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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 19:65–80.


Plagues, the Little Ice Age and the Mass Abandonment of Peasant Lots
in 15th Century–Hungary


In this presentation I intend to deal with three phenomena of the late Middle Ages whose possible interconnections were either missed by Hungarian researchers or have just been ignored. These phenomena are; 1., the great plagues of the 14th-15th centuries; 2., the economic and historical impact of the so-called “Little Ice Age; and, finally, 3., the possible climatological influences behind the mass abandonment of peasant lots.

It is possible that the position of Hungarian historians is the consequence of a conviction, according to which the Carpathian basin and within it the settlement areas of the Hungarians, occupy such a unique position in East-Central Europe, that external influences have reached it in the past less regularly than they did the Western parts of Europe. My attention to such a position was called by a comment following my presentation, according to which the Carpathian basin is located at the crossroads of air currents from the west, south and east, it is far from the great seas and seaports, and for these reasons changes in climate effecting the West reach Hungary less frequently. Logically, therefore (although this was not stated openly at that time), historical Hungary had not allegedly been fundamentally influenced by general European historical events. In my opinion this position is untenable.1 It is my firm belief that the three phenomena mentioned above have been, indeed, interrelated in Hungarian history the same way as they have been related to events in the history of the West European peoples. However, I must confess that one of the best known French historians, Emanuel Le Roy Ladurie, – some of whose opinion I share on this issue – had stated that the influences of climatic change cannot be interpreted in a dogmatic way and consequently they cannot be considered to be the sole cause of the most important historical events.2 Nevertheless, it would not do to deny that climate did have an important role to play in history; who would doubt that the ice-cold winter of Russia was among the causes of the defeat of Napoleon’s Grand Armée in 1812, or that Hitler’s army was defeated at Moscow in 1941 partly by the sudden arrival of Siberian weather? But it is also true that climate is only one factor among other influences shaping the course of history.3 Ladurie’s comment, that “the relative decline of Spain (in the 16th century), was not the result of the decline of humidity, but was caused by a combination of the rigidity of the social structure, a totalitarian religion, the fluctuations of Renaissance and Baroque finances, the inability of society to adjust to the demands of developing capitalism, and the unfavourable geographic circumstances.”4 But let us not jump ahead of our subject.

Western researchers (European and American) have begun to realize the importance of the so-called “auxiliary sciences” only during the last few decades; they are now becoming aware of the important role that Dendrochronology,5 the ice cores obtained in Greenland,6 and the science of climatology7 may have played in the flowering and decline of civilizations. They also noted that the yearly fluctuation of the dates of cereal and grape harvests could, perhaps, indicate climate changes although the latter does not provide uncontestable data.8

The plague has often influenced the course of Hungarian history. It is enough to mention the deaths of János Hunyadi and Giovanni Capistrano, together with large numbers of their crusaders after the defeat of the Turks at Belgrade in 1456. In spite of the assertion of the American historian, László Domonkos, the Hungarian monasteries were, indeed, depopulated by the end of the 15th century largely by recurring plagues. This is shown by the reports of official visitations published at the end of the 19th century in Történelmi Tár.

The study of the climate of medieval times is at its beginning stage in Hungary, although there are already some significant results. The study of Lajos Rácz, published in 2001 at Szeged, takes a significant step forward in this process. However, he begins his study in 1500, and does not deal with the German results of dendroclimatology (the study of the the rings of trees). The three – volume work of Antal Réthly also shows fundamentally important results.9

The mass-abandonment of peasant (serf) lots in the 15th and 16th centuries has attracted the interest of Hungarian historians for some time. István Szabó and István Kovacsics both estimated the rate of abandonment in contemporary Hungary as having been between 6- and 60%, depending on regions. It is, of course, likely that this phenomenon had several causes; these included the ability of the market towns (oppida) to siphon off rural populations and the desire to create more compact villages for defensive purposes. But, at the same time, the causes may have also included the plague, and the exhaustion of marginal lands. There was a comment following my presentation, that the phenomenon of mass-abandonment of peasant lots is a controversial issue. This is entirely correct; however, it is also true that almost every historical problem creates its own controversies. But the fact that internal migration did not always take the route from marginal lands to lands of better productivity does not negate my argument. This is also valid in the case of migrants coming from abroad. It is true, for instance, that in these centuries Romanian migrants moved from the more fertile lands of the Lower Danube to the marginal lands of the north, mostly to Transylvania.10 However, the cause of this migration was the more and more frequent devastations caused by marauding Turkish soldiers in the southern Balkans. On the other hand, it is also true that internal migration and settlement activity moved large numbers of people from the mountainous regions of northern Hungary (today Slovakia) to the fertile lowlands of the Great Plain and Transdanubia, as Jenő Szűcs had shown in his posthumus work.11

