Today we are discussing the ways the theoretical Little Ice Age impacted the people who lived through it. The study of past climates is highly politicized. Historical climatologists argue bitterly, writing scathing critiques of each other’s data and interpretations. Climate change deniers use historical climatology to argue that what the science community refers to as global warming is merely a natural climatic variation. While believers in global warming use stories of climatic disaster uncovered by climatologists as warnings of our impending doom. By far the most hotly debated period in historical climatology is the Little Ice Age. It’s not only the underlying cause of some of history’s most critical moments: the Black Death, the Thirty Years War, the French Fronde, the English Civil War, and the French Revolution… just to name a handful… The Little Ice Age is also and an example of how CURRENT history can be.

We invite you to listen to our podcast, read the transcript below or watch the YouTube video at the bottom of this post.

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Transcript of The Little Ice Age: Environmental History, Weird Weather, and Politics

Written and researched by Marissa Rhodes, MLS, PhD Candidate

Produced and recorded by Marissa Rhodes, MLS, PhD Candidate and Elizabeth Garner Masarik, MA, PhD Candidate

Elizabeth: Have you ever looked at clothes from hundreds of years ago: petticoats, breeches, waistcoats, wool dresses, caps, stomachers, etc.. and thought—weren’t they hot? In a world without air conditioning and clothes considerably more modest than our own, how did they tolerate warm weather? Well a lot of the time, yes, they were probably hot and miserable but as it turns out, they may not have had quite as much warm weather to deal with. People living from 1500-1800 lived in a time colder than our own. Some scholars call this period the Little Ice Age, a period marked by several phases of climatic disaster. Today we’re going to talk about the ways this theoretical Little Ice Age may have impacted the people who lived through it.

Marissa: But that’s not all. The study of past climates is highly politicized. Historical climatologists argue bitterly, writing scathing critiques of each other’s data and interpretations. Climate change deniers use historical climatology to argue that what the science community refers to as global warming is merely a natural climatic variation. While believers in global warming use stories of climatic disaster uncovered by climatologists as warnings of our impending doom. By far the most hotly debated period in historical climatology is the Little Ice Age. It’s not only the underlying cause of some of history’s most critical moments: the Black Death, the Thirty Years War, the French Fronde, the English Civil War, and the French Revolution… just to name a handful… The Little Ice Age is also and an example of how CURRENT history can be.

I’m Marissa

and I’m Elizabeth

and we are your historians for this episode of Dig

Elizabeth: The idea of a greenhouse gas effect was first formed in the 1890s with the work of John Tyndall, Charles Fourier, and later, Guy Stewart Callendar. But there was little or no data to support the hypothesis until the Cold War, when scientists from around the world formed the International Geophysical Year of 1957-1958, or IGY. The IGY demonstrated that without a doubt, CO2 concentration was slowly rising. Since then, climate change has been one of the hottest topics in politics, the media, the dinner table… it’s all over. Historical climatology is a small but tumultuous field that emerged after the IGY as scientists and humanities scholars realized the climates they had some to know would have varied significantly for people in the past. Historical climatologists seek to reconstruct past climates in order to consider their role in human history.

2000 Year Temperature Comparison | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: There are three main ways that historical climatologists study past climates. The first is historical recordings of instrumental measurements. These are the most accurate but hard to find. Thermometers were not invented until the seventeenth century and even then, only a small number of global climates were being measured regularly. The second option is written records of people’s weather-related experiences. Some historical people recorded the fact that their local lake had frozen, that there  was constantly snow, low temperatures, or many sunny days without rain. But it is hard to measure subjective experience so these sources are highly problematic. The most common measurement technique for historical climatologists is the use of climate proxies, which are physical records of past climates. These include tree rings (this is called dendrochronology), ice cores, cave deposits, lake sediment layers, and buried flora and fauna. Analysis of these physical records help historical climatologists to paint a picture of climates in times past.

Elizabeth: So what have they discovered about this purported Little Ice Age? We know that on average, Europe in the 16th-18th centuries was 1.8 to 3.6 degrees cooler than our current climate. (that was in Fahrenheit, that’s 1-2 degrees Celsius). A few degrees does not sound like a lot but it’s pretty remarkable. We are seeing the results of global warming now and our temperatures are rising at the rate of 0.1 degree Celsius per decade. And we are seeing the melting of the polar ice caps, desalination of the ocean, more erratic weather events. So a few degrees is significant.

