Campbell, Bruce M. S. The Great Transition: Climate, Disease, and Society in the Late Medieval World. (Cambridge University Press, 2016.) Kindle Edition
Everyone knows that Europe, and parts of the rest of the world, went to H-ll in a handbasket in the 1300s, and didn’t really regain its footing until the Renaissance. Why? The Black Death. Oh, and the Hundred Years War. Then we added “lousy weather.” It turns out that a whole lot of things were going wrong for Western Civilization, and the Black Death was the final straw.
Bruce Campbell brings together climatology, commercial and economic history, diplomatic history, genetics, and epidemiology to explain why the 1100s-1200s in some ways set up the economic and population stress that were already in place before 1300. The Great European Famine, then the waves of the Black Death, were only the most visible part of the depression in progress. He makes a compelling case for looking back to the late 1200s for the start of the “Terrible Fourteenth Century.” Worse, the stagnant population and economy that followed the Black Death lasted until almost 1500.
Historians have done a lot of work on the Black Death, and on the Hundred Years war between the French and English monarchs. In the 20th century, environmental historians began studying the climate downturn that began in the 1300s and didn’t really end until 1850 or so. As it turns out, the bad weather all over the northern hemisphere played a role in the eruption of a new strain of Yrsenia Pestis and its transmission west. That part might be familiar to readers, although Campbell goes into the genetics of Y. pestis to confirm that indeed, the Black Death was that very bug and not something else.
However, much of the book looks at the economic and demographic conditions of Western Europe (England, the Low Countries, northern Italy). The population was growing thanks to a combination of new technologies, a stable weather pattern that lasted for several centuries, and the greater ease of trade which allowed for moving food-stuffs as well as goods. The open routes east (relatively open) enhanced access to luxury goods, but also turned into a siphon for European silver and gold. If that silver ever ran low, or the trade routes became choked by changes in the Islamic world, trouble might begin. This was the era of the Champaign Fairs, the birth of banking, and increasing stress on the population as subdividing land reached its limits. People pushed into marginal areas, growing mostly grains. Land was scarce, labor very cheap, and nutrition starting to decline.
By 1300, Campbell argues, the system was at a tipping point. Silver had gotten very scarce and even re-opening mines didn’t help. Too many people needed land. Several nobles and the king of France ended the agreements to protect merchants going to the great fairs, and trade began to slow. The loss of the Crusader kingdoms in the Levant and the rise of the Ottomans strangled Italian trade with Asia. Only silver could make up the currency for Asia, and silver had become scarce, depressing trade even farther. And then the weather went bad. Three wet years badly hurt western European grain output. Next came a cattle and sheep disease that eliminated up to 70% of the livestock. The females that survived were less fertile. Without cattle, there was no traction for plowing or heavy transport. Without sheep, no wool for clothing. Famine swept Europe. The Wars of Edward I, II, and III didn’t help England or Scotland. Or France and the Low Countries. And we all know what happened in 1346-52. The second wave of the Black Death, a decade after the first one, killed many of the children born in the interval, as well as killing people who had escaped the first round. Stormy, unpredictable weather continued for the rest of the century. Trade grew more difficult, and only the Low Countries seemed able to do more than just hang in there.
Campbell’s use of economic records is solid. It’s some of the best work I’ve read in quite a while, and he is careful to show what we can’t know as well as what we can infer. I admit, I skimmed some of the genetics of Y. pestis, because he’s preaching to the choir in my case. It is a useful antidote to some of the odder theories about the Black Death. What I really liked was his pulling together so many different disciplines to give a much more complete picture of the 1200s-1500. I’d never thought about how the European diet changed after the Black Death. It was colder, with fewer people, so grain was less important than wool (for more layers of clothing). Sheep became more important, and meat took up a larger percentage of the European diet. The population didn’t grow again until the late 1400s, when the Black Death really faded out, so people earned more and opted to work less. Urban areas grew more slowly, forcing industry to become more rural. The “green and pleasant land” of small English cities and rural-centered life was actually a result of the Black Death and all that surrounded it, not England just being England.
I recommend this book to historians of the Middle Ages, economic historians, and people with a little knowledge of the period who want more. It’s not a straight narrative history like A Distant Mirror but it’s not statistics and documents like Ole Benedictow, The Black Death.
FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book with my own money for my own use, and received no remuneration fronm the author or publisher for this review.