‘…And the Poor Died of Their Poverty’
Dearth and Famine in Medieval Scotland.
Professor Richard Oram.
Amidst all the detail of the extravagant, conspicuous consumption of exotic food and fine wines in the court of King James I, it is easy to lose sight of the harsh realities of daily life for the majority of the people of Scotland in the later Middle Ages. For many, their day-to-day existence was balanced delicately on a knife-edge of subsistence, utterly dependent on the outcome of the harvest, survival of livestock, or the return of seasonal migratory fish-shoals. In an age of climatic deterioration, with successive years delivering poor summer and extreme winter weather that took a heavy toll of human and animal life, coupled with the impacts of epidemic disease, that knife-edge division between survival and failure saw many a slip into disaster.
Although there is a deeply-ingrained popular tradition of a medieval ‘Golden Age’ that climaxed during the reign of King Alexander III (1249-86), a period that the poet-chronicler Andrew of Wyntoun, prior of Lochleven described as an era of sons of alle and brede, off wyne and wax, off gamyn and gle (abundance of ale and bread, of wine and increase (or beeswax!), partying and fun), even that time of supposed bounty was interspersed with bad episodes, of crop failures, food shortages and what is rather blandly described by economic and environmental historians as ‘subsistence crises’. During that era, which spanned the so-called ‘medieval climate anomaly of the later eleventh to mid-thirteenth centuries when conditions for the expansion of population, agriculture and settlement were optimal, the problem had been one as much of population growth outstripping the availability of resources as actual failure of the crops, often worsened by episodes of warfare that disrupted the flow of trade. Peasants relied on trade not so much for imported food but to sell their surplus wool and hides and gain cash income to spend at market on commodities they could not produce themselves. When trade was poor, especially when that coincided with a time of shortages of staple foodstuffs at home, price inflation could push even the most basic of commodities almost beyond the reach of the peasant families who made up the bulk of the kingdom’s population.
Our evidence for the impact of these events is more often than not qualitative – that is drawn from accounts that talk about them in generally descriptive terms – rather than quantitative, where we have hard, reliable numerical or statistical data. Scotland lacks the types of historical data that yield good-quality quantitative evidence. For example, we have no price sequences for many basic food commodities for most of the Middle Ages and almost nothing on harvest yields at local let alone national level. The Exchequer Rolls, which we use as a source for much of our evidence about general economic trends, crown income, and expenditure by the royal household, are fairly blunt instruments that generally show that dues to the crown continued to be paid across even the bad times, but do not allow us to see at what cost the debtors underlay those payments. Tenants might still pay their rents, but how much was left to sustain their families after the fixed payments had been made? Much of the time, we are left to infer from other evidence that communities were experiencing severe economic hardship, principally material that points to a breakdown in community cohesion as difficulties sharpened, reflected in a rise in criminality and disorder, often expressed in terms of violence and predation.1
In a previous post, I talked of the impacts of climate change in very general terms. We have forms of scientific data – from Greenland ice-cores, tree growth-ring sequences, lake- and ocean-bed sediments and the like – that can reveal how weather changed as a consequence of wider climate change. It is weather, with its immediately visible impacts, that had the biggest influence on what the chroniclers who produced most of our qualitative evidence recorded 2. They could see the direct consequences in terms of crop failures and the price inflation and hunger that followed them. They saw the snowfall and knew of the losses to flocks and herds that it brought. What they were unconscious of was the deeper, longer-term trends towards cooler and wetter conditions, for that had no dramatically visible impact in year-to-year terms. It took decades, if not a generation, for the consequences of that trend to make itself manifest in reduced yields, shorter growing seasons, reduced carrying capacity (the number of livestock a given area can support), increased marginality and loss of agricultural land to coastal inundation and erosion, or overwhelming beneath sand-blow from destabilised dune systems.
By James I’s reign, these trends had been underway for 150 years and Scottish peasants in 1406 would have experienced dramatically different conditions to what their thirteenth-century ancestors had experienced. We can pin the tipping-point quite precisely to the mid-1250s, with chroniclers recording a dreadful year of weather and crop failures in 1256:
In this year there was so great corruption of the air, and inundation of rain, throughout the whole of England and Scotland, that both crops and hay were nearly all lost. And some men’s corn rotted in the fields from the day of harvest; some men’s corn, shaken out by the wind, grew again under the straw; some men’s harvest was so late that they did not reap it until about the festival of St Martin [11 Nov] or later… [Chronicle of Lanercost].