Marissa: Historical climatologists aren’t totally sure why this period of cooling happened but they think that lots of volcanic activity and solar forcing (which is a change in the ratios of sun energy absorbed or refracted by the Earth) may be the culprits. The Little Ice Age wasn’t only colder, it made European weather more variable and instigated several climatic disasters they had to contend with.

At the start of the Little Ice Age, Europe had enjoyed a century and a half of moderate, predictable weather patterns. The population had recovered from the Black Death (which had resulted in massive population loss the century before), and harvests were good. These are generally good things but this upswing in population made land and space scarce. This meant they were vulnerable to climatic disasters.

Elizabeth: In the 1590s, the fun began. Several cold and wet springs and summers in a row destroyed European crops. In England, the 1590s were a time of crisis. With nothing to sell or trade for money and very little food making it to market, Englanders entered periods of famine. Inflation destroyed their economies, many became homeless, and mortality rates jumped. Vagrants and beggars (vagrancy was illegal) occupied the muddy streets of London. Parliament passed a Vagabond Act in 1597 that legalized the transportation of criminals, many of the impoverished vagrants, to the American colonies or their impressment into the navy. Fearing unrest as a result of the vagrancy problem, Elizabeth I  created Poor Relief legislation in 1598 and 1601. Some of these statutes remained law for hundreds of years, until poor-law amendments in the 19th century. The Poor Relief act of 1598 created early versions of workhouses, the ancestors to the institutions you’ll find in Charles Dickens books hundreds of years later.

Woodcut image of travellers

CJ Turner-Ribton, A History of Vagrants and Vagrancy, and Beggars and Begging (London: Chapman and Hall, 1887)  | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: Over 2 million hectares (that’s almost 5 million acres) of formerly cultivated land was abandoned because of the inclement weather of the 1590s. The situation was no better in the Americas, where the English established colonies in Roanoke in 1585, and Jamestown in 1607. Climatologists used tree-rings to recreate the climate endured by the Roanoke colonists. They discovered that the ill-fated colony happened to settle in the area one year before the worst drought conditions in the past 800 years. The drought lasted for several years and is thought to have contributed to the starvation and eventual disappearance of the Roanoke colonists.

Elizabeth: In December of 1592, there was a plague outbreak in London that killed 17,000 people in the city. That’s about 7% of the city. Widespread poverty, malnutrition and homelessness made this bout of plague particularly deadly. Fun fact… this is the time when Shakespeare’s plays were being performed regularly in London but the London theatres had to close down for a while because of the fear that public gatherings would aggravate the plague epidemic. It’s interesting to think about how history would have been different—for vagrants transported to the Americas, or impressed into the army, or families who suffered famine or plague, or even for the Roanoke colonists, if the Little Ice Age hadn’t begun precisely when it did.

Marissa: Exactly. And the suffering was not limited to western Europe. One of the worst events plagued the Ottoman Empire in the 1590s. During this time, the Ottoman Empire suffered its longest drought in 600 years. At the same time an epidemic livestock disease also wiped out the sheep and cattle in the area. Most Ottoman subjects suffered from malnutrition and starvation as a result. The Ottomans were somewhat removed from the suffering or their peasantry and therefore saw no problem levying harsh taxed on them to finance their war with the Habsburg empire.

Elizabeth: Janissary troops were dispatched to the countryside to “extract” money from the starving peasants. People were pissed. Guerilla troops, basically angry bandits, led provincial magistrates, known as Celali, in armed combat against the Sultan. These popular uprisings became known as the Celali Rebellion. The Rebellion had the effect of depopulating the Ottoman countryside for decades as starving peasants died or took flight to safer areas. This is a good example that shows how a climatic event, even a short one, can change the trajectory of history.

Marissa: Sometimes that climatic event doesn’t even have to be close by. In 1600, a volcano named Mt. Huyanaputina erupted in Peru. The atmospheric impact of the eruption catapulted the Little Ice Age into its worst phase. In Russia from 1601-1603, the winters were so extreme and the harvests so bad that it instigated what’s called the Time of Troubles. The Time of Troubles was originally a political crisis following the end of the Rurik dynasty in 1598. The unsure succession to the Russian throne sparked a series of military coups. It may have gone over the heads of the commoners altogether if it hadn’t been for the mass starvation caused by the Little Ice Age’s coolest period. There were numerous incidents of violence, widespread vagrancy and eventually the taking up of arms by commoners and landowners. People were freezing to death, starving to death, or at best had lost their livelihoods to famine.

