How did climate change influence Medieval and Early Modern Europe
Our changing climate shows many examples where it altered and shaped history. Climate is not a deterministic process but it does create the conditions people must adjust their lives to. This leads to societies and cultures that adapt or reflect the climatic conditions prevalent in an area. This is the case as well in Europe, where we see changing opportunities and challenges for Medieval and Early Modern European societies as climate changed.
Early Medieval Europe and Climate
Soon after the fall of the Roman Empire and emergence of early European kingdoms and societies, the climate during this time mostly appeared to be colder and wetter than conditions today. Flooding in rivers seemed more intense during the 500-600s. Between 500-900 CE, glaciers were expanding in the Alps and other northerly regions of Europe such as Scandinavia. In northern Europe, agriculture is often on the margins, where crops can be grown in what today would be a typical year during the summer months. However, increased persistence of cloudy weather, a large amount of rain, and generally colder conditions could lead to increased crop failures during the summer months. This has led some scholars to believe at least some of the Norse and Dane movements, who we call the Vikings, occurred due to climate stress, where it became more difficult for agriculture to be successful, leading to increased dependence on raiding or settling new lands. During this time, large waves of Vikings landed in Europe, including in France, Britain, and areas south of Denmark. Some Viking travelers went even further into Russia and Mediterranean regions.
While cooler conditions may have forced some migrations to occur in the early Medieval period that forever shaped the history of regions such as Britain and France, at around 950-1250 CE, climate began to take a warmer turn. This period is known for population increases. Cities and trade began to flourish at a greater rate in this period. Wine was even made in northern Europe
Areas previously not inhabited significantly, such as Greenland, now became an area for long-lived Norse colonies. Famous Norse explorers such as Erik the Red in the late 10th century named Greenland as such because they wanted to convince others that it was a good area to settle. Climate studies have suggested conditions may have been warmer at this time than even modern conditions or even similar. Erik the Red and his descendants and later explorers visited lands they called the the land of forests and land of wine, which could have been in reference to North America such as areas in Labrador and Newfoundland. The settlement of L'Anse aux Meadows, in Newfoundland, represents the clearest evidence of Norse settlement in North America. The Norse also began to trade with Native American groups such as the Beothuk and Thule. However, by around 1400 things seemed to have died out and settlements in Greenland and North America were abandoned by the Norse.
Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe and Climate
In the 1400s-1500s, climate was somewhat stable and temperate conditions returned to many parts of Europe. This though did mean many of the settlements became harder to continue in regions such as Greenland. Wine making began to retreat southward to southern Europe. Populations did recover and expand after the Black Death of the 14th century, in part this was helped by the favourable climate conditions in the 14th century. However, by the 16th century, things took a more decisively colder step. The so-called Little Ice Age began around the 16th century and continued until well into the 19th century, resulting in about 300 years of colder conditions. Prolonged colder conditions began to lead to more crop failures as well as increased rates of disease. This may have contributed to some of the peasant revolts and increased activities of rebellion that gradually reduced the power of the nobility and gave greater power and freedom to the lower classes. Another result of this period was the association of witchcraft and weather-making. From the late 14th century and through the Little Ice Age, witchcraft became a significant accusation and increasing in Europe, with women in particular targeted with accusations. Witchcraft soon became associated with the power to shift the climate and the fact that rivers froze and crops failed led these accusations to become more common. Marginalized groups, such as Jewish communities, were also sometimes blamed for the turn in the climate.
There were other cultural responses. In the 16th century, artists began to increasingly use winter and winter-like scenes in their paintings. This was relatively rare before this period. The use of clouds and winter scenes appears to have peaked between 1600-1649 in paintings. Ice skating began to become a popular sport. From 1608-1814, London had a Frost Fair that included ice skating on the Thames and other winter activities. The fact that rivers froze deep enough to enable prolonged periods of ice skating had not occurred before. In Scotland, it is likely curling began to become a popular sport during the Little Ice age, as long periods of frozen weather enabled this sport to be played for a long period of the year. By around the mid 19th century, the climate began to take a clear warming trend, resulting in temperate conditions once again returning to most parts of Europe.