16.10 This chart depicts the shift in the Northern Hemisphere’s temperature over the last millennium, including the Medieval Warm Period that began in the tenth century and the Little Ice Age that ran from the fourteenth century to approximately 1850. (data source: Northern Hemisphere Temperature Reconstruction by Moberg et al., 2005) (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

Link to Learning

An overview of the field of historical climatology is provided in “Little Ice Age Lessons: Towards a New Climate History.” This overview includes a section about the ways in which the fourteenth-century Little Ice Age offers lessons about past, present, and future relationships between climate change and human affairs.

If you have a scientific background and would like to explore the subject in greater depth, a compilation of scientific information about the causes and impact of the Medieval Warm Period is provided by this ScienceDirect web resource. Charts and graphs are included that demonstrate the temperature and meteorological fluctuations of this period.

Although a consensus about the causes of the Little Ice Age remains elusive, possible triggers may have included changes in ocean circulation patterns, shifts in the earth’s orbit, and several massive volcanic eruptions in the tropics that released clouds of sulfate particles into the atmosphere and reflected solar energy back into space at the end of the thirteenth century. Ultimately, these environmental changes resulted in an advance of mountain glaciers and an overall mean global temperature decrease of 0.6°C (with some areas experiencing as much as a two-degree drop in annual temperature). This decrease may seem insignificant, but in the absence of modern agricultural and irrigation techniques, it led to catastrophic crop failures and widespread famine in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere within the first few decades of the fourteenth century. The increase in glacier growth, moreover, affected many regions of the world, because the more water turned to ice, the less was available to evaporate and turn into rain. As a result, even areas far from glacial mountains suffered prolonged periods of drought.

Despite their global impact, the effects of the Little Ice Age were not the same everywhere. In the Mediterranean and West Africa, irregular rainfall and periods of drought dramatically reduced crop yields, whereas in China and northern Europe, cold weather and the freezing of lakes and rivers were especially pronounced. Elsewhere in Europe and Asia, in 1314, extraordinary rains began to fall that introduced a period of abnormally cold and wet winters. This deluge of precipitation resulted in poor harvests as people struggled to cultivate already overworked land. Outside Afro-Eurasia, evidence suggests that the North American interior also suffered when established agricultural systems faltered under hotter summers with less rain and colder winters, leading to severe population loss in the southwestern region.

Although the Little Ice Age was especially devastating in the 1300s, its effects persisted for many centuries. In addition to its immediate impact on crops, late medieval climate change led to longer-term deforestation because more wood was used for heating, in the Northern Hemisphere in particular. The climate shift not only altered building designs and clothing styles, which became adapted to colder temperatures, but in some places it also ultimately precipitated the eventual adoption of coal for heating and the beginning of human reliance on fossil fuels.

Link to Learning

“The Little Ice Age: Weird Weather, Witchcraft, Famine and Fashion” is a podcast discussing the historical climatology of the Little Ice Age and its connection with some of history’s most critical events, such as the Black Death and the French Revolution.

The period known as the Great Famine of 1315–1317 was a direct result of the Little Ice Age in much of Europe north of the Alps, an area of roughly 400,000 square miles. This widespread and prolonged food shortage prompted one of the worst population collapses in Europe’s recorded history. It is virtually impossible to know the actual death toll, but it is likely that up to 10 percent of northern Europe’s population of more than thirty million perished. Even though crop yields began to rebound in 1317, it took several more years for them to return to prefamine levels. Beyond the devastating loss of lives and human suffering, prolonged food shortages also led to widespread political and economic instability. The prices of necessary food staples like grain skyrocketed, and competition for resources generated social tension, conflict, and an increase in crime. Ultimately, the Great Famine led many to question the ability of church officials and monarchs to respond effectively to crises and catastrophes, which had long-term effects on public trust in these institutions (Figure 16.11).