With a certain inevitability, the same chronicler reported that the year there was
… a great dearth of grain throughout this whole island, for there was scarcely enough flour to shape into the meanest bread, nor malt to make liquor suitable to drink.
He went on to describe scenes where the poor were reduced to fighting over putrefying horse carcases, so desperate they were for food when their staple wheat and barley crops had failed. And this is the critical point; it was staples that were failing, the principal commodities that formed the basis of peasant diets, driving the price of what was available to levels beyond the ability of most peasants to pay. What these back-to-back cause-and-effect events also reveal is the utter fragility of peasant farming on that subsistence knife-edge, for a failed harvest meant not only a yield inadequate to feed your family through the coming year but also an inability to pay rent, much of which was paid in kind, no surplus to sell at market to earn the cash that allowed you to buy other commodities, and poorer quality or reduced seed-corn left for the next-year’s sowing.
And the shocks came thick and fast. A thirteenth-century chronicle embedded in Abbot Walter Bower’s Scotichronicon recounted how in 1260:
…there was a great food shortage in parts of Scotland, so much so that a boll of flour was sold for four shillings. Dreadful claps of thunder were heard, and there were terrifying flashes of lightning which burned up men in the fields and animals far and wide, and destroyed crops and trees in several places by burning them up. A wet autumn choked the harvest with weeds. After the autumn, gales of wind wrecked houses and caused a vast amount of destruction.
Peasant farmers had barely recovered from the 1256/7 crop failure and famine before the next one had struck them. It was, unfortunately, not just arable farming that was affected, for Bower’s same source went on to record a series of events through the 1260s and 1270s that affected livestock. In 1268:
The spring was windy and rainy; and the summer was likewise windy, cold and rainy. For this reason there was a high death-rate amongst animals, that is amongst red deer, fallow deer, forest ponies, but most of all sheep.
This was the year when widespread sheep-scab epizootics (an epidemic in animals) struck the British Isles, badly affecting a species upon which peasants and lords alike depended for much of their income through the wool-clip. These, and more importantly the cattle murrains of the early fourteenth century, also affected food supply, for many communities, especially in the upland zone of Scotland, subsisted on a dairy-rich diet.
Image: Richard Oram
Catastrophic loss of livestock delivered famine to those communities as severe as crop failures among cereal-dependent ones. Such epizootics recurred throughout the rest of the thirteenth century, forcing the authorities to take increasingly draconian measures to contain its spread, akin to those used in Britain’s two great foot-and-mouth disease epidemics in cattle in the later twentieth century. Thus, it was in 1272 that Bower’s source commented that:
A great famine hit France, England, Scotland and many areas, for the cattle mostly died, the crops failed, and the poor died of their poverty.
The greatest recorded famine hit northern Europe generally between 1315 and 1322 as a consequence of a succession of weather-related harvest failures, but the loss of records from Scotland due to the Wars of Independence at that time means that we can only guess at the impact within the kingdom. If we can apply English experience to Scotland, it is possible that as many as a tenth of the population perished from hunger or from famine-related diseases.
Later episodes of famine in Scotland stemmed from a combination of weather events and localised impacts of warfare during the second phase of the Wars of Independence. Bower’s tale of a probably mythical figure from the neighbourhood of Perth provides some insight on the degree of social breakdown that occurred during these extreme episodes. In respect of the conditions around Perth during the 1339 siege of the burgh, he recorded that:
At that time, the whole of the adjacent land was to such a degree laid waste that there was almost no inhabited house left, but wild beasts and deer coming down from the mountains were often hunted around the town. So great was the dearth and lack of provisions that the common folk were starving everywhere; and eating grass like sheep, they were found dead in pits. Nearby there lurked in a ruined building a certain peasant called Christy Cleke with his fierce woman; they lay in wait for women, children and young people, and after strangling them like a wolf, lived on their flesh.
We can probably take these tales of cannibalism with the proverbial pinch of salt! 3 but what they do reveal is how precarious social cohesion and the maintenance of social norms was during periods of exceptional stress.
