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The Third Horseman: A Story Of Weather, War, & The Famine That History Forgot

November 22, 2016

thirdhorsemanBarbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century was for many years (and may still be) the best-known English-language popular history of 14th century Europe. What I remember best about A Distant Mirror is The Black Death—the seven year epidemic (1346-53) of bubonic plague that wiped out 1/3 or more of Europe’s population—and its far-reaching consequences: rising anti-Semitism, increased social mobility, the end of feudalism, the weakening of the Church (monks and priests, who cared for the sick, died in disproportionate numbers). In The Third Horseman: A Story Of Weather, War & The Famine That History Forgot, William Rosen zeroes in on an earlier 14th century northern European disaster, The Great Famine, (1315-22) as a cautionary tale for the 21st century.

The Third Horseman (a reference to the four horsemen of the Apocalypse (Pestilence, War, Famine & Death) in the Book of Revelation is a terrific read, full of absorbing detail about life in medieval Northern Europe while also providing a broad, cinematic view of centuries of climatic and demographic history. Rosen’s premise is this:

“The conditions that destroyed millions of lives during the seven years of the Great Famine appeared during the four centuries of the Medieval Warm Period. From 900-1300, as ten million mouths grew to thirty million—and as the least productive acres in Europe were cultivated to feed them—-the balance between producing food and consuming it grew more fragile every year. By the time the North Atlantic Oscillation shifted, and the weather started to change, that balance could be destroyed by a strong wind…. 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.” (pp. 258-59)

By 1300, much of Europe had reached a state of what Rosen calls “agricultural balance on the edge of a Malthusian knife”.  (p. 19)

Where the typical village in 900 C. E. in northern Europe 1) was largely self-sufficient (as long as the harvest didn’t fail, or war didn’t come); and 2) retained a margin of error (i.e., a large enough yield to make it through a bad year, and food sources that could be foraged or hunted in nearby forests), that was no longer the case four centuries later:

“The result of this centuries-long agricultural expansion was, to a modern agronomist, predictable: yields—the difference between the number of seeds…planted, and those available for consumption after reserving seed for the next crop—that dropped precipitously….(T)he typical French or English farmer was harvesting no more than ten grains of wheat for every one he planted, and frequently as few as three; in places like Scotland…the ratio was sometimes barely two to one.” (p. 19)

“Western and central Europe…around the end of the fifth century was 80 percent forest; by 1300, it was less than 30 percent, which means that, over seven centuries, at least 100 million acres were deforested.” (p. 18)

In a Malthusian world, where the upper limit of what the land will provide for human sustenance is approached, “one option…is extracting the value of the land using a sword instead of a plow. Frontiers become battlegrounds. Warlike cultures invade peaceful ones.” (p. 19)

Rosen methodically and persuasively builds to his understated conclusion: “The first decades of the fourteenth century have lessons to teach about economics, power politics, and, of course, the potent energies released during the complex dance between atmosphere and ocean.” (p. 258)

The Third Horseman is a sobering book, but a fascinating one.



From → Books, History

  1. Ken Galdston permalink

    Thanks for a stimulating set of ways to get the mind, body and heart going this morning.

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