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Europe’s Little Ice Age: ‘All things which grew above the ground died and starved’

On arrival in North America, Europeans’ hopes were
dashed by the harsh winters — not because they were unprepared
for the ice and snow, but because they were all too familiar
with the deprivations of a cold climate. As Sam White writes in
A Cold Welcome, colonists had left a continent roiled by what
is now known as the Little Ice Age. This is part of a series of
excerpts from finalists for McGill University’s US$75,000
Cundill History Prize. The winner will be announced on Nov.
15.

By Sam White

During late 1606 and early 1607, while the first Englishmen
sailed to Jamestown, the weather in Europe turned eerily warm
and dry. In parts of Germany, the flowers bloomed in February.
Coming after decades of cold, wet seasons, it seemed to some
that this year there was “no winter” at all.

That suddenly changed in late 1607, when the continent plunged
back into some of the worst cold in generations. The winter of
1607-1608 has gone down in history as one of Europe’s “great
winters,” bringing Arctic cold, snow, and ice. In the
Netherlands, the freeze began in late December and continued
with few interruptions into late March. Horses and sleighs
travelled over the Zuiderzee from Haarlingen to Enkhuizen, and
the extraordinary sight would inspire some of the most famous
winter landscape paintings of the era. Even Spanish diplomats
travelled by sleigh over the ice to broker their truce with
Dutch rebels in early 1608. By late winter the rivers were
solid and the ground lay under sheets of ice. Birds froze to
death; livestock and wild animals starved; fruit trees perished
of frost. “In short,” Dirk Velius observed from Hoorn, “it was
a winter whose like was unheard of in human memory.”

It was a winter whose like was unheard of in human memory

His sentiment was echoed all across Europe. In Ireland, wrote
one chronicler, “in the winter of this year was a great frost,
which began a little before Christmas, and continued till about
Midlent. This frost increased with such fervency of cold that
all things which grew above the ground died and starved with
cold; many beasts, both wild and tame, died and starved with
hunger, and so did great numbers of wild fowls. The rivers for
the most part throughout all Ireland were so covered over that
the people might go to and fro upon the ice as upon dry land.”
In Germany, heavy rain and flooding in early winter soon gave
way to ice: the Rhine froze all the way up to Cologne, and the
Main iced up all the way past Frankfurt. “Not only the
vineyards but even the trees in warm valleys froze,” noted one
contemporary. From Prague, the Venetian ambassador reported
snow, ice, and “the greatest, most extraordinary cold.” In
France, the Loire River froze, and ice floes choked the Rhone.
The Seine iced over for nearly two months, so carriages could
pass across. Communion wine froze in the churches of Paris and
had to be thawed out for mass. Hundreds perished from cold and
hunger in the streets of French towns and cities. “The cold was
so extreme and the freeze so great and bitter, that nothing
seemed like it in the memory of man,” wrote the diarist Pierre
de l’Estoile.

The cold was so extreme and the freeze so great and bitter,
that nothing seemed like it in the memory of man

diarist Pierre de l’Estoile

Even the Mediterranean did not escape. Spain faced bitter cold,
frozen rivers, and snowfall as late as May 1608. Northern Italy
suffered one of its coldest winters of the Little Ice Age. In
Florence, continual rains during December turned to snow and
ice throughout January and February; in Milan the ice and snow
were supposedly so bad that people could barely go outdoors. In
Rome, heavy rains brought frequent flooding of the Tiber. Lakes
and rivers froze in Greece. In Anatolia, still ravaged by the
Celali rebellion, extreme cold and drought induced widespread
famine and reportedly cannibalism.

The most famous image of that winter remains the frost fair on
the frozen Thames in London. In December 1607, ice began to
pile up at the old London Bridge. The floes began to freeze
together about a week before Christmas, and within three weeks
the river turned solid from bank to bank. A few brave souls
ventured out on the ice, and soon shops, food stalls, and
impromptu parties appeared in the middle of the frozen river.
“Many fantasticall experiments are dayly put in practise, as
certain youths burnt a gallon of wine upon the ice and made all
passengers partakers,” wrote one contemporary, “but the best is
of an honest woman (they say) that had a great longing to have
her husband get her with child upon the Thames.”

