Originally posted on ActiveHistory.ca.
Last March 15,000 heat records were shattered across all American states. While monthly temperatures soared over 15 degrees Celsius above twentieth century American averages, unseasonal warmth also affected much of Canada. In Toronto, hushed, apologetic admissions that there might be something to climate change after all quickly yielded to unabashed celebration of global warming as spring sprung a month early. Of course, if a similar heat wave settled over the city in July or August a very different – if equally shrill – chorus might have drowned my Twitter or Facebook feeds. Still, much of the Northern Hemisphere is uncomfortably cold more often than it’s uncomfortably warm. A month ago I couldn’t help but think that individual, corporate and state responses to climate change in the west might be more serious if the world was cooling.
This is the third article in a series that explores how historians can engage some of today’s debates about global warming. In a previous post I described how I uncover relationships between the turbulent history of the early modern Netherlands and the climatic fluctuations of the “Little Ice Age.” Many historians are now aware that colder, wetter, stormier weather prevailed across most of the northern hemisphere between the fourteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Not surprisingly, then, this Little Ice Age has been described as a vital influence behind everything from changes in fashion to the coming of the Enlightenment. However, such sweeping narratives ignore a simple reality: the Little Ice Age was neither little, nor entirely icy, nor an age. Some decades were certainly extremely cold, yet others were quite warm, and changes in, for example, patterns of prevailing wind were as important for contemporaries as shifts in temperature. More importantly, colder, wetter, stormier periods like the Grindelwald Fluctuation or the Maunder Minimum were interrupted by relatively warm, dry, tranquil decades. So how does that relate to our attitudes towards global warming?
Because the Little Ice Age was distinguished more by climatic variability than persistent cold, I study both warmer and cooler decades to explore what changed and what stayed the same. Before I examine how a particular manifestation of the Dutch Republic was influenced by climatic fluctuations, I often need to refine scientific reconstructions of the Little Ice Age. While ice cores or tree rings record seasonal changes in warmth or precipitation, surviving written sources like ship logbooks or weather diaries allow me to reliably track weather changes by the day and, sometimes, by the hour. In other words: I spend a lot of time figuring out what early modern Europeans thought about warmth, cold, and other weather conditions. As I considered whether to install my air conditioner in early March, I realized that their impressions might not have been so different from our own.
Literate Europeans described frigid winters in gripping detail. If you’re ever in the mood for some especially nerdy, historically minded entertainment, scan through the diary of Samuel Pepys, Chief Secretary to the English Admiralty, during the coldest winters of his career. Writing during an especially chilly stretch of the Little Ice Age, Pepys on January 14th, 1664 described how, “I find myself as heretofore in cold weather to begin to burn within and pimples and pricks all over my body, my pores with cold being shut up.” On a freezing February night in the following winter Pepys related that, “it was a frost, and had snowed last night, which covered the graves in the churchyard, so as I was the less afeard for going through.”
Similar references to cold winter weather and its consequences – both petty and serious – abound in contemporary European writing. Cold weather that persisted deep into the spring was vividly described, while “years without summer,” where temperatures never approached their normal seasonal highs, entered into western folklore. Months of exceptionally cold weather were linked to earthquakes, plagues, and other natural disturbances, and most suspected some supernatural influence was behind it all, whether from heaven or hell. On the other hand, exceptional summer heat was frequently ignored in surviving written sources, except when it combined with unusual dryness to set the stage for fire. Warmth during spring or fall typically received only passing mention, usually when it thawed the last remnants of winter ice.
The written remains of early modern Europeans reveal that they – like us – responded more vociferously to weather that exacerbated the most uncomfortable or dangerous elements of their accustomed climate. Last April I spent a week in Phoenix, where temperatures had already exceeded 30 degrees Celsius. I asked a local how she coped with Arizona’s scorching summers, and she answered quite practically: the same way you Canadians handle your cold winters. After my plane made a harrowing landing through a winter storm in Toronto, I realized that global responses to a warmer planet might not be split only along economic or cultural fault lines. Voices from Europe’s climatic past remind us that as the extreme weather stimulated by global warming becomes more common, the widening schism between approaches in the North and South may be deepened by locally different meanings of warmth as threatening or benign.