on April 16, 2003
Brian Fagan claims that "we can now track the Little Ice Age as an intricate tapestry of short-term climatic shifts that rippled through European society during times of remarkable change - seven centuries that saw Europe emerge from medieval fiefdom and pass by stages through the Renaissance, the Age of Discovery, the Enlightenment, the French and Industrial revolutions, and the making of modern Europe."
The interesting question is to what extent did these climatic shifts alter the course of European history?
In some distinct cases, in my opinion, the answer is quite clear-cut. Norse settlement in Greenland, for example, became impossible because of the cooler temperatures after the 13th century. Famine in rural areas throughout the Middle Ages was also an undisputed consequence of sudden weather shifts. The damage done to the Spanish Armada in 1588 by two savage storms is patently climatic in origin, too.
In most cases, however, the climate is just one - mostly minor - factor out of many that contributed to the occurrence of major historical events like the French Revolution, for example. Fagan rightly calls climatic change "a subtle catalyst." Finally, if we look at historical developments that unfolded over centuries - like the Renaissance or the making of modern Europe - the influence of the climate does not explain anything.
A book like Fagan's "The Little Ice Age" is most interesting for historians who examine grass roots history, such as the daily lives of farmers and fishermen in the Middle Ages. At first I thought the climate would provide answers for economic historians, too. But as Fagan shows, the human response to deteriorating weather differs widely from region to region. The conservative French farmers stuck to growing wheat, which is notably intolerant of heavy rainfall, whereas English and Dutch farmers diversified their crop (and became much less vulnerable to bad weather). The weather alone does not explain this development. Obviously, an economic historian who is interested in the question "why are people better off in this country (or region, society, etc.) than elsewhere?" has to look to other factors than the weather when he seeks for answers.
So far, the climate has been a footnote in World History. Nonetheless, this footnote can be quite interesting, as "The Little Ice Age" shows. The book is divided into four parts. Part One describes the Medieval Warm Period, roughly from 900 to 1200. Parts Two and Three describe how people reacted to the cooling weather, and how devastating climatic changes are for societies whose agriculture is at subsistence level. Part Four covers the end of the Little Ice Age and the sustained warming of modern times. All four parts make for fascinating, sometimes even disturbing reading; and for the reader new to the field Fagan offers the basic explanations of the effects of oceanic currents and air pressure on the climate in Europe.
Bottom line: A good introduction to the subject aimed at the general reading public. It largely exploits earlier literature on the subject, however. And while asking very broad questions, the book bases its answers on a narrow range of data mostly pertaining to northern Europe.
on April 17, 2002
Since I had found Brian Fagan's book Floods, Famines and Emperors very thought provoking, I decided to read his more recent book The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850. I was not disappointed.
Professor Fagan carries on a tradition (which he freely admits was discredited in the past but is now enjoying a renaissance because of newer information) of viewing history through the eyes of a paleoclimatologist. Much of what he had said in the earlier text, namely that many of mankind's major social and cultural transitions have been climate and weather driven, made a good deal of sense to me. Episodes such as the Sea People's invasion of the ancient Levant with the ultimate collapse of the Hittite empire and the reduction of the Egyptian during the late second millennium B.C.E. have long been thought to have been the result of droughts experienced in northern Europe. Similarly the demise of the Moche in Peru, of the Mayan civilizations in Middle America, and of the pueblo cultures in the Southwestern US are believed to have been the result of el Nino/la Nina weather changes, massive rains in the case of the Moche and severe drought in the latter two cases. Although no one would say that any of these historic human changes occurred purely in response to climate, it is abundantly apparent that the economic impact of especially prolonged climate changes on large subsistence level populations tend to leave the more inflexible social systems at great risk.
The earlier book described the probable role of el Nino/ la Nina cycles on world climate, while more briefly discussing the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) and it's effects. It was also concerned with much earlier cultures. The current book discusses the North Atlantic Oscillation in much greater detail and outlines it's specific effects on the climate and social environment of Europe and North America during more recent times. The material is dealt with in a very clear manner and was not difficult to understand even with my average person's more casual understanding of weather and climate.