Elizabeth: The world spent much of the next few decades in what climatologists call the “general crisis.” In Europe, harvest failure aggravated the many brutal wars waged in England, France, the Netherlands, and Germany during this time. A German farmer, Hans Heberle, wrote in his diary, “When the grain is cut, drops of blood have been found on the stalks; yes, even the heads themselves are full of blood, which, alas, refers to bloody war.” Many people perceived rotted crops to be omens that foreshadowed the brutal wars to come. Listen to our episodes on the military revolution if you want more on this—the number of wars, and the high fatalities at this time are astounding. As you will remember if you’ve heard our military revolution episode, the great majority of war deaths at this time were caused by famine, exposure and epidemic disease.

Marissa: We have a few examples of what this was like for people living through the Thirty Years war (from 1618-1648). Heberle, who Elizabeth quoted a few moments ago, kept an extensive diary during the war. Many of his entries refer to the unstable weather patterns and the famines they caused.

“I have recounted above the main events of the war [in this year]. The dearth was so great that at Ulm grain rose to 13 fIorins, then up to 16, 17, even 20 fIorins. Then no grain came into the municipal granary at all, for the bakers secretly bought it all up. Rye cost 12 florins, peas 15 fIorins, oats 8 fIorins, fat and salt cost the same – between 9 and 12 batzen per pound and metzen – and a metzen of salt came very dear…”

Elizabeth: Heberle goes on to describe how harvest failure drove people to desperation.

“There was such terrible suffering, so bad I cannot describe it. From this death and starvation arose an evil worse than all other evils, namely, a pestilence, and many thousands of persons died of hunger, war, and plague. The hunger, you see, drove many poor folk to eat nasty and disgusting things, indeed, all sorts of improper things, such as dogs and cats, mice and dead cattle, and horseflesh. And the flesh from dead carcasses thrown away by the renderer – horse, dog, and other animals – was taken away. Indeed, people quarreled over it and thought it fine stuff. People were also glad to eat all sorts of plants from the fields, such as thistles, nettles, and [other plants]. Every kind of plant was favored, for hunger is a fine cook, as the proverb says. From this hunger a great pestilence and mortality arose, killing many thousand persons.

Doctor Conrad Dietrich of Ulm wrote in his New Year’s sermon for 16354 that at Ulm more than 15,000 persons died and were carried out of the city, among them 5,672 poor folk and beggars, 4,033 peasants and strangers, and 168 foundlings. On many days 150, 160, even 170 at most were carried out. Wasn’t that terrible? Yes, I believe it was the evil of all evils, for I have not only heard about it but saw it and heard it with my own eyes and ears.”

Marissa: It gets worse. Three years later Heberle describes the horrible conditions at Breisach, a fortress on the Rhine,

“Almost all the dogs and cats in the city were eaten, and some thousands of horses, cattle, oxen, calves, and sheep were also eaten. On November 24, a captured soldier died in the jail, and when the provost went to bury him, [he found that] the other prisoners had taken his body, cut it up, and eaten it. The prisoners in the jail made holes in the walls with their fingers so that they could partake of it.

Two dead men in the burying ground were carved up, and the entrails were extracted and eaten. Three children were eaten in one day. The soldiers promised a pie-maker’s son a piece of bread, if he would come into the barracks. When he entered, they butchered and ate him. On December 10 in the Fischerhalden alone, eight prominent citizens lost children, probably eaten, because nobody knew where they’d gone to.

This doesn’t count the strangers and beggars’ children, of whom nobody knew anything. In the square alone ten deaths occurred, not counting those found in the manure piles or in the alleys. On December 12, another soldier died in the jail, and when the provost went to bury him, the others lying about fell upon the body, ripped it with their teeth, and ate the corpse raw.”

Elizabeth: We give you these graphic descriptions to you can get a feel for the immense suffering caused by the cold weather. Most of these societies had very little surplus grain. European farmers grew just enough to feed their own families, and to sell to townspeople to cover other life expenses. When the Springs were cold and wet, their crops rotted and this was a matter of life and death for farmers and townspeople alike. Anywhere from 3 million to 11.5 million people died during the Thirty Years War. The great majority of these deaths can be attributed to the unrelenting cold, wet weather, and harvest failures of the Little Ice Age.

A dark painting depicting early morning or early evening on the Thames River, with small people and animals crawling around on the ice.

The Frozen Thames (1677) Abraham Hondius  | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: The Little Ice Age also spurred systematic witch-hunts in the 1600s. European witch-hunts peaked between 1600 and 1618. One of the most common accusations against men and women purported to be witches  was that they caused inclement weather. This new and exciting form of “witchcraft” strengthened the charges against supposed witches and gave villagers (who obviously weren’t climatologists” an explanation for the harsh winters and strange weather anomalies they were witnessing. There were so many instances of bizarre weather during the Little Ice Age that people began to feel like the devil must be at work here.

We have some excerpts from European chronicles that describe how villagers connected inclement weather with witchcraft, “1445, in this year was a very strong hail and wind, as never seen before, and it did great damage, […] and so many women, which it’s said to have made the hail and the wind, were burned according to the law.

Elizabeth: Here’s another one from the period of the general crisis we mentioned earlier, “Anno 1626 the 27th of May, all the vineyards were totally destroyed by frost […], the same with the precious grain which had already flourished.[…] Everything froze, [something] which had not happened as long as one could remember, causing a big rise in price.[…] As a result, pleading and begging began among the peasants, [who] questioned why the authorities continued to tolerate the witches and sorcerers destruction of the crops. Thus the prince-bishop punished these crimes, and the persecution began in this year…”

Marissa: The accused did occasionally admit to interfering with the weather. In 1595 accused peasant Christophe Gostner purportedly admitted that “he pushed the weather back to the highest mountains, where no cock crows, nether hay is mown, no ox lives and no flower blooms, so it could do no harm, and so the storm became just a weak rain.”

The most fun part of this story is that he was asked why, if he had the power to prevent storms, he didn’t prevent a particularly destructive one that happened around the same time. He answered that he was way too drunk to use his magic that night. LOL

The last European witch execution happened in 1782, the same time that the Little Ice Age came to an end. We are going to include a chart in the blog post that shows the lowest temperature dips of the Little Ice Age coinciding with the peak in witch trials. [see chart here]

Elizabeth: We want to mention that Europe was not the only part of the globe affected by the Little Ice Age. Scholars have connected many historical events with the climatic anomalies of the Little Ice Age. In the 1640s, an unprecedented period of cold wet weather caused famine in Ming China. One third of the population died in the various disasters that ensued. This was one of the most important reasons for the end of the Ming Dynasty and the success of the Manchu Qing who conquered the throne shortly after. The Qing were able to portray the Ming as having lost the Mandate of Heaven. To most Chinese commoners, this made sense. There could be no other reason why year after year of unseasonably cold weather was plaguing China. Surely the Ming had lost their divine support.

Marissa: In the West African Sahel (this is a zone of transition between the Sahara desert and the Sudanese savannah) the general crisis of the Little Ice Age wreaked havoc on the peoples living there. The cultures living there relied on the tsetse fly to protect their crops from pastoral invasion and desert raiders. The bite of the tsetse fly is fatal to livestock so grazing animals and raiders (usually on horseback) usually avoided the Sahel. Farmers were able to cultivate their crops in peace thanks to the tsetse fly. But during the Little Ice Age, drought plagued the Sahel and the tsetse flies migrated south looking for a more favorable climate. Grazing animals and desert raiders figured out real quick that the tsetse flies were gone and that they could easily raid the crops of farmers in the Sahel. It was devastating for the region, causing famine and endless social conflict.

Elizabeth: The last phase of the Little Ice Age was particularly devastating to Asian regions. There was an incredible upsurge in El Ninos that destroyed the monsoon cycles that India and Indonesian crops relied on. Millions of Indians under Mughal rule died of starvation in the 1680s. In Indonesia, the worst monsoon failures occurred right when the Dutch East India company seized control of the region. Some historians have argued that the Little Ice Age played an important role in the European subjugation of India and southeast Asia.

Marissa: Aside from the death and destruction and suffering caused by the Little Ice Age, it’s interesting to think about the culture implications of this cold, erratic weather. Art historians have identified an upsurge in winter landscapes during the Little Ice Age. Pieter Brughel’s painting “Hunting in the Snow” is the iconic image of Little Ice Age in Europe. We’ll put that in our show notes. Shakespeare’s work also describes some of the weather anomalies caused by the Little Ice Age. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the second act, Shakespeare describes warm winters, cold summers, hazy skies, and harvest failures. Writing in 1596, these strange weather patterns must have been on Shakespeare’s mind.