The appearance of large numbers of abandoned serf-lots in Western European lands has been discovered by Western historians long ago. They attribute the phenomenon to a combination of causes, including the Hundred Years’ War and the changing character of Feudalism.12 Settlers arriving from Western lands, however, undoubtedly moved to Hungary because of the possibility of finding better living conditions. The eastward migration in this historical epoch was at least partially caused by the exhaustion of marginal lands and, at the same time, by the better living conditions offered for new settlers in Hungary. Most people at that time – as in our troubled 20th century – were willing to abandon the land of their ancestors only if forced to move by devastations caused by warfare or by a series of unfavourable weather conditions. It is a well-known assertion – repeated time and time again – that the European peasant is generally conservative, changes his customs only reluctantly and rarely if forced by circumstances and, therefore, moves to alien lands, alien countries, with great reluctance. It was also surmised that eastward migration to Hungary may have been the result of overpopulation in some Western regions. This could also be true, although the definition of what constitutes “overpopulation” is vague and uncertain. What could have caused overpopulation in the High Middle Ages? Was it the exhaustion of good lands that could no longer maintain the same number of people as before? In other words, were some of the lands becoming marginal? The fact is that during the centuries before the great famine and the arrival of the plagues there was a considerable growth of the European population (although the often used term ”demographic explosion” is an exaggeration), but this growth had already slowed down and was actually stopped by the time of the famine of 1314-1321 (28 years before the outbreak of the plague).13 The exhaustion of marginal lands was a fact in the West, and this may have been the cause of the inadequacy of more productive lands to maintain the population.14 Let us now turn to the examination of the phenomena mentioned in the earlier part of this presentation.


1. The Great Plague

The more we learn about the great plague of the 14th century (and subsequent outbreaks), the more terrible they appear to have been. One of its obvious consequences was a demographic catastrophe; according to general estimates the population of Europe was about one-third of the pre-plague numbers by 1420.15

Bubonic plague is a sickness carried by small rodents. It still exists in the great Asian steppes especially in Turkmenistan, and even in the open prairies of the American Midwest.16 Its hosts are marmots, prairie dogs and squirrels living in the wild, but it can and does infect black and brown rats living near human habitations.17 The real carriers of the sickness are red fleas, parasites of the rodents. These fleas generally avoid men if they can. Only if the rodent in question dies, will the red flee leave its host and settle on human beings if there are no other rodents available.

The great plague of the 14th century had probably transited through Central Asia, where it did not infect human beings for centuries. It seems that the red flea does not like the smell of horses and nomads living in these areas were horsemen; they also wondered from place to place in search of better fodder for their animals and, therefore, avoided contracting the sickness. The Hungarian horsemen therefore, did not bring the plague with them when they entered Hungary in the late 9th century.18

What could have been the series of events which changed the situation?19 It is likely that the ecology of the steppes had changed in these years. There was a long drought which is believed to have been related to the phenomena known today as the El Nino (Christmas Child), and the Atlantic Ocean’s oscillation.20 The drought destroyed vegetation that has served as forage for the rodents and they died; their parasites were forced to move to rats living close to human habitations. We also know that there were large-scale volcanic activities at that time and their ashes were circulating in the atmosphere, blocking part of the sun’s rays. It is also likely that the so-called “little ice age,” discovered not long ago, had also played a role in the changes in the steppes’ ecology. These events were, then, the causes which started the plague on its terrible journey.

We believe that the famous silk-road, connecting Chinese silk production with Western markets, also played a role in spreading the disease. Since the sea routes were mostly controlled by Arab navies, the Italian city states, vitally interested in the China-trade, established colonies on the northern shores of the Black Sea. (This was the route followed by Marco Polo and his companions on their travels to China.) The colonies transferred the products of the East to ships conducting the China-trade. Soon, there were post-stations established along the silk-road, around which small settlements had sprung up. Their inhabitants were the first victims of the plague.

We cannot be entirely sure that the ships of Genoa, arriving from Persia, first introduced the plague to Europe.21 Contemporary reports seem to maintain this assertion. After all, the plague spread from Italian seaports. However, it is also possible that non-Genoan Italian ships carrying on trade with their colonies at the Black Seas terminals of the Silk Road, were the real transmitters of the disease.

The plague was active from spring to fall; then it slowed down and continued on its way only after winter had passed. It jumped from seaport to seaport; then entered their hinterland.

One of the strange facts concerning the plague is that there is no classic diagnosis available about it from the 14th century. First of all, no reports had come down to us about the necessarily parallel phenomenon of epizootics.22 Without it, there is a great difficulty in determining the character of the sickness. According to the classic definition of the bubonic plague, the mass extinction of rats should have preceded the outbreak on humans. The classic diagnosis asserts that “if there are no dead rats, there is no infection of humans.”23

The other puzzle is presented by the question, “how could the infection spread so fast from the seaports to their hinterland, then jump to other ports since the plague was not supposed to spread from humans to humans?” And the black or brown rats do not like to migrate unless they are forced to! Could the answer be that the plague appeared in a form of lung infection? But if this were the case, then most of the sickness should have spread much faster in wintertime, when the people lived behind closed doors and inhaled the stale air, infecting each other. In fact, this did not happen.

