Peak grain

Here, a graph of population size in England, 850-1550; a “speculative reconstruction” from Dyer’s “Making A Living in the Middle Ages”:

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Note the exuberant growth of 1150-1300. What a hundred years to be alive! The population more than doubled! Towns, cities, commerce, a relentless pace of change unlike anything come before

This growth slowed even before famine (1315-22) and plague (1348-50) caused such precipitous drops in population. Dyer isn’t clear why growth came to an end: perhaps crop yields collapsed, after a century of intensive farming – a generational shift in the ability to extract energy (and one more thing that makes the time analogous to our own).

And after 1350, what a world to live in. How did it feel? An end of days? The old regimes collapsing with new men free to make a new order amid the ruins? In 1381 a two month cry of freedom, Englishmen demanding an end to aristocracy and autonomous government by villages under the king. Where did that come from? And what remained of it after Wat Tyler and John Ball’s heads were on spikes?

Reference: Dyer, C. (2002). Making a living in the middle ages: the people of Britain 850-1520. Yale University Press.

3 replies on “Peak grain”

On a related note, I’ve always wondered what it must have felt like to live in Rome after the Empire had crumbled. During the first century Rome had more than a million and a half inhabitants. In 500 AD it had shrunk to not even 100.000. That must have been pretty depressing.

Apparently the Great Famine was caused by excessive rainfall and cold temperatures which depressed harvest yields and made food conservation more difficult.

I am adding this to my Goodreads page. Looks great – thank you! I’m surprised he doesn’t discuss crops. And this:

and one more thing that makes the time analogous to our own).

Um, is this like a quiz for the reader? I’m guessing birth control & abortion, though considering what passed as medicine back then I’m not sure I want to know the answer.

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