Hansel and Gretel: Cannibalism Part II

Hansel_Gretel_by_Hosemann-Colored

Gretel pushes the witch into the oven. By Hoseman.

After a great famine had descended on the land, a starving woodcutter talks over the hardest decision of his life with his wife, the children’s “evil” stepmother. She persuades him to abandon the children; it is either that or starve. The woodcutter takes his two emaciated children, Hansel and Gretel, deep into the forest where he expects they will probably never find their way out. [This article is continued from here.]

Hansel and Gretel come upon a gingerbread house where an elderly woman entices them inside. The woman — secretly a witch — tries to trick the girl into climbing into the oven. It’s clear the witch intends to eat Gretel and her brother.

We all know how this story ends – Gretel pushes the witch into the oven and the children race home with the old witch’s gold and jewels. When they arrive, they learn the “evil” stepmother is dead – she was their mother in the original Grimm’s version. The stepmother died of unnamed causes. (Starvation, perhaps?) On the other hand, thanks to the witch, the family now has enough money to buy food. The woodcutter and his children live happily ever after. 

This German folk tale, immortalized by the Brother’s Grimm in 1812, likely has a darker basis. A great famine –- likely the Great Famine of 1315-17 –- is the progenitor of this story. The Great Famine caused widespread starvation and even cannibalism across Western Europe.

hansel-witch

With themes like child abandonment, starvation, and cannibalism, it’s no wonder Disney hasn’t made “Hansel and Gretel” into a movie.

Seen in the light of the Great Famine, the “evil” stepmother is practicing a form of lifeboat ethics.  Sadly, abandoning some children to try to save the larger group was not uncommon during the famine. In fact, people were so near to starvation that parents slaughtered and ate their own children, and children butchered their parents.1 Starving peoples living outside of the town or in the woods as outlaws may have turned to cannibalism. Christie of the Cleek’s gang, discussed in the first part of this article, is one example of groups of starving people who resorted to living outside of town and eating travelers.

The old witch may be a archetypal example of such a cannibal. Given the lack of noticeable signs of her magical ability, why does the tale refer to the old woman as a witch? If she was simply an old woman, why did she want to eat the children? Perhaps, she, too, was on the verge of starvation.

Survival-type cannibalism did occur in the all-too-frequent extreme situations in the Middle Ages, especially the tumultuous fourteenth century. Many, if not most, medieval people were seriously malnourished and constantly on the edge of starvation. 

Food shortages during the Great Famine created savage conditions. At first, people ate the dogs and cats as well as any reptiles and rats they could find. “Many” people became so desperate they tried to subsist on insects, leaves, and even animal turds.2

The starving people dug fresh corpses up out of the ground and at them. The starving people cut executed criminals down from the gallows and then butchered and ate them. And, the executed may have been the lucky ones. In some places, jailers quit feeding inmates. When they added a new prisoner to the jail, the convicts “ferociously attack new prisoners and devoured them half alive.”3

It cannot be overstated how close to the edge of starvation many, if not most, people in northwestern Europe were in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. 

The Great Famine wasn’t as simple as merely three years of bad weather: rather it was a perfect storm of economic, social, logistical, and even moral collapse that started nearly seventy years earlier. By the end of the 1200s, Europe was a hair’s breadth away from devastation, but nobody realized it. 

great-famine

Child malnutrition and abandonment was one cost of the Great Famine.

The Long Summer caused a medieval baby boom; as a result, the late 1200s roared in on a huge wave of inflation. The increase in people caused money to change hands at a faster and faster rate (something economists call velocity, which contributes to inflation). As prices rose, governments added more base metals to their gold and silver coins (debased the currency), which led to even more inflation. Interest rates rose. Starting in 1294, a fifty-year cluster of European wars caused governments to in-debt themselves further and need more taxes from their subjects. 

It was a tough period. Rents went up and wages went down.4 Sixty years of inflation did not help matters. A quarter of wheat rose two shillings (from 6s to 8s pence) from 1310-1320.

Landless peasants may have relied on a daily ration they received from their masters, which only supplied about half of the 1600 calories they needed to minimally sustain life.5 The different strata of society laid claim to all game and fish. By law, all that remained for the poorest laborers were songbirds.6

Food was not cheap in the Middle Ages. By Henry VII’s reign in the 1490s, it could gobble up as much as a whopping 90% of the daily real wage7. Many people lived on a razor’s edge between life and death. When the population increased, people began cultivating stony, lousy quality soil that nobody had ever bothered with before. People who worked this land were particularly vulnerable since their crop yields were always lower and these people typically just barely eked out a subsistence.

