History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

12 May 2008

The Little Ice Age

Most of us who write Regency set history are familiar with 1816 the “Year Without a Summer” but how many of us know that this was just one year in a period commonly referred to as The Little Ice Age?

The book, by Brian Fagan, was my introduction to the story. According to Fagan, who studied archaeology and anthropology at Pembroke College in Cambridge, this period of abnormal global chill lasted from 1300-1850.

There is debate on the length of the LIA and the extent of this atypical cooling pattern. There are various causes presented in research, among them "decreased solar activity and increased volcanic activity” (Wikipedia).

It has been argued that the change was felt more in the Northern Hemisphere than in the Southern, due to changes in the warmth introduced by ocean patterns. One theory is that the large infusion of water from melting glaciers of the Medieval Warming Period interfered with the flow of the Gulf Stream. Several sources I Googled maintained that the Southern Hemisphere did experience a similar, if less dramatic, period of lower temperatures.

Pictured below is a graph that shows the change in temperature for the last two thousand years. The patterns are reconstructed from different studies but all show a pattern that signifies a cooling period from the late Medieval Period through the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

Others maintain that the Black Death was a contributing element to the global cooling. Following the decimation of the populous of Northern Europe caused by the plague, less land was cultivated, and the spontaneous growth of forests took more carbon from the atmosphere, resulting in a period of prolonged cold weather.

This is about as much science as I can handle but if you are interested there is an enthusiastic and sometimes contentious discussion of the theories in the comments section of the Wikipedia entry.

Whether a global event or a more regionalized one, Fagan is committed to his theory that the Little Ice Age changed history.

As you begin to consider the premise, evidence pops up in social as well as in the political development of the time. Paintings by the artists of Northern Europe emphasize winter theme like this 1565 painting by Bruegel the Elder.

To focus on only one element of historical change precipitated by the Little Ice Age: the lack of adequate grain supply caused by the protractged poor growing conditions led to food shortages. Fagan maintains that the French Revolution is the result of this failing food supply. Certainly, food riots and the resulting threat of insurrection are a frequent threat during this period, up to an including post Waterloo England (my area of interest).

As much as I believe in the concept that one person can make a difference I am equally fascinated by this larger view of how nature can change our world – one more element in the truth that man and nature are so inextricably bound. Your thoughts?


Anonymous Michelle said...

What a fascinating summary. I need to look up that book.

Your question about man and nature makes me think back to high school english and the idea that there are three types of stories: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself. Good ol' Jack London was always the example for man vs. nature.

12:57 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I love this stuff! I think about the "little ice age" in terms of the fashions and the fabrics. We run around Ren Faires here in July dressed in velvet, but all those velvets and brocades and layers upon layers of petticoats, and fur trimmed sleeves worn through the year for so many decades were as much to keep warm as to delineate class and status. But how the peasants must have frozen!

1:19 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Fascinating post, Mary. I haven't understood much about the Little Ice Age up until now, because I've tended to get it confused with an intersecting short-term event, the eruption of Mount Tambora, Indonesia, in 1815, that created so much volcanic ash that it blocked sunlight and 1816 (at least in the northern hemisphere) was known as The Year Without a Summer.

Which is why Byron-Shelley party were indoors so much during that time and why we have Frankenstein. As well as Byron's astonishing poem, "Darkness".

1:21 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful post, Mary! The influence of nature on history and social change is a fascinating topic. Following up on Amanda's comment about fashions, it makes one think about Regency muslins and how very important shawsl must have been (speaking as someone who is rarely without a shawl in San Francisco today).

2:15 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Tracy, I too have always wondered how ladies of the Regency survived in those flimsy dresses -- I am guessing that lots of petticoats and heavy stockings helped. And at balls guests were so close together body heat helped take care of the problem.

Pam, two other volcanoes erupted in 1815/16 -- one in the Caribbean and another in the South Pacific -- but, no doubt about it, Tambora was the one that contributed the most to the year without a summer.

Amanda, the peasants did, literally, freeze to death. During some of the colder winters the temperature inside was often below freezing.

Michelle, would Othello be an example of man vs himself? If you are interested in Fagan's book, take a look at the others he has written - they deal with similar subjects and are all intriguing.

5:56 PM  
Anonymous Michelle said...

I think the classic man vs. himself example is Hamlet.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Chiming in WAY late here with a comment about Stradivarius, the noted instrument maker of the late 17th century. Musical researchers have long sought to discover why the instruments made by Stradivarius (and others of his time) sound so superior to those manufactured later.

In 2004, British researchers working on the Little Ice Age posited that a particularly sharp dip in temperatures between 1645 and 1715 coincided with a reduction in the sun's output. Researchers say those factors probably changed the growth of trees to a crawl, creating the ideal building material for violins, cellos, and other stringed instruments.

2:57 PM  

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