Plague and the consequent collapse of population from the mid-fourteenth century did not end the subsistence crises of the later thirteenth and earlier fourteenth centuries. At best, it changed the dynamics of the pressure, for survivors could abandon the more marginal areas of land and focus their efforts on the good-quality land, but they were still practising the same agricultural techniques that had ultimately failed for their predecessors when the climate regime shifted. Responses were slow but they came, principally in a shift into greater cultivation of oats, which fared better in cooler and wetter conditions than barley.
Image: Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry – Juin (public domain)
Livestock farming, too, witnessed a shift as herders looked to maintain ‘yield’ levels on grazing that was no longer capable of supporting the numbers of animals it had carried in earlier centuries. This led to conflict over access to grazing land and a rise in social violence in Highland areas, as the powerful competed for control of resources, but for the peasant farmers on the land, the result was a change in livestock management practice towards selective calf-slaughter to maintain milk production, reduction in herd numbers to ensure better-nourished stock, and planting of potential fodder species – including broom – to provide nutrition through bad times.
It was perhaps one of James’s misfortunes that the closing years of his reign coincided with another episode of rapid climate change with a succession of hard winters and poor summers. This would have sharpened discontent at local level as his exactions to fund both his extravagant lifestyle and his ambitions as a warrior hit peasant and noble alike at a time of food shortage and rising prices. In 1435, as James was contemplating renewal of war with England and an attack on English-held Roxburgh, Bower reports that there was a great food shortage throughout the kingdom and cites how, in exactly the region where James planned to conduct his campaign, food prices for dietary staples like flour rocketed. His observation that salt prices also soared is a clear indicator that this shortage was weather-related rather than created by human factors, for salt-production was utterly weather dependent at this time. Salt was an essential commodity, being the only bulk preservative available in Scotland. Without it, dairy produce went rancid if not consumed within days, meat and fish could not be stored, wiping out the ability to lay down stocks for winter or to produce the income-generating exports of salt-herring and salt-salmon. The customs paid on those commodities were a key element in James’s income. If he could not get his revenue from that source, his eyes would have soon turned elsewhere, raising the fears of his nobles as to who next would suffer forfeiture and the loss of their heritage to fill the king’s coffers. Food security, then, was not simply about the poor dying of their poverty, but was a political issue that affected the stability of the kingdom.
- At the root of many of the reports of raids by Highland ‘caterans’ into Lowland districts through the reigns of James, his father and grandfather, is a fundamental reality of Highland chieftains seeking access to the means to feed their dependants and provide themselves with the resources necessary to maintain their lordship at levels which their own lands could no longer provide. Lords needed to reward their followers and keep them happy, doing so through lavish feasting and gift-giving. Feasting requires access to abundant food supplies – especially of top-end produce – and gift-giving requires the income to pay for the objects and to support the craftsmen who produced them. Failure to reward your followers, the men who gave muscle or, through metalworking, sculpture, music and poetry, artistic creations to give substance to and back your ambitions, resulted in political oblivion as they deserted you to find lords who could better satisfy their expectations. For Highland chieftains, being satirised by a disgruntled poet was, literally, a fate worse than death and was avoided by raiding your neighbours to take what you needed to keep your own people on-side. At a lower-key level, we see the fear of social disturbance reflected in parliamentary efforts to regulate prices, prevent forestalling – where goods were bought without being brought to market, so driving up prices – and encourage the importing of foodstuffs that continued through the fifteenth century. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we see evidence for migration from rural to urban areas during times of famine, which added to the sense of crisis of the times and heightened conflict between established residents who feared the diseases the migrants brought and the shortages the extra mouths created. There is no reason to believe that similar pressures had not existed in James’s reign.
- Chronicles were written a little like diaries on the most part, but some had political point as repositories of data to be used in, for example, the continuing Anglo-Scottish conflicts. Information is obtained through correspondence and from travel – these are usually senior clerics and they spent a lot of time travelling – much of the time through Europe to visit the papal court or on royal embassies. Chroniclers were ready to believe that the world was so ‘turned upside down’, as they put it, that normal people would resort to abnormal behaviours and, in Christian Europe of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there were few more abnormal behaviours than cannibalism.
- Such tales of cannibalism recur during extreme times, including during the Great Mortality of the first fourteenth-century bubonic plague pandemic, but without any credible evidence being presented. Most report that ‘men alleged’ or it supposedly happened in ‘a nearby place’, but there are no records of trials nor any suggestion that these reports were ever taken seriously by the authorities.