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THE THIRD HORSEMAN: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century


"The Third Horseman covers much terrain, from the origin of feudalism under the Romans to its expansion under Charlemagne, subsequent imposition on Britain by William the Conqueror, and later decline across all of Europe in the 15th century. That Rosen manages to provide a granular and edifying account of all of this is a feat not to be discounted… Rosen should be commended for his book. In less than 300 pages he furnishes us with a detailed account of an epochal historical period that covers all the bases with engaging biopics and spirited narration; for the most part, he doesn’t succumb to the type of fanciful rendition and prolixity so plaguing certain other contemporary popular histories. In this way he departs from the biblical apocalypticism — one of the oldest forms of historical determinism — that colors text, just as we might depart from such allusions today."

Stuart Whatley in the Los Angeles Review of Books

"Rosen, a former editor and publisher, also wrote the fascinating Justinian’s Flea about a sixth century plague in the Eastern Roman Empire, said to have killed 25 million people. His power lies in the breadth and quality of his research. 'Whatever the connections between famine, climate change, plague and a century of wars, they together added up to a demographic shock that upended the arithmetic of feudal manorialism,' he writes. The groundwork for disaster was laid in the good warm years when populations exploded, and then famine brought a disruption in the food supply.
    Rosen takes no stand on the issue of climate change today, which makes his work all the more chilling. This book is required reading for anyone concerned about rising sea levels, drought and increasingly severe weather in a era where humankind has made the stakes so much higher. After war, disease and famine, the fourth horseman sits upon a pale horse and brings death."
Linda Diebel, The Toronto Star

“For all that [the title] is a slight case of false advertising, the book is no less neatly written and certainly a fascinating insight into rulers good, bad and indifferent. I mean, who doesn’t love learning from history? …Rosen delivers the kind of writing that makes history accessible to general readers without being patronisingly simple. Think Alison Weir (the non-fiction era) or the wonderful Simon Winder. If you’re a fan of Mssrs Longshanks, Wallace, the Bruce, of French She-Wolves and England’s first almost openly ‘out’ monarch, then do have a read.”
Dimitra Stathopoulos, The Melbourne Review of Books

“ ‘Natural disasters are most disastrous when humanity gives them a push,’ William Rosen asserts, and his lucid exposition of the fatal interaction of ecological, agricultural, economic, and political factors that led to the Great Famine of 1315-1322 should give pause to anyone who thinks we have outgrown such shortsightedness … As he did in Justinian’s Flea, his wide-ranging account of the bubonic plague pandemic that wracked the Byzantine Empire in the sixth century, Rosen weaves together a vast array of disparate information to create a multi-layered, occasionally scattershot narrative. It’s not entirely clear that Viking raids or William Tell, for example, are all that relevant to the more central (and less familiar) material about the causes and consequences of the Great Famine, but Rosen is a terrific storyteller and engaging stylist; his vigorous recaps of famous battles and sketches of various colorful characters will entertain readers not unduly preoccupied by thematic rigor.
    The benefits of this inclusive approach are also apparent in Rosen’s analysis of how the lucrative wool trade put humans at risk of starvation: ‘The fact that wool was worth more than grain meant that pastoral lands dedicated to sheep farming got farther and farther away from those used for cereals … which detached the biggest producers of manure from the lands that needed it most.’ When a parasitic worm killed 70 percent of Europe’s sheep in 1321, the townspeople dependent ‘on the trade surpluses generated by the export of wool to purchase food’ were out of luck—and food.
People died in the countryside, too, but Europe’s towns were where the Great Famine assumed its most apocalyptic aspect, captured by Rosen in grim descriptions of corpses piling up in city streets, open pits into which bodies were flung, stories of cannibalism and child abandonment. (The folk tale “Hansel and Gretel” originated in these years.) Rosen’s principal goal, however, is not to horrify us, but to make us think.
    ‘A disaster story about the resonant forces set off by unexpected climate volatility multiplied by nations acting in what they saw as their own short-term interests resonates today,’ Rosen says—and indeed it does. While vividly re-creating a bygone civilization, he invites us to look beyond our significant but ultimately superficial differences and recognize that we too live in fragile equilibrium with the natural world whose resources we recklessly exploit, and that like our medieval forebears we may well be vulnerable to ‘a sudden shift in the weather.’ ”
Wendy Smith in The Daily Beast

"Looked at in one way, this is the history of seven consecutive years of famine (1315–22) and their effect on the people of Britain and elsewhere in northern Europe. Viewed in another, it retells the history of England’s most feckless king, Edward II, and his losing battle against the Scots and eventually even his wife, Queen Isabella. It’s not one or the other but both: high history (the annals of kings and wars) against a background of the long record of climate change, land usage, and dietary habits. Rosen (The Most Powerful Idea in the World) argues persuasively that natural disasters are most catastrophic when humankind’s actions give them a push. The depredations committed in battle by Englishmen and Scots were augmented by years of bad weather: the result was that people died in droves. The interactions Rosen describes have been studied but are seldom incorporated into popular history, and the author never overreaches in his conclusions, providing a well-grounded chronicle...This book will appeal foremost to history lovers, but it should also interest anyone who enjoys a well-documented story."
Library Journal

