Boom and Bust

Boom and bust describes my Kzoo experience this year pretty well on multiple levels. I went to a wide variety of sessions this year, some were great and others didn’t keep my attention. I didn’t make it to Kalamazoo until Thursday night so I had a shorted Congress to start with.

Here are the sessions that I attended:

  • 195: Military Service and Violence in Late Antiquity
  • 265: A Preview of The Cambridge Companion to Bede I: Shaping History (A Roundtable)
  • 327: Body and Spirit in Old English Literature
  • 457: Famine(s) and Hunger in the North Atlantic in the Fourteenth Century: Problems, Paradigms, and Directions.
  • 534: Joan of Arc in the Archives
  • 210: Psalter Illustrations: Resources or Minefields
  • 607: The Early Middle Ages (my session)
  • Pseudosociety session Sat night.

The session that stood out head and shoulders above the others was much to my surprise #457 so I’ll review this session in more detail. Choosing this session almost on a whim because it might tie in with my plague interests was one of the best decisions I made for the weekend. I wasn’t alone either – it was the only overflowing session I attended.

Session 457: Famine(s) and Hunger in the North Atlantic in the Fourteenth Century: Problems, Paradigms, and Directions.

  1. Really, Why Did People Suffer in the Early Fourteenth Century? by John Langdon (Alberta).
    • Sees the early 14th century as “congested” with real wage losses realized.
    • Would like to see more focus on psychological suffering as well as physiological suffering.
    • Would like to see more focus on fertility as well as mortality. He believes that there had been a decrease in fertility; harder to form a family.
    • Sees family wages as being more important than “real wages”.
    • Sees a boom and bust economy. 13th century stimulus spending – investing in infrastructure (castles, churches etc) was over and in the early 14th century tensions were increasing between employers and employees. A time of economic recession ensued. These were the conditions leading into the great famine and then later the Black Death.
    • Believes that we don’t give enough credit to war as an economic stimulus when fought on the other guy’s turf.
    • Doesn’t believe that the great famine was the economic disaster that the “Malthusian” theory claims. England was not overpopulated in term of people but relative to the strength of its economy. There was a deflation in its silver markets. Entitlements become an important issue — who is entitled to room and board by the local lord or church. Those fed by the local lord or part of a rich monastery or cathedral got through the age just fine; those without this protection/entitlement were in real danger.
    • Believes that there was a general malaise and psychological depression to the era even before the Black Death.

    My take on this in no particular order:I suppose the way to reconcile family wages being critical with being harder to form a family is that those who got a family started, had large families to increase the wage earners? This could still lead to a decrease in fertility for the whole population. Childhood mortality also needs to be addressed.  While children are expensive to raise it is critical to have as many as possible get old enough to earn wages and support the family. We might also have multi-generational families living in small farms. The boom and bust economy sounded more like today that I’ve made it appear above.

  2. When and Why Did People Starve: Reassessing the Great Famine from an English and Welsh Perspective (1310-1327) by Philip Slavin (Yale)
    • Looking at Manorial and Monastic economic records for the years of the Great Famine and years preceeding, He is particularly comparing Norwich Priory in East Anglia (a very rich house) with Bolton priory in the Yorkshire Dales (a very poor house caught in the Anglo-Scottish border wars).
    • Looked at harvest yields for various crops. The Great Famine was caused by three successive years of bad weather.
    • There was a clear gap between winter and spring crops. Wheat and rye largely failed but oats and barley generally did ok. Too much data to capture but the wheat crops were hit and miss, depending in part upon elevation. Some manors had bumper crops while others failed completely.
    • The richness of the house determines survival. Rich houses like Norwich were able to buy what they needed so no one went hungry, while poor houses like Bolton had to disperse. This created an entitlement crisis.
    • Sees an energy pyramid with humans on top (suffering the black death), a cattle plague in the center, and poor grasslands from climate at the bottom.
    • Thinks the cattle plague is the missing link between the Great Famine and the Black Death. He notes that young malnourished cattle have a greater impact than malnourished people in the long run for the population. Malnourished young cattle have poor lifetime production because they mature faster. It effects their meat and milk production and fertility.
    • Believes that the human population would have suffered from protein malnutrition for the entire period between the great famine and the black death.

    My take: the relationship between famine and plague is interesting and needs follow-up on. A loss of milk production would have not only reduced their protein intake but also decreased their fat intake. Milk fat would have been an important food source as well as milk protein. A lack of dairy products will have a significant health effect on young children, and pregnant women. This makes me think of 6th-7th century Ireland where people are extremely linked to their cattle. Early Lindisfarne considered cattle to be their only wealth.

  3. Depending on the Utlands: Food and Famine in Fourteenth-Century Iceland by Jeff Hartman
    • This is is pretty easy to sum up: bad weather, volcanoes, and politics with Norway. Lots of volcanic eruptions in the 14th century!

“Body and Spirit in Old English” was the runner up session. The enjoyed the papers by William Smith on devotional texts and Kelli Carr on St Æthelthryth.

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