Colder springs and summers. Excessive rainfall. Late spring and early frosts. Years without summers. Crop failures. Starvation. Increased Poverty. Pestilence and Plagues. Mass Death. Fear. Disorder. Turmoil. Scapegoats. Witch trials. These related calamities appeared sporadically throughout the period known as the Little Ice Age. The Little Ice Age, from approximately 1300 to 1850 A. D., was a time of extremely erratic and unpredictable climate change. Weather would be normal for a time, then the spring and summer would fail to become warm enough, or there might be too much rainfall.
Crops would fail, and famine and pestilence might ensue. After a period of death and chaos, the milder weather would return. It is reasonable to assert that humanity did not adapt because there were never any permanent climatic conditions. The result was that pain and suffering periodically afflicted much of the planet. Although this climate change led to death and destruction in many regions of the globe, we will focus here on its effects specifically on Europe. Even though the average temperature did not radically change, Europe suffered greatly. Dr. Henry Diaz, a climatologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, stated that the temperature during the Little Ice Age was not that much colder than today’s climate. Nevertheless, there were disastrous consequences. He wrote that “It looks like about 1 degree, maybe as much as 1.5 degrees Celsius [about 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit] colder than modern. It doesn’t appear to be a large number, but the growing seasons were shortened, spring was slower in coming, fall was earlier in arriving, summer had things like lots of hail. … It was pretty bad.”
Europeans needed an explanation for the appalling things that were happening. They found an answer when Pope Innocent VIII issued a Papal Bull in 1484 blaming witchcraft for bad weather. Two friars authored the Malleus Maleficarum, (The Witches Hammer) which was published in 1486. The book included the Papal Bull, and it provided the guidelines for the prosecution of witchcraft. Historian Wolfgang Behringer wrote that “the Malleus Maleficarum unquestionably impuned to witches the ability to affect weather-magic.” Behringer also stated that “Contemporary court records and broadsheets tell about the importance of meteorological events as triggering factors in the background of the persecutions in these areas. … court records dwell upon disease and the deaths of children and cattle and the destruction of crops and vineyards. Chroniclers relate these individual misfortunes to more general meteorological developments.” Various historians corroborate Behringer’s findings. For instance, Christian Pfister wrote that “peaks of persecution coincided with the critical points of climatic deterioration.” Emily Oster studied the relationship between witchcraft trials and weather and found that various kinds of data demonstrate more than a coincidental relationship between the two. Oster stated that an increase in witchcraft trials around the year 1560 coincided with one of the largest drops in temperature of the Little Ice Age. Pfister amplified Oster’s assertion by pointing out that a significant rise in witchcraft executions increased with
Various historians corroborate Behringer’s findings. For instance, Christian Pfister wrote that “peaks of persecution coincided with the critical points of climatic deterioration.” Emily Oster studied the relationship between witchcraft trials and weather and found that various kinds of data demonstrate more than a coincidental relationship between the two. Oster stated that an increase in witchcraft trials around the year 1560 coincided with one of the largest drops in temperature of the Little Ice Age. Pfister amplified Oster’s assertion by pointing out that a significant rise in witchcraft executions increased with extra cold weather which occurred after 1565. Behringer made a similar observation and wrote that in 1570, after two years of “catastrophic coldness,” there was another wave of witchcraft persecution. Just as the 1500s saw both cold weather and witchcraft prosecutions, these phenomena continued throughout the 1600s, and this time, period included some of the worst weather of the Little Ice Age.
Historian Geoffrey Parker stated that some of the coldest weather recorded in over a millennium occurred during the 1600s. It is estimated that one-third of the population perished. Behringer indicated that the years 1621-1630 sustained cold winters, late springs, and cold, wet weather in the summer and autumn. He noted that in 1628 witchcraft persecutions reached their peak. Pfister corroborated Behringer’s information by stating that harsh weather dominated the years between 1618 and 1630 and this was followed by larger numbers of executions. According to Parker, “in southern Germany, a hailstorm in May 1626 followed by Arctic temperatures led to the arrest, torture and execution of 900 men and women suspected of producing the calamity through witchcraft.” He further stated that “Two decades later, the Scottish Parliament likewise blamed a winter of heavy snow and rain followed by a cereal harvest of ‘small bulke’ on ‘the sin of witchcraft [which] daily increases in this land’; and, to avert more divine displeasure, it authorized more executions for sorcery than at any other time in the country’s history.”
Thus, a change of merely one degree Celsius resulted in devastation during the Little Ice Age. A huge portion of the population died from starvation and disease, and society was wracked by social upheaval. Different ages? Sure. But it does not seem unreasonable to assume that a one degree Celsius rise in temperature could still put large areas of the planet at risk for the dire consequences of climate change. Some of these ramifications might include crop failures, starvation, additional poverty, increased physical and mental illness, and massive social conflict including civil war and international warfare.
Lenore M. Hitchler