IN THE THIRD HORSEMAN: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century, William Rosen examines distant historical events whose contemporaneity, try as he might, cannot be denied. Between 1314 and 1321, manifold climatic and human forces coincided to create one of the worst famines in history, killing between five to 12 percent of the population of “all of northern Europe.” An era known as the Medieval Warm Period (MWP), from the 9th to the 14th centuries, had seen weather “markedly better than any recorded period since the birth of civilization,” which provided such abundant harvests as to exponentially increase the population of Europe. But it also filled the continent’s Malthusian cup to the brim. When incessant rains caused repeated bad harvests over multiple years in the early 1300s, it was too much for the established manorial-feudal system to handle. Petty political gambits, constant warring by the rulers at that time, and independence movements by the Scots and the Flemish then only made the situation worse.
According to Rosen, while famines are hardly rare in history, “in its geographic extent, in its duration, in the number of lives it touched or erased, the Great Famine was unprecedented.” There is something about the sheer reach of climate disasters that seems to demand an apocalyptic register and, here, Rosen is wont to indulge with frequent references to Old Testament cataclysms or the Book of Revelation. This type of disaster is slow moving and has a certain progenitor effect whereby additional travesty follows in its wake. To take one example, Rosen writes, “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 make men slay each other.’ War.”
As for pestilence — the fourth horseman in his enumeration — it did accompany the Great Famine but a few decades later in the form of the Black Death, which, with its larger mortality toll, tends to steal the historical spotlight. Rosen does justice to the neglected preceding event, but he also sets himself up for self-abdication: he’s selected a topic freighted with modern parallels that demand an acknowledgement he does not provide. In a year when respected authorities from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to the American Association for the Advancement of Science have issued warnings as strong as ever about the risks of anthropogenic climate change, Rosen has nothing to say on the matter, despite his apocalypse motif’s premonitory subtext.
Academic historians are wise to forgo gratuitous prognostication, but The Third Horseman is a “synthesis” historical account written (or at least marketed) for a wide, lay readership; its refusal to take a position anywhere in the current controversy creates a contextual lacuna that opens it up to potentially dangerous interpretations. If you are Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, author of The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, there is plenty in this chronicle of medieval events, driven by wholly natural as opposed to anthropogenic climate processes, to reinforce your intransigence.
Rosen goes to lengths not to oversimplify the irreducibly complex natural and human drivers of the Great Famine, but his book would have benefitted from more clarity as to the central role climate likely played in these events. He asserts, “If the normal destructiveness of weather is amplified by underlying climate change, the great rains of 1315 were also magnified by human activity.” But human activity didn’t operate in just one direction.For example, in a middle chapter of the book, “The Floodgates of the Heavens,” Rosen tells us, “It’s not as if Edward [II of England] was completely avoiding more practical measures.” The English monarch was indeed aware of the harvest failure and what it meant and, in 1315, he sought to shore up the grain deficit by importing from France. When he learned that France had suffered the same rains and crop failures, he then turned to Spanish and Mediterranean granaries. Rosen writes, “His strategy might have worked had not the same weather reappeared in early 1316. The hardships of one year were about to multiply sevenfold and transform into the Great Famine.”
Emerald Isle, North Carolina, just after Hurricane Arthur
Photograph courtesy of Stuart Whatley
Edward, not without fault, also instituted unwise austerity measures by taxing the peasantry. But the clear takeaway from Rosen’s own account is that these years of rainfall and consequent crop failure were inevitable — especially given the continent’s limited means and dangerous ratio of population to food production, which itself had been driven by climate in the form of the Medieval Warm Period. This is in keeping with the larger historical pattern he offers up:
No famine is purely natural, or completely man-made. There are, however, degrees of responsibility. Modern famines are almost always at least man-accelerated; earlier ones, far more dependent on the vagaries of nature.
Contrary to his overwhelming focus on the “man-accelerated” throughout these pages, it is evident that nature itself bears the brunt of responsibility for the Great Famine. If it was unprecedented in scale, then by definition it wasn’t due to strictly localized circumstances. Which is to say, what Edward II did or did not do in England is irrelevant to the crop failures and starving masses in France, Flanders, the Baltic states and elsewhere. Human caprice certainly made an appearance in this tale1, but it seems it should be a secondary, discrete consideration to the more obvious common denominator of continent-wide flooding due to rain.
