The Little
Ice Age

How Climate
Made History

Brian Fagan
(Basic Books)
The Little Ice Age ran from 1300 until the middle of the 19th Century, and was scarcely a hit with the volkenheimer. Before that period, because of the warm weather, the Norse were able to colonize Greenland and Iceland, and reach down as far as the present Long Island, where they were finally drummed out of town by the denizens of East Hampton who didn't care for their silly horned helmets nor their B. O. Most of Europe was temperate, perfect for growing B. O. and the other principal crop of the times: mildew, ragweed, liverwort, and scotch-berries, which were fermented to produce mead for the famous mead-halls.

The cold cycle began in earnest the 14th Century, which was followed by the 15th Century and then the 16th Century, although accounts differ. The cycle was at its worst during the 18th Century where you could find your granny's false teeth in the glass, at the side of the bed, chattering away to no one in particular and finally freezing over. In some places, a new diversity in agriculture developed with the cultivation of cereals, legumes, flax, and hemp.

These improvements brought prosperity, merriment, and what in Britain came to be called the Sunday joint, as well as a new diversion for the younger ice-agers called Ice-Pak-Man. The people of Holland not only excelled in this game but may have forged "the first modern economy in Europe" with planned cities, urban renewal, and Dutch Elm Disease. They also invented the wooden boot.

§     §     §

The Little Ice Age suffers from a pedestrian style of writing, possibly because Professor Fagan lives near a pedestrian area in Santa Barbara, California. This means he is as far as possible from the freezing mistrals and impossible pronunciations of placenames in Greenland like Uummannaq, Qaanaaq and Nuuk. We found ourselves drifting off into dreamland with descriptions of yet another storm sweeping in "on November 26-27, 1703, where a low pressure system with a center of 950 millibars passed about 200 kilometers north of London."

However, it isn't all Sturm und Drang out there in Medieval and Renaissance-vile. Fagan manages to spark some interest with his occasional asides, claiming, for instance, that the "golden years" of cathedral building --- Notre Dame, Rheims, Canterbury Cathedral, Lincoln, the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris and the Crystal Cathedral of Burbank --- were a result of a Medieval Warm Period of unparalleled prosperity and an abundance of toaster ovens. He also suggests that large storms of the 16th century where "crops failed and cattle perished by diseases caused by abnormal weather" caused some of the Delft Valley Girls to be dubbed witches with the result that they were rotisseried for their sins.

Professor Fagan even hints that the French Revolution came about because of the "bitterly cold winter of 1788/1789," where "heavy snowfall blocked roads, major rivers froze over, and much commerce came to a standstill." However, he leaves it to the reader to imagine the details of this climatic determinism. This reviewer has a picture of a Paris mob storming the Bastille because of ice in their vichysoise, and Robespierre's chilly smile becoming even chillier when he couldn't start his Deux Cheveux in the morning.

The Little Ice Age describes to a fare-thee-well the harshness of life for 90% of the people of Europe, namely, the pleasantry, who found day-to-day living very unpleasant:

    Even in the best of times, rural life was unrelentingly harsh...A Winchester farm worker who survived childhood diseases had an average life expectancy of twenty-four years. Excavations in medieval cemeteries paint a horrifying picture of health problems resulting from brutal work regimes. Spinal deformations from the hard labor of plowing, hefting heavy grain bags, and scything the harvest are commonplace. Arthritis affected nearly all adults. Most adult fisherfolk suffered agonizing osteoarthritis of the spine from years of heavy boatwork and hard work ashore...the human cost in constant, slow-moving toil was enormous. Yet despite the unending work, village diets were never quite adequate, and malnutrition was commonplace.

All, however, comes out well in the end. Weather control was instituted and carried into high art by Renoir, Braque, Arp, Tanguy, and Yanni. Hail, wind, and freakish storms were banished to another era, and the Europeans could relax into a new era, the 20th Century --- one that gave them World War I, phosgene gas, the Depression, World War II, the Cold War, atomic and hydrogen bombs, speed, smack, and crack, and a brand new variety of global warming, brought to us courtesy of




--- F. S. J. Wurner and
D. W. Phage

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