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.