CR 72:39-52 (2017)  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/cr01449

Environmental drivers of historical grain price variations in Europe

Jan Esper1,*, Ulf Büntgen2,3,4, Sebastian Denzer1, Paul J. Krusic5,6, Jürg Luterbacher7,8, Regina Schäfer9, Rainer Schreg10, Johannes Werner11

1Department of Geography, Johannes Gutenberg University, 55099 Mainz, Germany
2Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 3EN, UK
3Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL, 8903 Birmensdorf, Switzerland
4Global Change Research Centre and Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic
5Department of Physical Geography, Stockholm University, 10691 Stockholm, Sweden
6Navarino Environmental Observatory, 24001 Messinia, Greece
7Department of Geography, Justus Liebig University, 35390 Giessen, Germany
8Centre for International Development and Environmental Research, Justus Liebig University, 35390 Giessen, Germany
9Department of History, Johannes Gutenberg University, 55122 Mainz, Germany
10Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Mainz, 55116 Germany
11Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research and Department of Earth Science, University of Bergen, 5020 Bergen, Norway
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Grain price (GP) volatility has been a central constituent of European commerce, with fluctuations in barley, rye and wheat prices having been carefully documented over centuries. However, a thorough understanding of the climatic and environmental drivers of long-term GP variations is still lacking. Here, we present a network of historical GP records from 19 cities in central and southern Europe for the 14th to 18th centuries. Spatial variability at interannual to multidecadal scales within this network was compared with reconstructed warm-season temperatures and hydroclimatic conditions. We show that European GPs are tightly coupled with historical famines and that food shortages coincide with regional summer drought anomalies. Direct correlations between historical GP and reconstructed drought indices are low, hardly exceeding r = -0.2. Yet if the analysis is focused on extreme events, the climatic controls on high-frequency price variations become obvious: GPs were exceptionally high during dry periods and exceptionally low during wet periods. In addition, we find that GP variations were affected by temperature fluctuations at multidecadal timescales. The influence of summer temperatures is particularly strong over the 1650-1750 period, subsequent to the Thirty Years’ War, reaching r = -0.40 at the European scale. This observation is supported by the lack of correlation among regional GP clusters during the period of hostilities and increased inter-regional correlation thereafter. These results demonstrate that the exchange of goods and spatial coherence of GP data in Europe were controlled both by socio-political and environmental factors, with environmental factors being more influential during peacetime.


KEY WORDS: Historic volatility · Climate signal · Thirty Years’ War · Drought · Temperature · Reconstruction


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Cite this article as: Esper J, Büntgen U, Denzer S, Krusic PJ and others (2017) Environmental drivers of historical grain price variations in Europe. Clim Res 72:39-52. https://doi.org/10.3354/cr01449

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