28 Oct The Little Ice Age: Dramatic Weather and its Strange Realities
Aekus Kamboj, Environment Officer at the Ethnic Minority Environmental Network, reflects on a recent Nature Walk round Pollok Park
Climate has been variable across the geological time scale. It is hard for us to fathom this today but, the earth was covered in ice from pole-to-pole in the Huronian glaciation that lasted three hundred million years. Crocodiles swam in the North Pole’s freshwaters only thirty-four million years ago!
The truth is that the planet oscillates between phases of ice and no ice, and phases in between, every so often in its overarching timescale. Climate is not accommodating, and climate is definitely not stable, so the history of climate change is as old as the planet itself. In our roughly recorded human history of five thousand years, we saw the reality of climate’s short temper at the beginning of the fourteenth century that lasted for a few years.
This period is usually referred to as the Little Ice Age when temperatures dropped by two degrees Celsius. This changed life dramatically and in its own ways gave birth to the modern world in the West. Many social ecologists and climatologists would agree that there is a complex relationship shared by the social, economic, and intellectual disruptions caused by climate change and this profoundly affected the then emerging era of markets, intellectual freedom, political voice, and exploration that in all its glory constituted the beginning of the Enlightenment. Some of the most central events of European history are linked to the Little Ice Age- the Black Death, the Thirty Years War, the English Civil War, the French Fronde, the French Revolution- if you wanted to name a handful. Some more localised events included Iceland losing half of its population, and travelers in Scotland reporting permanent snow cover over the Cairngorm Mountains. In the Alps the glaciers advanced and bulldozed towns. It became impossible to produce wine in England, so all the vineyards vanished. The French King once woke up with a frozen beard and countless more devastating and strange realities of the period. However, those that lived through this time played a significant role in the cultural and economic development that transformed Europe during the 17th and the 18th century.
Something else unusual happened in the 1600s. Systemic witch-hunts peaked in Europe. It started to become a common occurrence to blame men and women for causing the strange weather anomalies they were witnessing at the time. Given the bizarre weather conditions during the Little Ice Age, the logical conclusion for any non-climatologist was that there must be a devil at work here. European chronicles describe how many villagers connected inclement weather with witchcraft. In 1445 dozens of women were burned according to the law for the strong hail and wind. In 1626, all the vineyards were destroyed by frost and grains were lost which resulted in the prince-bishop punishing the accused sorcerers and witches for destruction of the crops and persecution began the following year. Typically, all witches persecuted in Scotland were women and not any women but mostly poor older women who were settled in community and not vagrant beggars while most witch-hunters were men who were lairds from the propertied class who ruled their localities in pre-industrial Scotland. If not lairds, they were usually sheriffs or the elders of the kirk sessions.
While witch-hunts of Scotland came under the broader European phenomenon, they were made up of smaller local hunts where they were either persecuted singly or in groups or dozens. Sir George Maxwell of Pollok was himself an enthusiastic witch-hunter who participated in the trial of 1676 where he blamed a destitute deaf girl, Jennet Dowglas, who worked in their house as a maid for the bad weather conditions of the year and his own health problems. Jennet was condemned to death in 1677 in Paisley and this remarkable case was published in 1685 in the Satan’s Invisible World Discovered by John Reid.
Hence, Pollok house, hundreds of years on as a property of Glasgow city seemed like the perfect location to take EMEN for a nature walk to reflect on not just the Little Ice Age and its strangely terrifying memories but also how climate change has always been anything but a scientifically grounded reality that deserves logical deliberation to society and continues to be… I posed a few questions to the participants on the day, and I will ask them again:
Do you think humans are able to adapt? Climate change most importantly demands adaption to the new discomfort as it did in the Little Ice Age and we were able to create structural shifts to adapt and embrace the new developments in economics, science, philosophy, exploration, religion and politics towards change. Can we do it again?
Are women always going to be at the sharp end of the knife? Is intersectionality always going to worsen any given situation?
Are there always going to be non-believers? Will some of us always blame the unfortunate ones for our collectively made mistakes?
Aekus Kamboj, Environment Officer, Ethnic Minority Environmental Network
K. Jan Oosthoek (2016). Little Ice Age. [online] Environmental History Resources. Available at: https://www.eh-resources.org/little-ice-age/.
Lanchester, J. (2019). How the Little Ice Age Changed History. [online] The New Yorker. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/04/01/how-the-little-ice-age-changed-history.
MacCulloch, C.J.A. (1921). The Mingling of Fairy and Witch Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Scotland. Folklore, 32(4), pp.227–244. doi:10.1080/0015587x.1921.9719207.
Rhodes, M. (2017). The Little Ice Age: Weird Weather, Witchcraft, Famine and Fashion. [online] DIG. Available at: https://digpodcast.org/2017/11/26/little-ice-age/.
Sinclair, G. and Wellcome Library (1814). Satan’s invisible world discovered, or, A choice collection of modern relations proving evidently, against the atheists of this present age, that there are devils. Spirits, witches, and apparitions, from authentic records, and attestations of witnesses of undoubted veracity : To which is added, the marvellous history of Major Weir and his sister, the witches of Bargarran, Pittenweem, Calder, &c. [online] Internet Archive. London : Printed for the Booksellers. Available at: https://archive.org/details/b22029461.