Posted by: kljolly | May 2, 2016

Thirsting and Drought

As part of the research for my Leeds IMC paper on “Hunger and Thirst in Anglo-Saxon England,” I began to consider the conceptual range of the two words, hunger and thirst.  Both have a literal, physical meaning–a biological urge to eat and drink when the body signals a lack of food or liquid–as well as associated metaphorical meanings of spiritual, emotional, or other forms of desire for fulfillment.

It struck me, though, that the dyad hunger and thirst is a Biblical one that may have a different valence in Anglo-Saxon experience.  In Biblical lands and other regions with deserts or susceptible to severe drought, thirst signals a very real danger of dehydration in the same way that hunger left unsated can lead to starvation or death from malnutrition.  You can die of thirst before starvation in some places. Add to this lack of access to clean, safe water and thirst becomes dire.

But the likelihood of death from dehydration due to lack of liquid is much less in northern European climes, where drought is less frequent and less severe, perhaps affecting crops and cattle leading to famine, but not contributing to human mortality due to dehydration.  Most northern Europeans could access water from wells, streams and rivers, although with the risk of contamination and illness.  They could also concoct brewed drinks of various kinds, drink animal milk, or get needed liquid from plants in the diet.

So, under what conditions might someone in Anglo-Saxon England be extremely or dangerously thirsty?

A search of OE þurst, þurstig, þyrstan, þyrstig; ungemet-þurst, sin-þyrstende, ge-þyrst, of-þyrsted shows the common dyad hunger and thirst, as well as an even balance of literal and figurative types of thirst, none seemingly deadly in themselves.

Of the literal types of thirst as symptomatic of a dangerous condition, I thought of the following possibilities:

  • illness (Leechbook II.16 where thirst and lack of thirst are cited as symptoms of hot and cold stomachs respectively)
  • thirst while dying of some other cause, as in battle (Christ on the cross is also an example)
  • asceticism, linked with Biblical overtones (Wilfrid, Cuthbert)
  • seafaring, when the water runs out, although I need to find some examples
  • prisoners left to die without food or drink, haven’t found any cases
  • and natural disasters leading to polluted water or drought

Not wanting to exclude the possibility of natural disaster causing a water shortage, I embarked on a search for drought in Anglo-Saxon England and ran into some familiar source problems.  Many of the textual references to drought (OE drūgoþ, Lat. siccĭtas, arĭdĭtas) were to Biblical, homiletic, or glossary texts and not directly referring to conditions in England.  While Anglo-Saxons may have understood the concept of a desert as very dry land, their own experience of waste lands was probably not visualized or experienced as the waterless deserts of Biblical or other Mediterranean stories.

Still, did Anglo-Saxon England experience droughts?  It was easier to find Irish evidence, both textual and archaeological. The Annals of Ulster record a drought in 773, which F. Ludlow has correlated with tree ring data (Tree Ring Chronology of Meteorological Extremes for Ireland, AD425-1650, Irish Meteorological Society 2013, available at  Later Irish annals mention heat and drought (Annals of Inisfallen, 1129; Annals of Connacht, 1252; see Fergus Kelly, Early Irish Farming, pp. 2, 235).  Would England experience a drought if Ireland did?  I have not yet found a reference to drought in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Not for want of trying, and here I have to share some frustrations with citations that have led to a very different outcome for this post.

One handy resource for Anglo-Saxon foodways is Ann Hagen’s earlier A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food Processing and Consumption (1992) and her later, more comprehensive, Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink : Production, Processing, Distribution and Consumption (2006).  Both were published by Anglo-Saxon Books, a press specializing in readable general audience materials for non-specialists.  For specialists like myself, though, we need to track down the primary sources, and for that the citations in these two books are very misleading.

Hagen’s  Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Food Processing and Consumption has a handy Appendix D listing famine years from 439-1099, but alas the primary evidence is poorly documented. In the narrative section earlier–where a number of useful Anglo-Saxon primary sources are quoted and cited–she implied that Appendix D was based on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  (p. 104, with a footnote to Wilfrid Bonser’s 1963 The Medical Background of Anglo-Saxon England, p. 14 which briefly describes the ASC as a source and notes that a pestilence might be recorded in only one local version).  Appendix D has footnotes only on some entries, implying these are from other sources than the ASC.  However, I could not find the unmarked references in ASC but did find a number of them in a book cited for other entries, a compilation by C. Walford, The Famines of the World Past & Present (Statistical Society of London, 1879), who states that the sources he used are too numerous to cite except on occasion (p. 4).  He starts with the Bible and Egypt, 1708 B.C.

So, in searching for drought, the following popped up in Hagen’s list but cannot be adequately traced to Anglo-Saxon primary source evidence:

  • 592 drought 10 January to Sept, traced to Walford, p. 69
  • 605 heat and drought, traced to Walford, p. 47
  • 680 three years drought, traced to Walford, p. 47
  • 737 great drought made land unfruitful, citing Whitelock English Historical Documents I (1955), 259; which I tracked in the 2nd ed. to p. 285, from the “Continuation” of Bede, which relies on 12th century and later manuscripts (see editions by Plummer I: 361-63; Colgrave-Mynor pp. 572-73).
  • not cited by Hagan but also in Walford, p. 47, drought in England 362, 374, 439, 454, Scotland 480, 762, Ireland 772, 775, 988-89.