“With minimal push from human hands, the climate in 1300s Europe changed drastically, and the results were devastating. For seven years the weather turned abnormally cold and wet, triggering floods and ruining crops. Famine resulted, worsened by soil leached of vitality through bad farming. The Third Horseman surveys the catastrophes that took the lives of one-eighth of Europe’s population, albeit the author seems more interested in chronicling the Braveheart-era wars between England and Scotland than anything else. Most of the book is devoted to those conflicts (which coincided with the climate shift). Fortunately, William Rosen is a good enough writer to hold interest and maintain the fraught relations between nature and politics as a running theme. He ends The Third Horseman with a stark observation: in some ways, global ecology is more precarious nowadays than it was in the 1300s.”
David Luhrssen in the Shepherd Express (Milwaukee)

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. The catastrophe also gives Mr. Rosen a chance to stroll through history....[he] clearly enjoys explaining each terrible event and terrible decision of Edward II's reign...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 at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"A kink in Europe’s climate during the fourteenth century indirectly triggered a seven-year cataclysm that left six million dead, William Rosen reveals in this rich interweaving of agronomy, meteorology, economics and history...Rosen deftly delineates the backstory and the perfect storm of heavy rains, hard winters, livestock epidemics, and war leading to the catastrophe."
Barbara Kiser in Nature

"An erudite rendering of the cataclysmic climate changes wrought at the start of the 14th century...Rosen delights in the minutiae of history, down to the most fascinating footnotes. Here, the author delivers engrossing disquisitions on climate patterns and dynastic entanglements between England and Scotland (among others), and he posits that the decisive advent of cooler, wetter weather in the early 14th century signaled the beginning of the end of the medieval good times...A work that glows from the author’s relish for his subject."
Kirkus Reviews

Excerpt from the Prologue

In the fourth week of January in the year 1308, the city of Boulogne-sur-Mer played host to the very top tier of European society. Camped in canvas tents around the city square were dozens of princes, barons, counts, earls, dukes, and seven kings and queens, including Philip IV, the King of France; King Louis of Navarre; Marie of Brabant, the dowager Queen of France; Albert of Habsburg and Elizabeth of Tyrol, the King and Queen of the Romans (the confusing name given to the rulers of Germany while they awaited confirmation in the office of Holy Roman Emperor); Charles II, the King of Sicily; and Marguerite, the dowager Queen of England. They had arrived to celebrate the marriage of the eighth monarch, twenty-three-year old Edward II of England, to his twelve-year old bride, Isabella, the daughter of the French king, thus concluding a treaty and betrothal made five years earlier.

The most notable sovereign missing from the ceremony was the new King of Scotland, Robert the Bruce, whose absence was explained by the fact that he was, at that time, engaged in what would be a three-decade long war to secure Scottish independence from England… and while Edward was pledging himself to Isabella, Bruce was managing a campaign that would, in a matter of months, leave him in control of a fifth of his enemy’s country.

Over the course of the next twenty years, the lives of virtually everyone in northern Europe would be powerfully influenced by a dizzying game of war, succession, diplomacy, and rebellion played out in Scotland, England, France, Flanders, and Germany by the monarchs in attendance at the wedding. The French would invade Flanders, and recognize Bruce’s sovereignty in Scotland. The death of the King of the Romans would lead to an eight-year long struggle for his throne. Eventually Edward’s child-bride would leave her new realm for her native land, later to return at the head of an invading army that would force her husband to abdicate in favor of her son.

None of this, of course, was much in evidence at the royal wedding. The most notable thing about the ceremony, in fact, was the unseasonable weather. As the thirteenth century turned into the fourteenth, daytime January temperatures in Boulogne had averaged about 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and perhaps ten degrees colder at night, and had been doing so for centuries. At Edward and Isabella’s wedding, the barons and earls sleeping in those hundreds of tents shivered to nighttime temperatures well below freezing. The freeze they were enduring was covering virtually all of Europe; ports along the Baltic were frozen in for the second time in the preceding five years.

The weather was changing. More than that, the climate was changing, and changing in a way that would affect the lives of millions, often enough by bringing those lives to an untimely end.

* * *

The great conceit of history is that humanity’s worst disasters occur within some identifiable and discrete time frame. Whether describing the arrival of a pandemic plague fifteen hundred years ago, or the world wars of the last century, conventional narratives offer a clear beginning and a decisive conclusion. The reality is more like a bridge collapsing: A minutes-long climax of forces that have been years—sometimes centuries or even millennia—in formation.

So it was with the events that transfixed northern Europe during the first decades of the fourteenth century. Less than a decade after the wedding ceremony at Boulogne, the most widespread and destructive famine in European history brought privation and starvation to millions. Its proximate cause was a series of what seemed, to its victims, to be isolated and unpredictable weather events: summer storms and freezing winters. Its true origins were an almost incomprehensibly complicated mixture of climate, commerce, and conflict, four centuries in gestation, that put tens of millions of men, women and children in the path of apocalyptic disaster. Those elements can no more be understood in isolation than one of the great medieval tapestries can be appreciated by listing each of the threads that compose it.

