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The Little Ice Age as Setting for A Slender Tether

Few people are aware that Europe suffered through a Little Ice Age during the Middle Ages, a time of unprecedented cold which I was drawn to include in my new book, A Slender Tether, because of its current relevance: the inexplicable weather, severe storms, and global warming that are in the news on a weekly basis these days.  It’s my suggestion that these had a profound effect not just on the lifestyles of Europeans, but also their sense of consistency and predictability.

“Speak the words “ice age,” and the mind turns to Cro-Magnon mammoth hunters on windswept European plains devoid of trees,” suggests Brian Fagan, author of The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850, on which much of my research is based.  “But the Little Ice Age was far from a deep freeze.  Think instead of an irregular see-saw of rapid climatic shifts, driven by complex and still little understood interactions between the atmosphere and the ocean.  The seesaw brought cycles of intensely cold winters and easterly winds, then switched abruptly to years of heavy spring and early summer rains, mild winters, and frequent Atlantic storms, or to periods droughts, light northeasterlies, and summer heat waves that baked growing corn fields under a shimmering haze.  The Little Ice Age was an endless zigzag of climatic shifts.” (pg. xiii)

The Little Ice Age   was preceded by the Medieval Warm Period in which crops flourished, food was abundant and the population increased. England’s population in the late eleventh-century of 1.4 million had risen to 5 million by 1300, and France’s population grew from 6.2 million to 17.6 million or higher. (pg. 33) “For five centuries, Europe basked in warm, settled weather…Summer after summer passed with long, dreamy days, golden sunlight, and bountiful harvests.  Compared with what was to follow, these centuries were a climatic golden age…Crop failures were sufficiently rare that peasant and lord alike might piously believe that God was smiling upon them.  Nothing prepared them for the catastrophe ahead.” Pg. 21

The Little Ice Age began in Europe in 1300 after a major volcanic eruption in 1258 “cooled the atmosphere with its fine dust” and generated a cold snap. “Starting in about 1310 and continuing for five and a half centuries, the climate became more unpredictable, cooler, occasionally stormy, and subject to sporadic extremes – the Little Ice Age.” (pg. 47) And while A Slender Tether is set 1387-1393, it followed what historians are now calling the Great Cold, from 1350-1380.

“At least 100,000 people died along the Dutch and German coasts in four fierce storm surges in about 1200, 1212-19, 1287, and 1362, in long-forgotten disasters that rivaled the worst in modern-day Bangladesh.  The Zuider Zee in the northern Netherlands formed during the fourteenth century, when storms carved a huge inland sea from prime farming land that was not reclaimed until this century.  The greatest fourteenth-century storm, that of January 1362, went down in history as the Grote Mandrenke, the “Great Drowning of Men.” Pg. 65

Setting is a powerful aspect of a good story and this unpredictable weather reinforces other inexplicable happenings of the time, specifically the madness of the king, which I’ll address in another blog.