The warmest period of the past 2,000 years was the so-called medieval warm period (MWP) that occurred during AD 950 to 1250 of the European Middle Ages. Scientists also identify an “early medieval warm” period or, more commonly, “the Little Optimum” (AD 750–900) and the “Maximum Optimum” (1150–1200).
Identified by paleoclimatologist Hubert H. Lamb in 1965 and further researched by other scientists, this warm epoch existed in the North Atlantic region, southern Greenland, the Eurasian Arctic, Japan (where it occurred from AD 900–1200), parts of North America, New Zealand (AD 1050–1400), and tropical South America (AD 1050–1300).
During the MWP the Vikings invaded Russia and France and sailed nearly ice-free seas to colonize the southern tip of Greenland and “Vinland” (the present-day Newfoundland).
Wine grapes could be grown in Britain as far north as Ely, 70 miles northeast of London. Olive trees took root in northern Italy’s Po Valley and fig trees thrived around Cologne, Germany.
The warm weather and abundant crops of the MWP caused economic expansion, encouraged extensive sea and land travel for trade, fostered artistic innovation (a sort of proto-Renaissance appeared around the time of the artist Giotto) and prompted a population explosion in Europe, with some communities attaining sizes not seen again until the 19th century.
And then the climate cooled off, with disastrous results.
A drop in temperature triggered increased rains, cold winters, ruined crops, and decimated livestock, instigating Europe’s Great Famine of 1315–1317. Hubert Lamb noted how Europe’s growing season varied by 15 to 20 percent between the warmest and coldest periods, and how England’s growing season was shorter by one or two months than it is today.
Starvation of people and animals occurred during this cool period. Cannibalism was prevalent. Some parents abandoned their children, an act that led to Grimm’s tale of Hansel and Gretel.
The average person’s life expectancy dropped from 35 to 30 years as somewhere between 10–25 percent of the population perished because of malnutrition or disease.
Seven years of cool, rainy summers caused the fungus ergot to grow on what was left of rye and other grains. Ergot contains toxins and lysergic acid, the key component of the psychedelic drug LSD. People eating the grain suffered from “St. Anthony’s Fire,” or ergotism, the symptoms of which include severe psychosis, convulsions, gangrene with burning pain in the extremities, and “dancing mania.”
Malnutrition led to people with weakened immune systems susceptible to disease. The Black Death then appeared, transported from the trading city of Caffa in the Crimea to Europe aboard a dozen Genoese trading ships that docked in Messina, Sicily, in October 1347.
In five years it would kill over one-third of Europe’s population.
But this was only the beginning of the world’s problems as the so-called Little Ice Age took hold, with its three temperature minima occurring around 1560–1660, 1770 and 1800–1850, and the rest of the era punctuated by a few minor warming intervals. Increased Arctic sea ice forced the Vikings to abandon Greenland and Vinland in the mid-to-late 1400s. Alpine glaciers reached their maximum extent from 1590 to around 1850, swallowing up whole villages.
Starvation and terrible conditions led to political unrest, and hungry men enlisted to fight the War of the Roses (1455–1485). In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII blamed the cold temperatures and other catastrophic phenomena on witches; the coldest times of the little ice age correlate with witch hysteria, accusations and executions worldwide during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Malnutrition also exacerbated England’s influenza epidemic of 1557-1558. Even so, the Little Ice Age did give the potato a boost. At first ignored by Europeans when introduced by Spanish conquistadors returning home from the New World in the late 1500s, the potato could withstand cold better than other crops and eventually surged in popularity, particularly in Ireland.
In the 1600s, the cold, famines and floods in China weakened and destabilized China’s ruling Ming Dynasty, as poor peasants unable to pay their taxes revolted and by 1644 had overthrown the government, thus creating a power vacuum filled by northern Manchurian invaders who founded the Qing Dynasty.
Some historians believe that the cold and disrupted agriculture of the European powers led to the Thirty Years’ War of 1618–1648.
The severe winter of 1709 killed many French people, as did the winter of 1739–1740.
Interestingly, Europe in the little ice age also suffered from droughts. After 20 years of droughts, meager harvests, cattle disease, and an abusive government, the peasants of France revolted, bringing forth the French Revolution of 1789.
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Richard Grigonis is an internationally known technology editor and writer. He was executive editor of Technology Management Corporation’s IP Communications Group of magazines from 2006 to 2009. The author of five books on computers and telecom, including the highly influential Computer Telephony Encyclopedia (2000), he was the chief technical editor of Harry Newton's Computer Telephony magazine (later retitled Communications Convergence after its acquisition by Miller Freeman/CMP Media) from its first year of operation in 1994 until 2003. Read more reports from Richard Grigonis — Click Here Now
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