Just before I was sent this huge tour de force of a book to review, I happened to be reading those 17th-century diary accounts by Pepys and John Evelyn which record a remarkable number of what would today be called ‘extreme weather events’. Repeatedly we see them referring to prolonged droughts, horrendous floods, summers and winters so abnormally hot or cold that their like was ‘never known in the world before’.
These were the days of those London Frost Fairs, when the Thames froze so thickly that it could bear horses, coaches and streets of shops. This was the time of the Maunder Minimum, when for decades after 1645 sunspot activity was almost non-existent. It marked the depths of that ‘Little Ice Age’ which saw global temperatures lower than at any time since the end of the last glaciation 13,000 years ago.
It has long been familiar that the 17th century was also a time of extraordinary political turmoil right across Europe and Asia, from the Thirty Years War which laid waste vast tracts of Germany to the overthrow of the Ming dynasty in China; from the murderous civil wars and revolutions which rocked Britain and France to the disintegration of the Spanish empire. As early as 1643 a Spaniard observed that it was ‘one of the epochs when every nation is turned upside down’. Voltaire noted, a century later, how many rulers had been murdered or executed, from the Ottoman Sultan Ibrahim in 1648 and Charles I in 1649 to the Mogul emperor Shah Jehan in 1658, calling it ‘a period of usurpations almost from one end of the world to another’. Hugh Trevor-Roper popularised the term used to describe this age of violent transition between ‘the climate of the Renaissance’ and the ‘climate of the Enlightenment’ as ‘the General Crisis’.
What Geoffrey Parker has now added to our perception of that time, however, is the very significant part played in those events, overlooked by Trevor-Roper, by the climate itself. By exploring the impact of those extreme weather events which accompanied the Little Ice Age — and by the remarkable industry of his researches (his bibliography and list of sources run to nearly 150 pages) — he has added a whole new dimension to our understanding of that near-universal ‘time of crisis’.
Much of his book is made up of very readable summaries of the upheavals which, from the time of the Defenestration of Prague which triggered the Thirty Years War in central Europe, engulfed all the major centres of power between western Europe and the Far East.
Again and again we see similar patterns, as empires and kingdoms became drawn into a plethora of wars, requiring their rulers to raise ever larger sums of money in taxes. But again and again, as countries and whole regions were thrown into chaos by war, made worse by epidemics of disease, such as smallpox and the last recrudescence of that plague which had wracked Europe since the Black Death, we see how extreme weather events intervened to make the situation much worse. Everywhere from China and India to Britain and Ireland, droughts, floods, cold summers and freezing winters caused massive crop failures and economic breakdown, not only leading to widespread famines but making it impossible for impoverished and starving populations to meet those ever-rising tax demands.
It is no accident that it was right in the middle of the 17th century that Thomas Hobbes included his heartcry in Leviathan that the life of man is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. Reading Parker’s painful accounts of how the general crisis tore apart one country after another, from Ireland to China, one can only think how fortunate we are not to live in a time as desperate as any in human history. In Szechuan alone, in the chaos surrounding the downfall of the 200-year old Ming dynasty, more than a million died. Vast areas of Europe in the chaos of the Thirty Years War lost up to a third or more of their population. The French civil war between 1649 and 1653, the Fronde, caused a million deaths. In Britain the various civil wars between 1638 and 1660 led to the deaths of seven per cent of the population, far greater than the two per cent who died in the first world war. In Ireland this rose to a fifth.
By adding the vagaries of the weather to the overall equation, Parker is not suggesting that these were the cause of the general catastrophe. But what he does show for the first time, with his wealth of evidence drawn from thousands of sources, is how the climate seriously aggravated the effects of all those wars and other disorders which made the 17th century such a peculiarly cruel time to be alive — as in the far from untypical episode in Ireland in the abnormally cold winter of 1641 when Catholics stripped many Protestant men, women and children naked, before turning them out into deep snow where thousands froze to death.
This is indeed a superb and harrowing book, well worth reading for the skill with which Parker summarises the history of pretty well all the world, including those nations which escaped the general tragedy, such as Japan, where the ruthlessly authoritarian new Tokugawa regime expelled foreigners, forced everyone to work (the ‘industrious revolution’) and ushered in 200 years of ordered peace.
My only real quibble is with the closing attempt to link the extreme weather events of that age with the fear of climate change which has become so fashionable in our own time, It may well be right to trace the Little Ice Age to the vanishing of sunspots. But Parker also puzzlingly tries to correlate the 17th century’s excessive cold to its abnormal number of El Nino episodes. Even the most ardent warmists today accept that these shifts in the major Pacific current give rise to heat rather than cold. That apart, this is a fascinating contribution to history.