The Third Horseman: A Story of Weather, War and the Famine History Forgot by William Rosen
- This book’s mission isn’t necessarily to preach at you about climate change, although it would be the elephant in the room if the idea of climate change didn’t pop up in the epilogue.
- 302 pages (259 pages with the Epilogue, but not Acknowledgements, Bibliography or Index)
If you’re a medievalist at heart, then this is the book that revisits some familiar topics, like William Wallace, in a big-picture context of the Medieval Warm Period. If you’ve not done a ton of reading about Medieval Europe, then you might consider reading this relatively short and very accessible book to give you a sense of some of the events that shaped Medieval Europe, particularly England and France. Seriously, if you want your kid (or, let’s face it, your significant other) to pull his head out of Warcraft this summer, consider putting this title on his reading list.
Whatever you do, don’t equate a book about the close of the Medieval Warm Period with a manifesto about whether or not climate change is a thing. The author is pretty comfortable that climate change in the twenty-first century is real: it just isn’t what his book is about. Refreshingly, this book about weather in the fourteenth century actually is about weather in the fourteenth century. Go figure.
Populations Boom and Bust
The key idea behind this book is that the Medieval Warm Period, a stretch of centuries during which time Europe experienced especially mild winters and long growing season, allowed Feudalism to exist at all. When it ended, that social structure began to fall apart. During the Medieval Warm Period, pretty much any peasant with a crappy homemade plow and the farming techniques of 800 years ago could get enough of a crop to feed his family. Forests were cleared so the booming population could engage in farming, and higher latitudes or elevations still yielded pretty abundant crops.
In 1315, however, the rains began, and they not only ruined that season’s crops for most of Western Europe (the Mediterranean region excluded), but they also precluded planting for the next season. Famine and disease became widespread. Meanwhile, all that marginal farmland that had been forest a generation or two earlier wasn’t worth planting because labor had become more valuable than the land it worked. Yields decreased, and fewer tenants survived on a lord’s property. The rising value of labor made social stratification more complicated and less a hierarchy geared to serving the local lord. Meanwhile, fielding fully equipped knights became a wildly impractical and expensive way to wage war: most of a nobleman’s ability to pay for his warhorses, armor, weapons and a staff of people like pages depended on the revenues coming from his land.
Author Rosen ties together some of the fourteenth century’s key events, not least of which was Scotland’s struggle for independence from England. He takes some entertaining pot-shots at England’s King Edward II. Rosen points out that Edward II was dealt a bad hand: specifically, terrible, plague-like weather during an age when peasants believed crop failures represented God’s wrath with whomever was occupying the throne. He also inherited his position when Scotland’s leadership was not merely feeling a bit prickly about the idea of their lands belonging to England, but they finally had the charisma and military acumen to make themselves heard in the form of Robert Bruce. Yes, bad weather and troublesome Scotland were a setup for the English king, but Rosen tells us that the man also just made some spectacularly bad decisions. His decisions had far-reaching consequences for the peasantry who would face starvation and disease in the years following heavy rains and the raze-it-all warfare of armies passing through their villages.
Rosen spends a lot of time on King Edward II and his father, Edward I. However, French royalty, including Edward II’s wife, get plenty of attention, too. The reader also gets a solid sense of who the Bruces and their kin were.
So, if the book is largely themed around the Medieval Warm Period, then why all the detail about war between Scotland and England at the close of that period? Because Rosen wants to make sure you’re getting the full story of where the famine (and its companion, disease) come from. The bad weather and marginal farmland might leave you with some hungry peasants for a couple of years, but to have a full-blown famine requires a more significant disruption in the supply chain. Usually, Rosen tells us, that means war: razing villages (including key structures like the local mill), burning crops and destroying the forage for invaders’ troops and horses. The seeds that were held in reserve for the spring planting are destroyed or eaten in desperation. This grim situation faced the Northumbrians as Scottish troops pillaged them. Scottish peasants endured the same when English armies landed.
I detest a preachy book, and the contempt I have for the literary soapbox kept me from giving this worthy book a try for a while. However, my fears were unfounded, as Rosen has a particular story to tell, and it doesn’t build to some sort of rant against fossil fuels in the epilogue. Yes, climate change is a real idea, and you’ll get a pretty good bead on how Rosen thinks about the matter, but it isn’t 250-plus pages of sermonizing about it. He really is mostly talking about the Medieval Warm Period.
Image: The Third Horseman, detail from Angers Tapestry. Photo by Kimon Berlin, 2006. The third horseman in the Book of Revelation is famine.