When such a tapestry is viewed from an appropriate distance, however, the picture comes into focus. From Europe’s ninth century onward, the great theme at center stage was the most basic of all: How should a society feed itself? What political and cultural system can allocate, protect, sow, and reap the land that was the ultimate source of food? For Europe, during the four centuries before Edward and Isabella stood before a priest on that cold day in 1308, the answer was a pact—a contract sanctioned by law, and sanctified by religion—that bound the laborer to the land, and the landlord to the laborer.

A dozen institutions and doctrines depended on that pact. Some of the most significant:
* Manorialism, the system of land tenure that dominated the agriculture of Europe from the early 9th century and the reign of Charlemagne. It granted rights and duties to the peasants who worked the land, to the sovereign who granted rights of ownership to the land, and to the nobility and gentry who stood in between;

* Feudalism, the medieval system for legitimizing the use of armed force, again through grants of rights and duties up and down the line, from Europe’s lowliest peasants to its most powerful monarchs;

* The proto-nations under whose protection feudalism and manorialism survived, themselves struggling for legitimacy in medieval Europe—some of them still sovereign into the twenty-first century, like France; some subsumed into larger (or luckier) opponents, like Flanders;

* The transnational and hierarchical Catholic Church, with a rescript from God to lead a “United States of Europe”, and the Bishop of Rome, with the sole authority able to sanctify feudal titles, manorial ownership, and the rights of the sovereign.

By the beginning of the fourteenth century, these institutions—manorialism, feudalism, nationalism, and Papism—were collectively responsible for feeding a European population that, enabled by four centuries of anomalously mild weather, had grown from ten million to thirty million. Their aggregate success, however, had the seeds of failure built into it; by the time of the wedding of Isabella to Edward, the objectives of each was irrepressibly in conflict with the prerogatives of another. A crisis had been reached.

The crisis would play out in every region of Northern Europe. When the mild weather vanished, seemingly for good, it struck at the heart of Europe’s food production, everywhere from the Atlantic to the Urals. It decimated Flanders, destroyed dozens of German-speaking towns, and starved villages from Brittany to Poland. For seven disastrous years, the homelands of the wedding guests would be visited by a series of curses unseen since the third book of Exodus: Floods, ice, failures of crops and cattle, and epidemics not just of disease, but of pike, sword, and spear. Riding alongside the third horseman of the Apocalypse, astride the black horse of famine, came the second, who “was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other.” War.

Both horsemen were to be found throughout Northern Europe, but nowhere more dramatically than on the borders separating Scotland from England. It wasn’t merely that those unlucky lands were subjected to all of the climate-caused disasters of those calamitous decades: their harvests lost to rain; their herds to disease; and their homes, churches, bridges, roads, and ports destroyed by one terrifying weather event after another, virtually every year between 1314 and 1321. The borderlands were a battleground for every kind of conflict of the era: rebellions of feudal nobles against their kings, wars between nations, and wars of national independence. The confrontations between Scotland and England—between Robert Bruce and William Wallace, on one side, and the first three English kings named Edward, on the other, with French kings, Italian bankers, and three different popes as interested parties—became, in addition, a laboratory for a new set of battlefield tactics, in which the laboring classes of Europe, organized into disciplined infantry, proved more than the equal of the mounted nobility that had dominated warfare since the time of Charlemagne. The wars between Scotland and England even created victims for a new kind of warfare itself: Nationalist guerilla warfare that targeted farms as fiercely as it did opposing armies; bad enough in normal time, but disastrous during the greatest famine in European history.

In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the novelist Salman Rushdie tells us that all the world’s stories are found on the earth’s second moon, reachable only by what he describes as a P2C2E—a “process too complicated to explain.” At first glance any attempt to tell the story of the disasters of the first decades of the fourteenth century seems a classic P2C2E. On its own, climate is almost irreducibly complicated, a system involving the most intricate processes of the earth’s atmosphere, so sensitive to a change in initial conditions that, as the cliché description of chaotic systems reminds us, a butterfly flapping its wings in Ecuador can cause a tornado to touch down in Kansas. Combine that with the convoluted evolution of feudalism, manorialism, and the emergence of nationalism; with the strategies of diplomacy and warfare; with the incredible amalgam of molecules that comprises few inches of soil that produces the world’s food (and the sciences that study it: agronomy, soil science, and plant biology) with digestive physiology and gastronomic history; and you have chaos squared.

Long before they ever hear of chaos theory however, introductory physics students study the more mundane phenomenon known as resonance: the tendency of a system, like a pendulum, to oscillate in larger and larger swings when pushed at a specific frequency. Resonance is why a chain of tiny pushes can send a child’s swing fifteen feet into the air, and why a series of wind gusts can twist a concrete bridge into a pretzel.

It took centuries for the key resonant forces—rain, cold, disease, and warfare—to accumulate enough energy that they could destroy one life in ten from the Atlantic to the Urals. They began to do so some 1700 miles northwest of, and four hundred years before, the wedding of Edward and Isabella…