Medieval climate chaos revealed

January 5, 2001

The floods, gales and severe weather warnings this autumn and winter may be the result of 21st-century global warming, but they are nothing new.

York University medievalist Jeremy Goldberg has unearthed chronicle sources from across northwest Europe that describe how from 1315 the rains fell nearly continuously for three years, marking a period of growing climatic instability, flooding and coastal erosion.

Crops rotted, seed corn for successive harvests could not be spared and many people died of disease or starvation, Dr Goldberg said.

"We have harrowing glimpses of a large group of destitute poor crushed in a stampede for alms outside a London friary," he said.

The chronicles describe the famine in biblical terms, so it is not easy to discern what really happened, but those on the bottom rung of society were clearly the most vulnerable.

The famine was followed by disease among livestock, echoing the contemporary crisis in farming, although these disasters probably had a less profound impact than the outbreak of plague in 1348-49.

Flooding remained a perennial problem and the repair and rebuilding of bridges were promoted as pious works and represented a significant focus of investment, according to Dr Goldberg.

No less important or expensive were the building and maintenance of drainage channels and of flood banks.

However, in those days people expected to travel less between late autumn and spring and relied more on boats as a means of transport.

The bad weather of the period may have been part of a wider trend towards global cooling, which culminated in the so-called little ice age of the 17th century, which was reflected in Dutch paintings of snow scenes.

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