This started out as a post about the promise and peril of writing HisFic in which I used the recent Doctor Who episode “Thin Ice” as a case study. But watching the episode, seeing the Frost Fair over the Thames and the elephant making its way its way across the thick ice, I kept veering off into reflections about the possibilities for using weather and climate in historical fiction. Ultimately, I surrendered to these tangents.
The Frost Fairs, fetes held in concurrence with irregular freezings of the Thames (which largely brought London to a standstill anyway) were a real thing. Even the elephant was liften from the pages of history, homage to an actual pachyderm who bravely crossed river near Blackfriars Bridge in 1814.
Another aspect of the 1814 Frost Far was disappointingly omitted by Dr. Who writers: the production of a commemorative book, Frostiana; or a History of the River Thames in a Frozen State by printer George Davis. As an added gimmick, with modern aficionados of meta will appreciate, all the books were typeset and printed in a stall erected over the frozen river.
The Frost Fairs occurred, in years the Thames froze solidly, across a broad swath of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. Unsurprisingly, these dates coincide with a period known as the Little Ice Age when mean seasonal temperatures in most parts of the globe fell significantly.
That makes Frost Fairs the kind of exotic yet specific element that brings historical fiction to life for readers … and is fun for authors to write. The Little Ice Age is hardly the only distinctive weather/climate event with potential for writing HistFic. I have expanded on it, and provided a few others, below.
Event of 535 A.D.
A brief but devastating period of global cooling and violent weather that is now tied by many scientists to a Volcanic Winter caused by the catastrophic eruption of either El Salvador’s Ilopango Volcano or Indonesia’s Krakatoa. Consistent cloud cover and cooler temperatures created famine in locations as diverse as China, Ireland, Mesoamerica, and Peru. Famines begat plague as well as touching off a wave of often violent migrations as hungry populations went off en masse search of sustenance. Among the civilizations believed to have fallen or been weakened at least in part by the Event of 535 A.D. are the Byzantine Empire (largely from the Plague of Justinian), India’s Gupta Dynasty, Mexico’s Teotihuacan, sub-Roman Britain (as consequence of the movement of hungry Saxons and Vikings), and the Sassanid Persians.
The Little Ice Age
Depending on the specific location, the Little Ice Age might have begun as early as 1300 or ended as late as 1850. Several explanations have been advanced for the age and, operating over so long a period, it likely resulted from multiple interrelated factors. Whatever the causes, the effects were dramatic.
That one could sometimes walk from Manhattan to Staten Island over the ice seems unremarkable when the parts of the Bosporus and the Bay of Galveston occasionally froze solid. Snow was taken for granted in Lisbon, Portugal.
Further north, effects were more serious. Frequent flooding altered coastlines and river courses in Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. Iceland was isolated, famished, and lost half its population. Norse populations in Greenland vanished entirely. In Asia, China saw its agricultural zones shift southward and its coastal regions battered by intense typhoon activity.
All this had profound social consequences. The hungry, displaced, and weary populations of the Little Ice Age have been linked with everything from increased political radicalization (English Civil War, American Revolution, French Revolution, Revolutions of 1848, etc.) to witch hunting panics stretching from Salem to the Harz Mountains.
Of course, every Little Ice Age has its silver lining. A number of musicologists have suggested that that the old, dense woods of Little Ice Age forests may explain (at least in part) the superlative acoustic properties of instruments made by Antonio Stradivarius.
Year Without a Summer (1816)
As with the Event of 535 A.D., the Year without a Summer was caused by a Volcanic Winter, in this case resulting from the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora. Piggybacking on the effects of the Little Ice Age, it overtaxed already strained agricultural systems. Europe saw shortages and food riots in France, Switzerland, and the UK. A typhus outbreak occurred in Ireland. Freezes occurred as late as August while severe storms and torrential rain flooded major rivers. In North America, crops in New England and Canada failed. While there was no widespread famine there, food prices (and social unrest) rose sharply. China saw regional famines accompanied by widespread desertion from the army.
Conversely, the dense atmospheric particulates of the Year Without a Summer led to brilliant sunrises and sunsets, captured in landscape paintings of the period. It also stimulated widespread interest in scientific agriculture such as mechanization and chemical fertilizers.
A few parting thoughts about how climate might play into historical fiction:
First, as the above examples indicate, climate has a significant impact on the rise and fall of civilizations, cultures, and nations. This is true of gradual long term change as well as cataclysmic occurrences like the Event of 535 A.D. or Year without a Summer. With the glacial (see what I did there?) pace of climate change, land is often settled which is cultivatable under favorable climate conditions. When climate shifts again, however, the land proves to be inhospitable. This kind of sudden decline in carrying capacity has been pointed to as a factor in the fall of the Anasazi (or, if you prefer, Ancestral Puebloans), classical Mayan civilization, and civilization’s first blush in Mesopotamia (possibly catalyzed by widespread deforestation).
Second, humans have always understood weather … but they haven’t always understood meteorology. A Neolithic farmer might actually be a better weather prognosticator over his or her little bit of dirt than a trained 21st century meteorologist. But the Neolithic farmer (and, indeed, most humans until the early 20th century) don’t really see the big picture and don’t understand what drives weather. For much of history, extreme weather is likely to be viewed as divine omen, direct evidence of God’s/gods’ displeasure, or the work of the black magic or infernal forces.