Sunday, March 26, 2023

Climate change in the Middle Ages: this is how the Little Ice Age affected some populations

The Little Ice Age was a period of climatic fluctuations and instability that began in the Middle Ages. Knowing its impact and effects helps to address the environmental challenge in which we are immersed after six centuries.

the day it started raining

Let us place ourselves in the mid-mountain valley of the Cantabrian Mountains at some point in the Late Middle Ages (14th–15th centuries). Especially in a small village called San Romano on the banks of the Trubía River (a tributary of the Nalón) in Asturias, where its neighbors go about their daily chores as they do every day: they work in the garden, mow . In the fields, tending to the cattle, they take advantage of the resources provided by their region to survive and enjoy life as they could at any other time in history. So far everything is normal and in your routine.

But that day it started raining. excess. In fact, as we shall see later, the consequences were dire indeed. It was raining thick and heavy: the old men said that before clouds did not descend like this. As he also noted that summers were dry, the ground was not as wet as in winter (which sometimes caused the spelled crop to rot), and snow did not fall as often. Although no one paid much attention to them, they began to realize that something was not right with the climate, that it was changing. They didn’t have a word to define it, but those symptoms marked the beginning of what we now call the Little Ice Age (14th–19th centuries), a period in which temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere were 0.8 °C below average. Was. End of 20th century.

Inuit migration and alarm in Greenland

Like all climate fluctuations, it did not appear in the same way in every region of the world. In those centuries, not far from San Romano, the last bishop of Garuda in Greenland embarked in the direction of Norway, composed of Nordic populations that had lived in the south of the island for four centuries. Winters were getting colder and more intolerable, domestic animals resisted worse and it was more difficult to grow the few crops that did germinate in those latitudes.

Inuit sealers were arriving more frequently from the north and became more aggressive. There the change was more extreme and obvious. But much further south it was also noticeable: the River Thames in London often froze over every winter. They were all different symptoms of globally perceptible change. Written documents of the time reflect this, although, with a few notable exceptions, the references are quite partial and fragmentary.

climate footprint

Fortunately for research, this fluctuation has been recorded in marine, lake and karstic sedimentary cores as well as in tree growth rings. Its recovery and analysis provides us with a valuable perspective for understanding past climate. In particular, for the Iberian Peninsula we have at least twenty-one studies covering the last two thousand years, with important details. In almost all of them we see that, in fact, something happened to the climate between the 13th and 14th centuries: a drop in temperature, an increase in mountain glaciers and an increase in rainfall.

Graph of the mean temperature in the Northern Hemisphere over the years 200 to 2000 °C.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

In this period, a cycle of greater climate instability began, although with considerable variation depending on the region. In particular, in the Atlantic region, we know that changes in the Gulf Stream at the beginning of this period produced both seasonal and annual erratic rainfall patterns.

These environmental records provide clues as to what may have happened, but despite their interest, they do not explain the impact that all this had on a more local scale. How did people experience it? To what extent was each ecological region affected?

We need to draw on other sciences and disciplines and manage a research framework that allows us to move between different scales of analysis to understand the societal impact of the Little Ice Age. The framework through which we study humans’ relationships with their environment over time is what we call historical ecology. And within this research programme, environmental history and archeology are disciplines that have allowed us to reveal these effects, to put a human face on structural and long-term phenomena.

mud wave that washed away houses and finished with orchards

When it rained more than had ever fallen on that day in the late Middle Ages (at least not in the short life experience of the people living in the city), the intensity of the rain caused the small stream of the San Romano (which in summer practically disappeared during the dry season and crossed the middle of the village) suddenly and diabolically increased. Some did not even have time to realize what was happening when a kind of wave made of mud, rocks, branches and water destroyed everything in its path. This is what hydrologists call today Flash Flood or flash flood. The speed achieved by the edge was 3.5 m/s, generating a force that some current constructions could not resist.

It is easy to imagine the havoc it wreaked on the modest, mostly wooden houses and stables of the time. This is how we verified it in our archaeological excavations. We intervened in debris cones created by the torrent at several locations, where we documented sedimentary and geologic material mixed with village remains (tiles, masonry, tools, etc.), flood channels crossing houses, and a Full range of very clear indicators of torrential type hydrological activity. Within minutes the village was practically destroyed and worse, its gardens, the main livelihood of those people, were completely covered by a thick layer of sterile sediment.

Climate Change In The Middle Ages: This Is How The Little Ice Age Affected Some Populations
The moment we discovered the destruction caused by the torrent of water in the medieval site of San Romano, all the construction and geologic materials were intertwined.
author provided

The economic loss was irreparable. For many people and animals we can assume a sad ending: the event will, of course, take them by surprise, without giving them time to escape.

Today’s Flash Flood They are one of the natural disasters that cause the most number of victims in the world. Those who survived were left without housing, livestock and cultivated fields, and in the Middle Ages this meant nothing was left. At the end of the 14th century we record a change of name in the village in a document, a “new town” appears on the other side of the Trubia river. We associate the destruction of the “old” villa with the foundation of this settlement.

humans are most vulnerable when they suffer

It is well known that rain is never to everyone’s liking, and every natural disaster can benefit some people. These types of traumatic episodes make people more susceptible to accepting changes in norms, rules of spaces or structures of property. it’s called naomi klein shock theory: When a man is suffering, he is more sensitive and humble.

All the land that was affected by the flood was transformed into a vacant lot, i.e. a land that was initially barren, which changed its use, regulation and ownership.

This type of land was the subject of speculation by large owners, particularly from the 16th century, when the Crown found through its sale a lucrative source of financing.

We don’t know exactly what happened at San Romano, but, incidentally, in the 18th century a local noble family built their manor house right on top of the debris of the torrent, with the ejection cone surrounding the entire affected area. Was.

Why would the nobility settle on the most unproductive plots of land? Looking at all these processes together, and with the perspective that historical ecology allows us, we begin to understand how they are related: the building of great architecture represents the end of this whole cycle of appropriation, Which is generated with a “shock”. Natural disaster.

Today, in areas remote to us in Africa or the Americas, things happen that are not much different from the events described here. All of this reminds us that the climate crisis can be a great source of injustice, and history is a very useful tool if we really want to learn from this collection of past experiences to find fair recipes that leave us unsure. Allows us to address the future that awaits us, with weighty challenges, and a decisive one among them, the environment.

Nation World News Desk
Nation World News Desk
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