A few brave souls ventured out on the ice, and soon shops,
food stalls, and impromptu parties appeared

Even in England the winter was not all fun and games. The year
1607 had already begun badly. In January, a tremendous flood of
the River Severn had drowned thousands of people and cattle, an
event that excited wonder and dread across the country and
beyond. In April, long-standing grievances against rising food
prices and the enclosure of common lands erupted in rural riots
known as the Midland Revolt. Soldiers promptly crushed the
ragtag army of “levellers” and “diggers” that June, but
resentments lingered. Anger and despair over continuing high
food prices are thought to have inspired Shakespeare’s
descriptions of rebellious plebes in the opening act of
Coriolanus.

The crisis revealed King James I at his most petulant and
insensitive. A series of royal proclamations castigated the
rioters and denied any connection between the hunger and
rebellion. He prohibited farmers from feeding peas to pigs,
brewers from using more malt for beer, and even gentlemen from
using starch in their lace collars, claiming these measures
would spare enough food for the poor. Other proclamations
targeted those hoarding and speculating on grain and the new
wave of migrants coming to towns and cities in search of
employment or relief. But these steps, and even grain imports
from the Baltic, failed to hold back rising prices and hunger.
The exceptional cold of early 1608 ruined the wheat crop. An
Englishman recalled that as far south as Devon, “an extreme
dearth of corn happened this year, by reason of extreme frosts
(as the like were never seen), the winter going before, which
caused much corn to fall away.”

Details
from a portrait of King James I by Dutch artist Daniel
Mytens.
Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Dekker penned a satirical almanac that mocked the
miseries of the year:

When Charitie blowes her nailes, and is ready to starve,
yet not so much as a Watchman will lend her a flap of his
freeze Gowne to keepe her warme: when tradesmen shut up shops,
by reason their frozen hearted creditors goe about to nip them
with beggerie: when the price of Sea-cole riseth, and the price
of mens laboures falleth when everie Chimnye castes out smoak,
but scarce any dore opens to cast so much as a marlbone to a
Dog to gnaw: when beasts die for want of fodder in the field,
and men are ready to famish for want of foods in the
citie…

Bubonic plague, which had flared up from time to time after the
great outbreak of 1603, now made new inroads among the poor,
hungry, and vagrants. “You have heard before of certaine
plagues, and of a Famine that hangs over our heads in the
cloudes,” Dekker added wryly. “Mis-fortunes are not borne
alone, but like married fooles they come in couples.”

Mis-fortunes are not borne alone, but like married fooles
they come in couples

Thomas Dekker

Dekker’s epigram was just as fitting for England’s twin
colonies in North America. It is often forgotten that Jamestown
was only one half of the original Virginia Company venture. Its
charter of April 1606 called for a pair of colonies: one to the
south, with claims from present-day day North Carolina to New
Jersey, and one to the north, with claims ranging from Delaware
to Maine. The former — that is, the Jamestown colony — drew
London investors hoping for Mediterranean commodities and lured
by rumours of gold-bearing mountains and the Verrazzano Sea.
The latter attracted West Country investors looking for a land
and climate more like England’s, offering goods such as timber
and fish, besides the perennial promise of precious metals.

In ordinary times, and given Jamestown’s desperate plight, the
northern colony might have been the more promising of the two.
Poor planning, conflict with the indigenous Wabanaki, and the
extraordinary winter of 1607–1608 brought it to an untimely end
instead. Around the same time, the voyages of Henry Hudson
would bring back new descriptions of extreme Arctic cold and
diminish hopes of finding a passage to the Pacific through
Canada or New England. These failures would have lasting
consequences for English exploration and settlement in North
America. For all that the Jamestown colonists suffered during
their first winters, experiences farther north would make
Virginia — once feared as too tropical for the English — look
like the most viable option.

Excerpted from A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and
Europe’s Encounter with North America by Sam White, published
by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2017 by the President
and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights
reserved.

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