Book Review

'The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century': talk about a perfect storm

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A famous medieval fresco in the Camposanto of Pisa depicts death's power over all people, mighty and humble. At one time, historians believed this fresco personified the Great Plague. But now we know the artwork predates the Plague, coming instead after the Great Famine.

The famine is much less well known than the plague. So horrific was the plague that it has almost completely eclipsed the famine in historical accounts. Yet the famine accounted for untold suffering in the 1300s.

In "The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century," author William Rosen makes a compelling case that feudalism was already stretched to its limits by the 1310s. An oscillation in the weather pattern mixed with wars and internal strife provided the perfect storm of events to cause massive famine.

By William Rosen
Viking ($28.95).

The catastrophe also gives Mr. Rosen a chance to stroll through history. Those unlucky years in European history make for interesting reading. Mr. Rosen starts with the Vikings, then turns to their descendants, the French-Normans, who conquered England in 1066. He takes the reader through an account of Scotland's bloody history, up to England's violent efforts to conquer and annex its northern neighbor.

Here history reached a tipping point. The weather to this point had been temperate, and England's king had been mighty. But behind Edward stood his heir, the unlucky, ineffectual Edward II.

Mr. Rosen clearly enjoys explaining each terrible event and terrible decision of Edward II's reign, culminating in the king's defeat and eventual execution at the orders of his own queen. As a side note, Mr. Rosen casts considerable doubt on the claim that Edward was killed via a hot poker being forced up his anus.

But added to the misery of political uncertainty, daily violence, war and plunder were seven years of rainy summers, which destroyed the grain that was the mainstay of most people's diet. Before the Great Famine, the average adult's daily fare amounted to roughly 13 ounces of bread, a quart of beer, an ounce and a half of cheese, a quarter-pound of legumes (such as peas) and a little less than 4 ounces of mixed fat and meat. Comparing this diet with the energy demands of 14th-century farming, one sees that "hunger, not to say near-starvation, was constant" even before the ruined harvests, Mr. Rosen states.

With the rains, not only were crops ruined, but wood was too wet to use for fuel, which in turn made producing salt almost impossible. Salt was the period's food preservative. Without it, every commodity that depended on salt was in turn ruined: salted herring and cod, and cheese.

In addition to the rains, the weather change brought colder, longer winters, which froze the waters. The frozen oceans demolished the fishing trade. It also made wool production plummet, decimating the wool and textile trade on which much of the English and northern European economy depended. Animal epidemics added to the suffering, killing off most of the animals used for plowing, meat, milk and wool.

This book explains weather patterns, malnutrition, disease, medieval attitudes, culture and behavior, and how echoes of the famine reverberate today. It comes as no surprise to learn that "Hansel and Gretel," a tale of cannibalism and parents abandoning their children because they cannot feed them, takes place during the famine.

The people of the Middle Ages pictured famine as the Third Horseman of the Apocalypse, who holds scales while on a black horse. To Mr. Rosen, the scales represent two things: a measure of the dearth of food and a symbol of the balance between life and death.

He writes, "The seven years of the Great Famine, and the evil times that accompanied them, are powerful evidence of how sensitive the scales had become, after four centuries of growth, to a sudden shift in the weather."

Laura Malt Schneiderman is a Web content producer for (, 412-263-1923).

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