It is also significant that the symptoms described by contemporary accounts did not correspond to known symptoms of the bubonic plague. Guy de Chauliac,24 a physician of the papal court at Avignon, described two versions of the sickness. The first version which had shown up in 1348, was accompanied by high fever and the patients coughed-up blood. The infected person died quickly; lived, at the most, three days after the appearance of the disease. But the doctor does not mention buboes which are characteristic of the bubonic plague. He remarked that the sickness was very infectious. Another version of the plague appeared somewhat later. This did show classic symptoms, including buboes in the armpits and groins, but it was less infectious and fewer people died of it.

Another physician, also a doctor at Avignon, Raymond Chalmel de Viviers (Raymond Chalin de Vivario),25 has described the epidemic with the appearance of skin blisters in the groin, the face, on the arms and shoulders which were called “plague belts” by the simple people. In other words, the people saw the sickness appearing with dark points on various parts of the body (possibly because of broken blood vessels), not with the appearance of buboes.26 Graham Twigg ventures the remark in his book27 that the plague may have been caused by anthrax! It is also possible that we are dealing with several different illnesses, or with a quick mutation of the bacterial agent.28

Western historians have offered several different explanations. These explanations may be placed in two categories. One of them is an alleged “Malthusian crisis,” whose best known supporters are the Englishman M. M. Postan and the French E. LeRoy Ladurie.29 The other is a Marxist definition, exemplified by the American Robert Brenner30 and the Frenchman Guy Bois.

According to the first explanation, the plague was the response of an overpopulated continent to excessive demographic expansion. But we do not really know, when the zenith of the “demographic explosion” of the High Middle Ages was reached, or why did the decline of the population continued at a time when it had reached its lowest point after the plague. We know that the great famine of 1313-1321 (whose possible causes will be discussed below,) had most likely already stopped demographic expansion.31 It is also true that, according to estimates, the calamity of the famine did not reduce population numbers as significantly as did the plague. Then; where is the point where overpopulation is reached? Its definition would most likely be varied according to location and would be different in various regions. Therefore, it would be difficult to accept the Malthusian explanation because its generalizations are not pertinent and they avoid answering questions that can be raised.

According to the Marxist explanation, the plague did affect the entire European continent, but the economic and social changes following it were different in various regions. Only the correct explanation of these variations could lead to satisfactory solutions.

Bois stated that the demographic catastrophe was caused not by the plague but by a general crisis of Feudalism.32 The plague had reached Europe in the middle of the 14th century, but the demographic decline continued after the epidemic had ended. The plague reappeared again and again in the 15th, 16th and even the 17th centuries, but the demography of these times was showing a new cycle of expansion.

According to Bois, the crisis of Feudalism was caused by a social system whose expansion could be achieved only by enlarging the amount of land under cultivation and the increase of the number of people working it. This was the key to the increase of the income of the lords as well.33 The system demanded the increasing use of marginal lands. But this could not answer the needs of the lords because the productive capacity of such lands was severely circumscribed. Thus, the lords needed ever more income which they obtained through warfare. At the same time, the number of “private” robberies and murders also increased because they were intended to fulfil the same needs. This was one of the reasons for the continuous decline of the population and it reinforced the demographic impact of the epidemic.

It seems that such an explanation may be valid for certain territories of France (Bois conducted his study in East Normandy) but it cannot be used to explain the changes occurring on the entire European continent. The large rate of the abandonment of peasant lots in England, Germany and France, the mass exodus of the peasants from rural areas, may indeed be taken as evidence of a general crisis of Feudalism. Correspondingly, contemporary Hungarian documents are just as full of complaints of robberies, of violence in which the serfs of certain lords also participated. This is a well-known fact. But we do not know the extent to which these events contributed to the mass abandonment of peasant lots in Hungary and to the possible decline of the country’s population. After all, we do not even possess adequate data for the decrease of Hungary’s population following the Tatar incursions!34 Nor do we know the extent to which the settlement policies of King Béla IV and his successors succeeded in replacing the population losses. It is, of course, possible to regard the peasant rebellions of 1437-1438 and of the György Dózsa-led nation-wide peasant uprising of 1514 as symptoms of the crisis of Feudalism. Another such sign may have been the great Austrian peasant rebellion almost simultaneously with the Dózsa-uprising (whose Hungarian evaluation has not yet been attempted), the earlier English jacquerie and the later German peasant war of the 16th century.35 It is undoubtedly true that European society was in flux and peasant rebellions were the sign of such changes. But we have no knowledge of the impact of the peasants (besides their rebellions) nor of the plague on the transformation. We are also ignorant of the impact and recurrence of the plague on Hungary’s general demography.

It is certain that there was a great increase of the European population in the last centuries of the High Middle Ages, as a consequence of long-term fine weather conditions. It is also certain that the increase was followed by a long drawn-out demographic catastrophe.36 But it is doubtful that this was the result of a Malthusian crisis culminating in the losses caused by the plague. Because, according to all the signs, the population increase had stopped long before the great famine and the plague epidemics. According to a well-known American historian, the impact of the plague was not so much in social trends it caused but in its unknown character.37

The mass death did cause general shock. It broke the continuity of economic life and halted the order of services to which the population has been accustomed for centuries. It made the filling of occupations serving the needs of everyday life more difficult. (The number of doctors, priests, craftsmen and even that of grave diggers decreased.)38

In the short run, the plague also decreased the number of working people. It drastically shortened life expectancy. According to estimates, life expectancy before the plague was around 35-40 years; after the debacle it was shortened to 20 years. The balance between generations was also destroyed, as well as the ratio between the working- and supported people. A shorter life span left shorter time for learning and, consequently, the quality of goods produced by craftsmen, as well as that of the services, were also drastically worsened at least for a time.

