Now and then famines endanger survival and call for coping strategies. Studies of the recent past have pointed out that the vulnerability of a society highly depends on a diverse relation of natural and social parameters. Carolingian historiographers noticed the starvation under the Frankish rule, but did they feel vulnerable? Were famines nothing more than a natural recurring, yet unswayable, marginalia or rather an essential part of the collective memory impossible to be left out? The paper will demonstrate the appearance of famine accounts in Frankish sources and discuss coping strategies, the exploitation of food shortages for the causa scribendi and its relation to the conception of God’s punishment.
Scholars have long noted Henry of Huntingdon’s use of five ‘plagues’, or invasions, as a means of both structuring and interpreting the history of Britain in his Historia Anglorum. But Henry also uses famine in a similar way. Although famine (like invasion) is a common occurrence in medieval chronicles, and is often interpreted as divine punishment, it takes on a more powerful meaning in the larger context of the Historia Anglorum, which stresses the wealth of Britain’s natural resources. For Henry, famine represents an unnatural failure of the natural abundance of Britain, and a portent of the future conquest of Britain. Moreover, Henry suggests that the Normans’s cataloguing and exploitation of natural resources, symbolized by the Domesday Book, is a form of conquest that leads to taxation as ‘unnatural’ and destructive as famine itself.
King John’s reign was accompanied by a crisis in English politics. An alliance with Rome led to later tensions between introduced Romans and various English barons. Under a little-studied movement known as the ‘universitas’ they initially threatened a campaign of retribution. Instead they made a positive impact in the eyes of one chronicler and nativist, Matthew Paris. The idea of ‘robbing the rich and giving to the poor’ as well as notions of proto-Robin Hood, perhaps have some of their origins in the activities of the universitas, where it was said that pillaged food was given to the poor.