Manage episode 281752009 series 2659594
Climate change, food shortages, calls for Scottish independence and plague on the doorstep… The 14th century was a very different time.
This week, Alix looks at the Great Famine that struck Northern Europe in the early 14th century.
With thanks to Dr Wingard for invaluable research help.
Written, hosted and produced by Alix Penn and Carmella Lowkis.
Theme music by Daniel Wackett. Find him on Twitter @ds_wack and Soundcloud as Daniel Wackett.
Logo by Riley. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @tallestfriend.
Casting Lots is part of the Morbid Audio Podcast Network. Network sting by Mikaela Moody. Find her on Bandcamp as mikaelamoody1.
- Aberth, J. (2010). From the Brink of the Apocalypse (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.
- Bailey, M. (1997). Review of The Great Famine by William Chester Jordan. History, 82(267), p. 488. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/24423511
- Brain. (2020). ‘The tale of Hansel and Gretel and the Great Famine of 1315-1317’, Fact Source, 8 June. Available at: https://thefactsource.com/the-tale-of-hansel-and-gretel-and-the-great-famine-of-1315-1317/
- Carlin, M. and J.T. Rosenthal. (1998). Food and Eating in Medieval Europe. London: Hambledon Press.
- Charnock, R.S. (1866). ‘Cannibalism in Europe’, Journal of the Anthropological Society of London, 4, pp. xxii-xxxi. Available at: https://doi.org/10.2307/3025368
- Davidson Sorkin, A. (2016). ‘The Next Great Famine’, New Yorker, 3 January. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/01/11/the-next-great-famine
- Davis, D.E. (1986). ‘Regulation of human population in northern France and adjacent lands in the Middle Ages’, Human Ecology, 14, pp. 245-267. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/bf00889240
- Fara, A. (2017). ‘Production of and Trade in Food Between the Kingdom of Hungary and Europe in the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Era (Thirteenth to Sixteenth Centuries)’, Hungarian Historical Review, 6(1), pp. 138-179. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26370717
- Homewood, P. (2013). ‘The Great Famine Of 1315’, Not a Lot of People Know That, 27 January. Available at: https://notalotofpeopleknowthat.wordpress.com/2013/01/27/the-great-famine-of-1315/
- Isaiah, 5:10-13, Holy Bible: New International Version.
- Johnson, B. (2014). The Great Flood and Great Famine of 1314. Available at: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/The-Great-Flood-Great-Famine-of-1314/
- Jordan, W.C. (1996). The Great Famine. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Kelly, J. (2006). ‘The Day Before the Day of the Dead’, in The Great Mortality. New York, NY: Harper Perennial. Available at: https://erenow.net/postclassical/the-great-mortality-an-intimate-history-of-the-black-death/4.php
- Kershaw, I. (1973). ‘The Great Famine and Agrarian Crisis in England 1315-1322’, Past & Present, 59, pp. 3-50. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/650378
- King, H. (n.d.). The Great Famine. Available at: http://www.halinaking.co.uk/Location/Yorkshire/Frames/History/1315%20Great%20Famine/Great%20Famine.htm
- Lindenbaum, S. (2004). ‘Thinking about Cannibalism’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 33, pp. 475-498. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/25064862
- Lucas, H.S. (1930). ‘The Great European Famine of 1315, 1316, and 1317’, Speculum, 5(4), pp. 343-377. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2848143
- McMichael, A.J. (2012). ‘Insights from past millennia into climatic impacts on human health and survival’, PNAS, 109(13), pp. 4730-4737. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1120177109
Alix: Have you ever been really, really hungry?
Carmella: You’re listening to Casting Lots: A Survival Cannibalism Podcast.
A: I’m Alix.
C: I’m Carmella.
A: And now let’s tuck into the gruesome history of this ultimate taboo…
[Intro Music – Daniel Wackett]
A: Welcome to Episode Six, on the Great Famine of the 14th century.
[Intro music continues]
A: So Carmella, would you like to hear me just get really, really angry at historians for, like, 45 minutes?
C: Yes please! That sounds amazing. Are the historians we’re getting angry at… us?
A: Not exclusively us.
C: Okay, cool. Let’s go.
A: Today’s episode is taking us back in time. In fact, we’re going all the way back to the Middle Ages.
C: [Snorts] Unlike our other episodes, which are all really contemporary.
A: Now, I’ve had some of the ‘fun’ stories this season. I’ve had two famines back to back.
C: Yeah, you can’t spell famine without ‘fun’.
A: You definitely can.
C: [Laughing] There’s no ‘U’ in famine, is there? Oh, God. I genuinely thought I was onto something there.
C: How was I spelling famine in my head?
A: I don’t know.
A: You were doing it with a French accent.
A: But of my two famines, this one does have more of a fun element to it.
A: Is this because most of the sources are over 600 years old, so we don’t have the first-hand accounts of human suffering, and the accounts that we do have have been mitigated by time and distance? Yeah. Yeah.
C: That’ll do it.
A: But this episode also allows me to go back to my undergrad roots of just laying into historiography, and accusing historians of being cowards.
C: They are often very cowardly; I often say that.
A: They really are. I was so tempted to email my old supervisor, just going “Dear Dr Goldberg, 14th century cannibalism. Alix.” No further context.
C: Who needs context?
A: It’s the perfect email to receive out of the blue. And not threatening at all.
A: I didn’t send this email. But I was very tempted. So, spoilers, we’re doing the Great Famine of 14th century northern Europe. I really need to come up with a snappier title.
C: Yeah, that one doesn’t make it sound very sexy. [Laughs] Unlike all our other stories.
A: This is no Bills & Boon novel.
C: [Sighs] I’m not interested, then.
C: No, go on, I’ll let you– I’ll let you continue. But I just can’t promise I’ll enjoy it.
A: A lot of this episode is going to basically be me rolling my eyes at historical accounts.
C: Which always sounds really good on a microphone.
A: Case in point.
A: But historians: you’ve gotta love them. And not just because no one can decide the dates of this goddamn famine.
A: It ranges from 1314 to 1322 with some consistency, but no one can actually agree the dates of it. And ‘The Great Famine of 13[mumbles]’ really doesn’t come across well.
C: It– Look, it certainly happened at some point that century.
A: We can trim it down to around a decade. Just not a nice, snappily titled one.
A: I can’t even do ‘the famine of the 1310s’, ‘cause it goes over to the 1320s. Honestly, they weren’t thinking about me, were they?
C: It’s almost like, when they all starved to death in Europe, they weren’t expecting us to be making a cannibalism podcast about them later.
A: Just inconsiderate.
C: Always expect to have someone make a podcast about you. That’s what I’ve learned in lockdown.
A: It’s worrying, but it’s also true. So, I’m going to go full academia now. What was that about you promising not to enjoy this episode?
A: I’ll sum up my argument in the introduction, and then show my evidence later on. The argument in question: Are historians cowards? Yes. In the 14th century, across the continent, there are dozens of chroniclers writing down the fact that people did a cannibalism.
C: Just one cannibalism?
A: One universal cannibalism. But oh no, [in a snooty voice] ‘It’s a metaphor about religion’.
C: Oh, yeah. They love that one. I’ve seen that one a lot.
A: [In a snooty voice] ‘It’s just unbelievable that Europeans would do such a thing.’ I don’t know what that voice is, by the way.
C: Yeah, I’ve never heard of Europeans eating one another. It hasn’t come up in any of our cases that we’ve looked at.
A: I know. People are starving to death. We have seen that it can take less than ten days to go from ‘bit peckish’ to ‘Grandma looks like dinner’.
A: People will eat each other, if necessary.
C: Some of them will eat each other when not necessary as well, but that’s not our podcast.
A: That is also true. With that in mind, let’s luck into 14th century Europe.
A: Now, Carmella, sorry to spring a history test on you.
C: Oh God, okay.
A: And, listeners, I did not prep Carmella for this in advance. But… What are some things that have been happening in the Middle Ages? I’ll be generous.
C: Umm. There are some knights.
A: There are some knights. And some days.
C: There’s some Christianity in Europe.
A: Yep. That’s fair.
C: There have been some crusades.
A: There have been some crusades. Think of–
C: There’s been a bit of plague.
A: There we go.
C: I think possibly England and France don’t like each other?
A: England and France do not like each other. Hundred Years’ War, 1337 to 1453. Don’t do the maths. Doesn’t work. I’ll put you out of your misery, I do have a little list. Because it’s fair to say there’s quite a lot going on in the 14th century.
C: How surprised would you have been if I had just given, like, a perfect answer on everything about the 14th century? [Laughs]
A: I’d have been pretty damn impressed.
A: We’ve got things like the Black Death of 1347-1351. We have the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. There’s the Great Papal Schism – this is giving me great flashbacks to my undergrad, where in my Papacy and Peoples module, there was a great night out in fancy dress.
A: I went as a sexy papal bull. So I had my corset on, and then I had bull horns and hooves and a tail.
C: [Laughs] That’s so you.
A: Robert the Bruce was, you know, fighting in the Scottish Wars of Independence. And, to move on from the historical to the geo-meteorological, the Little Ice Age is beginning.
C: Ah, yes, that one.
A: This will have implications later. We tend to think of the Middle Ages in, like, a big lump. Romans, Middle Ages – I’d say Dark Ages, but my Medievalist friend will kill me, so, um, Middle Ages – and then a bit of art, bit of Renaissance, and then bam! Henry VIII is cutting off people’s heads.
C: Only some people’s. Only two of his wives. And all the other people.
A: Yeah. [Laughs] Other people are people too!
A: But it’s a bit more complicated than that. In fact, relatively speaking, stuff has been going quite well in 13th century Europe. When we say ‘Europe’, we mean Christendom.
C: Yep, yep.
A: Anything beyond that, you know, is strange and far away. But – not to lie – the Church has had quite a big role in encouraging people to kill each other less.
A: Well, to go and kill the people that they want killed. You know, the ones at the edge of Europe. But, in general, like I’ve said, it’s going well. There are nice towns; a growing population; the economy is booming; farming and agriculture is on the up and up. You know what happens when stuff goes well?
C: It then stops going well after a while?
A: Yeah, something else inevitably goes to shit. And now… the weather.
A: Sorry, please, sorry, don’t sue us, Nightvale. I had to. But we are getting a little meteorological. The 14th century sees the end of what’s deemed the ‘Medieval Warm Period’, and the start of the Little Ice Age.
C: Mmm, that’s good for growing crops!
A: Yeah, climate change. But natural climate change.
C: [Sarcastically] Oh, are you saying the current one is manmade? Ho ho ho.
A: We covered this in Franklin.
C: We did.
A: Season 1 Franklin. Yeah, it’s getting a little bit colder, which isn’t good for farming. Or in general. It’s also speculated that the volcanic eruption of Mount Tarawera in New Zealand in 1314 or 1315 (no one’s quite sure) and the ash cloud that it produced could have exacerbated this, because volcanic eruptions have lowered global temperatures by up to 3°C for over a year after the disaster itself.
C: Hmm. Yeah, I’ve heard of this one.
A: And 3°C doesn’t sound like a lot, but only a half degree change can severely mess up a harvest. So 3°C over a year is not good. To put it bluntly, the weather is shit.
A: It rains and rains and rains. For years. All over Europe. And if it’s not raining, then the frosts are coming early. Or late. Something isn’t right with the weather, and it rains so much, the people start to think it’s another Biblical flood.
C: Yeah, that would be my initial assumption too.
A: I just love making you put the Bible in the bibliography.
C: [Weary sigh] Again?
A: Again. The Book of Isaiah: “Surely the great houses will become desolate, the fine mansions left without occupants. A ten-acre vineyard will produce only a bath of wine, a homer of seed, only an ephah of grain […] Their men of rank will die of hunger and their masses will be parched with thirst.”
C: That does sound like what’s going on. I’ll give them that.
A: I mean, thirst isn’t really the problem.
A: The problem was famine. The Great Famine. And when I say ‘Great’, I mean that in terms of geography as well as chronology and scope.
C: But not like, ‘Oh my God, this is so great!’
A: ‘This is sooo cool you guys.’
C: Not that one.
A: ‘Best famine ever!’
A: It reaches from Spain to Russia, Scotland to Poland, France to Estonia, Austria to Holland, Hungary to Poland… I’ve said Poland twice.
C: Poland really gets it.
A: Poland is not having a happy time. And Italy to Ireland. There are some countries that are lacking in sources, but it seems impossible that any European country came out of this unscatched. It starts off bad, but not the worst. There have been a few minor famines at the beginning of the 14th century. For example, this is when the Vikings get ousted from Greenland because farming there has become untenable. But things start to get really bad in 1314. This is when the harvest is devastated by rain. A traditional English summer is dreary and rainy. And now multiply that for the entire year. Constant rain. It rains so badly and continuously that the food starts to rot in the ground.
C: Ugh. That happened to our potatoes once. I think it was over-watering. It might have been the rain, though. Anyway. Not comparing myself to starving European peasants; we were fine!
A: The potatoes definitely got too wet.
A: But you can bounce back from that. One bad harvest is difficult, but if next year there’s a good harvest, you’ll be alright.
C: As long as you survive through to next year.
A: Well, luckily our Medieval farmers do tend to put aside enough grain to sell, feed their families and replant. So one bad famine will take out your profit, but shouldn’t take out your life.
C: You plan for famine.
A: You plan for something to go wrong. Just to be sensible.
A: Because the harvest next year will be fine.
A: Spoilers: the harvest next year is not fine. 1315. It rains so badly that the fields are more like bogs. To put this in perspective, there’s an attempted battle in Bavaria. The horses ended up submerged in the mud up to their stomachs.
C: [Laughs] That’s not good!
A: My next line: what’s worse than a horse? A muddy, angry horse.
A: Carmella’s worst nightmare.
C: Oh no! No, if they’re trapped in the mud then I don’t have to fear them.
A: But they’ve got their gnashing teeth.
C: That’s true; they could attack me if I came near to them.
A: Just a field full of horses.
A: I mean, it’s not fun for the horses, but there we go. That’s to give you an idea of when I say ‘a lot of rain’. So the condition of the fields are awful. They can’t be ploughed. Okay, what about livestock? There’s a new disease on the scene. It’s called Rinderpest – it’s probably not pronounced like that, but the disease isn’t listening.
C: That you know of!
A: Rinderpest has been transported around Europe by traders, and takes out farm animals – especially sheep and goats.
C: Sort of like Medieval foot and mouth disease?
C: Is what I’m picturing.
A: Rinderpest – we’re now going to go to the barns of the Kind of Bohemia – takes out over 1,000 of his sheep.
C: How many sheep did he have to begin with? That’s a lot of sheep. I guess he is a king.
A: He’s the King of Bohemia! You know, just sheep everywhere.
C: If you’re a king, you’re entitled to a lot of sheep. [Laughs]
A: I have to admit I don’t know how many sheep he had originally, but that is a lot of dead sheep.
A: So, the conditions: it’s difficult to plough; if you can plough, grain is rotting; if anything actually germinates and grows, it rots. It’s pretty bad. And not just in terms of cultivating food. Think about coastal towns, and, well… Holland.
C: Yeah. Um.
A: Dozens of villages, farms and towns are just flooded out of existence. In Dunwich, a quarter of the port is just underwater. So we’ve got displacement; we’ve got the lack of land; a destitute and starving population. And now it’s 1316. And guess what?
A: It’s still raining.
C: Oh. Okay. I thought something might have changed.
A: Nah. Europe is now officially in a devastating famine, and it’s all getting a bit, well, dog eat dog.
C: Dog eat dog or… human eat human?
A: There’s quite a bit of anthropophagy going on. The reason that this famine is so bad, to put it into perspective, is that for the vast majority of people – okay, peasants, I mean peasants – an incredible 75% of their calorific intake comes from grain.
C: I mean… Thinking about what I eat… Yeah, fair.
A: Such as pottage and ale. You just can’t make up for that kind of loss. 75%.
A: I mean, people try. They eat, quote: “disagreeable plants.”
A: I’ve got quite a list coming up of alternative menus: dogs, cats, horses, mice, bark, frogs, cloth, dirt, dung, acorns, cooking leather, and other (quote) “unclean things.”
C: Not all of those were plants.
C: I mean, sure a dog is a very ‘disagreeable plant’, I’ll agree with that. They were peasants, they didn’t know what the difference was between a plant and an animal!
A: Is it a turtle or is it a duck?
C: Or is it a disagreeable plant?
A: Even working animals are killed for food. Remember there’s an animal plague going round?
C: Yeah. Yeah, I remember that one.
A: So things are really down to the wire. Perhaps expectedly, food prices soar, and salt as a preservative sky-rockets in price. Now, this isn’t just because people are selfish and mercenary: it’s almost physically impossible to manufacture enough salt at the time. It’s too dark and rainy to dry salt out on the Baltic shore. So no one can grow food, no one can buy food, and no one can preserve the food that they have.
C: Yes, that sounds like a problem.
A: In the most comforting sentence that I can think to say: in England, Parliament steps in to try and help.
A: They try to artificially fix prices. It doesn’t work. And there’s an epidemic taking advantage of the situation too. In mean, in this day and age, clearly diseases are vindictive and do things on purpose, rather than just being facts of life. Imagine living in an age when a virus is given motivation.
C: [Laughs] Yeah, where a virus could be, like–
A: Defeated by a strong battle against it.
C: Yeah, and where if you succumb to a virus, that’s, like an act of political disobedience, ‘cause you don’t really believe in your country.
A: Can you imagine such a thing? Anyway, in 14th century Europe, there’s some typhoid. But there are actually dozens of illnesses that flourish during famines. You have pellagra, you have vitamin B deficiency, you can go blind because of vitamin A deficiency–
C: I have all of these? Oh my God, this is the worst doctor’s appointment I’ve ever been to!
A: I’m afraid to say you’ve also got ergotism, because you’ve been eating dodgy bread. That’s the one that makes you, like, dance and go mad.
C: Oh, the dancing plague!
A: You also have dysentery and scurvy.
C: Phew, I’m not feeling too good, Alix. I might have to go home and lie down. And die.
A: Did I ever tell you about the time my university had a case of scurvy because the Freshers weren’t eating any fruit?
C: [Laughs] Yeah, that sounds like Freshers!
A: Pestilence is said to account for one in three deaths at the time.
C: And I’m one of them, apparently. Great.
A: People are turning to a life of crime. Think Robin Hood, but less wholesome. The Kent Assizes – so the county courts – of 1316-17 report a mass rise in thefts. And surprisingly (not at all surprisingly), what’s being stolen is mostly food and livestock.
C: Yep. Well, you know, I’m dying of all these diseases, so I do feel like doing some theft before I go.
A: You might as well.
A: In Essex, Norfolk and Yorkshire, there is a 200% increase in crime.
A: It’s got nothing to do with the famine, it’s just, you know, Essex. Sorry to any of our Essex listeners. But, you know, the facts speak for themselves. There’s also a war of Scottish Independence going on, which isn’t helping anyone in Britain, especially because both sides keep stealing the little food that the others have, and then setting the only dry fields in Europe alight.
C: I wish the referendum had been more exciting. [Laughs]
A: No one has any time to gather and harvest the little food that remains. By 1318, sections of Europe are slowly achieving a semi-stable ‘everyone’s not immediately about to die’ stage, but technically famine goes on until 1322. There’s more epic rainfall in 1321, which takes out more crops in mainland Europe, and there’s a second animal plague.
A: In 1319, you have the awfully but wonderfully named Great Cattle Plague.
C: [Laughs] Makes it sound like there are cattle just swarming everywhere!
A: Oh, there are not cattle swarming everywhere. 65% of all bovines in Europe die.
A: No ploughing, no protein, and no fertiliser for the fields.
C: Ooh, good point.
A: Because there was that massive boom in farming in the 13th century, 14th century soil just doesn’t have enough nitrogen in it. And you know what does have nitrogen in it?
A: Manure, as it’s otherwise known.
A: Because of the sheer scale of both the famine and the previous intensive cultivation, this means that the yield of crops – so the amount you get back for the number of seeds to put in – drops considerably. It’s simply not possible for the population to bounce back, even after the famine is over. It takes until about 1325 for Europe to have any kind of population growth. Now, let’s talk about the moral economy. Doesn’t that sound fun?
C: What’s the moral economy?
A: The moral economy is – and I’d forgotten how much of history is just economics wrapped up in long words – the moral economy is basically how, in times of shortages, people should try and balance things out themselves because of what’s right, rather than necessarily what they want.
C: So, if people are starving, and you’re rich and you’re not starving, you should give them some food. Is that kind of the gist?
A: That’s the gist of it, but it tends to get flipped round to ‘that man has a lot of food. We are starving. We are going to get that good by hook or by crook.’
A: In times of shortages, there are to be attempts to prevent hoarding supplies. [Coughs] Toilet paper. [Coughs] And basically to encourage people not to be dicks.
C: Yeah, don’t do that.
A: Edward II of England makes such an appeal. He writes to his Bishops [in a kingly voice]: “Who of pious mind carefully considering the situation does not sigh in sorrow at the wealth and fertility of the past and does not feel compassion for his neighbour in the present time of such scarcity and dearth when people are dying of famine and starvation.” They’re also dying of you not using any bloody punctuation.
C: [Laughs] That’s a run-on sentence.
A: [Gasps] A very long sentence. Basically, Edward II wants the Bishops to sort out this mess, to share food and to encourage people not to hoard grain. It’s nice that the king feels he’s got a moral duty to ensure people don’t die.
C: Yeah! Kings: what are they good for?
A: It doesn’t work.
C: [Wearily] Kings: what are they good for?
A: But it’s nice. This happens in France as well: Louis X bans exports and has government officials confiscate private stores. The town council of Bruges imports grain and sells it onto the people. And in the Baltic, in modern-day Latvia, rulers import grain and regulate prices.
C: Attempts, then, are being made.
A: Attempts are being made. Unfortunately – would you like to hear the outcome?
C: Yes, please.
A: It’s a very big number. It’s estimated that up to 10 million people die because of the Great Famine.
C: That’s– I mean, a lot of people.
A: It’s between 10 to 25% of the European population. These figures are vague; many deaths simply aren’t known. For example, we can say for certainty that 15% of urbanised Flanders and Germany die, but we don’t have the same statistics for the rural population.
C: And I guess, you know, a peasant dies – do people always care enough to work out the cause of death, or do you just assume it was probably famine, or?
A: I mean, you’d probably assume it was famine or famine-related. But it’s been 600 years. Even if these sources were accurately recorded… Approximately half a million people might have died in England alone, either dying directly of starvation or related nutritional deficiencies.
A: Eat your lemons, kids. It’s also speculated by some that perhaps having an entire continent on starvation rations for years probably didn’t help their immune systems when the Black Death came a-calling.
C: That’s probably going to contribute to it, yeah.
A: But the reason that we’re all here: what about the cannibalism?
C: I’m so glad that you’ve got to this.
A: Now, our sources aren’t great, but we’ve done enough research and know enough about famine to know how this goes. There’s a quote from ‘The Great Famine and Agrarian Crisis in England 1315-1322’ – because I do all the cool, fun reading.
A: Which says that: “We know hardly anything other than what the chronicles tell us”. And this is ture, we are very dependent on what was written down and who did the writing. Enter my man, John de Trokelowe.
C: Hello, John de Trokelowe.
A: He’s a Benedictine at St. Albans Abbey. He writes of the “unclean things”, and writes that by 1316, there’s people-eating going on. He tells us of “men and women furtively ate their children and even strangers in many places”.
C: Wow, even strangers?
A: Even strangers! And of “incarcerated thieves recently coming among each other devoured themselves at the moment when they were half alive.”
C: Like, in jail?
A: In jail.
A: Who’s gonna feed the prisoners?
C: Wow, that’s, uh, brutal.
A: There are explicit reports of cannibalism in Latvia in 1315, England in 1316, and Poland and Silesia in 1317. It’s stated that in Ireland, people were (quote), “so destroyed by hunger that they extracted bodies of the dead from cemeteries and dug out the flesh from their skulls and ate it”.
C: Ooh. That’s some– some old survival cannibalism. Like, on old bodies?
A: Well, there were a lot of recently dead people as well.
C: That’s a good point. I mean, I assumed that eventually the flesh would decay. I wasn’t like, ‘Oh they’re eating corpses that are 400 years old? Weird!’
A: [Laughs] Like 10 million people have died, I think the grave diggers are pretty busy!
A: In Germany, “certain people[…] because of excessive hunger devoured their own children”, and in “many places parents after slaying their children, and children their parents, devoured the remains.” In Poland, “many ate the flesh from cadavers suspended [on gibbets]”. Which I really don’t like the imagery of.
C: No… Like, it’s sort of a meat piñata kind of situation.
A: In the Baltic, where the worst stages of famine ravaged until 1322, some “due to their extreme hunger devoured their own children.”
C: It happens. A lot.
A: Remember we talked about typhoid?
C: Yes, one of the many diseases that I have personally.
A: That you have personally. How’s it going?
C: Well, I thought I’d be dead by now, so I’m just counting my lucky stars.
A: We’ll see if we can get to the end of the episode. What do you think happens to people who eat the bodies of people who have died from disease?
C: Is it possible that maybe they catch the same disease?
A: Ten points to Carmella.
A: “And so men, poisoned from spoiled food, succumbed, as did beasts and cattle [who] fell down dead from a poisonous rottenness.” It’s not explicitly talking about people eating, but with the sheer numbers of dead… you can put two and two together.
A: And this is where historians are fools and cowards.
A: Because suddenly it’s all [in a snooty voice]: ‘Oh no, the cannibalism is allegorical of Cain and Abel’, or ‘they only meant it figuratively’, or – our favourite – ‘that’s barbaric, and civilised people wouldn’t do that.’
C: Mm, all this allegorical cannibalism which we’ve been talking about, right?
A: Yeah, it’s all a metaphor for capitalism.
A: Like, dudes. My guys. Please read a book. Listen to a podcast. Look at other famines.
C: [Laughing] We know more than these historians!
A: On this, I think it’s fair to say that we do. If records say that people ate each other at some point, people did eat each other. It happens more frequently than you’d think. Now, if there’s one thing worse than a Medievalist, it’s a Victorian Medievalist.
C: Oh, no, don’t even start!
A: I found the minutes from a Victorian anthropology meeting. And they discuss whether cannibalism had ever taken place in Europe. Carmella, here I need your help, ‘cause I need a posh Victorian voice.
C: [Laughs] I’ve got your back on this one!
A: So if I can just have this sentence here, from where it says ‘posh voice’?
C: [In a suitably posh Victorian voice] “The subject is, of course, unpalatable to Europeans, and perhaps few will be inclined to believe in it. When, however, it is taken into account that the inhabitants of Europe were at one time quite as savage as those who have practised, or who still practise this crime, surely the present generation need not blush to admit the fact.”
A: Thank you. I knew you’d do a good job at that!
C: [Laughs] My special talent!
A: [Snorts] The conclude, that while there is some evidence that cannibalism happened – for example, in 1030–
C: At 10:30 this morning.
A: At 10:30 this morning, “commenced one of the most dreadful famines which has ever desolated France, and continued for three years. Men, so to say, went to the chase after men.”
A: I can never get through that sentence without laughing. That’s not cannibalism; that’s something else! Okay. “Men, so to say, went to the chase after men. They attacked one another, not for robbery, but simply to procure food.” I mean, of course the British example would be ‘Oh, well the French were doing it’. But even with evidence, they conclude that there’s not enough evidence to say that cannibalism happened. And that’s sort of how modern historians are reacting as well. Apart from the fact that contemporary chroniclers across Europe simultaneously, without conferring, all wrote accounts of famine-induced cannibalism; and apart from the fact that evidence exists (beyond just this podcast, although we’ll throw our hat in the ring as well), that people do eat each other when things get tough; and apart from the fact that – excellent name coming up – Rodolphus Glaber–
C: [Laughs] Whoa, I love that!
A: In the centuries prior, wrote of other examples of Medieval famines resulting in survival cannibalism, this case in 1033 – so only three minutes after the first case! He writes: “ravening hunger drove men to devour human flesh!”
C: That’s pretty straight-forwards, explicit. Can’t argue with that.
A: And this is how it was done: “Travellers were set upon by men stronger than themselves, and their dismembered flesh was cooked over fires and eaten. Many, who had fled from place to place from the famine, when they found shelter at last, were slaughtered in the night for food for those who had welcomed them.”
C: Ooh, I don’t– That’s, uh, a bad Airbnb experience.
A: It’s the very literal definition of the knife in the back. Now, this bit’s terrible, but does also make me laugh, ‘cause I’m a horrible human being.
A: “Many showed an apple or an egg to children–”
C: [Laughs] That’s hilarious already!
A: To be fair, that’s the funny bit. That’s the bit that makes me laugh. “Then dragged them to out-of-the-way places and killed and ate them.”
C: Oh no, yeah, that’s less funny.
A: The humour’s definitely in the beginning.
C: ‘This is an egg, my child’. [Giggles]
A: If a strange man offers you an egg, don’t go with him!
C: Just say no!
A: To eggs.
A: Apart from all of this evidence, there’s no evidence.
C: Mmhmm, and all of that was probably allegorical anyway, so…
A: Eggs aren’t real!
A: Which of these specific examples are true, and which of them are exaggerations or metaphors, doesn’t really matter. Because some of them, no doubt, are true.
C: Yeah, when you’ve got that many.
A: If 10 million people are dying, people do resort to cannibalism. I mean, if we look at my last famine episode, at China, you have numbers in the millions and dozens of cases of cannibalism. That’s about all we’ve got for the great famine of 13-whenever, but the thing I find quite fascinating is how quickly famines end. While it takes years for the population to bounce back, once there are good harvests, then there’s food again. And we don’t tend to see a lot of legacy when it comes to, especially, Medieval famines.
A: I’ve covered pretty much all of the sources we have about survival cannibalism – that’s the end of the story. And even if it weren’t, something a bit more devastating was coming up next. The unprecedented loss of the Great Famine of 1314-22, up to 25% of the population, is overshadowed by the Black Death, which kills a third of the remaining European population. Imagine living through a plague with Scottish Independence movement and the shortages of food and medicine being anticipated.
C: Ah, find it really hard to visualise that experience.
A: I’m just saying, there are a few parallels. Don’t hoard food, but be prepared.
C: Don’t hoard food, because then the people will come and kill you and steal it from you, is what we have learned.
A: Excellent point. To return to a less depressing major historical disaster: we don’t see the impact of the Great Famine. There’s a lot of scholarly articles and some books, but there’s not a monument, there’s nothing that tangibly remembers the famine for the lay folk – apart from one thing.
A: A story, passed down through the generations. A story of children abandoned in the woods because of a great famine sweeping the land; a woman who plans to cannibalise them.
C: Ah! Hansel and Gretel!
A: It’s speculated that the origins of Hansel and Gretel are from the Great Famine and show us the fears and the horrific reality of the Great Famine.
C: Yeah, when the witch shows them an egg.
A: Because it’s the house of confectionery, it’s one of those Haribo gummy eggs.
[Outro Music – Daniel Wackett]
C: Thank you for listening to today’s episode on the European Famine. We may have the plague again, but at least we’re not Medieval peasants.
A: Join us next time for Carmella’s book report on the Divine Comedy.
[Outro music continues]
A: Casting Lots Podcast can be found on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr as @CastingLotsPod, and on Facebook as Casting Lots Podcast.
C: If you enjoyed this episode and want to hear more, don’t forget to subscribe to us on iTunes, Google Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts, and please rate, review and share to bring more people to the table.
A: Casting Lots: A Survival Cannibalism Podcast, is researched, written and recorded by Alix and Carmella, with post-production and editing also by Carmella and Alix. Art and logo design by Riley – @Tallestfriend on Twitter and Instagram – with audio and music by Daniel Wackett – Daniel Wackett on SoundCloud and @ds_wack on Twitter. Casting Lots is part of the Morbid Audio Podcast Network – search #MorbidAudio on Twitter – and the network’s music is provided by Mikaela Moody – mikaelamoody1 on Bandcamp.
[Morbid Audio Sting – Mikaela Moody]
A: They discuss whether–
C: [Laughs] It sounds like you time-travelled and turned up in this meeting.
A: Where would you go if you had a time machine? ‘I want to go to the Victorian anthropology meeting of 1882.’
A: It’s like, ‘sure, okay. You don’t want to see anything else? Do you want to find out who Jack the Ripper was? Do you want to do any of this?’ ‘Nope! I wanna go and argue about cannibalism with old white dudes!’
C: ‘I don’t even want to go back and prove the cannibalism happened. I just want to tell people it did.’