The original climate crisis: the story of Europe’s Little Ice Age

Js the UK was recovering from storms Eunice and Franklin, scientists from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a landmark report warning of a future characterized by extreme weather conditions, more severe storms, flash floods and wildfires.

It is however not the first time that Britain has experienced drastic climate change. By the 16th and 17th centuries, Northern Europe had left its medieval warm period and was languishing in what is sometimes called the Little Ice Age.

From the early 14th century, average temperatures in the British Isles cooled by 2°C, with similar anomalies recorded across Europe. Much colder winters followed. Rivers and coastal seas froze, crippling trade and communications. Crops and livestock withered as torrential rains ruined harvests, triggering widespread hunger and hardship.

This first modern climate crisis was politically as explosive as ours is becoming. There have been rebellions, revolutions, wars and plague, as well as the scapegoating of alleged witches suspected of causing bad weather.

The recent IPCC report predicts disastrous societal impacts of future climate change, especially for the 3.6 billion people living in predominantly poorer countries, who are highly vulnerable to climate change. We can today learn a lot about our collective destiny by studying the effects that the last climate crisis has had on people.

Lights on the ice

Researchers have offered a range of explanations for the Little Ice Age, from volcanic eruptions to the theory that European destruction of indigenous societies in the Americas caused forests to regrow on abandoned farmland. Others point to the Maunder Minimum, a period between 1650 and 1715 when observed sunspots were suddenly rare.

Local parish aid – a compulsory tax on the wealthier inhabitants of each parish to support their poorer neighbors – reduced starvation and saw England suffer fewer deaths than France

Whatever its causes, there is plenty of historical evidence documenting the Little Ice Age. In London, the Thames froze for 24 winters between 1400 and 1815, with frosts increasing in frequency and severity from the early 17th to early 18th centuries. People take the opportunity to hold fairs on the frozen surface of the river. The first was in 1608, with other notable frost fairs in 1621, 1677 and 1684.

During the “Great Frost” of 1608, people played football, wrestled, danced and skated on the Thames. A pamphlet has been printed concerning the “Cold Acts in London”. Just over a dozen years later, during the frost of 1621, the ice was so thick that teenagers felt confident to burn a gallon of wine on the Thames, while a woman asked her husband to soak it on the frozen river.

Poet John Taylor wrote of this winter’s Frost Fair:

You can see spicy cakes and roast pigs, beer, beer, tobacco, apples, nuts and figs, charcoal fires, fagots and sea coals, playing and cozening at pidgeon holes: some, for two pots at tables, cards or dice.

Evolution of global temperature over the past two millennia

(Ed Hawkins/RCraig09, CC BY-SA)

The frost fairs also saw an unlikely mixing of social classes. Between January and mid-February 1684, thousands of people, from King Charles II and the royal family to the humblest poor, ventured into “Freezeland”, as one pamphleteer had dubbed it. At its peak, the fair spanned around three miles from London Bridge to Vauxhall. Looking for a chance to make some money and with no ground rent to pay, a number of market stalls sprung up.

Numerous stalls sold sumptuous food and drink: beer, wine, coffee and brandy; beef, pies, oysters and gingerbread. Entertainment included skating, sledding and dancing, as well as football, horse racing, bear baiting and cock throwing. There were puppet plays and peep shows featuring tame monkeys, as well as fire eaters, knife swallowers and a lottery.

But behind this whimsical scene lies an upheaval: a crisis in the cost of living at the beginning of the modern era. Boatmen like Taylor, who operated a water taxi service on the Thames, saw their livelihoods collapse. Many Frost Fair merchants were unemployed boatmen. The price of fuel (mainly firewood) rose as the demand for heating soared. And in Taylor’s “squeaky age of snow and ice,” the shivering poor begged the rich for charity.

Life for London’s poor and newly unemployed was increasingly desperate, with many lacking money for food and warmth. The scene was similar across Europe. As Philip IV of Spain roamed the arid fields of Catalonia, an associate observed that “hunger is the greatest enemy”.

Abraham Hondius’ A Frost Fair on the River Thames at Temple Stairs

(Public domain/Museum of London)

Contemporaries worried about the social ramifications. The “cries and tears of the poor, who profess that they are nearly ready to starve”, wrote John Wildman in 1648, led to fears that “a sudden confusion might ensue”. In 1684, King Charles II of England authorized the Bishop of London to collect money for the poor in the city and its suburbs and also donated a sum from the royal treasury.

Local parish aid – a compulsory tax on the wealthier inhabitants of each parish to support their poorer neighbors – reduced starvation and saw England suffer fewer deaths than France. However, the terrible winter of 1684 claimed many victims. Burials were suspended because the ground was too difficult to dig. The trees parted and some preachers interpreted the events as a punishment from God, for which the people must repent.

The lessons of history

400 years ago, climate change was not announced by a global body of scientists like the IPCC. Although the scientists of the time, known as natural philosophers, exchanged ideas on climate change, they were forced to consider the social and economic shocks resulting from temperature changes that they had little ability to predict.

Superstitions fueled retaliation among people desperate to blame unfortunate neighbors, such as women of lower social status, who were subject to accusations of witchcraft in farming communities ruined by crop failures.

Making a virtue of necessity, some who have lost their jobs have found new ways to earn a living. There are those who adapted, notably the Dutch navigators who exploited changing winds and weather to establish new international trade routes in their “glacial golden age”.

Most were less fortunate. As one historian notes, the Little Ice Age was experienced as “a sharp deterioration in the overall quality of life.”

History shows that climate change can last for centuries and have profound consequences for civilization. Then, as now, solidarity is the best defense against the unknown.

Ariel Hessayon ​​is Professor of Modern History at Goldsmiths, University of London. Dan Taylor is a lecturer in social and political thought at the Open University. This article first appeared on The conversation.

Mary I. Bruner