In the preceding centuries Europe has experienced a rapid growth in population. Political stability is on the rise with fewer Viking and Arab raids and Feudalism has brought some order to society.
However, if you walk about Europe in 1300 all is not well. Some 75 million people now live off a land that is not increasing in productivity (for example England’s population had grown seven fold in three hundred years). There are signs of population stress. More and more marginal land is cropped and is now essential to the survival of more and more people.
Life is delicately poised – particularly for the common person – who is very much tied to the produce of the their land. Then climate change strikes. When there is so little margin for error. Enter the Little Ice Age . Longer winters, higher rain fall and shortening ripening periods starts around 1315 and sets the stage for famine in 1317 – the Great Famine. It strikes when the communities reserves are depleted. Seed grain is eaten as opposed to sown, animals are slaughtered, children abandoned, and the old died followed by the young, then by the healthy.
Can things get worse? Oh yes they can! Let’s hear Michael Platiensis words about 1337:
“At the beginning of October… twelve Genoese galleys . . . entered the harbor of Messina. In their bones they bore so virulent a disease that anyone who only spoke to them was seized by a mortal illness and in no manner could evade death. The infection spread to everyone who had any contact with the diseased. Those infected felt themselves penetrated by a pain throughout their whole bodies and, so to say, undermined. Then there developed on the thighs or upper arms a boil about the size of a lentil … This infected the whole body, and penetrated it so that the patient violently vomited blood. This vomiting of blood continued without intermission for three days, there being no means of healing it, and then the patient expired… Soon the corpses were lying forsaken in the houses. No ecclesiastic, no son, no father and no relation dared to enter, but they hired servants with high wages to bury the dead.”
The Black Death decimates Europe’s population killing some 30% of the population a few short years. The Dead litter the countryside. And a new nursery rhyme is born:
But as always, there are unintended consequences to this calamity. The path this disease takes to Europe is the Silk Road. The life blood of trade with the far East. As it ravages this key trade route we also see the disintegration of the Mongol Empire starting from the 1330’s. Chaos from the break down of established order derails eastern trade (which had been rendered largely safe by the stability of the Mongol Empire). Soon access to the riches of the East are at risk. And an alternative must be found!
One option is for Europe to turn to the sea – where they can themselves pursue the tales of the wealth to be had from trading with far off lands…