Living Conditions in the 1500s: Hunger and Famine

It may help one to appreciate modern times by spending some time studying the way things really were in the past. Toward that approach, the Historical Perspective section of the Positive Press will occasionally analyze the real, as opposed to romanticized, living conditions of the past. In the last Historical Perspective we looked at the housing of 16th-century European peasants. This week’s glimpse of the past focuses on what those peasants did to survive in times of famine.

The source material for this Historical Perspective is William Manchester’s best-selling book, “A World of Famine.”

Typically, one out of every four years was a year of famine. These famines could reduce the peasants to a state of absolute poverty, forcing them to sell everything they owned, including their meager clothing, thus reducing them to virtual year-round nudity.

The worst famines forced peasants to eat grass, roots and bark. Sometimes it got even worse and they were reduced to cannibalism. There are tales of strangers being abducted and then eaten. More gruesome yet are the stories of gallows being torn down so the hungry people could devour the still warm bodies of the dead.

You might keep this sort of desperation in mind the next time you feel a little weary of choosing between the Italian diner, the fast-food hamburger place, the French cafe, or just having food delivered.

For most of human history, the great majority of people have struggled just to find enough to eat. Not only can most of us choose almost any type of cuisine, but it is typically both within an easy distance and available at an affordable price. Most of us worry about having too much to eat rather than too little.

The variety, quantity, and affordability of the food available to the average inhabitant of the world today would simply be incomprehensible to hundreds of generations past.