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Reviews for The Third Horseman

"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

Appearances and interviews

On The Daily Show with Jon Stewart July 26, 2010

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