And what about that rain? Throughout the book, Rosen maintains an unnecessary tenuousness as to the role climate could have played, writing:
The horrors of the famine that began with the lost harvest of 1315 were not a direct result of climate change. Weather is a nonlinear system, one in which a small change in initial conditions can have giant consequences in subsequent ones. Climate isn’t, at least not in the same way.
This is semantically faithful to the distinction between climate and weather, but it doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story. While Rosen is right to note that one uncharacteristic day (or even year) here or there says nothing conclusive about large-scale climactic processes, the weather events he describes are far beyond that. As he writes earlier, “The mystery of the storms of 1315 and 1316 isn’t their appearance but their duration.” He describes the rainfall from 1315-1317 as “about a once-every-two-hundred years event.” Later, he writes that the beginning of the 14th century saw “a peak in storm activity ‘unsurpassed in the last 2,000 years.’” And of all famines, he observes that, “Usually […] they have been driven by extreme versions of ‘normal’ weather […]”
As it happens, a normalization of extremes is precisely what the scientific community and others warn about with regards to climate change.2 Rosen has clearly done his research on climate science and its near infinite complexities, and he is no denier of anthropogenic climate change from fossil fuel emissions. While it’s possible that multiple years of nearly unprecedented rainfall at the end of the Medieval Warm Period was a fluke occurrence, it’s a strange abdication, for a book about climate change and the Great Famine, to choose such pedantic adherence to nuance over reasonable supposition for the sake of the reader.
More frustrating still, that attention to nuance is fleeting in other areas of the book, which was probably inevitable given its topical breadth. 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. Nevertheless, it opens him up to a few elisions and oversimplifications.
With regards to the feudal system, he writes, “Whatever the connections between famine, climate change, plague, and a century of war, they together added up to a demographic shock that upended the arithmetic of feudal manorialism.” This is a strong claim to make, given all the couching elsewhere, and it misses other extant factors in feudalism’s demise that really were operating irrespective to the weather. Not least among these is the population-driven rise of villages, and with them money as the dominant transactional asset over land, as well as the emergence of peasant class-consciousness and an unsustainable operational logic within the feudal system itself. Moreover, earlier in the book Rosen himself gives another reason, also in strong terms: “It is a coincidence that feudal manorialism started to disappear at the same time as the MWP. Feudalism wasn’t ended by a change in the climate, but the emergence of nations.”3
Putting these aside, 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. For in the modern climate crisis, Armageddon is not foreordained by God, but by us, making it wholly avoidable. If the most dramatic estimated global effects of climate change from fossil fuel emissions are allowed to come, they will not strike down those who brought it upon themselves, but rather those who had almost nothing to do with it. Others, perversely, will improve their lot by it, while others still may notice little to no change at all. We cannot know exactly how international power dynamics might change, or how the human condition itself might be altered, but we should appreciate the wide range of possibilities. If history can inform our outlook so as to respect the central role climate can play in human affairs, it should be embraced with relish.
1. Edward’s taxing the peasantry; the Scots intentionally razing farms in northern England; Friedrich IV and Ludwig IV engaging in an eight-year civil war for the Holy Roman Emperor title vacated by Henry VII.
2. In Risky Business, another widely received report issued just this year by prominent business leaders and policymakers, the authors point out that:
“When looking at climate change, it’s particularly important to consider the outlier events and not just the most likely scenarios. Indeed, the “outlier” 1-in-100 year event today will become the 1-in-10 year event as the Earth continues to warm. Put another way, over time the extremes will become the ‘new normal.’ (Emphasis in the original.)”
3. And this is not the extant of the book’s inconsistencies. Of the MWP, Rosen writes in his prologue and in his epilogue, respectively: “By the beginning of the fourteenth century … [the] European population that, enabled by four centuries of anomalously mild weather, had grown from ten to forty million”; “From 900 to 1300, … ten million mouths grew to thirty million.”