Typically, the time when people were waiting for the next autumn’s harvest to come in — after the previous year’s harvest had run out — was rough. These periods were known as the disettes.8 If there was a 20% shortfall in the harvest, people starved (this shortage was known as a grand disettes). Even a 10% shortfall caused severe suffering among poorer peasants. In England, Norway, and Northern France, crop yields fell a staggering 25% to 50%.9 Farmers soon had to resort to eating the seed they saved for planting. 

The math is shocking. For every bushel of seed sown, thirteenth and fourteenth century people only harvested three bushels. For every three bushels harvested, one bushel had to be set aside for seed the next year. And, then, all too often, the peasants paid taxes from their pitiful harvests – often to let a king raise money to fund a war to enlarge his kingdom or prosecute a claim to a foreign throne. 

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Bad weather was always hardest on the poorer peasants and day laborers – naturally, they had no savings stockpiled to see them through.10 The peasants who owned land had no cash (liquidity). 

Mud. Catastrophically, the pouring rain and frigid weather made it hard, if not impossible, to plow and plant seeds in the sopping wet land. The fact that oxen soon came to be in short supply would not have helped plow the nightmarishly muddy fields. During this period, many oxen died from diseases like rinderpest and anthrax. 

Some landowners responded admirably − and did their best to protect their charges. Germanic knights in particular, made a “considerable effort to feed their peasants11 .” 

Greedy lords did not help matters. For example, Hugh Despenser the younger — Edward II’s favorite (and possible lover) — had made himself incredibly rich, in part, by squeezing money out of the starving peasants on his lands. This tax money sat parked in his plump Italian bank accounts.12

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Pope John XXII

Meanwhile, the group of people often thought to protect the poor –- the Church -– lived it up. Pope John XXII (1316-67) spent staggering sums on cloth-of-gold, jewels, frescoes, and gold plate. Petrarch protested that even the pope’s horses were “dressed in gold, fed on gold, and soon to be shod in gold if God does not stop this slavish luxury.” Cardinals – or Princes of the Church as they were sometimes called – were no better. One owned 51 houses.13 Hackett Fisher does not record how the peasants of these prelates fared. Did they sell their gold to save their people? Even if they had, it may not have helped.

A Logistical Disaster

Although the disastrous weather during the Great Famine didn’t affect Mediterranean countries, they could not export their grain to help the North. This wasn’t because grain wasn’t traded — surprisingly, not all medieval people ate locally grown grain — it was because the transportation systems and food exchanges did not yet exist.

Many urban areas, such as Venice and Genoa, imported grain from the countryside or from other countries, including ones on the Northern shore of the Black Sea. Egypt regularly exported grain to the Muslim world. 

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The small round trading ships and rowed galleys built for the placid Mediterranean and southern seas weren’t suited to the stormy Atlantic waters. The Alps and Pyrenees made land transportation of grain tough. Rivers rain North to South, which made it harder to ship grain north.14 

While the Church and the lords often failed – or didn’t even try – the merchants stepped up to the challenge and cities with established trading relationships fared better than most. In 1317, the government of the city of Bruges paid to import grain, using Italian vessels for the process. 

The Great Famine Leads to the Black Death

Historian Philip Ziegler writes,  “Whatever one’s thesis about the inevitability of the Black Death, it cannot be denied that it found awaiting in Europe a population singularly ill-equipped to resist. Distracted by wars, weakened by malnutrition, exhausted by his struggle to win a living from his inadequate portion of ever less fertile land, the medieval peasantry was ready to succumb even before the blow had fallen.”15

Cannibalism was definitely a real phenomena during the Great Famine. Given the thin savings most people had, it isn’t surprising it occurred. While most people in the Great Famine did not die of starvation per se — their weakened bodies succumbed to disease — people were savagely desperate for food. Perhaps if lords hadn’t kept their peasants in such a state of subsistence, fewer people might have died.

  1. The Great Wave by David Hackett Fisher p. 37 []
  2. See Hackett Fisher p.34 []
  3. Hackett Fisher p. 37. []
  4. Alastair Dunn The Great Rising of 1381 p. 18 []
  5. Alastair Dunn The Great Rising of 1381 p. 20. []
  6. Alastair Dunn The Great Rising of 1381 p. 20. []
  7. The sources for this statistic are controversial. See The Fifteenth Century by E.F. Jacobs. []
  8. Hacket Fisher p. 41 []
  9. See p.160 of An Economic and Social History of the Later Medieval Europe 1000-1050 Ed. by Steven A. Epstein. []
  10. An important point noted in on p.162 of An Economic and Social History of the Later Medieval Europe 1000-1050 Ed. by Steven A. Epstein. []
  11. Epstein p. 163. []
  12. Hackett Fisher p. 39 []
  13. For all points in this paragraph, see Hackett Fisher p. 41. []
  14. Epstein p. 163 []
  15. Philip Ziegler The Black Death p. 35, as quoted in David Hackett Fisher, p. 41 []

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

11 Comments

  • Reply May 11, 2014

    Jun

    This is pretty amazing. Considering the history of the Great Famine, I shudder to think what is going to happen in the winter that has just arrived in Westeros.

