by Brendan Rodway (reviewer)News Weekly
Books: 'THE LITTLE ICE AGE: How Climate Made History 1300-1850', by Brian Fagan
, October 20, 2001
THE LITTLE ICE AGE: How Climate Made History 1300-1850
by Brian Fagan
Available from News Weekly Books for $49.95 plus p&hStormy history
In academic circles, the historical impact of the weather was long seen (when noticed at all) as of minor, short-term significance. This was an oversight, says archaeologist Brian Fagan, who, with acknowledgements to the groundbreaking French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, argues that the social history of Western Europe can, in effect, be read against climatic fluctuations.
The title of Fagan's earlier work, Floods, Famines and Emperors: El Niño and the Collapse of Civilisations,
suggests he takes the weather more seriously than others in the field.
He now turns to the past millennium to examine the punctuated climatic patterns that influenced Western Europe's agriculture, political development and land settlement.
What makes his frame of reference more interesting is the dramatic (in geological time at least) fluctuation from the Mediaeval Warm Period (900-1300s) through a wild transition, into the Little Ice Age out of which we are only just emerging.
"For the first time, we place a detailed graph of changing climate alongside the momentous historical events of the Little Ice Age, not as a remote backdrop but a critical, and long-neglected, factor in a complex equation of harvests, subsistence crises, and economic, political and social changes."
The political and scientific controversies surrounding contemporary global warming scenarios have clearly motivated the author, although Fagan is rather careful in his brief discussion of the issue (more careful than his statement directed at those unfamiliar with the metric system that "six kilometres is roughly ten miles").
A thousand years ago, warmer temperatures led to longer growing seasons, earlier harvests, more food, more people and surplus time and income for building projects such as the great gothic cathedrals. Greenland (or parts thereof) really was green and productive enough for European-style agriculture.
"For five centuries, Europe basked in warm, settled weather - summer after summer passed with long dreamy days, golden sunshine and bountiful harvests. Compared with what was to follow, these centuries were a climatic golden age. Local food shortages were not unknown, life expectancy in rural communities was short, and the routine of backbreaking labour never ended. Nevertheless, crop failures were sufficiently rare that peasant and lord alike might piously believe that God was smiling upon them."
Then temperatures began to fall. In this transition stage, the weather became destructive. More storms, frosts and drenching rains, crop failures and starvation. Even after the Little Ice Age began to take hold, the weather continued to be unpredictable, with a re-routed storm track bringing hurricane-strength cells across Britain, France and the Low Countries. The Spanish Armada was only the most famous victim.
Cooler currents spelt the end of the high-latitude Norse settlements. They also affected the growing cod trade, with fishing grounds moving closer to the coast of what is now the United States. Exploiting the seas was a major inducement for the first settlers in New England whose invocation was, after all, "to praise God and to fish".
Such climatic changes have been attributed to anomalies in the Great Ocean Conveyor Belt - the deep saltwater current identified in the 1980s that is fuelled by differences in water temperature and salt density. In the Atlantic Ocean alone its flow is equivalent to 100 Amazon Rivers and, by bringing warmer water from the tropics, it has maintained Europe's mild climate (with occasional fluctuations) for the past 10,000 years.
Regularly frigid winter weather continued into the 20th Century although the temperatures had been inching up from the 1850s. How much of this warming is attributable to industrialisation and deforestation (and the consequent increases in carbon dioxide) or to natural planetary (or possibly cosmic) whims, Fagan sensibly refuses to say.