Santa francesca Romana distributes grain and bread during a famine

The Great Famine

NEW RESEARCH: Market Failure during the Great Medieval Famine in England and Wales (1315 – 17)

Famine is a widespread phenomenon even today; nevertheless the causes are poorly understood. Roughly speaking, writes Philip Slavin, two scholarly camps disagree heartily. While the “institutionalists” contend that famines tend to be a man-made phenomena caused by greed, the “environmentalists” believe natural causes are important as instigators. A new paper published in Past & Present “stresses the impact of anthropogenic factors on famine” by studying one case: the Great European Famine of the early fourteenth century.

“A close analysis of available evidence suggests that compared with other major European Famines, the great Famine was a catastrophe on a different scale, one rather similar to that of the food crises of the developing world in the modern era, writes Slavin and continues: “Although the disaster began as an ecological crisis, it was soon intensified by purely anthropogenic or endogenous factors. One particularly devastating such factor was the widespread failure of crop markets”.

Harmondsworth Great Barn is curated by English Heritage
Harmondsworth Great Barn
© English Heritage

The article focus on price-behaviour, market segmentation, reduced market supervision, the rise of “preferential trade” and the seasonality of transactions.

The article concludes there can be little doubt that inclement weather and consequent faled harvests had a very negative impact on crop markets during the Great Famine. But also that” there can be no doubt that “omnipresent signs of market failure from aggressive price behaviour, market segmentation, the decline of price supervision, the rise of preferential trade as well as the lack of a steady supply of grain due to seigniorial hoarding left their mark on the economy of Late Medieval England.”

One side-effect was thus the intensive investment in great barns in the post-famine period in order for the seigneurial system to upgrade their possibilities for hoarding.

Market Failure during the Great Famine in England and Wales (1315 – 17): Towards the Reassessment of the Institutional Side of the Crisis
By Philip Slavin
In: Past and Present (2013)
doi: 10.1093/pastj/gtt025
First published online: November 4, 2013


The article supplements a number of seminal books and articles:

From the Brink of the Apocalypse: Confronting Famine, Plague, War and Death In the Later Middle Ages
By John Aberth
Routledge 2000.

Before the Black Death
By B.M.S. Campbell, ed
Manchester University Press 1991.

The Great Famine: Northern Europe in the Early Fourteenth Century
By William C. Jordan
Princeton UP, 1996.

“The Great Famine”
By I. Kershaw
Past and Present, 59 (1973).

The Great European Famine of 1315–7
by Henry S. Lucas
Speculum, Vol. 5, No. 4. (Oct., 1930), pp. 343–377.


Read more about Late Medieval barns and the one in Harmondsworth

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