According to some opinions, the plague of the 14th-15th centuries bypassed Hungary, or at least it did not have as serious demographic consequences as it did in the West.39 The supposed reason for this was the allegedly less dense population of Hungary (because the demographic losses caused by the Tatar invasion were not yet entirely made up even with the resettlement of the Kuns). This is, of course, somewhat questionable. The fact is that the plague had visited Hungary several times even before 1348, as this is attested to by written documents. (Comments are listed in 1270’s that “the plague had caused devastation in Hungary,” or later that the ”pestilence came to Hungary, etc.) During the Italian campaigns of King Louis I (the Great) his soldiers may have been infected by the disease. We know something about the epidemic of 1456, as mentioned above. It is possible that the effects of the epidemic were less severe than those in the West but we cannot know this for sure, and its impact must not be underestimated. It also repeatedly returned to Hungary in the decades following 1348 and later.

The long-range impact of the plague included the fact that it undermined the stability of European culture. It played an important role in reducing the prestige of the Roman Catholic Church, since prayers could not save the lives of those infected and many priests simply escaped from infected localities, abandoning their flocks. This fact may have had an important consequence by strengthening the religious reform movements throughout Europe. This resulted in Hungary in the rapid spread of various versions of Protestantism, especially the Calvinist type. By the late-16th century, most Hungarians were Calvinists and the Roman Catholic church had almost disappeared. However, we have now reached the second and third phenomena mentioned in the introduction.


2 and 3. The Little Ice Age and the Mass Abandonment of Peasant Lots in Hungary

Research of the phenomenon referred to in the West as the “little ice age” has not aroused as much interest in Hungary as it has in France or the United States.40 The concept was first used by Francois Matthes in 1939.41 The concept has a two-fold meaning. It refers to the advance of glaciers in the period between the 14th and 19th centuries, and to a general, global cooling at the same time period of time. However, the second meaning is somewhat misleading because there has not been a universal, constant cooling of the climate.42 What has been more characteristic of the five centuries in question was an unusually unsystematic, often violent series of weather changes with destructive storms, long rainy seasons, cold weather sometimes lasting for decades interrupted infrequently by short periods of warming.43 At the same time, there were long droughts in India, the Central Asian deserts and southern Asia. All this presented serious problems for the agriculturist populations but also for entire societies whose food reserves, as mentioned above, have never been too extensive before the 20th century for the balancing of bad harvests.

Meteorologists and historians do not agree on the date of the beginning of the “little ice age.” Some date the beginning of anomalies in climate from the early 13th century, others mention the beginning of the 14th. (The latter, of course, corresponded to the time of the great famine of 1313-1321). Again others vote for the 1560’s.44 It is certain, however, that the Vikings had already noted in the 13th century that the sea around Island was freezing up and this made sailing more and more difficult. They also noted that the great schools of herring that were staying mostly at the Norwegian cost in the North Sea, appeared in more southerly areas.45 The Swiss glaciers swept entire villages away and the expansion of glaciers elsewhere has also been noted.

It seems certain that the increasingly capricious climate made the life of the European peasantry – as well as that of the urban populations – more complicated and restricted from the early 14th century on. The dwellers of mountainous regions changed their way of life and turned increasingly to animal husbandry. But even this did not help them much. The opinion, according to which the people of Hungary did not feel the crisis of agriculture as much as those of the West because they were mostly involved in animal husbandry, is incorrect. Because then the question must be raised; “what did the animals eat when the hay rotted in the rain in the fields, and other fodder was not available?”46 The large-scale southward internal migration which involved Slovaks and Poles moving to better lands in Hungary, which Jenő Szűcs had noted in his post humus work, may have represented the impact the ”little ice age.”

A tremendous amount of documents have survived in Western archives and other depositories of historical documents about the depopulation of peasant/serf lots. For instance, in England the Nonarium Inquisitiones noted: “In the 1340’s a great many lands remained untended around the villages, partly because of the decrease of the population on account of the famine, partly because of the exhaustion of the lands, and partly because of the death of draft animals.47 This society, already depleted, was then hit by the plague epidemic.

The strong cooling of the 14th century, interrupted by short warmer periods, only reinforced this situation. The second strong cooling period began in the 1560’s. The temperature dropped by an average of 1 degree Celsius, and there was about 20 % more rain than in the previous period.48 In this process not so much the cold but the amount of rain was the decisive factor. Consequently, grain production dropped by half; and since the lords have taken the few reserves that the peasants were holding, famine was unavoidable. The cooling benefited a few regions near the seas; elsewhere it caused great damage. The English chronicler, Camden, noted the same thing that the Vikings had observed a century before: “The herrings that lived exclusively in the time of our grandfathers near the shores of Norway appeared in large schools along our shores.”49 However, here we are approaching recently discovered phenomena that probably had played an important role in the spread of the plague epidemics in the 14th -16th centuries, the El Nino and the Atlantic Ocean’s oscillation.

