Early Modern Times – canary in a cold mine

Early Modern Times - canary in a cold mine

Dear readers,

Global warming may certainly be a ‘hot’ topic nowadays–and continually heating up–but the effects of climate change are not only felt in the contemporary world and at the twilight of the dinosaurs. The widespread effects of a drop in only a few degrees on the politics, society, culture, and thought of the early modern period are the subject of Philipp Blom’s new book Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age of the Long Seventeenth Century Transformed the West and Shaped the Present (Liveright), recently reviewed by John Lanchester in The New Yorker magazine. The ‘little ice age’ refers to the period of global cooling from around 1300, and especially in the hundred or so years from 1570. Various theories have been floated (during periods of melting) about the causes. Was it a decrease in sunspot activity, such that the temperature was not due to the ‘spotty’ history of the world at this time? Or increased volcanic eruptions? Critics have demanded that cooler heads prevail on the topic. Blom suggests that changing oceanic currents and their effects on the continents may have led to volcanoes and earthquakes. Dissenters, however, would reject this as ‘water-cooler gossip’ based on ‘explosive’ but ‘shaky’ evidence.

Man-made factors played a role as well, and the effects were felt by human beings. European colonisation in the Americas and the concomitant introduction of diseases led to rapid depopulation. Cultivated lands were abandoned and reforested, which drove down levels of carbon dioxide and thus led to lower temperatures. One massive political consequence was the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644; among other causes, China was beset by erratic harvests, thus under-Minging the imperial power of the day.

Europe, the focus of Blom’s book, saw the freezing of harbours, rivers, and lakes (as reflected in the 1610 painting above, ‘On the Ice’ by Hendrick Avercamp). Like the former Thanksgiving tradition at Honest Ed’s in Toronto, frozen birds dropped from the sky; furthermore, homeless and poor persons died from hypothermia, and the beard of the French king apparently froze. As any true Canadian would agree, the King of France preferred an ice-cold beard to the lukewarm beards in England.

The effects were positive and negative for Albion. An Arctic hurricane contributed to the defeat of the Spanish armada attempting to invade England in 1588. The Spanish got cold feet, and these Iberian invaders received a cold shoulder from the seas around the British isles. But the bitter winter of 1666 followed by a hot, dry summer generated the conditions for the Great Fire of London that year. The English capital suffered from severe freezer burn.

A less obvious outcome of the little ice age was the development of musical culture. The longer winters meant that trees took more time to mature, leading to denser wood and thus better material for musical instruments like the violins of Stradivarius. These violins were clearly ideal for playing the winter blues as well as class-icicle music.

Blom focuses on the economic and intellectual effects of the little ice age. The frigid cold adversely affect the cycle of harvests, and the ensuing famines led to social disruption (witches were blamed, and thus put on trial in greater numbers) and mass uprisings of peasants. He argues that this was a major cause for the overturning of the feudal order, thereby benefitting urban trade in contrast to peasant agricultural labour. These favourable conditions for merchand-ice transformed the Dutch economy, and the new flourishing commercial societies–along with European global expansion– also fostered new ideas.

Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers in this new environment include Michel de Montaigne, aka montagne froid; René Descartes, who died from pneumonia following Queen Christina’s demand that he rise early in the bitter winter mornings in Sweden; and Hugo Grotius, who died in a shipwreck off the coast of northern Germany, having been summoned to Stockholm by the same deadly Swedish Reine fatale. Furthermore, Baruch Spinoza (child of immigrants to Amsterdam) and Pierre Bayle (French refugee to Rotterdam) both suffered from ‘dam’ cold weather. The new thinking was, Blom argues, a product of social and economic changes wrought by the little ice age. If he is right, then their ground- (but not ice-) breaking theories may be character-iced as the philoso-freeze of the early modern world.

‘Til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Ice-Studs Program

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