In Hagen’s  Anglo-Saxon Food and Drink, p. 183, she cites a three year famine in England and Ireland between 695 and 700 leading to cannibalism; a four-year famine in Scotland beginning in 936, also leading to cannibalism; and then cites an account of people eating “horses, dogs, cats, rats and other vermin” after William the Conqueror’s campaigns in 1069.  After only this third sentence does a footnote appear and it is to a 1975 general history of cannibalism by Reay Tannahill, Flesh and Blood:  A History of the Cannibal Complex, which is, I am sorry to say, a good example of very bad comparative religious history, uncritically citing stories of cannibalism from cultures around the world.  Tannahill’s book seems to be the source for some of Hagen’s less reliable citations.

In the next paragraph, she says that “tabooed foods in Anglo-Saxon England included `horses, dogs, cats, rats, and other loathsome and vile vermin,'” with a footnote for the quote to “Harleian Miscellany III, 151.”  I could not find the item in the bibliography under that heading (also cited by Tannahill, who got it from Walford), but I did find it online, The Harleian Miscellany, or, a Collection of Scarce, Curious, and Entertaining Pamphlets and Tracts, as well in Manuscript as in Print, found in the Late Earl of Oxford’s Library, interspersed with Historical, Political, and Critical Notes, Vol. III (London: Robert Dutton, 1809), where p. 151 is a quote from The Life of King William I, presumably in support of the previous paragraph’s example but certainly not a reliable source for Anglo-Saxon views or practices (the Life begins on p. 115 and is written by J. Hayward in 1613). Tannahill (pp. 46-47) uses this example, along with others to survey medieval European famines leading to cannibalism, citing Walford (!).  Tannahill then offers as a reliable story for a late tenth century famine and cannibalism an account from “one of the few authors who was born at a time when it was still possible to hear of it from eyewitnesses,” proceeding to quote Raoul Glaber who, he notes only in the bibliography but rightly “was a gossip rather than a reliable historian” (p. 185). The book is made up of such “evidence.”

Indeed, more recent and scholarly theories about famine and cannibalism in the Middle Ages suggest such references should be used with extreme caution.  See for example:

  • Bonnassie, P. “Consommation d’aliments immondes [et cannibalisme de survie dans l’occident du Haut Moyen Age],” Annales: Economies, Sociétés, Civilisations 44 (1989):1035-56.
  • Christopher Dyer, “Did the Peasants Really Starve in Medieval England?” pp. 54-71 and Julia Marvin, “Cannibalism as an Aspect of Famine in Two English Chronicles,” pp. 73-86 in Food and Eating in Medieval Europe, ed. Martha Carlin and Joel T. Rosenthal (London and Rio Grande, OH: Hambledon Press, 1998).

The views of Walton, Tannahill, and even Hagen reflect a popular view of pre-modern societies as suffering from regular, debilitating famines because they lacked sustainable economies that go beyond subsistence and are therefore subjected to the ravages of nature.  In this view, these early agricultural economies lacked the infrastructure of civilization that the modern world has created to prevent starvation.  But of course we haven’t prevented starvation.  What we have done is create this modern myth of a primitive past of human childhood that we can then impose on the poor today–if only they would grow up and participate in a modern economy, they would not be starving–when it is really modern human systems of economic power that have created the poverty we see around the world today.



  1. Really interesting and constructive discussion of preconceptions and misrepresentations of the evidence (or so-called evidence!) in some published works. The only other instance of a drought that came to my mind while reading the post was the three-year one that afflicted the South Saxon kingdom until the day St Wilfrid began to baptise the people (so sometime in the 680s – possibly represented by Walford’s 680 example?). It’s in Bede Book IV chapter 13, and so in the OE Bede in what seems to be a faithful translation; neither includes a word for drought. The OE text instead describes “nænig regn … cwom” causing “se grimmesta hungor”, which Miller chose to translate as “a most dreadful famine”. Maybe hungor could be another word worth checking?

  2. Thanks for the 680 example of a regional drought in which the lack of rain leads to a bad harvest and famine. For people, hunger rather than thirst is the problem. Curiously, their despair leads to suicide (jumping off a cliff) not cannibalism.
    I am running searches on hungor as well, but this whole thirst thing distracted me. It seems the association is not between drought and thirst but drought and hunger.

    • A word search for famine in Bede’s history (Oxford ed.) and there are quite a few instances. I’ve written about Wilfrid’s rescue of the Sussex famine before.

      Drought is more likely to cause hunger than thirst since it will cause crops to fail before people die of thirst.

      Btw, osteology studies show that early medieval people (and later medieval and earlier Roman) often suffered from malnutrition.

      • Thanks, Michelle, for confirming my suspicions that hunger and malnutrition are the biggest issues in relation to natural disasters like drought. I would still like to know how common drought was and how much it varies regionally, depending climate but also on what they relied on for food–Wilfrid teaches them to fish, for example, implies they relied too much on grain agriculture for sustenance, but as your post notes the whole story is suspect.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: