By Geoffrey Parker (Yale University Press, 2013)
The Little Ice Age (LIA) is conventionally treated as a cool period from about 1600 to 1850, or more broadly from the 16th to 19th centuries. The coolest years occurred in three bands starting 1650, 1770 and 1850. The reasons are poorly understood or are multiple and complex, but there’s no doubt that major regional climate changes took place during this period in many parts of the world.
Geoffrey Parker is a master historian and story teller. He assembles data from temperature records, rainfall and harvest information, wars and rebellion, famine and plague, and finds a disturbing pattern: much of human history during the LIA was crucial to the formation of the modern world and arose from the exigencies of climate. The population of the globe plunged, and found itself engulfed in misery. From the rebellions and invasion that toppled the Ming, to the almost continuous state of war in Europe, this was an ugly time to be alive. It was also unusually cold.
Not that Parker stretches his historian’s reach beyond acceptable limits. He doesn’t say that the climate caused this or that, for example the periodic uprooting of the rodent which hosts the flea that passes bubonic plague to man. Yet through an incessant parade of event and circumstance, we’re left with a query at the other side of the causal spectrum. If climate wasn’t responsible for the aggravation of human affairs during the 17th century (Parker focusses on that century in particular), then we have nothing to explain why that century’s cluster of misery took place when it did or how. Phrased differently, climate is strangely apt to explain the concatenation of human distress.
Turmoil stretched from America through England and Europe to China and Japan. Parker provides a unifying framework for the first time that embraces both human records and the natural “archive” to explain why much of the world was engulfed in crisis, a “global crisis” as he describes it.
There is majesty in the assembly of so much divergent data to yield understanding of complex events. The trouble, however, is that this is only the beginning of the effort to integrate climate and history. Much further work needs to be done. We’ve only dipped our toes in the water. Parker’s book is massive. 697 pages in the advance uncorrected page proof before chronology, bibliography and notes. It will take decades if not centuries to sift through the material he covers and find what was independent of climate. The contra-factual assumptions Parker could not explore are much broader in scope than those he examines. This is a major weakness of the book: proving that climate is an important ingredient in the study of history demanded wide vision, but precluded the fastidious attention to detail that drives historical analysis into its strongest terrain.
As a book, we tire of seeing Parker make his point again and again. The context varies, but the core stays the same. Enough, we find ourselves saying, what meta-historical directions lie beyond this sphere? What comes next? Parker doesn’t say. This limitation is probably because of popular disputes that touch on climate as a topic. Parker had to hammer his subject home. But there are those who wish Parker had trimmed the book by half and devoted the time saved to conjectures where history as a field could march with climate in its arsenal.
The last hundred pages or so contain a relaxed tone compared to the rest. It’s as though there are two Geoffrey Parkers: one the detail man who marshalls his facts and insists on laying them out, the other the creative thinker who allows himself to breathe a freer cleaner air. I rather enjoyed the detail man better than the creative thinker. We all have strengths and weaknesses; perhaps Parker’s editor should have found a way to divide this book in two. Deciding what belongs and what doesn’t is part of an editor’s task, isn’t it?
You’ll want to read this book if you have any doubts about the impact of climate on history, and if you want a connected portrait of human affairs that spans the globe in the 17th century.
Give it a try.