Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century, by William Rosen

This week I'm talking about The Third Horseman, a book ostensibly about the Great Famine, an event in the early fourteenth century with widespread food shortages in Europe caused by a variety of factors which is often overlooked because of the Black Death which appeared a few decades later. I say ostensibly because this book feels only partially about the Great Famine for most of the time. Instead Rosen spends a considerable amount of time talking about the reigns of Kings Edward I and Edward II of England and their on-again-off-again wars with the Scottish. Rosen tries to tie this to agriculture and how the wars exacerbated the Great Famine in England, except the Great Famine affected much of northern Europe, which was almost always in varying degrees of conflict. And he spends considerably less time talking about France, Germany, the Low Countries and Scandinavia where the famine was equally harsh. The result is very disappointing and feels like another history of England's wars with Scotland.

What I found most interesting was the parts where Rosen actually talked about medieval agriculture. I know, I know, that's a really weird thing to be interested in but I went into this book hoping to expand something I knew very little to nothing about whatsoever. Rosen goes into some detail about the European diet, heavily based on cereal grains, and argues medieval agriculture had become more and more tenuous through the Medieval Warm Period. For those of you that aren't aware, the Medieval Warm Period was a centuries-long period of increased average temperatures experienced by Northern Europe from about the ninth to the fourteenth century C.E. Reasons behind it are still not entirely understood, and as far as they can tell it was an event localized to Europe rather than a global phenomenon. Equally mysteriously, the Medieval Warm Period was followed by what's referred to as the Little Ice Age, an era where temperatures returned to much cooler levels in Europe.

Rosen argues that during the Medieval Warm Period, warmer temperatures and more reliable weather made cultivation of land not optimal for cereal cultivation more profitable. Increased food led to increased population, which pushed further demand for increased cultivation until more and more marginal lands were under cultivation. However, once the weather patterns of Europe changed, with cooler and wetter summers, these lands no longer produced sufficient food for the population. This problem was further exacerbated by land exhaustion as fields were used repeatedly for the cultivation of wheat, a nitrogen-intensive crop, which led to more decreases in yields. Plus the constant warfare which entailed raiding and burning crops made a bad situation much, much worse.

Rosen also tries to argue that certain social structures, feudalism being a big example, were a result of the Medieval Warm Period and increased agriculture. I feel like this argument doesn't stand up as well because, at least from my understanding, feudalism was largely a response to the limitations of the era which required localized administration, government, and defense. Of course there's ongoing debate among medievalists about what exactly feudalism was because it has become a sort of catch-all term and while it's portrayed in medieval Europe as a neat and tidy pyramid, the truth is far more complicated.

The biggest impression I got, though, was that Rosen wasn't really interested in writing about the Great Famine. Yes, it and agriculture and the Medieval Warm Period are all part of the story, but he spends far more time talking about Edward I, Robert the Bruce, and Edward II than about agriculture. I was left with the feeling Rosen really wanted to talk about that instead, and agriculture was just sort of a supplement rather than being the main topic of conversation. Numerous chapters are devoted to the wars between the English and Scottish while the history of Germany and the Holy Roman Empire during this era gets shoved into one chapter. If Rosen wanted to talk about the English and Scottish wars, that's fine. I just wish he'd have titled the book about that instead.

My biggest complaint ultimately is the book doesn't feel like it's really about what it's ostensibly about. The parts about agriculture and the Medieval Warm Period are interesting, but they just make up far too small a part of the book for the book to really be about that. If you want a book about the Plantagenets, then I recommend the book by Dan Jones more than this one.

- Kalpar

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