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The timing and causes of famines in Europe

Nature Sustainabilityvolume 1pages283288 (2018) | Download Citation


Studies of modern famines tend to consider them ‘man-made’, resulting from war or from adverse shocks to food entitlements. This view has increasingly been applied to historical famines, against the earlier Malthusian orthodoxy. We use a novel dataset and temporal scan analysis to identify periods when famines were particularly frequent in Europe, from ca. 1250 to the present. Up to 1710, the main clusters of famines occurred in periods of historically high population density. This relationship disappears after 1710. We analyse in detail the famines in England, France and Italy during 1300–1850, and find strong evidence that before 1710 high population pressure on resources was by far the most frequent remote cause of famines (while the proximate cause was almost invariably meteorological). We conclude, in contrast with the currently prevailing view, that most preindustrial famines were the result of production, not distribution issues. Only after 1710 did man-made famines become prevalent.

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We thank F. Billari, M. Bonetti, K. Denny, A. Fernihough and M. Percoco for their advice.

Author information


  1. Dondena Centre and IGIER, Bocconi University, Milan, Italy

    • Guido Alfani
  2. School of Economics, University College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland

    • Cormac Ó Gráda


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G.A. and C.ÓG. contributed equally to the work and were involved in all tasks.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Guido Alfani or Cormac Ó Gráda.

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  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Discussion, Methods, Tables 1-3, References 1-10

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