This is how Charlemagne fought against the famine of 805/06.
Providing the population with sufficient food was a great challenge in the Middle Ages. Agriculture was very dependent on weather conditions. Longer periods of cold weather or a wet, cold summer in early summer could result in significant crop losses, especially for large grains. This has caused severe famines on many occasions.
Charlemagne, as a leader, was also faced with a severe catastrophic famine in the winter of 805/806. We know how the emperor reacted to the crisis from an official circular that Charles had spread throughout his empire. His amazing catalogue of measures shows how people thought differently in the Middle Ages!
The medieval harvest was not always as abundant as in this 14th century English manuscript.
Charlemagne’s catalogue of measures to combat famine
Charlemagne relied on the so-called capitulars to enforce the will of his leader. These were circulars written by the sovereign to his subjects, which were distributed by messengers throughout the empire. On the spot, it was then the task of the bishops and counts to implement the provisions. Thus Charlemagne was able to govern his great empire quite effectively.
Because these capitulars were often distributed in many copies throughout the Frankish Empire, many texts survived in the transcriptions to this day. This gives us a deep insight into how Karl governed his empire and reacted to certain crises and challenges. The decisive capitular of November 805 with the provisions for the hunger crisis in winter 805/806 was preserved in Liege near the Episcopal Church.
Charlemagne specifically called on his subjects to fulfil these three obligations in order to overcome the hunger crisis as quickly as possible:
Fasting – this was Charlemagne’s central request to all the inhabitants of the Frankish Empire. Three fasting periods of three days each should help to fight famine. The consumption of meat and wine was banned for three consecutive days in December 805, January and February 806.
But Charles did not order fasting to reduce consumption. On the contrary, the imperial court interpreted the imminent catastrophe of the famine as a punishment from God with which he wanted to punish the Franks for their sins. In Charlemagne’s eyes, the fasting of all (capable) subjects for several days was the only way to appease divine anger.
An Anglo-Saxon priest named Cathwulf had already pointed out to Charlemagne a few years earlier that famines, epidemics and other catastrophes were always triggered by evil and unjust royal domination. Only fasting as an opportunity for individual repentance, conversion and improvement as well as collective realization to avoid divine anger“ (Jörg, p. 43) could still help in such situations.
It is not only the threat of famine that must be avoided in this way: The Imperial Court was also concerned about impending epidemics and military conflicts in the border regions of the empire.
Fasting should last until the ninth hour. Only then could they eat again. Before that, Karl ordered in his newsletter, processions and masses should take place. Later, the Franks were encouraged to give alms to the needy.
Almsgiving appears first of all as a very rational reaction to an imminent famine, and finally the needy could be supplied directly on the spot with urgently needed food. Because, of course, at the time, there was no state security system.
But there too, there is a religious component: He who did almsgiving did something for his own salvation at the same time. The donor could benefit from his good deed in the afterlife.
Finally, the efforts made so far, i.e. fasting and almsgiving, should be intensified through prayer. Charlemagne therefore thunders in his capitular the clergy in extra layers in the church: the priests had to read an extra mass, other clerics had to execute fifty psalms.
Cereals: people’s livelihoods in the Middle Ages.
Fasting, almsgiving and prayer: tried and tested means against famine.
Even before winter 805/806, Charlemagne had to fight famine. We do not know exactly whether Charlemagne’s communication sent at the time refers to a famine in the years 778/79 or 792/93, but we already know the measures.