The El Nino was noted by Spanish colonists in South America four hundred years before our time. They called the years in which the Christmas Child appeared “years of plenty.” El Nino brought heavy rains to arid regions and huge schools of tropical fish near the Pacific Ocean’s Peruvian shores. It was true that the herring schools of the Peruvian shores disappeared for a time, and the shore birds producing plenty of guano also left with them, these losses were compensated for by the heavy rains. The South American deserts bloomed and agricultural products multiplied. (One has to wonder; what would have happened if the Spanish Conquistadores would have had to go through arid deserts in their conquest of Mexico and Peru?)

El Nino begins in the central region of the tropical Pacific Ocean. The sea warms up over a huge area (which is noted by today’s satellites as a large red spot), the trade winds change direction and the streams in the sea follow their course. This huge mass of warm water brings about the climatic changes in tropical lands and it also influences the temperature of the entire globe. As a consequence, the global climate becomes unpredictable; the monsoon stays away from the Indian, African and Indonesian lands, and this fact brings about great droughts which, in turn, results in famines and social unrest.50

The eastern counterpart of El Nino is the Atlantic Ocean’s oscillation.51 This joins the Gulf stream and brings warm, very salty water to the shores of Greenland and Labrador. When reaching this region, the warm water sinks toward the bottom and behaves like a giant pump. It carries myriads of life forms serving as food for the fish and mammals of the North Seas. If this oscillation was interrupted by some hitherto unknown reason, the consequences include giant storms, tremendously heavy rains, and extreme weather on the European continent. At the same time, in Central and South Asia crippling droughts occur whose usual consequences are famines and mass deaths.52 These two phenomena are somehow interrelated; according to some scientists, when this occurs, the globe’s axis is changed slightly; others believe that sunspot activity becomes irregular, or even stops for a time.53 However, research into the causes and courses of these phenomena is still in its embryonic stage and we do not know what actually causes them. But we can be certain that they are not merely happening in the current epoch but have been repeated countless times in the distant and more recent past. 54 Up to now, no regular, systematic reappearances have been discovered in either phenomenon. They come unexpectedly and disappear the same way. Only the devastations they cause signal their arrival. The anomalies at sea mentioned above that killed hundreds of thousands of people at the Western shores, were most likely the consequences of these climatological events.

Historians, in general, do not attribute powers to the weather to shape historical events. For instance, Ladurie carefully states; “A close examination of documents does not admit explanations based on climatic changes if they are used in a dogmatic way. An examination of the meteorological conditions of the 14h century shows that the decades between 1300 and 1350 had not been especially wet and had been, therefore, favourable for the production of grapes and cereals in regions close to the (English) canal.”55 However, a few pages further on he also remarks that, according to researchers in Germany, ”a series of tremendous waves of wetness, a series of rainy seasons occurred during the decade of the 1310’s, that started the fast growth of trees, destroyed and rotted plants and caused serious calamities of famines among the population.”56 Since Ladurie had written this in 1969, at a time when El Nino and the Atlantic Ocean’s oscillation have largely been unknown phenomena, later researches are more reliable in determining climatic change. The works of Brian Fagan and others writing more recently, provide a better view about these events. Perhaps we are not far from the truth if we surmised that the great wanderings of the peoples of the 5th to the 12th centuries in Europe, and even the mass Irish migration to the United States in the middle of the 19th century, have probably been indirectly triggered by El Ninos and the oscillation of the Atlantic Ocean. At the least, these climatic anomalies seriously impacted on these events. We cannot, of course, leave out social causes that were involved in the catastrophes but the climatic influences must also be considered.

How could these phenomena be related to historical events in Hungary? Climatic researchers in Hungary are busy looking into conditions of wetness and temperatures in past centuries, as this is attested to by the works of Rácz and Réthly noted above. But we can safely say that the Carpathian basin does not occupy a specially isolated position in European geography and that the warmer southern and western air currents carrying humidity and the cooler eastern winds of drier content all influence its climate. It had not been different from this pattern during the Middle Ages. From this it follows that the influence of the “little ice” age had been similar to that in Western Europe. In other words, it brought cooler and wetter climate into the Carpathian basin and this undoubtedly impacted on the agricultural production of the people. Since services for the landlords depended upon the size of the harvests, even if these services were increasingly demanded in the form of money, the extreme climate changes must have had an important, if partial, influence on the phenomenon of abandonment of the peasant lots. Even if the rate of the abandonment of peasant lots is disputed, or if there had also been other causes not related to the climate, the argument will not change the assertion according to which there have been important interrelations between climate and the historical process.

Proof of the rate of the abandonment of serf/peasant lots may be found in the activities of lords and the government to attract new settlers to their lands, of which countless documents survived. This is shown by the documents; the settlement activity was not restricted to the action of the King and his officials as it was the case following the devastations caused by the Tatars. The landlords attempted almost desperately to attract new settlers to their lands since their own well-being depended on the number of serfs working for them. They were willing to make sacrifices expressed in concessions of freedom from taxes for a certain number of years and in reduced demands for services. Jenő Szűcs had shown that internal migration related to settlement activity – that is movement of people from the northern and eastern mountainous regions where the lands had probably been exhausted – produced a larger number of new settlers in the lowlands than the number of settlers arriving from abroad.

