LITTLE ICE AGE TRIGGERED SOCIAL AND POLITICAL CRISIS
Date: 24/03/13Dominic Sandbrook , The Sunday Times
“God Almighty has a quarrel lately with all Mankind,” lamented the Welsh historian James Howell in 1647, “for within these 12 years there have been the strangest Revolutions and horridest things happened, not only in Europe but all the world over.” The world, he thought, was “off the hinges”. He was not alone. As civil strife raged in the British Isles, rebellion tore holes in the empires of the Ming and the Ottomans, and central Europe bled in the Thirty Years’ War, other commentators sank into despair. Every day, recorded the Oxford scholar Robert Burton in 1638, brought news of “war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions; of towns taken, cities besieged in France, Germany, Turky [sic], Persia, Poland etc”. Four years later, a Spanish tract suggested a terrifying but increasingly popular explanation: “This seems to be one of the epochs in which every nation is turned upside down, leading some great minds to suspect that we are now approaching the end of the world.”
For decades, historians havebeen gripped by the extraordinary agonies of the 17th century, from the civil wars in Britain and Ireland and the terrible suffering of war-torn Germany to the collapse of China’s Ming dynastyand the dismemberment of the hugePolish-Lithuanian commonwealth. Eric Hobsbawm, probably the first historian to argue that there had been a worldwide “general crisis”, insisted that the causes were economic. By contrast, Hugh Trevor-Roper diagnosed a wider social breakdown, based on the conflict between court and country and driven by radical intellectual energy.
Now a third brilliant historian, the American-based British scholar Geoffrey Parker, has thrown a new element into the mix. In this vast, superbly researched and utterly engrossing book, Parker shows how climate change pushed the world towards chaos. This was, after all, the Little Ice Age, in which temperatures dipped across the world. The data, he insists, are “clear and consistent”, and he thinks the crisis began in the last years of the 1610s, at around the time of the outbreak of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War. Snow fell in subtropical Japan; sub-Saharan Africa suffered a five-year drought; the rivers of modern Mexico and Virginia dried up; and across Europe, harvests failed and thousands starved.
But this was merely a taste of what was to come. The first months of 1621 were so cold that people walked across the frozen Bosphorus from Constantinople to Asia. In the early 1640s, violent winds and rain destroyed harvests across northern Europe, and in Germany soldiers reported seeing people frozen to death on the roads. England lost its king and the Peace of Westphalia brought the Thirty Years’ War to an end, but still the winds blew cold. Winters between 1654 and 1667 were, on average, more than 1C cooler than they are today. Indeed, throughout the second half of the century, the world was literally a colder place, as well as an emptier one. In China, Poland, Russia and the Ottoman Empire, the population fell by about a third, while in some parts of Germany the population fell by half. In 1651, Thomas Hobbes warned that without a strong state, life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. For many people, it was like that already.