The Little Ice Age: Weather, Witches, and Weary Colonists
Some people may say that a centuries long climatological phenomenon wouldn’t make for a compelling story – but I beg to differ! While the date range is disputed, the Little Ice Age affected large swathes of the globe, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, for several centuries. While its name suggests a period of severe cold, the Little Ice Age was more of a long period of climatic extremes – temperatures cold enough to freeze over rivers, long periods of drought, and devastating storms.
Many trace the beginning of the Little Ice Age to somewhere around 1300 and have it lasting until sometime around 1850. This makes for some pretty interesting historical correlations: the witch hunts in Europe and North America, the sinking of the Spanish Armada off the British coast, the failure of several European colonies; the list could go on. Instead of just rambling off events that happened over the course of 550 years, let’s dive into a few of them and look at how the Little Ice Age may have affected them.
The Little Ice Age: A Witch Hunter’s Guide to Climatology
Witchcraft has a long history in popular European belief, especially a witch’s ability to cause weather events, such as hailstorms. In the 1380s, however, as Europe began experiencing the effects of the Little Ice Age, those who held ecclesiastical power began to reconsider their staunch “there’s no such thing as witches” stance. Indeed, we find increasing records of people being accused of affecting the weather with witchcraft in the Inquisitorial trials of this period.1 Over the next century, witch hunts became more organized and systematic, until they reached the highest levels of Church power. In December, 1484, Pope Innocent VIII revealed the presence of witches among his flock.2 While the idea of witches was nothing new, Innocent’s declaration was the first time a pope had recognized their existence in an official edict.
As the decades wore on, and the Little Ice Age caused Europe to oscillate between arid summers and bitterly cold winters, extreme weather events and crop failures became more common. Writing in the early 1600s, Johannes Linden recounted the hardships endured by the people of Trier, an archbishopric, in what is now western Germany, ruled by Prince-Archbishop Johannes VII von Shönenberg:
“During the whole period [of Shönenberg’s reign] he had to endure a continuous lack of grain, the rigours of climate and crop failure with his subjects. Only two of the nineteen years [of his reign] were fertile, the years 1584 and 1590…” 3
As the people of Trier became fed up with not having enough food, “the whole country stood up” and demanded the “eradication” of the witches who clearly lived among them and caused their crops to fail year after year.4
As the effects of the Little Ice Age continued to grow in strength, witchcraft accusations and executions reached all time highs in several areas of Europe. In 1563, the town of Wisensteig burned 63 women alive for witchcraft. In France and Britain, accusations reached all time highs in 1587 and 1588. Between 1580 and 1620, the citizens of Bern, Switzerland burned over 1,000 people to death. Coincidentally, these decades turned out to be some of the coldest, harshest years Europe had seen in centuries.5
Climate and Colonialism
The Little Ice Age also interrupted the rhythm of everyday life across the Atlantic. Droughts plagued areas such as the Chesapeake and the Outer Banks, causing Native Americans’ harvests to literally wither. And the English colonists who tried establishing themselves in these areas arrived at the exact worst time.
When they sailed into the Chesapeake in 1607, the soon-to-be founders of Jamestown came to shore at the beginning of a seven year drought. In fact, the colonists had the distinct misfortune of having sailed some 3,000 miles just to get to their new home during its driest period in 770 years.6 The last time it had been that dry in the Chesapeake, the ancestors of the Jamestown colonists were still speaking a form of English that sounded more like German and fighting off the Vikings!