The abandonment of serf/peasant lots in Hungary was, therefore, not a uniquely Hungarian phenomenon. The process could be observed in almost every territory of the European peoples. It is possible that the causes of this phenomenon had not been the same in every instance, but it is certain that among these causes climate change had loomed large. It is probably correct to say that, among the causes, recurring violence – besides climate change – had played an important role in the agricultural crisis (partly caused by the extremity of the climate) attested to in countless Hungarian documents. It is also obvious that the attraction of conditions in market towns (which were really large villages still depending on agriculture in this age) played a role in the abandonment of serf/peasant lots. The efforts of peasants to provide for better security and create more compact, better protected villages, must have also been part of the causes. However, we still do not know enough of demographic developments in Hungary in the 14th-15th centuries to be certain of the scale of these processes. The indirect evidences derived by Hungarian historians from papal taxation in Hungary cannot be used for such a purpose, because they are too scattered and vague and include factors unrelated to demography. Without exact data we can only estimate the influence of El Ninos and the oscillations of the Atlantic Ocean on Hungarian events. The same is true for the recurring epidemics of plague.57 Inquiries in Hungary concerning the impact of the little ice age are still in their embryonic stage and there is need for time to achieve more certain results. I must admit that this presentation also raises more questions than it answers, and that such answers that seem possible must be given only in a tentative way.




I must note that the opinions of some Western historians come close to this position. For instance, Emanuel Le Roy Ladurie stated that “the condition of the production of cereals varies according to region. For instance, in the Mediterranean area the harvest declines if there is a draught; in Northern Europe, temperature is critical; in between these two extremes there is moderate and Oceanic Europe, where the greatest damage is caused by wet winters, cold, rainy springs and rainy summers. In other words, wet weather lasting for years.” Histoire du climat depuis l’an mil. In English translation: Times of Feast, Times of Famine. A History of Climate since the Year 1000 (Paris 1967).


Ladurie, ibid.


See Robert Bryson, “A Reconciliation of Several Theories of Climatic Change,” Weatherwise, (April, 1968).


Ladurie, ibid., 12.


For this see Harold C. Fritts, “Growth, Tree Rings and Climate,” Science, (1964), Nov. 25, 1966, 973-979. But Ladurie cautions the researcher: ”One cannot deduce any periodic climatological phenomena from the width of tree rings.” ibid., 50.


Ladurie, ibid., 21.


Charles E. P. Brooks, Climate through the Ages (London, 1949 and 1950); Hubert Lamb, The Changing Climate (London, 1966).


It is possible that vintners leave the grapes on the vines longer than customary in order to produce brandy. See Ladurie, ibid., 63.


Lajos Rácz, Magyarország éghajlattörténete az Újkor idején (Szeged, 2001); and Antal Réthly, Időjárási események és elemi csapások Magyarországon 1700-ig, published in two volumes so far; the third volume is still in press at the time of this writing.


There is no universally accepted definition of “marginal lands” The term is absolutely relative; some lands may appear marginal for some people, others might consider them adequate or even productive. Such was the case of the terraced lands of Peru, or the case of the Brazilian Moche peoples or even the land usage of the Anasazi in the south-western corner of the United States. The latter had to move away from their ancestral lands because of prevailing arid conditions.


See Jenő Szűcs, Az utolsó Árpádok (Budapest, 1993) 155-199.


The terrible destruction of the Thirty Years’ War in Germany occurring in the 16th century produced another wave of abandoned lots.


The chronology of the climate of the last 1000 years are divided into four periods; a smaller warm-up around 1000; the expansion of the glaciers of the little ice age between 1200 and 1300; a new cooling period from 1580 to 1850; and the current warming up. Ladurie, ibid., 257.


It must be noted that, during the 14th-15th, and even the 16th centuries the population of the European sea costs suffered from several huge tidal waves. These devastated the villages and towns of the area between the costs of Holland down to the southern costs of France, killing hundreds of thousands of inhabitants.


We know now that the concept of “black death” was not used by the people of the Middle Ages. The term appeared for the first time in 16th century Dutch and Danish chronicles, and its meaning was not of color, but of ”terrible,” “horrible.”


According to Fernand Braudel, in Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Centuries, vol.1, The Structures of Everyday Life (New York, 1979), 83-88, the plague’s “homelands” were China and India, which were also the home of other epidemic sicknesses. These epidemics reached Europe much earlier than the great plague of the 14th century. However, this does not mean that the Central Asian steppes could be excluded as the transmitters of the disease.


