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Abandonment of farmland and vegetation succession following the Eurasian plague pandemic ofad1347–52

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Abstract Aim 

This paper reviews the available documentary, archaeological and palaeoecological evidence for the abandonment of agricultural land and consequent regeneration of the forest in Europe after the Black Death. Location 

Western and northern Europe. Methods 

This review is the result of an exhaustive search of the historical, archaeological and palaeoecological literature for evidence indicating agricultural decline and forest regeneration in Eurasia during the 14th century. The available evidence for landscape change can be divided into two categories: (1) documentary and archaeological sources, and (2) palaeoecological reconstructions of past vegetation. In the past few years, several pollen diagrams from north-west Europe have been reported with precise chronologies (decadal and even annual scale) showing the abandonment of farmland and consequent ecological change in the late medieval period. Results and main conclusions 

There is strong evidence of agricultural continuity at several sites in Western Europe at the time of the Black Death. The effects of the Black Death on the European rural landscape varied geographically, with major factors probably including the impact of the plague on the local population, and soil quality. At two sites in western and northern Ireland, the late medieval decline in cereal agriculture was probably a direct result of population reduction following the Black Death. In contrast, the decline in cereal production began at sites in Britain and France before the Black Death pandemic ofad1347–52, and was probably due to the crisis in the agricultural economy, exacerbated by political instability and climate deterioration. Much of the abandoned arable land was probably exploited for grazing during the period between the decline in cereal farming and the Black Death. In the aftermath of the Black Death, grazing pressure was greatly reduced owing to reductions in the grazing animal population and a shortage of farmers. Vegetation succession on the abandoned grazing land resulted in increased cover of woody tree species, particularly Betula and Corylus, by the late 14th century. The cover of woodland was greatest at c.ad1400, before forest clearance and agriculture increased in intensity.
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Keywords: Black Death; Europe; Middle Ages; W├╝stungen; farm abandonment; plague; vegetation succession; woodland regeneration

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2007-04-01

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