For the first few months of their time at Jamestown, things seemed to go fine. The colonists slapped together a fort in June, and their captain set sail on a return journey to England to re-up on supplies. Then, the effects of the drought began to hit home. Without enough food to go around, the colonists grew weak, susceptible to illness, and brought themselves into conflict with the neighboring Powhatan nation as they sought out resources. Writing in 1625, colonist George Percy recalled the consequences of the drought:
“The sixt of August there died John Asbie of the bloudie Flixe. The ninth day died George Flowre of the swelling. The tenth day died William Bruster Gentleman, of a wound given by the Savages, and was buried the eleventh day… The fourteenth day, Jerome Alikock Ancient, died of a wound, the same day Francis Midwinter, Edward Moris Corporall died suddenly… The fifteenth day, their died Edward Browne and Stephen Galthrope. The sixteenth day, their died Thomas Gower Gentleman. The seventeenth day, their died Thomas Mounslic. The eighteenth day, there died Robert Pennington, and John Martine Gentleman. The nineteenth day, died Drue Piggase Gentleman. The two and twentieth day of August, there died Captaine Bartholomew Gosnold… The foure and twentieth day, died Edward Harington and George Walker, and were buried the same day. The sixe and twentieth day, died Kenelme Throgmortine. The seven and twentieth day died William Roods. The eight and twentieth day died Thomas Stoodie, Cape Merchant…The fourth day of September died Thomas Jacob Sergeant. The fift day, there died Benjamin Beast. Our men were destroyed with cruell diseases as Swellings, Flixes, Burning Fevers, and by warres, and some departed suddenly, but for the most part they died of meere famine. ”7
When the winter came, conditions got no easier for the folks of Jamestown. Not only had they arrived during the Chesapeake’s driest era, the seventeenth-century proved one of the coldest in millenia. Farther down in his letter, known ominously to historians as “The Dying Times,” Percy wrote of how, in September, temperatures dropped so low that it “brought our men tto bee feeble wretches.”8 By the “eighteenth day” of September, Jamestown had become so frigid that “one Ellis Kinistone… starved to death with cold.”9
Fortunately, Percy noted, “It pleased God, after a while, to send those people which were our mortall enemies to releeve us with victuals, as Bread, Corne, Fish, and Flesh in great plentie… otherwise wee had all perished.”10 Had it not been for the Powhatan people, the settlers of Jamestown would surely have succumb to the drought and cold.
What Caused the Little Ice Age?
A quick Google search will come up with several different explanations from climatologists. Some say a lack of sunspots caused less radiation to reach Earth.11 Others say large-scale volcanic eruptions pumped so many particulates into the atmosphere that they reflected significant amounts of rays back into space, cooling the planet.12 In March, 2019, however, a study conducted out of the University College of London (that fits a little better with the overall theme of this blog) argued for a different cause.
In essence, this paper, entitled “Earth system impacts of the European arrival and Great Dying in the Americas after 1492,” argues that so many Native Americans died in the wake of European arrival that it caused a significant shift in the ratio of atmospheric gasses. “We estimate that 55 million indigenous people died following the European conquest of the Americas beginning in 1492,” the authors wrote. “This led to the abandonment and secondary succession of 56 million hectares of land.”13 That’s 55 million less people breathing out carbon-dioxide, and 56 million more hectares (or 138,379,013.62 acres!) of land uneffected by human hands, which means way more plants to suck up CO2 and pump out oxygen.
The authors of the paper summed it up with the following:
“We conclude that the Great Dying of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas led to the abandonment of enough cleared land in the Americas that the resulting terrestrial carbon uptake had a detectable impact on both atmospheric CO2 and global surface air temperatures in the two centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution.”14
Sources on the Little Ice Age:
- Wolfgang Behringer, “Climatic Change and Witch-Hunting: The Impact of the Little Ice Age on Mentalities,” Climatic Change vol. 43 (Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999), 336.
- Jennie Cohen, “Little Ice Age, Big Consequences,” history.com.
- Behringer, “Climatic Change and Witch-Hunting,” 340.
- Behringer, “Climatic Change and Witch-Hunting,” 341.
- Brian Fagan, The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850 (Basic Books: New York, 2000), 91.
- Fagan, The Little Ice Age, 97.
- George Percy, The Dying Time; an excerpt from “Observations gathered out of a Discourse of the Plantation of the Southerne Colonie in Virginia,” (1625), encyclopediavirginia.org.
- K. Jan Oosthoek, “Little Ice Age,” eh-resources.org.
- Richard Black, “Volcanic Origin for Little Ice Age,” bbc.com.
- Alexander Koch, Chris Brierly, Mark M. Maslin, and Simon L. Lewis, “Earth system impacts on the European arrival and Great Dying in the Americas after 1492,” Quaternary Science Reviews vol. 207 (March 1, 2019): 13-36. Via sciencedirect.com.