The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
"[The Little Ice Age] could do for the historical study of climate what Michel Foucault’s classic Madness and Civilization did for the historical study of mental illness: make it a respectable subject for scholarly inquiry." –Scientific American.
The Little Ice Age tells the story of the turbulent, unpredictable, and often very cold years of modern European history, how this altered climate affected historical events, and what it means for today’s global warming. Building on research that has only recently confirmed that the world endured a 500year cold snap, renowned archaeologist Brian Fagan shows how the increasing cold influenced familiar events from Norse exploration to the settlement of North America to the Industrial Revolution. This is a fascinating book for anyone interested in history, climate, and how they interact.
About the Author
Professor of Archaeology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Brian Fagan is the author of Floods, Famines, and Emperors, and The Great Journey and the editor of The Oxford Companion to Archaeology. He lives in Santa Barbara, California.
Climatic shifts and the course of history, April 16, 2003
Brian Fagan claims that "we can now track the Little Ice Age as an intricate tapestry of short-term climatic shifts that rippled through European society during times of remarkable change – seven centuries that saw Europe emerge from medieval fiefdom and pass by stages through the Renaissance, the Age of Discovery, the Enlightenment, the French and Industrial revolutions, and the making of modern Europe."
The interesting question is to what extent did these climatic shifts alter the course of European history?
In some distinct cases, in my opinion, the answer is quite clear-cut. Norse settlement in Greenland, for example, became impossible because of the cooler temperatures after the 13th century. Famine in rural areas throughout the Middle Ages was also an undisputed consequence of sudden weather shifts. The damage done to the Spanish Armada in 1588 by two savage storms is patently climatic in origin, too.
In most cases, however, the climate is just one – mostly minor – factor out of many that contributed to the occurrence of major historical events like the French Revolution, for example. Fagan rightly calls climatic change "a subtle catalyst." Finally, if we look at historical developments that unfolded over centuries – like the Renaissance or the making of modern Europe – the influence of the climate does not explain anything.
A book like Fagan’s "The Little Ice Age" is most interesting for historians who examine grass roots history, such as the daily lives of farmers and fishermen in the Middle Ages. At first I thought the climate would provide answers for economic historians, too. But as Fagan shows, the human response to deteriorating weather differs widely from region to region. The conservative French farmers stuck to growing wheat, which is notably intolerant of heavy rainfall, whereas English and Dutch farmers diversified their crop (and became much less vulnerable to bad weather). The weather alone does not explain this development. Obviously, an economic historian who is interested in the question "why are people better off in this country (or region, society, etc.) than elsewhere?" has to look to other factors than the weather when he seeks for answers.
So far, the climate has been a footnote in World History. Nonetheless, this footnote can be quite interesting, as "The Little Ice Age" shows. The book is divided into four parts. Part One describes the Medieval Warm Period, roughly from 900 to 1200. Parts Two and Three describe how people reacted to the cooling weather, and how devastating climatic changes are for societies whose agriculture is at subsistence level. Part Four covers the end of the Little Ice Age and the sustained warming of modern times. All four parts make for fascinating, sometimes even disturbing reading; and for the reader new to the field Fagan offers the basic explanations of the effects of oceanic currents and air pressure on the climate in Europe.
Bottom line: A good introduction to the subject aimed at the general reading public. It largely exploits earlier literature on the subject, however. And while asking very broad questions, the book bases its answers on a narrow range of data mostly pertaining to northern Europe.