Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Long Cold Medieval Winter

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - Hunters in the Snow. The Author died in 1569, so this work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 100 years or lesshis work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

It is now February, and for most of us in the northern hemisphere, the weather has begun to change.  The days are longer and the temperatures have begun to rise.  The winter has begun to loosen its cold grip upon the land.  Since it is the cusp of winter and spring, I thought it would be nice to look at a specific weather pattern during the medieval period.

The specific time I am referring too is often called the Little Ice Age.  Technically, not a true ice age, but it did lower temperatures around the world.  Although the dates are not agreed upon by scientists, it is recognized to have occurred from the 1200’s to the mid 1800's.

Many factors occurred at the same time to cause the little ice age.  There were lows in solar radiation, volcanic activity (particularly the Samalas eruption in 1257) and changes in the ocean circulation.  Those who have seen “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004), will remember ocean circulation was what caused the climate change in that movie.  In fact, the Little Ice Age was not one climate change, but a series of three which occurred over the entire time-period.

During this time, the winters were harsh, and so was its impact. Many farms and entire villages were totally destroyed by glaciers which moved through the Swiss Alps. In many areas, whole crops were lost, as well as forest being cut down to be used as fire wood.

Farmers had to adjust to accommodate the change in growing seasons, for now they were much shorter.  Starvation was rampant, some estimates show that in some areas up to 1/3 of the population died.  Ice formation on the ocean increased which caused flooding inland. Many Danish, German farms were permanently loss due to the salt water of the ocean flooding these fields.  Many people during this time were forced to move away from a grain based diet and relied heavily on animals, either domestic or hunted.  They relied on gathering fruits and nuts from the wild, as they had already eaten the seed reserved for planting.

It was during this time, that the Great Famine (1315-1317) occurred in Europe brought on by the Little Ice Age. Besides the onslaught of the plague, this was the most destructive event in European history.  People starved by the thousands, even resorting to cannibalism (guards had to be posted in cemeteries to prevent newly buried bodies from being excavated by those who wanted to use them for meat).  Children were abandoned by their parents who were unable to feed them.  The Story of Hansel and Gretel although was written by the Brothers Grimm in 1812, was based on legend and may have originated from this time.

You may remember in an earlier post, I had mentioned that the failure of the Catholic Church and the royalty, both of who’s authority came from God, failure to show a solution to the black plague caused doubt in people’s mind about their validity. This was also true with the great famine. The church’s and nobility’s inability to feed the hungry, caused a great doubt about if they indeed had a mandate God. This doubt would later become the foundation for the reformation.

Although the great famine had ended (1317), the Little Ice Age had not. The impact the Little Ice Age had upon Europe continued.

In 1658 the ice was so thick that the Swedish Army marched across what is referred to as the Little Belt (connecting the Baltic Sea to the Kattegat strait) to attack Denmark. This resulted in a devastating defeat to Denmark which resulted in a treaty which handed a province called Scania to Sweden.

By this time in history, the Vikings had established settlements in Greenland.  The ice pack was so prevalent it surrounded Iceland for miles, cutting off these settlements from shipping.  By the early 15th century, these Norse colonies all but vanished from the earth.

Not all during this time was dismal, people did what they had to do to survive, and also to entertain themselves.  In Scotland, the game of curling (players slide stones on a sheet of ice towards a target area) originated during this time.  People ice skated, wearing skates whose blades were made of bone or wood.

We all know some of the best violins ever made were built by Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737).  It is theorized that his violins are so good because the wood used came from trees that grew during the Little Ice Age.  Trees that survive the ice age, would need to be healthier and stronger, resulting in the wood being denser, then those that grow during a normal period. It was perhaps this dense wood that helps make a Stradivarius violin such a wonderful instrument.

As I mentioned earlier, that the Little Ice Age were actually several different weather patterns.  The last was in the 19th century.  The weather was exaggerated by several volcanic activities, and the year 1814 was called “They Year without a summer’.  The rain was heavy throughout Europe, and it was during this time that a group of friends, confined inside due the weather, sat around telling stories.  A young Mary Shelly told a horrific story which later became Frankenstein (aka. The Modern Prometheus).

I hope you have enjoyed our visit to the Little Ice Age. It was a horrible time to live, but, as the human-race has done in the past, it found a way to survive.  May we always find a way to survive.

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W.A. Rusho is a professional wrestler, historian and author.  You can contact him via his website or by his email.


  1. This is so interesting William! I had always wondered about the stories from Tudor or Elizabethan times about the fairs held on the Thames when it had frozen over - something that is inconceivable these days. Now I know why. The Little Ice Age must have been to blame!

  2. I always like a bit of history - my second favourite subject at school!

    The Great Famine was awful. People resorting to eating human flesh in order to stay alive. Parents abandoning children as they were unable to feed them- the mere thought of it makes me upset. Such sad times.

  3. Excellent post, William. I had not previously heard of the Little Ice Age. Very fascinating. And I share your sentiment. May we always find a way to survive.

  4. Can't help thinking that global warming seems to have a similar impact on the weather. Or maybe there's another reason for the unusually cold weather in Europe.

  5. Such interesting history, William. I remember the story of how Frankenstein came to be--the only version of that story that I like is "Young Frankenstein!" I am a horror wimp.

  6. Wiliam -- I had never heard of the Little Ice Age -- which actually wasn't so little considering the devastation that it caused for people. Thanks for the thorough explanation.