The Year of Three Natural Disasters: Ireland, AD 700

Browsing through the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, a work that includes more literary references than usual, I found a colorful entry for the year 700.

700 Kl. Three shields were seen as if fighting in the sky, from east to west, like tossing waves, on the tranquil night of the Ascension of the Lord. The first was snowy, the second fiery, the third bloody, which it is thought prefigured three evils to follow: for in the same year herds of cattle throughout Ireland were almost destroyed, not only in Ireland, but indeed throughout Europe. In the next year there was a human plague for three consecutive years. Afterwards came the greatest famine, in which men were reduced to unmentionable foods. [CELT, Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, FA 143]

The Ascension is usually in May. Three shields in the sky is a description I have never heard before. The only natural phenomenon I can think of is an extraordinary type of aurora borealis, perhaps caused by a volcanic eruption. There was one in Alaska about that time. Other Irish annals and the Anglo-Saxon chronicle also record the cattle plague, possibly rinderpest – probably too widespread to be anthrax.

The nature of the human plague is more of a problem. Is it related to the cattle murrain? It is a return of the bubonic plague? Is it gastrointestinal related to the famine, essentially food poisoning? The annals seem clear that the human plague came before the famine.  The Annals of Ulster records that the cattle murrain began in England in 699 and appeared in February of 700 in Ireland. The Annals of Ulster also record “famine and pestilence prevailed in Ireland for three years, so that man ate man” (AU 700.6).

The famine is probably related to the degree that early Ireland was dependent upon cattle for both dairy and meat. It was essentially a pastoral society. Ireland still had a barter economy and cattle were the primary measure of wealth, given for tribute, fees and fines. In addition to starving, they were watching their equivalent of a bank account dwindle.  Cattle provided them with most of their protein, dietary fats, calcium, vitamin D, and probably iron. Ireland did have some pigs but probably not enough to make up for the lack of cattle. Poultry would have been more valuable for their eggs, a primary source of protein without dairy or beef. Cattle were also needed as oxen whose loss meant that it was harder if not impossible to plow the fields.

We often overlook how important disease in domestic animals really was in medieval society. I remember a few years ago listing to a talk were it was mentioned that it takes about 20 years for a pastoral society to recover from a bad cattle plague. Cattle reproduce slowly and the cattle who survive the epizootic often are not very healthy. I wonder if anyone has looked at a possible relationship between cattle plagues and the rise of a currency based economy in Ireland. Its bad enough to be hungry but without cattle there is little to trade with either.

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8 comments on “The Year of Three Natural Disasters: Ireland, AD 700

  1. The annals seem clear that the human plague came before the famine.

    Presumably the loss of manpower there would have an impact, though there were also fewer mouths to feed I guess. Is there any clarity over which should be expected to be the larger factor in the medical/social literature?

  2. In 700 it may be the loss of cattle power that hurt the most. Cattle were used as oxen and probably the primary animal to pull the plow. Since there is no mention of climate in the famine, I would expect that the famine was caused by a loss of labor, either people power or cattle power. I am thinking people power, not man power… 😉

    • Touché(e)! My apologies. But this contains the possibility that the famine would have been even worse without the preceding plague, weirdly.

      • Not necessarily. It is not uncommon for famine to follow the plague because there is no one to harvest the fields. Some writers in the Mediterranean write about ripe fields of wheat or grapes rotting because there was no one to harvest it. You can compensate some for the loss of cattle power with sheer people power, hand tilling and harvesting. Around 700 they lost both cattle and people power.

  3. Tim says:

    I noticed the two contrasting ways of reporting Irish cannibalism. While FAI takes a subtle approach by giving a vague hint that ‘men were reduced to unmentionable foods’, AU just gets straight to the point with ‘man ate man’. Maybe the source of FAI’s information was written by someone of a more sensitive disposition than the annalists?

    • I noticed that but I wonder if the claims of claims of cannibalism are an exaggeration or a reference to a specific situation. There is no doubt that during a famine people would eat things they normally wouldn’t. Road-kill starts to look good (well, their equivalent of road-kill). The two annalists may have somewhat different contexts too.

  4. Doug Snell says:

    An entry in the Chronicon Scotorum for AD700 reads “A great frost in this year so that the lakes and rivers of Ireland froze, and the sea between Ireland and Scotland froze so that there was travelling between them on ice.” Can anyone cross-reference this comment? It seems quite incredible at face value.

    • I just looked at the Chronicon Scotorum and it also lists that the sea froze over in 822 so that horses could carry loads across it. I hadn’t seen the sea freezing over in other annals but there are reports of great snows that last for months. I just found that the Annals of the Four Masters puts this big freeze in 684. Looks like the same entry displaced by 26 years.

      As for the sea being able to freeze solid; it can happen. Wider areas of sea freezes solid around Alaska yearly. Whether there is documentation of the sea between Ireland and Scotland freezing over, I don’t know.

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