The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century

The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century

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by William Rosen
     
 

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How a seven-year cycle of rain, cold, disease, and warfare created the worst famine in European history
 
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…  See more details below

Overview

How a seven-year cycle of rain, cold, disease, and warfare created the worst famine in European history
 
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.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
05/15/2014
Looked at in one way, this is the history of seven consecutive years of famine (1315–22) and their effect on the people of Britain and elsewhere in northern Europe. Viewed in another, it retells the history of England's most feckless king, Edward II, and his losing battle against the Scots and eventually even his wife, Queen Isabella. It's not one or the other but both: high history (the annals of kings and wars) against a background of the long record of climate change, land usage, and dietary habits. Rosen (The Most Powerful Idea in the World) argues persuasively that natural disasters are most catastrophic when humankind's actions give them a push. The depredations committed in battle by Englishmen and Scots were augmented by years of bad weather: the result was that people died in droves. The interactions Rosen describes have been studied but are seldom incorporated into popular history, and the author never overreaches in his conclusions, providing a well-grounded chronicle. VERDICT This book will appeal foremost to history lovers, but it should also interest anyone who enjoys a well-documented story.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA
From the Publisher
“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."
Nature

"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."
Kirkus William Rosen is a good enough writer to hold interest and maintain the fraught relations between nature and politics as a running theme. He ends The Third Horseman with a stark observation: in some ways, global ecology is more precarious nowadays than it was in the 1300s.”
Milwaukee Express
 
“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

Kirkus Reviews
2014-04-08
Erudite rendering of the cataclysmic climate changes wrought at the start of the 14th century.Rosen (The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention, 2010, etc.) 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. Indeed, the preceding four centuries of the Medieval Warm Period, caused by all kinds of controversial factors such as the North Atlantic oscillation, produced temperatures several degrees warmer than average, which translated into a host of significant ramifications. A longer growing season and the ability to grow cereals (and wine) for the first time in higher altitudes in northern Europe meant more food for more mouths, encouraging a huge population explosion and need for the bursting of borders. While the years between 800 and 1200 had embedded the medieval institutions of manorialism and feudalism, which firmly "bound the laborer to the land, and the landlord to the laborer," the warmer era had also encouraged the marauding Vikings to take advantage of melted polar ice caps to populate Greenland and move on to America and William the Conqueror to defeat the English at Hastings. By 1300, a crisis had been reached as new currents of nationalism percolated, especially in Scotland and in Flanders. Rosen navigates through the wars for Scottish independence, culminating in Robert Bruce's great victory at Bannockburn in 1314, at just the moment that floods began and winter weather set in. Two years of rain wrecked harvests, causing famine, lawlessness, and the cattle plague and gradually plunged the continent into a century of war.A work that glows from the author's relish for his subject.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780698163492
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
05/15/2014
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
320
Sales rank:
204,116
File size:
6 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
“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."
Nature

"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."
Kirkus 

William Rosen is a good enough writer to hold interest and maintain the fraught relations between nature and politics as a running theme. He ends The Third Horseman with a stark observation: in some ways, global ecology is more precarious nowadays than it was in the 1300s.”
Milwaukee Express
 
“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

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Meet the Author

WILLIAM ROSEN, a former editor and publisher at Macmillan, Simon&Schuster, and The Free Press, is the author of Justinian’s Flea and The Most Powerful Idea in the World. He lives in New Jersey.

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