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The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850 [Paperback]

Brian Fagan
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Dec 27 2001
The Little Ice Age tells the story of the turbulent, unpredictable, and often very cold years of modern European history, how this altered climate affected historical events, and what it means for today's global warming. Building on research that has only recently confirmed that the world endured a 500year cold snap, renowned archaeologist Brian Fagan shows how the increasing cold influenced familiar events from Norse exploration to the settlement of North America to the Industrial Revolution. This is a fascinating book for anyone interested in history, climate, and how they interact.

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"Climate change is the ignored player on the historical stage," writes archeologist Brian Fagan. But it shouldn't be, not if we know what's good for us. We can't judge what future climate change will mean unless we know something about its effects in the past: "those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it". And Fagan's story of the last thousand years, centered on the "Little Ice Age," reminds us of what we could end up repeating: flood, fire, and famine--acts of God exacerbated by acts of man.

For all that he takes a broad--a very broad--view of European history, Fagan's writing is laced with human faces, fascinating anecdotes, and a gift for the telling detail that makes history live, very much in the style of Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror. When Fagan talks about the voyages of Basque fishermen to American shores (probably landing before Columbus sailed), he puts in the taste of dried cod and the terrifying suddenness of fogs on the Grand Banks. The Great Fire of London, what it was like when the Dutch dikes broke, the Irish Potato Famine, the year without a summer, ice fairs on the Thames, and volcanoes in the South Pacific--Fagan makes history a ripping yarn in which we are all actors, on a stage that has always been changing. --Mary Ellen Curtin --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

The role of climatic change in human history remains open to question, due in large part to scant data. Fagan, professor of archeology at UC Santa Barbara, contributes substantively to the increasingly urgent debate. Contending with the dearth of accurate weather records from a few parts of the world, for little over a century Fagan (Floods, Famines, and Emperors: El Ni?o and the Fate of Civilizations) draws discerning connections between an amazing array of disparate sources: ice cores, tree rings, archeological digs, tithing records that show dates of wine harvests, cloud types depicted in portraits and landscapes over time. He details human adaptation to meteorologic events for example, the way the Dutch, in the face of rising sea levels, engineered sea walls and thus increased their farmland by a third between the late 16th and early 19th centuries. Explanations of phenomena like the North Atlantic Oscillation (which "governs... the rain that falls on Europe") lucidly advance Fagan's conviction that, though science cannot decide if the current 150-year warming trend (with one slight interruption) is part of a normal cycle, we should err on the side of caution. His study of the potential for widespread famine further bolsters his nonpartisan argument for a serious consideration of rapid climatic shifts. But Fagan doesn't proffer a sociopolitical polemic. He notes that we lack the political will to effect change, but refrains from speculating on future environmental policy. Illus. not seen by PW. (Mar. 1) Forecast: This topical book will appeal to fans of John McPhee, as well as to science and history scholars. With publicity targeted at the coasts (author tour in L.A., San Francisco and N.Y.; a talk at N.Y.'s Museum of Natural History), a forthcoming review in Discovery magazine and Fagan's enthusiastic readership, it should sell well.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
The fog lies close to the oily, heaving water, swirling gently as a bitterly cold air wafts in from the north. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Climatic shifts and the course of history April 16 2003
Format:Paperback
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.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pertinent even to our own times. April 17 2002
Format:Paperback
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.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Careful with this one! March 19 2002
Format:Paperback
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.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Climatology for the Common Man/Woman
I found this book very interesting. Having a meteorological background, I was very pleased to read that the author got his explanations right. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Jack Dennahower
5.0 out of 5 stars A Different Historical Perspective
The Little Ice Age is an examination of the effects of the five hundred year long period from 1300 to 1800, when Europe suffered through a period of intense and unstable weather. Read more
Published on March 10 2003 by John D. Cofield
3.0 out of 5 stars Nice Enough Little Book
If you're looking for a profound re-examination of climatic history, then this isn't it. The book is more a listing of (interesting) facts, with some insight into the way... Read more
Published on Jan. 27 2003
5.0 out of 5 stars Very Interesting Book
As a meteorologist, I take special interest in books such as this which relate weather to the bigger picture of world history and events. Read more
Published on Nov. 28 2002 by Donald Giuliano
5.0 out of 5 stars Really GREAT environmental history book
The only week part of the book is the last chapter which makes the ususal liberal environmental statement... Read more
Published on July 29 2002
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable but poorly organized.
I enjoyed the theories that Fagan brought across in this book, but I felt that the writing was somewhat lacking in certain aspects. I feel that this book was poorly organized. Read more
Published on June 15 2002 by hamilcar barca
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting history with a loose scientific connection
This book describes the climatic hardships experienced by the Western world during the period 1300 to 1850, known informally as The Little Ice Age. Read more
Published on June 4 2002 by M. A Michaud
4.0 out of 5 stars Circumstantial but persuasive and lots of neat facts
I really liked this book but its not perfect. There's a bit of weather theory here, and lots of concrete information, but its never really organized in a way to prove the author's... Read more
Published on March 2 2002 by Erik Strommen
1.0 out of 5 stars Dilettante's work
I have seldom read in a book that claims to be scientific so much superficial rubish. Fagan has incursioned, once again, in the difficult field of climatology and has done the... Read more
Published on Feb. 18 2002 by William Grierson
2.0 out of 5 stars How Stories Change to Suit the Climate!
Thirty years ago, during the gasoline crisis (conspiracy?) the scientific "experts" said that we have no more than 30 to 50 years of oil left so we had better slow down before we... Read more
Published on Feb. 6 2002 by Frank Pace
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