The Little Ice Age

A report on the changing world at the end of the Middle Ages.

The Little Ice Age is Brian Fagan’s report on a period of environmental change that changed the world forever.

I moved to Florence three weeks ago. Now that I’m living in the home of the Renaissance, I want to understand better how it happened. Last week I dove into the history and found Fagan’s book.

Fagan describes climate changes that unfolded over the course of about a millennium — from around 900CE to 1900CE. The change was caused by long-term changes in atmospheric pressure over the North Atlantic.

The changes happened in two phases:

  • The Medieval Warm Period (MWP), from 950CE to 1250CE
  • The Little Ice Age (LIA), from 1300CE to 1850CE

During the MWP, temperatures in Western Europe were up to 1°C higher than the norm.

During the LIA, temperatures in Western Europe were up to 2°C colder than the norm.

During the MWP, Northern and Western Europe experienced exceptionally long, warm summers. The warm climate opened up huge swaths of marginal land to agriculture. Farmers planted new fields further north and into forests, marshes, and highlands. A wine industry boomed in England. Europe’s economic and military power grew and Christendom expanded. The Catholic church launched an era of magnificent cathedral building, which saw the creation of the gothic cathedrals of Paris (Notre Dame), Cologne, Florence, Canterbury, Salisbury, Chartres, Reims, Rouen, Wells, Strasbourg, Exeter, and Siena. This was a golden age for Vikings, who took advantage of the ice-free oceans to settle Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland. The population of Central, Western, and Northern Europe more than doubled. All of this newfound wealth created a new class of spoiled nobility that lived off of taxes and rents from the peasantry. This was the golden era of feudalism.

But then, something unexpected happened.

Between 1250 and 1350, the temperature dropped from an unusual high to a withering low. Starting in 1315, Europe saw a period of cold, wet weather that wrought devastation. Year after year, heavy rains through spring and summer washed away the fields and stopped crops from growing. There was famine for seven years. Up to 12% of the population of Northern Europe died. The famished livestock grew weak, and a bovine pestilence struck, killing half of the cattle.

Even after the famine ended, the cold weather remained. The age of prosperity had ended and Europes peasants now faced an interminable age of poverty. Twenty five years after the famine ended, the cold weather brought Bubonic Plague from Asia. The peasants lived in crowded squalor, they had weak immune systems, and they were completely unprepared for further hardship. The plague killed half of the population of Europe in about five years.

The peasantry emerged from the plague with a new outlook. The diminished workforce commanded higher wages, and many peasants had inherited land from dead relatives:

By the beginning of the fifteenth century, the depopulation of the countryside by famine, plague, and war had led to the abandonment of as many as 3,000 villages across France alone. Thousands of hectares of arable land lay vacant and did not come back into cultivation until the end of the century or even later. Again, war was a villain. Frightened peasants fled behind city walls and dared not venture out to cultivate fallow land nearby, thereby compounding food shortages caused by poor harvests and wet weather.

On the other hand, Europe’s nobility — having survived famine and plague by hiding in their manor homes — now faced an economic crisis that threatened their opulent lifestyles. To maintain their status, they fought two wars: one against foreign powers to expand or preserve their kingdoms; and one against their own people, to maintain their political dominance. From the 1300s onwards, Europe saw a period of unprecedented war and rebellion peaking in the calamitous 1600s — the coldest and most violent century of the Little Ice Age. In 1560, a Prussian pastor wrote:

There is no real constant sunshine, neither a steady winter nor summer; the earth’s crops and produce do not ripen, are no longer as healthy as they were in bygone years. The fruitfulness of all creatures and of the world as a whole is receding.

Philosophically, the European worldview had been shaken to the core. If God was just, how could he have wrought such terror? And if life is fleeting, shouldn’t we enjoy it? Europeans were ready to question the role of the absolute authority of God and the church — an authority which took another blow in 1378 when, in a moment of crisis brought about by rampant corruption, the Catholic Church appointed two rival popes and created a schism in the church.