    I have seen a theory (but can’t remember where) that the witch and the stepmother are the same person. Seems odd that after the witch had been killed, the stepmother was gone too.

    • Reply May 12, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      re: Westeros
      Huh. For some reason, I keep thinking that the famine has passed in Westeros, but that isn’t the case at all. They have even foreshadowed it many times… The winter comes; people starve.

    • Reply November 6, 2015

      Glenn Yutzy

      That theory about the stepmother/witch sounds familiar to me as well…

  • Reply May 12, 2014

    Grant

    Well they did have an incredibly long summer for growing, with crops and plant life in general apparently very well evolved for long warm or cold seasons. Unfortunately the coming winter is at the same time that a civil war has ripped their lands apart and even if the main fighting is over a lot of the land is still an ungoverned mess that features rampant banditry and probably tens of thousands of young men dead.

    So man-made social disaster probably has prevented them from any chance of effectively enduring a natural extended cold.

    And yeah, not that surprising that doomsday belief sprung up all over Europe around this time. Corrupt religious and secular leadership (at least widespread if not universal), authoritarian system that had the vast majority of the population living at a very low level, many wars, rampant plague, religion that makes specific mention of some end of the world with many disasters and a clash between good and evil. Europe at the time was practically designed for that kind of thinking.

    • Reply May 12, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      You’re absolutely right. I was going to put in an image of Danse Macabre — one of those skeleton type woodcuts or drawings from this period, but I didn’t get a chance.

  • Reply May 12, 2014

    Grant

    Must admit to a morbid love of that sort, particularly the Triumph of Death (though I wonder if my art history teacher called it something that no one else does since I haven’t been able to track it down under that name).

  • Reply May 12, 2014

    Jamie Adair

    I should have added to this article that the Brothers Grimm were philologists — and pioneers in that discipline, which aims to reconstruct texts. Their collection and preservation of Hansel and Gretel probably wasn’t accident – given its ties to the Great Famine and history.

  • […] clearest example of this is probably Hansel and Gretel, where parents eat their own children through the proxy of a witch, but it’s a theme that repeats itself in children’s […]

  • Reply May 18, 2015

    ragged-gothic

    “Given the lack of noticeable signs of her magical ability, why does the tale refer to the old woman as a witch…” Well, perhaps the fact that her house is made out of food! I think it must take a certain amount of sorcery to make enough gingerbread strong enough to build an actual dwell. As to whether she was starving…well, the house was still standing. Also, regarding the famished state of Hansel and Gretel, in the versions of the story I’m familiar with, they left a trail of breadcrumbs (if they had been gentry, not peasants, one presumes it would have been croutons) to find their way home. If they had such a paucity of resources, one would think they would have husbanded their precious bread with rather more prudence.

  • Reply June 17, 2015

    Sandra Dermark Bufi

    The story of Hansel and Gretel sounds also ironic to me… Why would a witch who lives in a house of treats eat children when she could eat her own… Is it to keep on having a place to live?

    Besides, Gretel reminds me A LOT of both Clau-Clau-Claudius and Tyrion Lannister because of the way she plays foolish to trick her opponent (How does the oven work?), which is AWESOME.

    • Reply June 17, 2015

      Jamie Adair

      Well, this is the enigma of Hansel and Gretel – and I remember being very annoyed that I could not find more information about the origins of the story when I researched the article. There has to be a lot more to it.
      As you say, why does the witch need to eat children when she has a candy house? Perhaps in earlier versions she lured the children just with the smell of stew or something?? Maybe it was stew made from other children?
      Was the candy a metaphor?
      Was the old woman a metaphor?
      Speaking of tricks, like you say, I agree Tyrion is very interesting — especially because the Lannisters are (IMO) somewhat known for trickery. Lann the Clever, Tywin, and Tyrion are all pretty tricking and fooling people — although not perhaps as good as Ramsay Bolton. (I think it is curious, and perhaps significant, that Cersei and Jaime are not.)

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