From the Princeton Weekly Bulletin, March 31, 1997
"really likes archives"
By Caroline Moseley
Medievalist William Jordan, professor of history, has spent a good deal of his professional life in European archives -- most recently, to research his 1996 book, The Great Famine: Northern Europe in the Early Fourteenth Century.
Fortunately, Jordan says, "I really like archives."
The Great Famine (Magna Fames, according to contemporary accounts) gripped Northern Europe between 1315 and 1322, destroying up to 10 percent of the population in many regions.
"Initially it was a weather-induced phenomenon," Jordan says. "In 1315 it just didn't stop raining. In 1316 it rained even more, which made it almost impossible to plow. People sowed anyway, because they needed a crop, but the seeds washed away, huge amounts rotted, and beans and peas simply floated up to be eaten by vermin. Whatever yield there was could hardly be harvested because of the continuing rain. Then there was a series of droughts, and again, bad harvests. And a series of incredibly harsh winters, during which even the Baltic Sea froze."
Typically, Northern European peasants would expect two harvests a year: one in spring for winter wheat planted in October, and one at the end of summer for wheat planted in spring. The aggregation of environmental disasters that struck in 1316 "meant 14 bad harvests in seven years," Jordan points out.
Weather also affected the animal population. "There was no winter fodder; animals had to be slaughtered. Herds and flocks were wiped out by diseases such as rinderpest."
To make a desperate situation worse, "The English were fighting the Scots; the Scots invaded Ireland because there were English troops there; and the Welsh revolted against England. The French were at war with the Flemings. There were all kinds of wars in Germany -- the Holy Roman Empire -- and in a couple of Scandinavian countries as well. Political leaders thought the famine would end, but it didn't. And they kept on fighting."
Unlike the Plague of 1348, which affected rich and poor alike, the Great Famine affected mostly the poor, says Jordan. "There was clear differential mortality according to rank, with no increase in the death rate of aristocrats in the countryside."
Fragments to create a whole
To synthesize social, economic and religious history for a comprehensive treatment of the famine, Jordan examined church, private and government records from all over Northern Europe.
The massive task was approachable, he says, because "Firestone Library collects, at the highest level, inventories of archives, some extremely detailed." For example, he found "an inventory of the archives of the Cathedral Church of Sens in France, held in the département of Yonne, that indicated roughly what's contained in Bundle 1 of documents, and Bundle 2, Bundle 3 and so on -- as far as anyone has looked. With resources like that, you can identify a good deal of what you want to look at before you travel to the archive. Though, of course, there's always more there."
When one puts information gleaned from the records of the Cathedral Church of Sens together with facts found by other scholars in a hundred other archives, a picture of life during the Great Famine begins to take shape, says Jordan. "It's fun to recreate a story from the past, to take many fragments and from them to create a whole."
Because Northern Europe was 90 percent rural in the Middle Ages, The Great Famine is in large part a history of rural populations. "In terms of morbidity and mortality, the famine had an even greater effect in the towns," Jordan says, "because in the country you can at least scavenge -- there are still some plants, perhaps fruits on the trees."
Still, he says, "I have long been interested in the history of peasants--perhaps because, when I came to Princeton, one of the books that first piqued my interest was The End of the Old Order in Rural Europe" (1978), by Professor of History Jerome Blum.
In addition, Jordan says, "I think peasants don't get a fair shake. People write about them as if they're clods, but they had a great deal of expert knowledge that is worth recovering if we want to know what life in the Middle Ages was like."
When to ask for help
Before The Great Famine , Jordan concentrated on the French monarchy, publishing Louis IX and the Challenge of the Crusade: A Study in Rulership (1979) and The French Monarchy and the Jews from Philip Augustus to the Last Capetians (1989), among other works.
"The French monarchy defined its claim to being most Christian by a very aggressive and antagonistic stance toward Jewish communities," he says. "The Crown itself rarely undertook violence, but taxed the Jewish communities extremely heavily, enforced rules of segregation and supported policies of the Church that urged the conversion of the Jews." When, in 1306, Philip the Fair expelled the Jews, "One hundred thousand Jews were arrested in a single day in a very well orchestrated show of royal power."
Though very few medieval documents are in Hebrew, as it was "a ritual or scholarly language, used for worship and commentary on the Talmud or the Bible," Jordan studied Hebrew with Professor of Near Eastern Studies Mark Cohen. "If I'm going to write about a particular phenomenon," he feels, "I should make at least an effort to get a sense of the linguistic milieu."
This conviction has led him not only down the linguistic highways of French, German, Latin and Dutch, but down some byways as well. While working on The Great Famine , he examined texts in Middle Swedish with English Professor Hans Aarsleff and in Middle Low German with Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures Michael Curschmann (who heads the Program in Medieval Studies, of which Jordan is a member).
"It is sobering to realize how much one doesn't know," Jordan observes. "There are so many nooks and crannies of information that might be relevant but that you can't evaluate unless your own tools are up to the task. You have to know when to ask for help. I'm fortunate enough to be in a department, and a university, where there's lots of help."
Thinking like a peasant
The term "Middle Ages" is conventionally applied to the years between about 500 and 1500. The area in which Jordan specializes, the High Middle Ages, covers about 1050 to 1350. What draws students of the 1990s to study the medieval period?
"Much of the romantic quality of the Middle Ages permeates childhood," Jordan believes. "Knights in armor, ladies with pointy hats, the Crusades, Robin Hood, Gothic cathedrals. Though we have to disabuse students of many preconceptions, there is an interest on which we can build."
Still, "It's difficult to get Princeton students to think like peasants. It's hard to get them to think about things like pigs, soil types and manure. It's a challenge, but it's fun."
Jordan's own interest in the Middle Ages was born when he was a student at Ripon College in Ripon, Wisc. "It was a small college, and the books in our library tended to be old classics. I read [Belgian historian Henri] Pirenne's Mohammed and Charlemagne (1937), a wonderful book. It had such sweep and boldness. I thought I'd like to have a vocation in which one might try to write something of that quality."
He earned his PhD at Princeton in 1973, studying with Professor of History Joseph Strayer, editor of the authoritative Dictionary of the Middle Ages (1982-1989). Jordan joined the faculty in 1973. Currently director of the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies, he is a former chair of the Committee for Medieval Studies and a former Behrman Senior Fellow in the Humanities.
Middle Ages for middle schoolers
A recent project of which Jordan says he is "really proud" is the four-volume The Middle Ages: An Encyclopedia For Students (1996), of which he is editor in chief.
This is a version of Strayer's Dictionary prepared especially for middle schoolers. The 5,000 articles of the original work have been reduced to about 700 and cover topics from Agriculture, Alchemy and Angels to Weapons, Witchcraft and Women's Religious Orders. According to the brochure, the four volumes deal with "every aspect of medieval life in Western Europe, the Scandinavian North, the Byzantine and Slavic East, the Muslim South and the ubiquitous world of Judaism."
A particular challenge in this project, says Jordan, was to make sure that the academic contributors "wrote for the seventh-to-eighth grade level." On the editorial board, besides scholars, were a middle school teacher and librarian who "read all the articles for accessibility." To ensure that the level was appropriate, Jordan asked his then 12-year-old daughter Lorna to peruse part of the manuscript; fortunately, it passed middle school muster.
Jordan's current projects include a book on "Europe in the High Middle Ages" for a Penguin series on the history of Europe. For this, he says, "I'll have to learn a lot more about Southern Europe."