Seeking a rationalization for their suffering — and with the church failing to offer one — Europeans turned to superstition. The Little Ice Age saw a rise in pogroms and witch trials, with jews and women regularly burned alive.

Fagan restates a theory popularized by Mark Kurlansky in his book Cod. The changing ocean temperature drove the cod away from European shores. Prior to Columbus’ voyage, droves of Basque and English fisherman secretly made their way to the New World to plunder the bounteous cod stocks.

Partly as a result of the change in climate, the Roman Empire finally collapsed in 1453 with the fall of Constantinople, sending scholars fleeing Westward as refugees. Many of these scholars landed in Florence. When they arrived, they found a society embroiled in struggle: rich versus poor, pious versus profane.

The fall of Constantinople had closed the Silk Road, forcing European traders to look for other ways to access Asia for lucrative resources. In 1481, a Florentine astronomer, Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, wrote a letter to Christopher Columbus detailing a plan to reach Asia by traveling west across the Atlantic Ocean. Contrary to popular belief, no one at the time believed that the earth was flat. Rather, they had loosely accurate estimates of the circumference of the earth, which showed that a westward journey around the world from Europe to Asia would be too long, and no ship could carry the necessary food and water. Nonetheless, Columbus attempted it eleven years later — and arrived in the New World.

If it weren’t for this climate snap — from warm to cold — would Europeans have crossed the Atlantic? Would they have had the capital to fund their expeditions and subsequent conquests? If they hadn’t know the scarcity of plague, famine poverty, and war, would they have known the greed to murder, pillage, and plunder? Would we have a modern world?

The first third of the book is the most original and interesting. For the rest of the book, Fagan meanders through a laundry list of weather reports without much narrative aside from emphasizing that weather is important. He briefly discusses the philosophical debate around environmental determinism: the assertion that we can attribute social movements to environmental factors. Weather intentional or not, Fagan falls into this trap — summarizing massive historical moments almost exclusively in terms of the weather of the day. While it’s not necessarily wrong, it also feels too narrow to be interesting. While weather was obviously a factor in the Irish Famine, it was not the only factor — and it may not even have been a decisive factor.

My favorite anecdote in the latter half of the book is about cultural encounters in the depths of the Little Ice Age — towards the end of the 1600s:

In 1695, ice surrounded the entire coast of Iceland for much of the year, halting all ship traffic. The inshore cod fishery failed completely, partly because the fish may have moved offshore into slightly warmer water, but also because of the islanders’ primitive fishing technology and open boats. On several occasions between 1695 and 1728, inhabitants of the Orkney Islands off northern Scotland were startled to see an Inuit in his kayak paddling off their coasts. On one memorable occasion, a kayaker came as far south as the River Don near Aberdeen.

Who is to say that maritime traffic only goes one direction?

All in all, this feels like an important book. Philosophically, it makes me wonder about the role of God in European history. Fagan argues that these immense changes are likely caused by sunspot activity. What could be more God-like than our capricious sun? It gives all life. It watches over everything. It provides times of bounty, and it can also provide times of absence. Perhaps the Europeans understood this. Their God in the sky took care of them until he didn’t. And then they took matters into their own hands.

Fagan has a positive few of the agricultural changes that took place through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment — a move to enclose and consolidate farms into larger holdings, controlled by wealthier landlords. This move made agriculture more efficient, but it also eventually displaced most of the European peasantry (including my ancestors), providing the workforce for the Industrial Revolution.

In Fagan’s context, this is truly a double-edged sword. On the one hand, agricultural innovation destroyed the traditional livelihoods of the peasantry and sowed the seeds of a new economic system — capitalism — fueled by poverty and dehumanization. On the other hand, by consolidating agricultural operations, this new economic system effectively put an end to plague and famine (though certainly not war). Perhaps this is a bargain that the desperate peasants were willing to make at the end of the Middle Ages. After decades (or centuries) of illness and starvation, perhaps a world with greater inequality — and all of the associated tyranny and inequity — seemed acceptable.