Note: originally published 04/06/2010 (transferred from wordpress):
I just returned from a three-week stay in the Netherlands, where I visited three major archives and a few libraries while scheduling meetings with scholars who know a few things about my field.
This was my first major trip to any sort of physical archive. In past studies I’ve used online archives, and there are a wealth of online databases even for early modern material. My favourite quantifies almost 300,000 ship logs, though only a few of those are from the period I study. The vast majority of what I need is (fittingly) weathered, almost indecipherable, and locked up in palace-like buildings across the Netherlands.
This trip’s main purpose was to figure out what I could use to chart the influence of climate on human affairs. I wanted to figure out how to gain access to those sources, whether I could understand them, and of course what they contained. If I had time I hoped to take as many high-resolution digital photos as possible, which I could then take back to Canada and study at my leisure. Digital photography has really revolutionized archival work; while in the recent past many months, even years were required to pour through primary material in a distant archive now you just need to find what you want and put it in pixels. The hard work of deciphering the material remains the same, but my digital camera has allowed me to go on shorter trips. Europe is great, but having a home is even better.
Luckily for me I found a wealth of potentially relevant material, from ship logs (pictured above) to canal accounts, from government records to personal correspondence. I found out how to get it in my hands, and with the aid of an 18th Century dictionary I started to piece together what each source was telling me. I also took pictures: about 4000, and the resolution seems pretty great.
I spent most of my time looking through ship logs: the source I know best, with a regular pattern that renders it relatively easy to understand. Looking through logs from military vessels for the first time I noticed a lot of easterly winds in key years, and unusually frequent storminess. These are tell-tale signatures of the Little Ice Age. This summer I’ll attempt to quantify what I find in the logs to see how the climate over the Northeastern Atlantic was changing in the 17th Century. I’ll also figure out just what sailors were thinking about the weather on which their lives often depended.
A highlight for me was seeing Michiel de Ruyter’s already-messy scrawl take a dramatic turn for the worse as he described the storm battering his ship. De Ruyter remains one of the most famous figures in Dutch history, orchestrator of perhaps the greatest defensive naval campaign ever waged. Touching his scrawl was a moment I’ll remember for a long time, a chance to really interact with the past. Later I took a trip to the North Sea and gazed over the waves, out to where he fought the battles that preserved the Republic. The wind blew from the West – atypical for the coldest decades of the Little Ice Age – but I imagine the cold, drizzly weather would have been all too familiar for de Ruyter.
As I poured through primary sources relating to inland affairs I was struck by how a temperature shift of one or two degrees Celsius over even a single season in a year could have dramatical material and social consequences. Records I examined describe how colder winters during the Little Ice Age were often accompanied by torrential flooding owing to ice dams, or catastrophic damage to dikes as a result of drifting sea ice. One reason: a temperature shift of a couple degrees Celsius may not seem like much, but it’s amazing just how much depends on those degrees. For example, a year two degrees Celsius colder than the norm will result in a growing season that’s reduced by a full two months in most of Northwestern Europe.
Temperature changes are also only a single manifestation of a fluctuating climate, which can also be expressed through unusual weather events like storms, shifting wind patterns, or changes in precipitation. Meanwhile climatic fluctuations impact different regions in different ways, altering the ways in which different environments interact. Climate is also just one expression of an environment; when it changes, even over a space of a few years, the other parts of that environment can be profoundly altered in response. Finally, human societies past and present – perhaps especially in the Netherlands – are very closely tied to their environments; far more than we often realize in our superficially insulated cities. When our climate twitches we’re easily swept away.