Because the history is of events in more recent time, especially in the last half of the book, the narrative clearly has greater implications for the modern reader than the earlier book does. The Irish potato famine, for instance, was an event of great social significance whose impact on the modern politics in the United Kingdom and on the population demographics of the United States and Australia continues to this day. Certainly pertinent is the lesson of the political upheavals suffered by European governments in the 18th and 19th centuries. Those that ignored the precariousness of the lives experienced by the bulk of their population, choosing to do little or nothing to alleviate their suffering during famines, did so at their own peril. Those that refused to improve their management of their agricultural and natural environment also suffered more acutely. Even now as over half of the world's population suffers from hunger, poor sanitation, little or no health care, and a growing sense of hopelessness, the governments and people of the developed world face similar challenges and choices. Dealing with the inequities and injustices has now grown from a national to a global scale, but ignoring them could easily have the same consequences as it did for the upper and lower classes of the nascent nations. Similarly, the degeneration of the environment through overpopulation and mismanagement is looming large on our international horizon and can not be ignored for much longer.
My only complaint is that the last half of the book is riddled with dates to the point of distraction. I realize that accuracy is much to be appreciated when it comes to historic events, but in this case "before" and "after," "earlier" or "later" might have been perfectly adequate. I found that as long as I was aware of the general character of the times, its historic personalities and events, I could ignore the dates without being too misled as to time frame. I am aware that individuals like Eric the Red and Lief Erickson were not contemporary with Louis the XVI or Napoleon but that Thomas Jefferson was, etc. Someone less familiar with the events of history might find the dates more helpful.
I would definitely recommend this book for anyone interested in climatology, paleoclimatology, social change, and early modern history. For those with an interest in earlier cultures, I'd suggest Fagin's previous book Floods, Famines and Emperors
on September 29, 2001
As a lay reader with a history background I found the early parts of this book useful because they 1) Informed me about European & North American climate trends from the early middle ages on; 2) Demonstrated the impact of climate on historical development. I also enjoyed reading about several of the major climate events he describes. However, as the book proceeds, his thesis does not develop much further. I got the impression of "more of the same with new data." He also has trouble balancing data with analysis. I skimmed the second half of the book because I wasn't that interested in the minutia he presented. I was convinced by his overall research (global warming notwithstanding), but I wished his analysis went further.
on March 19, 2002
Mr. Fagan has chosen an interesting topic that gives a fresh perspective on historical issues. Many of his insights are original and quite astute. I think if he had disciplined himself to report the historical facts in a well ordered many, then drew on some of the scientific issues surrounding climate change, he would have produced a fine scholarly and entertaining book.
Such was not the case. Mr. Fagan lacks proficient quantitative skills from which to analyze the data he presents. The readers first forewarning of this comes in the author's notes, when he advises readers that 10 miles is the equivalent of 6 kilometers. Throughout the text he makes reference to advance statistical modeling, giving the impression that such analytical work has the value of de facto evidence. This is not the case. Climate forecasting is among the most complex application of statistical analysis to be conducted in present times, and is highly conflicting and inaccurate. I don't think Mr. Fagan understands this.
He also can't resist inserting his opinions on climate change in areas that should have been left purely to explanations of historical fact. These occational bald assertions are left to dangle, unconnected to the topic at hand, damaging the credibility of the text.
The book does not transition smoothly from topic to topic, and he rarely draws clear conclusions from the information he presents. As a result, I continually found myself confused about where the author was going, and what he was trying to say. For me it was a hard book to get through. From America's leading writer on archaeology --that's what is says on the book jacket-- I would have expected a more well ordered thought process.