The books about the great plague would fill several libraries. I cannot list them all, not even a small portion of them, in this presentation. A few fundamental works are: Jean N. Biraben, Les home de la peste en France et dans le pays européens et mediterranéens, 2 vols. (Paris, 1975-1976); Gerald Grob, The Deadly Truth: a History of Desease in America (Cambridge, Mass., 2002); Neithard Bulst, “Der Schwarze Tod: Kulturgeschichtliche Aspekte der Pestkatastrophe von 1347-1352,” in Saeculum 30 (1979), 45-67 with a huge bibliography; Terence Ranger , Paul Slack, (eds.), Epidemics and Ideas; Essays on the Historical Perception of Pestilence (Cambridge, 1992); Helde Schmölzer, Die Pest in Wien (Vienna, 1992), etc.


However, it seems that Attila’s Huns were already infected by the plague in the 5th century, and it is suggested that this was the reason why he was forced to stop his Italian campaign. However, the earlier epidemics were not as widespread as that of the 14th century.


According to Braudel, (op.cit., 83,) a lesser known version of the plague – or, perhaps, a different sickness? – had reached Europe in the 11th century.


See more about this issue below.


According to Braudel, the transition stations were Constantinople and Egypt. (op.cit., 81) However, this does not contradict the assertion according to which even the crusaders may have been hosts to the plague, or that the plague travelled through Central Asia to the Italian colonies of the Black Sea cost.


It is possible that the mass extinction of rodents had occurred in the Central Asian steppes, although there is no sure proof of this possibility.


This opinion is also held by Braudel, (op.cit., 83).


Guy de Chauliac, La grande chirurgie de Guy de Chauliac...compose en l’an 1363 (Paris edition, 1890); The English edition was edited by Margaret S. Ogden (Oxford, 1971).


See Ernst Wickersheimer, Dictionaire biographic des Médicines en France au Moyen Age (Paris, 1936), idézi David Herlihy, The Black Death, and the Transformation of the West (ed. by S. K. Cohn, Jr.), Cambridge, 1997), 27.


This reminds one more of an epidemic of smallpox, than of the plague.


Graham Twigg, The Black Death (New York, 1984).


Braudel believes that there may have been an entire series of epidemic sicknesses (op.cit., 84).


Ladurie discusses this theme in several works. For instance: “L’histoire immobile,” which he presented as a lecture at the College de France in 1973. Idézi Herlihy (op.cit., 31) . The most important work of M.M Postan in this theme is Essays on Medieval Agriculture and General Problems of the Medieval Economy (Cambridge. 1973) Also, George Huppert, After the Black Death. A Social History of Early Modern Europe. He said: “famines are not simply natural catastrophes; among their partial causes one can find human behavior patterns. There were too many mouths to feed in 14th century Europe.” (IX).


Robert Brenner, “Agrarian Class Structures and Economic Development in pre-Industrial Europe,” Past and Present 70 (1976), 30-75.


In his book quoted above, Braudel remarked: “One bad harvest was tolerable; if there were two after one another, prices climbed sky high and there was famine. But... this was never an isolated incident. Sooner or later there came epidemics that had their own cycles. The plague produced the greatest, most terrible fear...” (op.cit., 78). However, there was a far too long gap between the great famine and the onset of the plague in the 14th century; 28 years, or almost a man’s life expectancy. William G. Hoskins noted that between 1594 and 1597, there were four terrible years when the harvest failed; ”the harvest in 1594 brought lower yields; The harvest in 1595 was even worse. That of 1596 was catastrophic and the 1597 harvest was just as bad. The great famine extended over the entire continent of Europe; In Italy and Germany the poor ate what they could find; fungi, cats and dogs, and even snakes. They say that, in Hungary, women ate their children. There were uprisings in England, the worst among them occurred at Oxfordshire.” “Harvest Fluctuations and English Economic History,” Agricultural History Review, (1964), 28-46.


Guy Bois, The Crisis of Feudalism. Economy and Society in Eastern Normandy, c. 1300-1550 (Cambridge, Mass., 1984).


Bois had forgotten the fact that, by the 14th-15th centuries, not only the lords, but certainly urban dwellers as well as some peasants were already engaged in local and even long-range commerce. Consequently, their sole dependence on agriculture had been lessened. There are a great many Hungarian documents concerning this fact, reporting not only the robbery of peasants carrying valuable merchandise to market, but also customs duties imposed on such trade.


See the statements in Jenő Szűcs’s book quoted above.


Historians and ideologues from Marx to Mousnier describe the peasants as ignorant brutes who revolted against unbearable oppression. However, the picture they paint is false. The rebellious peasants were usually led by Franciscan friars and literate local lesser noblemen, who hired lawyers to represent them and their charges, and sought for – and found – supporters among the radical elements of urban areas. They knew the laws and were entirely familiar with their oppressors. See Huppert, (op. cit., 90).


This may have been the reason for listing the sicknesses under a common name, even if their symptoms were different. For this see the work of Hans Haeser, Lehrbuch der Geschichte des Medicine (1882), 325-340. Braudel (op.cit., 32-33) asserts that the population of Europe increased until the outbreak of the plague and the increase stopped after 1348. Between 1450 and 1650, there was another growth which continued also into the 1750’s. However, he does not produce convincing evidence, especially as far as the situation of individual countries were concerned.


Herlihy, (op. cit., 38).


