Dr. Martin Bauch, Deutsches historisches Institut in Rom.
I am in the third circle, filled with cold,
unending, heavy, and accursed rain;
its measure and its kind are never changed.
Gross hailstones, water gray with filth, and snow come
streaking down across the shadowed air;
the earth, as it receives that shower, stinks.
- Dante, Inferno, Canto VI
In the last years of his life, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was an unsuspecting witness to a rapid shift in climatic conditions that led to cooler and wetter weather all over the continent. Perhaps it was not by chance that in his Inferno, finished in 1314, the sinners guilty of gluttony and sent to the third circle of hell were punished by incessant cold rain, hail and snow, while squirming through foul-smelling mud that reminded contemporaries of the crops rotting on their fields. Across Europe, meteorological events in the 1310s caused harvest failures, floods, famines, and mass deaths. In particular, Dante’s description of the wet third ring of hell is very similar to weather conditions that caused famine in Italy between 1310-12, and offers a prominent clue the onset of the Little Ice Age left in Europe’s cultural heritage.
Other traces of the cold, wet years appear in variety of sources: inscriptions from Central Europe which recall the thousands of starved individuals buried outside the city walls, and countless chronicles reporting death, famine, corpses on the streets, and riots linked to rising food prices. The hostile weather and massive soil erosion can also be reconstructed using scientific methods: ice cores from Alpine glaciers, sediment cores from lakes, and tree rings all reveal the rainy years that oaks all over Europe enjoyed, as these trees thrive on chilly and humid weather. Using these tools, scientists and climate historians have come to agree that climatic conditions changed seriously at the beginning of the 14th century, ending the presumed milder conditions of the so-called Medieval Climatic Anomaly and initiating the so-called Little Ice Age. When referring to the extreme wet and cool conditions in Northwestern Europe that were responsible for the Great Famine (1315-21), written sources and dendrochronological data agree that the 1310s were a decade of climatic stress. The damage of this decade, called the Dantean Anomaly by, was long thought to be restricted to the British Isles, Northern France, the Benelux countries and Northern Germany. But as not only the Inferno’s vision of hell indicates, the cool period was probably a trans-continental event.
A new junior research group at headed by Dr. Martin Bauch, funded by a VW Freigeist Fellowship and based the Centre for the History and Culture of East Central Europe (Leipzig), seeks to understand the social, economic, and cultural impact of the Dantean Anomaly across Europe. The “Dantean” project will compare three geographically and climatically different regions neglected by research thus far: the Mediterranean regions around the Italian cities of Siena and Bologna; the continental climate region of the Holy Roman Empire from east of the Rhine to Poland, Moravia and Austria; and the rural plains and mountains of the Atlantic maritime climate in Southeast France, around Bresse, Pays de Gex and Savoy. These case studies differ not only climatically but by source bases, which range from urban administrative reports in Italy to the charters in the Holy Roman Empire to rural accounts and records in France. In some cases, inscriptions on buildings and archeology give further information. Narrative sources – the classical data base for climate historians so far –are abundantly available across all three regions, and provide broad chronological background for the years 1240-1360. Since a reconstruction of climatic conditions should not be limited to data from written sources, the project will be enhanced by scientific research that provides information on meteorological conditions in a high temporal resolution (dendrochronology; ice core research; warve chronologies; geomorphology). With the cooperation of several scientific partners, the project will provide the first integrated and reliable study of climatic conditions in the 1310s in large parts of continental Europe.
Beyond reconstructing the frequency of extreme climate events, the “Dantean” project addresses the social, political, and economic consequences of this period across Europe. In particular, the research team is looking for the variety of social responses to extreme climate pressure. In Italy, their preliminary findings show urban areas exhibiting sophisticated responses, from building institutions to technical countermeasures and adapting agricultural and economic structures. The detailed fiscal accounts from Siena and legal and police records from Bologna show that in the 1310s, both cities faced precipitation-related and food supply crises, and as a result existing institutions grew or new ones were created to cope with the situation. Yet food-related upheavals shook the established order: documentation from Bologna allows us to trace how food scarcity contributed to criminal behavior and made social tensions rise. Yet, although Italy was hit hard by extreme meteorological events, considerably fewer people died there than in England because food management was taken seriously by the efficient bureaucracies of wealthy city states which imported grain and stored it in granaries.
Moreover, Italian cities were better prepared for the climatic stress of the 1310s than societies north of the Alps: by examining the charters of the Holy Roman Empire, the “Dantean” project will examine how feudal overlords managed the destiny of their subjects and estates in a time of a natural crisis. Although the project will in all probability reveal a temporarily limited profit of grain-selling institutions by rising food prices and punctual charity provided by monasteries, coherent, systematic or enduring relief measures are were unlikely. The nobility north of the Alps simply cared less about their subjects; thus starvation and perhaps even cannibalism were the consequences.
Overall, whether inhabitants in Central Europe were vulnerable or resilient to natural impacts depended very much on their social status. The situation in France was socially similar, but here the ‘Dantean” team can compare if living on the flatlands or in the mountains had a measurable impact on social responses and the impact of the cold, wet 1310s on people in the countryside.
By comparing these three regions, the “Dantean” project has great potential to advance our knowledge of vulnerability and resilience of medieval societies in regard to environmental stress. This comes mainly from its trans-regional approach. Cultural and institutional preconditions of specific societies are crucial to understand the impact of climate change; therefore the causal relationship between weather, death and famine must be investigated in relation to the economic, cultural, social and political preconditions. Existing longue durée studies on the resilience and vulnerability of pre-modern societies under ecological stress cannot confidently confirm a close connection between extreme events and social change, since the pace of change and the occurrence of natural events cannot be synchronized. Only chronologically limited case studies will provide insight into short-time reactions to natural extreme events – an approach that has hardly been employed until now. These examples underline that there are always winners and losers of climatic change – not only in the 21st century but also in the Late Middle Ages.
The JRG will start its work on 1 March 2017, till then you can contact M. Bauch via firstname.lastname@example.org
Find out how scholars in diverse disciplines are studying past climate changes.