A drawing in a vertical rectangle is shown on a pale yellow faded and stained background. At the top of the image, a person with skeletal features is sitting atop a winged lion like animal. The skeletal figure has deep hallowed eyes, teeth in a straight row, and ribs showing at the torso. They hold a large brown sword in their right hand and the tail of a faded blue flying serpent in their left. The serpent has short yellow wings, long red tongue and large claws. The lion has large feathered pale pink and yellow wings, a long wavy mane extending from their chin, a red tongue sticking out, and wears a gold crown. The lion’s tail curls to the bottom of the image and connects with a blue, black and white two legged beast with fire emanating from its large wide open mouth and snout nostril. Sharp teeth are seen in the mouth and a white beard hangs from its chin. A person stands on the corner of the creature’s mouth. He is colored brown and has dark brown projections coming out the back of his head. His right hands is bent at the elbow and his left hand points to his mouth. A word is written next to his mouth.
Figure 16.11 This image from a fourteenth-century manuscript created in Erfurt, Germany, at the time of the Great Famine depicts Death sitting atop a legendary creature known as a manticore, with famine perched on the fires of hell at the end of the manticore’s tail. (credit: “Death (“Mors”) sits astride a lion whose long tail ends in a ball of flame (Hell). Famine (“Fames”) points to her hungry mouth” by “Mariule”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In Their Own Words

Johannes de Trokelowe

In 1315, Johannes de Trokelowe, an English monk and chronicler in the reign of King Edward II, wrote the following account of the impact of the Great Famine. Note how daily life was affected by rapidly rising prices and scarcity of food in the wake of devastating rains over northern Europe during the Little Ice Age.

In the year of our Lord 1315, apart from the other hardships with which England was afflicted, hunger grew in the land. . . . Meat and eggs began to run out, capons and fowl could hardly be found, animals died of pest, swine could not be fed because of the excessive price of fodder. A quarter of wheat or beans or peas sold for twenty shillings [in 1313 a quarter of wheat sold for five shillings], barley for a mark, oats for ten shillings. A quarter of salt was commonly sold for thirty-five shillings, which in former times was quite unheard of. The land was so oppressed with want that when the king came to St. Albans on the feast of St. Laurence [August 10] it was hardly possible to find bread on sale to supply his immediate household. . . .

The dearth began in the month of May and lasted until the feast of the nativity of the Virgin [September 8]. The summer rains were so heavy that grain could not ripen. It could hardly be gathered and used to bake bread down to the said feast day unless it was first put in vessels to dry. Around the end of autumn the dearth was mitigated in part, but toward Christmas it became as bad as before. Bread did not have its usual nourishing power and strength because the grain was not nourished by the warmth of summer sunshine. Hence those who ate it, even in large quantities, were hungry again after a little while. There can be no doubt that the poor wasted away when even the rich were constantly hungry. . . .

Four pennies worth of coarse bread was not enough to feed a common man for one day. The usual kinds of meat, suitable for eating, were too scarce; horse meat was precious; plump dogs were stolen. And, according to many reports, men and women in many places secretly ate their own children. . . .

—Johannes de Trokelowe, Annales, 1315

  • How does Trokelowe describe the change in food prices, and to what does he attribute the poor harvests of 1315?
  • Salt was an important staple for food preservation. How might a significant rise in the price of salt affect everyday life?
  • How did people attempt to cope with food shortages? Why do you suppose Trokelowe came to believe that some even resorted to eating their own children?

With very few options to remedy the devastation wrought by years of poor weather and famine, most people had little practical recourse other than migrating in search of better conditions. The collective anxiety and social tension of the era sometimes led to scapegoating, including persecutions of supposed witches based on the premise that they had the ability to control the weather as a means of causing others harm. Historians have traced connections between peaks of the Little Ice Age and spikes in witch-hunting activities. Although this type of persecution was by no means universal, it demonstrates the desperation many people must have felt in the face of unrelenting strife.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax