In May 1315, it started to rain. It didn’t stop anywhere in north Europe until August. Next came the four coldest winters in a millennium. Two separate animal epidemics killed nearly 80 percent of northern Europe’s livestock. Wars between Scotland and England, France and Flanders, and two rival claimants to the Holy Roman Empire destroyed all remaining farmland. After seven years, the combination of lost harvests, warfare, and pestilence would claim six million lives—one eighth of Europe’s total population.
William Rosen draws on a wide array of disciplines, from military history to feudal law to agricultural economics and climatology, to trace the succession of traumas that caused the Great Famine. With dramatic appearances by Scotland’s William Wallace, and the luckless Edward II and his treacherous Queen Isabella, history’s best documented episode of catastrophic climate change comes alive, with powerful implications for future calamities.
“The ‘Winter is coming’ refrain from HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ fits this story of medieval Europe’s great famine to a T.”
–New York Post
“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. The Great Famine ended the explosion in agricultural productivity of the 400-year Medieval Warm Period, which affected mainly North Atlantic civilizations. Rosen deftly delineates the backstory and the perfect storm of heavy rains, hard winters, livestock epidemics, and war leading to the catastrophe.”
“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.”
“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…. Rosen’s principal goal, however, is not to horrify us, but to make us think…. 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.’”
–The Daily Beast