Agriculture in the Middle Ages: Technology, Practice, and Representation

By Del Sweeney | Go to book overview

5. Ecology Versus Economics in Late Thirteenth- and Early Fourteenth- Century English Agriculture

Bruce M. S. Campbell

Environmental issues are topical. Problems of the greenhouse effect, acid rain, deforestation, desertification, and soil erosion serve as stark warnings of the ecological degradation to which mismanagement of the environment can give rise. Likewise, heavy death tolls from famine in Ethiopia and flooding in Bangladesh serve as grim reminders of the demographic price that is sometimes exacted. Yet ecological imbalance and environmental degradation are as old as human exploitation of resources and have sometimes occurred on a scale sufficient to stifle prosperity and occasionally even topple empires. Ancient Jericho and the First Empire of the Mayan civilization of Central America may both have been undermined by overexploitation of agricultural resources, and a similar explanation has been advanced to account for the crisis to which England in particular, and much of western Europe in general, succumbed during the fourteenth century.1


Natural Disaster and Ecological Imbalance in Medieval England

The first half of the fourteenth century was characterized in England by a succession of extreme and disastrous events. In 1315 torrential rain ruined the harvest, and grain prices soared to five or six times normal. By the spring and summer of 1316, England, along with much of the rest of western Europe, was in the grip of a famine of major dimensions--the Great European Famine--and this was accompanied by a virulent and widespread epidemic, perhaps typhus, which greatly increased mortalities. The following harvest was no better, and the two years 1315-16 and 1316-17 mark a rate of inflation in grain prices without parallel in English experience.2 The hardship and suffering were terrible--twenty-three prisoners

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