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_Hunters_in_the_Snow_(Winter)_-_Google_Art_Project (1).jpg

Pieter Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow, created in 1565| Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons via Google Art Project.

Elizabeth: Wood became a much more scarce resource than it had before. Colder days meant people needed more wood to burn as fuel to warm up their houses. Wood shortages caused exposure deaths and resource conflicts. Not to mention, the wood grew slower because of the unfavorable climate. Protestant pastor Daniel Schaller wrote in the late 1500s, “The wood in the forest does not grow as in former times… It is a common complaint that, if the world were to last much longer, it would soon eventually run short of wood and break down.” This wood shortage continued into the 18th century. This is one of the reasons that burning fossil fuels became a primary source of energy at this time. (Which, we know now, has contributed to global warming… ironic heh?).

Marissa: Heating became extremely important in large lodgings such as castles and fortresses. In centuries past, only the most inhabited rooms were heated. The extremely cold temperatures of the Little Ice Age necessitated more universal heating systems. For example in the Prague castle Hradschin, they employed a master of heating. The master of heating was the ONLY staff member who had keys to every room in the castle. The Little Ice Age also gave way to more complex strategizing for poor people (ya know, who didn’t live in fancy castles). Servants and lodgers were confined to upper storeys where they benefitted from the heat of lower stories without taking up fuel of their own. The cold weather forced architectural innovation such as glass windows and wooden floorboards (rather than stone)  to conserve energy .

Elizabeth: People were forced to dress differently for the colder climate. Herman Weinsberg, a wealthy German man, wrote a treatise with a chapter dedicated to the change in dress he’s noticed since his childhood. He noted that he’d seen more snow in recent years than he’d seen in his entire life combined. In the 1580s, Weinsberg created a woolen night-dress stuffed with fox fur to protect him from the freezing nights. Chilblains, frostbite and hypothermia were dangerous possibilities for most families, especially at night.

Marissa: Historians have often connected 17th century clothing to religious conservatism. This was certainly the case. We saw a theocracy in England and surge of Calvinism in the continent; the surge of Calvinism that fueled religious pilgrimage to New England; the Thirty Years War (a religious war).  Remember the general crisis was also the time of that mythologized plight of pilgrims arriving in New England. And you can picture them now with their long black dresses and coats and heavy wool stockings; caps and heavy petticoats for women. This bizarre costume was indeed how Puritans in England and the Netherlands dressed.  Compare this to the medieval tunics and stockings of centuries past. Part of the conservative, heavy, dark, layered clothes that we find in England, the northern colonies, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries at this time can certainly be tied to religious conservatism. But they were also just practical in a time when temperatures were lower and precipitation higher than it had been in hundreds of years.

Fur garments, 16th c. Paul Larisch und Josef Schmid: Das Kürschner-Handwerk, Paris, 1. Jahrgang Nos 3 – 4. I. Teil; Die Geschichte des Kürschnerhandwerkes, S. 43 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth: It wasn’t until the end of the Little Ice Age, in the late 18th century, that women discarded several, heavy layers of clothing for diaphanous, cotton gowns in the French style. Of course temperature is not the only reason for this change but such dress would not have been possible a century earlier, in the general crisis when temperatures were at an all-time low.

Marissa: That surge in religious conservatism can be tied to the Little Ice Age as well. Protestants and Catholics both perceived the ruined harvests and strange hail and thunderstorms they were experiencing to their own behavior. Many people theorized that God was expressing his anger at their sins, that the Devil was making inroads into 17th century society, or that the end of days was near. These perceptions about society aggravated the Calvinist separatism that contributed to the English Civil War and precipitated the population of New England.

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Show Notes

Blackwells Encyclopedia, “Climate Change in Global Environmental History: A companion to the Global Environmental History.”

Jean M. Grov, The Little Ice Age (Routledge, 1988). 

Wolfgang Behringer, A Cultural History of Climate (Polity, 2009).

Wolfgang Behringer, Harmut Lehmann, Christian Pfister, eds., Cultural consequences of the “Little Ice Age”
The Little Ice Age: Environmental History, Weird Weather and politics. Find out how the little ice age impacted the people of early modern europe and america. #history #earlymodern #littleiceage #apushhistory #apush #history #europeanhistory #worldhistory


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