The situation was even more aggravated by the fleeing of officials and even priests from the infected regions who were swift in moving to areas free of infection. See René Bachrel, “Epidemie et terreur: histoire et sociologie,” Annales historiques de la Revolution Francaise (1951), No. 122, 113-146.


I myself accepted this explanation in my book, Hunyadi. Legend and Reality East European Monographs, (New York- Boulder, Co., 1985). However, my opinions have fundamentally changed since that time.


The books of Réthly and Rácz, quoted above, show this interest. But the French, German and American literature on the subject is much more extensive and varied. I must mention the two books by Brian Fagan, Floods, Famines and Emperors; El Nino and the Fate of Cilvilizations (1999) and The Little Ice Age. How Cliumate Made History (2000) and the book by Emanuel Le Roy Ladurie, mentioned several times above.


In Francois Mathes, “Report of the Committee on Glaciers,” Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, 21(1940), 396-406.


The diameter of the ice cores obtained in Greenland is 12 centimeters and its length is 1390 meters. They confirm the existence of the little ice age extending approximately from the mid-13th to the mid-19th centuries. According to the scientist-interpreters of the cores, the period may be divided into three phases of cold weather. The first came between 1160 and 1300, followed between 1310 and 1480 by a warmer period, There was another wave of cold weather in the 16th century even becoming colder in the 17th, culminating between 1820 and 1850. Between the last two, there was a short warmer period; Ladurie (op,cit, 260-261). The deeper drilling shows a long warmer period, almost five-centuries in length (between 650 and 1125), when temperatures reached the averages of the 20th century.




The first opinion is represented by Christian Pfister, and the second by Raymond Bradley. See “Documentary Evidence on Climate in Sixteenth Century Europe,” Climatic Change, (43) No.1, 1999, 55-110.


For comparison’s sake I want to mention that, in the early 15th century, giant sea surges along the cost of Holland killed nearly 200,000 people and that in the last third of the 16th, from the southern costs of France all the way to the shores of the North sea in Germany, were ravaged by what we would call today by their Japanese name “tsunamis,” and they killed nearly 400,000. These disasters may have had something to do with the migration of Wallons and Friedlanders to Hungary and they certainly fit the pattern of the “little ice age.”


If Ladurie’s statement (op. cit., 88), that the latest fluctuations of climate extended over the entire globe, — as this was indeed the case – then we have no reason to suppose that earlier anomalies bypassed the territory of Hungary and the neighboring countries. Ladurie also states that this fact permits the drawing of general conclusions about the impact of climatic changes in Europe. In other words, the graphs of the climate reflect some actual historical events. However, he also stated that the amount of rain is not a universal phenomenon but it is a regional process, and in this he is probably correct.


Rácz, op.cit., 59.


The expansion of Alpine glaciers is proof of this cooling. É. Demogue mentions the fact that the data seem to prove that the cooling happened in waves. He also believes that the end of the Bronze Age, the beginning of the first Germanic migrations toward South-eastern Europe from the regions of Sweden and of the Baltic Sea, was the consequence of this process. Quoted by Ladurie, (op. cit., 126).


Hubert Lamb, Climate, History and the Modern World (Cambridge, 1990), 318.


Today, the appearance of El Nino is considered not a blessing but a curse in South and Central America. As Fagan had noted, the space of the previously small villages were taken over by huge urban agglomerations because of the demographic expansion. There have emerged large shanty towns in their suburbs which, especially in the western shores of the sea, were extended into the flood plains. These are the settlements which are destroyed first by El Nino, causing the death of thousands of people. For the impact of El Nino in India, see: B. M. Bathia, Famines in India, 1860-1973 (New York, 1967); George Philander, El Nino, La Nina, and the Southern Oscillation (New York, 1990), and Fagan (op.cit.).


Wallace Broecker, “What Drives Climatic Cycles?” Scientific American (Jan. 1990), 49-56.


M. H. Glantz, R, W. Katz, and N. Nichols (eds.), Teleconnections Linking Worldwide Climatic Anomalies (Cambridge, 1991).


See Norman Lockyer, “Simultaneous Solar and Terrestrial Change,” Native, 69(1904), 351.


Dendroclimatology (study of tree rings) may provide answers to this question. See Benjamin Bannister, “Dendrochronology,” Science in Archeology,” D. Brothwell and E. Hoggs (eds.), (London-New York, 1963), 161-176.


Ladurie (op. cit., 15-16,


Ibid., 45.


There was significant importance attached to the depopulation of the European monasteries because of the plague. Following the losses, the monasteries admitted far more novices than was required, counting on future losses. When the expected losses did not materialize, the surplus people needed a way to make a living outside the abbeys. Since their education was better than even those of the lay priests, they were recruited by royal administrators, and this was the origin of the new bureaucracies.


Revised text of a Presentation at a meeting organized by the Europa Institute Budapest and the Institute of History of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences on December 9, 2002. It is also a chapter in a larger work dealing with the history of peasant society in 15th century Hungary.

The author is professor emeritus and former dean of Rutgers University (New Jersey, USA). October to December 2002 he was visiting professor at the Europa Institute Budapest and one of the editors of the publication series “Begegnungen” of the institute.