A century of severe climate aberrations witnessed sweeping cultural change.
From 1570 to the 1680s, the average global temperature fell by about 2 degrees Celsius, causing changes in ocean currents and the salinity of seawater, the growth of polar ice caps and glaciers, and extreme weather events, such as storms, torrential rain, summer droughts, and relentless frosts. Drawing on rich sources, including diaries, letters, account ledgers, paintings, and religious sermons as well as data gleaned by climate historians and scientists, journalist and translator Blom (Fracture: Life and Culture in the West, 1918-1938, 2015, etc.) creates a vivid picture of the European landscape during the Little Ice Age and of social, political, and cultural changes that may have been accelerated by climate change. During this period, Europe saw “a move from feudal to capitalist societies, from the fortress to the market”; scientific experimentation and empirical observation ushered in the Enlightenment; an urban middle class grew; and the medieval concept of the cyclical model of economic life was replaced by the idea of “continuing economic growth based on exploitation.” At first, people explained the unremitting cold as God’s punishment for human wickedness: “Every earthquake, every volcanic eruption, and every storm was interpreted as an expression of divine will,” and weather sermons “became a minor literary genre of their own.” When hail, cold, and drought caused food shortages and high prices, suspicions about witchcraft “grew to monstrous proportions.” By 1600, one small Westfalian farming town burned 272 individuals as witches. Blom acknowledges that “religious tensions certainly played a role, but the correlation among extreme weather events, ruined harvests, and waves of witch trials asserts itself most forcefully.” Although he establishes convincingly that Europe “found new metaphors for thinking about itself” during the 17th century, the author is cautious about positing severe weather as a single cause of major cultural changes. Blom’s epilogue addresses contemporary global warming, which, unlike the Little Ice Age, will not spontaneously rectify itself; caused by humans, it requires dramatic, clearsighted human intervention.
An absorbing and revealing portrait of profound natural disaster.