Sunday, 3 February 2013

The Monk's Tale: food security part 4

To 'world build' the background of The Sefuty Chronicles I have had to trash it – these wanderings through history , which are selective I confess:) are showing how easy it is to trash a world.  We humans are past masters at the process.

When the Romans fell into nothingness so too did their great Empire – soldiers deserted when the money dried up, city folk vanished back to the land. Western Europe lost its network of trade routes, its security and its granaries. With no security on land or sea the great merchants sold up and folded their wings, no trade and the non producing cities died slowly.   Starvation and disease followed hunger, farmers eked out precarious livings on used up and mismanaged soil.  It is estimated that the population of Western Europe was halved between 200-600 AD.  So how did Europe hoist itself back up over the next few centuries to become the rampaging plunderers of the world?

Around the fourth century A.D. St Anthony rediscovered organic farming. I say rediscovered because of course before large-scale trade had changed the natural order of things all farming was pretty well organic. He was disgusted by the lawlessness and hopelessness of the world, so found himself this little bit of land, in North Africa, with a spring on it. 


He tilled, sowed and lived off it in harmony with all things, taking nothing from anyone else.

Rather in the way of all these things others who wished to stop the world, get off and live simply and harmoniously, flocked to join him. This movement of St Anthony’s continued a long time. A hundred years after St Anthony had begun his simple life another churchman, Cassian, arrived on the farm so to speak. He was inspired by what he saw and decided to transplant the idea to Marseilles. His intentions may have been pure and good, but this was probably not the best place to set up his simple life. The city was large for the time, had a harbour and prospered after a fashion. Oh, but the doors to the temptation of expansion, ever present.

His community prospered and the idea of a simple life running alongside prayer and devotion caught on. A while later St Benedict, with his own version of the idea, began the Benedictine Order.  Many other orders ran monasteries but possible the Benedictines were the most well known. Saint Benedict changed the regime a little, well quite a lot actually, instead of a very simple monastic life he allowed some luxury as well.  More meals in a day, mattresses to sleep on – actually being allowed to sleep your fill was a new one.  His, were the best of reasons, if hard physical labour is required then adequate nutrition and rest was equally so. 

Good intentions! 

Now all of us can visualise that wide straight path, gleaming with bright optimistic paving, yes that one, leading straight down to hells fiery depths!

To be fair to Benedict and all other monks, their lives were a model to be emulated. The tools available at that period meant that sewing, tilling and harvesting were all backbreaking jobs. And, because of the decline in agriculture after the Romans collapsed, the land had gone back to the wild. They hacked out field after field, from grasslands, marshlands, and woodlands. To begin with it was a self-sufficiency exercise. To enable themselves to live in these communities and pray for themselves and others, they needed to be self sufficient.They worked hard and industriously.

After the first one was established then, of course, when the second one started the first would help them and send foodstuffs to them. To keep them going until they had built up supplies for themselves. The second would help the third and so forth. In a very short while they had a nice little network, complete with connecting roads,  monasteries that could be relied on to help each other out in times of need.

They became experts in farming, replacing fertility and good harvests.  They were good. The early monks. Their monasteries attracted not only the local peasantry but younger sons of the well to do.  The middle classes who had no other work to do would gravitate also.  Some good brain power and ingenuity was being harnessed within the monastery walls.

This collecting of brawn and brain was not all one sided.  Those in want were given food and shelter in return for their labour; some were taught trades or other skills.  Indeed our very own Bede, a peasant’s son, was taught his letters and became England’s leading historian and author of the time. Skills came in with these outsiders and, combined with those of the monks, modern technology advanced apace.

The Benedictines spread right across Western Europe, they became very powerful. They had two strands of power going for them. They were industrious, clever and legally keen, making sure that they retained the monopolies for anything that was likely to bring a profit.  They ended up controlling the manufacture and trading of alcohol, the mills, and therefore the staff of life! Also land rents and the trade fairs. They controlled food.

Although they had food security in their hands they had another possibly greater power.  They were in charge of everyone's immortal souls.  If those early visionaries had not set out control Western Europe their descendants certainly ended up doing so.

Another advantage of the monasteries is that unlike the lands of the great and powerful when the monks died the monastery still remained. Never carved up between sons, or dispersed. Therefore over the centuries an amazing amount of money (and with it increased power) built up.

As they grew more successful, they began to force the peasantry off the land, into the cities. They began to look at specialisation; bad move, mono-culture destroys the land! For a while everyone's life was much more pleasant. Such huge surpluses of food were being produced by the very efficient monasteries that even those displaced from the land and sent to the cities could be fed. Populations began to boom. In 650 A.D. the population in Europe had dropped to about 5 1/2 million within 600 years it had risen to approximately 35 million.

Both church leaders and kings began an architectural bonanza, the wonderful cathedrals and palaces we gawk at when doing the tourist bit were financed by the wealth accrued and built by that displaced peasantry.

The old picture begins again; as the food increased, so too did the population. As the population increased the amount of food needed also increased. Whole swathes of land were deforested, tilled and planted. There was less and less time to leave them fallow between growing seasons. Land that had regained its fertility over the centuries since the Romans, purely by being left fallow for so long now began to lose that fertility and, as the soil degraded, harvests plummeted. All that expansion had happened during a warm period in  Europe, so all might well have saved if the weather had continued its kindly way.

By the 13th century Europe was in the grip of raging inflation.  Then, as it is wont to do, the financial system, that was bolstering everything, imploded.

The banks failed.

Maybe still savable? It's a never ending and familiar scenario throughout our history. The warm period that had helped it all happen ended and Europe descended into a mini ice age. A few years of torrential rain rotted harvests, combined with plunging winter temperatures and starvation took over with disease rampaging cheerfully behind. The  European population died in their millions. By the end of the 14th century it is estimated that between 25 and 45% of the population had perished.

Oh dear, but now maybe humanity had learnt their lesson?


  1. I love reading about this sort of thing, alberta. Thank you!

  2. History is fascinating isn't it:) only trouble-when one is reading it leads down divers paths and whole days vanish!

  3. I love history, but you're right. A lot of time gets lost when you get sucked into those stories.