Throughout the last millennium, mankind was affected by prolonged deviations from the climate mean state. While periods like the Maunder Minimum in the 17th century have been assessed in greater detail, earlier cold periods such as the 15th century received much less attention due to the sparse information available. Based on new evidence from different sources ranging from proxy archives to model simulations, it is now possible to provide an end-to-end assessment about the climate state during an exceptionally cold period in the 15th century, the role of internal, unforced climate variability and external forcing in shaping these extreme climatic conditions, and the impacts on and responses of the medieval society in Central Europe. Climate reconstructions from a multitude of natural and human archives indicate that, during winter, the period of the early Spörer Minimum (1431–1440 CE) was the coldest decade in Central Europe in the 15th century. The particularly cold winters and normal but wet summers resulted in a strong seasonal cycle that challenged food production and led to increasing food prices, a subsistence crisis, and a famine in parts of Europe. As a consequence, authorities implemented adaptation measures, such as the installation of grain storage capacities, in order to be prepared for future events. The 15th century is characterised by a grand solar minimum and enhanced volcanic activity, which both imply a reduction of seasonality. Climate model simulations show that periods with cold winters and strong seasonality are associated with internal climate variability rather than external forcing. Accordingly, it is hypothesised that the reconstructed extreme climatic conditions during this decade occurred by chance and in relation to the partly chaotic, internal variability within the climate system.