Parts of the book were truly interesting, but be forewarned, it wasn't an easy read.
on December 1, 2001
This is an ultimately disappointing look at a fascinating topic. Fagan is an interesting writer & one has no problem being drawn into the story initially, but then one starts wondering whether the trip is going to be worthwhile after all. The book is sprinkled with maps which definitely help clarify the author's points, but maybe it is the scientist in me that would have been happier with some charts with data. One response to this might be "Hey, its history not science" but then we get into the history and almost immediately we get into trouble, Right in the first chapter Fagan invokes the Treaty of Verdun as a codification of European order, then in the next sentence he says "Only the Pope and the Emperor in Constantinople were exempt from this stricture..." Well, yes,The Emperor WOULD have been exempt as would his entire Empire -Byzantine Constantinople wasn't ever part of Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire either spiritually or politically & last time I checked the Treay of Verdun was essentially Charlemagne's heirs in the West splitting up their patrimony.... A trivial point, of concern only to specialists? I think not, I am a biologist not a historian, but if the author makes this sort of egregious blunder at the outset, how can we trust him later on? A real pity, as IF one could trust the author with the facts this would have been a great book for the interested undergrad or educated lay reader, but as it is I can't really endorse it.
on November 8, 2001
A disappointing book about a very interesting subject. In places the book is well-written (The Year Without a Summer, An Ghorta Mor), but overall it is rather spotty. It is not good history or good science. It is rather a hodgepodge of historical recollections that are necessarily sparse prior to the 17th century. The book claims to recount the Little Ice Age (1300 - 1850), but spends more than a modest amount of verbage on the Medieval Warm Period and the Modern Greenhouse. Perhaps a portion of the subtitle 'How Climate Made History' would have been a more honest title that reflects the authors primary thesis (climate has an important influence on human history!).
Scientifically, he does a reasonable job of explaining the North Atlantic Oscilation (NAO) and the great ocean conveyor as indicators/mechanisms of abrupt climate shifts. However, this said, the reasoning used by the author to connect human accounts with climate phenomena is not tight, in point of fact, it is rather flaky. In general, the book lacks useful graphs to show climate (temperature, rainfall) fluctuations particularly during the period of modern record-keeping when this information is readily available.
In the end, I get the authors point...CLIMATE MAKES HISTORY!!!, but I am not convinced of this by any effective evidence-based connection. Heavy recollection + Lite science is a bad formula for literary success.
on May 23, 2001
Hasn't the weather been amazing lately? I mean, lately over the past hundred years, since we left the ice age? If you don't think of the weather on this scale of climate, it would be a good idea to take a look at _The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300 - 1850_ (Basic Books) by Brian Fagan. The weather has been amazing during our most recent century, but it is always more or less unpredictable, and has always fascinated people. However, the particular conditions of the Little Ice Age were peculiar, indeed, and we haven't seen anything like them for more than a century.
There are plenty strange events described in Fagan's book, things like glaciers which no longer threaten us. It is best, however, at giving a broad view of the Little Ice Age and how it affected history. Fagan does not make the mistake of "climatic determinism," carefully showing how human behavior, economics, as well as climate produced historic changes, but his links to the weather is convincing because he accepts weather as only a partial explanation. His explanations, for instance, of weather's involvement in the Viking retreat, the French Revolution, and the Irish Potato Famine are excellent.
Fagan's book makes clear that climate has affected civilization, and that humans have not always handled its changes well. His book is not a polemic about the current warming, but he acknowledges that the carbon dioxide levels and coal burning may have been among the mechanisms that produced it. Since we understand such changes only imperfectly, and since they are best shown in computer models upon which corporations can cast doubt, a surprising number of people think that global warming is not a real phenomenon. Fagan shows that the warming is real, and that our weather these days is greatly different from the Ice Age before. More importantly, he shows that people responded to the changes of the past in often lamentable ways; if ever learning from history was vital to prevent repeating it, we would do well to look at past mistakes.
on March 20, 2001
Major climatic events impact history. Most of the time the impacts are short lived although severe at the time, e.g. the class 4 and 5 hurricanes that batter the U.S. Rare are the events that though short lived, have long term consequences, e.g. the bitter winters that contributed to Napoleon's and Hitler's ill-fated invasions of Russia. Or the storms that sank the Spanish Armada. Rarer still are climatic events that are themselves long-lived and have profound historical repercussions for human societies. Brian Fagan has now produced two books about these latter type of events - an earlier book about the impacts of el Nino, and the present book on the period of intense cold that gripped Europe and much of the rest of the world for about a 500 year period that ended in the middle of the 19th century. Although the writing occasionally appears hasty, or to suffer from rather incomplete editing, this is a story well told. Fagan draws upon extensive historical documents, both formal and informal, to describe the impact of a climate that not only was on average somewhat colder than that of the 20th century, but also highly variable. Indeed, the often rapid and large swings in temperature and rainfall appear to have had a severer effect on human societies than the cold itself. After all, once you know that it is going to be colder or hotter than average - and stay that way - you can take appropriate measures (at least within certain limits). But wide and unpredictable swings in temperature and precipitation can have devastating effects. Fagan is able to convey these effects in a very personal way. Fagan concludes with thoughts on the potential effects of the present global warming.
An excellent book which examines the effects of climate on civilizations but over a much longer period and in a more quantitative fashion than does Fagan is the 2nd edition (1995) of H. H. Lamb's "Climate History and the Modern World".
One need not have taken sides in the "climate debate" that is ongoing to enjoy reading this book and come away with a greater understanding of how human populations react to environmental stress. Although Fagan clearly sides with the growing number of scientists who think that global warming is primarily being forced by anthropogenic causes (e.g. emission of greenhouse gases), in this book he has presented some exciting narrative history on a topic that is often neglected.
on March 15, 2001
In this fascinating book, Professor Fagan introduces something of a climactic history of Europe. The first chapter covers the Medieval Warm Period of 900 to 1300 AD, when Greenland supported a thriving dairy-producing economy, and when French vintners sought protection against the import of fine English wines! Also sprinkled through the book are references to a Mini-Ice Age that extended from 500 to 900 AD, and an earlier warm period extending from 100 to 400 AD.
The second chapter chronicles the traumatic ordeal that Europe experienced as the planet cooled and weather took on new, harsher patterns. The author then continues on to document the tribulations of Little Ice Age Europe, and the changes that the new environment spurred. In the final chapter, the end of the Little Ice Age is covered, along with the author's thoughts on Global Warming.
This book is absolutely fascinating. Most history books do not mention the climate, except as background. Professor Fagan, on the other hand, rightly shows how the climate can be a major factor. The book is easily read (and not academic in tone), and very informative.
I must admit that this book has changed some of my opinions on Global Warming, and given me a great deal to think about. I am fascinated by the apparent yo-yoing of global temperatures throughout history, and hope to find a book that looks at the subject over a longer timeframe. This is a great book, and I recommend it to everyone.
on November 28, 2002
As a meteorologist, I take special interest in books such as this which relate weather to the bigger picture of world history and events. Sometimes, however, it seems as though authors (be it intentionally or simply through ignorance) sacrifice scientific integrity in favor of a more interesting story or to avoid confusing the reader, or fall into the related trap of getting really bogged down in a quagmire of equations and esoteric scientific terminology which have little place in a book written for the lay-person.
This book successfully avoids both of these traps. The author (an archaeologist) clearly demonstrates that he went to considerable effort to understand the science behind what he is discussing, and he effectively relates the climate fluctuations experienced in the "Little Ice Age" to the evolution of society at the time. This is done in a manner that anyone can understand, as he explains important concepts in a very readable fashion embedded within the text. Also, he is careful to note how little we still really understand about climate change, and shies away from the "Chicken Little" doomsday sensationalism so prevalent today. This said, he also notes that climate change is definitely an issue we should be concerned with, as one way or another it will have a strong impact on our future and should not be ignored.
Overall, I found this to be a very interesting book that read very well and recommend it to anyone interested in how weather can affect human life and world history. Fellow meteorologists out there may wish for a few more technical details, but hey, that's what the AMS journals are for. :-)