The Little Ice Age

How Climate Made History 1300-1850


By Brian Fagan

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Only in the last decade have climatologists developed an accurate picture of yearly climate conditions in historical times. This development confirmed a long-standing suspicion: that the world endured a 500-year cold snap — The Little Ice Age — that lasted roughly from A.D. 1300 until 1850. The Little Ice Age tells the story of the turbulent, unpredictable and often very cold years of modern European history, how climate altered historical events, and what they mean in the context of today’s global warming. With its basis in cutting-edge science, The Little Ice Age offers a new perspective on familiar events. Renowned archaeologist Brian Fagan shows how the increasing cold affected Norse exploration; how changing sea temperatures caused English and Basque fishermen to follow vast shoals of cod all the way to the New World; how a generations-long subsistence crisis in France contributed to social disintegration and ultimately revolution; and how English efforts to improve farm productivity in the face of a deteriorating climate helped pave the way for the Industrial Revolution and hence for global warming. This is a fascinating, original book for anyone interested in history, climate, or the new subject of how they interact.


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We are in a raft, gliding down a river, toward a waterfall. We have a map but are uncertain of our location and hence are unsure of the distance to the waterfall. Some of us are getting nervous and wish to land immediately; others insist we can continue safely for several more hours. A few are enjoying the ride so much that they deny there is any immediate danger although the map clearly shows a waterfall.… How do we avoid a disaster?

—George S. Philander, Is the Temperature Rising?

April 1963: The waters of the Blackwater River in eastern England were pewter gray, riffled by an arctic northeasterly breeze. Thick snow clouds hovered over the North Sea. Heeling to the strengthening wind, we tacked downriver with the ebb tide, muffled to our ears in every stitch of clothing we had aboard. Braseis coursed into the short waves of the estuary, throwing chill spray that froze as it hit the deck. Within minutes, the decks were sheathed with a thin layer of ice. Thankfully, we turned upstream and found mooring in nearby Brightlingsea Creek. Thick snow began to fall as we thawed out with glasses of mulled rum. Next morning, we woke to an unfamiliar arctic world, cushioned with silent white. There was fifteen centimeters of snow on deck.

Thirty-five years later, I sailed down the Blackwater again, at almost the same time of year. The temperature was 18˚C, the water a muddy green, glistening in the afternoon sunshine, skies pale blue overhead. We sailed before a mild southwesterly, tide underfoot, with only thin sweaters on. I shuddered at the memory of the chilly passage of three decades before as we lazed in the warmth, the sort of weather one would expect in a California spring, not during April in northern Europe. I remarked to my shipmates that global warming has its benefits. They agreed.…

Humanity has been at the mercy of climate change for its entire existence. Infinitely ingenious, we have lived through at least eight, perhaps nine, glacial episodes in the past 730,000 years. Our ancestors adapted to the universal but irregular global warming since the end of the Ice Age with dazzling opportunism. They developed strategies for surviving harsh drought cycles, decades of heavy rainfall or unaccustomed cold; adopted agriculture and stock-raising, which revolutionized human life; founded the world’s first preindustrial civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Americas. The price of sudden climate change, in famine, disease, and suffering, was often high.

The Little Ice Age survives only as a dim recollection: depictions in school textbooks of people dancing at fairs on a frozen River Thames in London in the jolly days of King Charles II; legends of George Washington’s ragtag Continental Army wintering over at Valley Forge in 1777/78. We have forgotten that only two centuries ago Europe experienced a cycle of bitterly cold winters, mountain glaciers in the Swiss Alps were lower than in recorded memory, and pack ice surrounded Iceland for much of the year. Hundreds of poor died of hypothermia in London during the cold winters of the 1880s, and soldiers froze to death on the Western Front in 1916. Our memories of weather events, even of exceptional storms and unusual cold, fade quickly with the passing generations. The arid statistics of temperature and rainfall mean little without the chill of cold on one’s skin, or mud clinging to one’s boots in a field of ruined wheat flattened by rain.

We live in an era of global warming that has lasted longer than any such period over the past thousand years. For the first time, human beings with their promiscuous land clearance, industrial-scale agriculture, and use of coal, oil, and other fossil fuels have raised greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere to record highs and are changing global climate. In an era so warm that sixty-five British bird species laid their eggs an average of 8.8 days earlier in 1995 than in 1971, when brushfires consumed over 500,000 hectares of drought-plagued Mexican forest in 1998 and when the sea level has risen in Fiji an average of 1.5 centimeters a year over the past nine decades—in such times, the weather extremes of the Little Ice Age seem grotesquely remote. But we need to understand just how profoundly the climatic events of the Little Ice Age rippled through Europe over five hundred momentous years of history. These events did more than help shape the modern world. They are the easily ignored, but deeply important, context for the unprecedented global warming today. They offer precedent as we look into the climatic future.

Speak the words “ice age,” and the mind turns to Cro-Magnon mammoth hunters on windswept European plains devoid of trees. But the Little Ice Age was far from a deep freeze. Think instead of an irregular seesaw 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 of 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, few lasting more than a quarter century. Today’s prolonged warming is an anomaly.

Reconstructing the climate changes of the past is extremely difficult, because reliable instrument records are but a few centuries old, and even these exist only in Europe and North America. Systematic weather observations began in India during the nineteenth century. Accurate meteorological records for tropical Africa are little more than three-quarters of a century old. For earlier times, we have but what are called proxy records reconstructed from incomplete written accounts, tree rings, and ice cores. Country clergymen and gentleman scientists with time on their hands sometimes kept weather records over long periods. Chronicles like those of the eighteenth-century diarist John Evelyn or monastery scribes are invaluable for their remarks on unusual weather, but their usefulness in making comparisons is limited. Remarks like “the worst rain storm in memory,” or “hundreds of fishing boats overwhelmed by mighty waves” do not an accurate meteorological record make, even if they made a deep impression at the time. The traumas of extreme weather events fade rapidly from human consciousness. Many New Yorkers still vividly remember the great heat wave of Summer 1999, but it will soon fade from collective memory, just like the great New York blizzard of 1888, which stranded hundreds of people in Grand Central Station and froze dozens to death in deep snowdrifts.

A generation ago, we had a generalized impression of Little Ice Age climate compiled with painstaking care from a bewildering array of historical sources and a handful of tree-ring sequences. Today, the scatter of tree-ring records has become hundreds from throughout the Northern Hemisphere and many from south of the equator, too, amplified with a growing body of temperature data from ice cores drilled in Antarctica, Greenland, the Peruvian Andes, and other locations. We are close to a knowledge of annual summer and winter temperature variations over much of the Northern Hemisphere to as far back as A.D. 1400. Within a few years, these records will go back deep into the Middle Ages, perhaps to Roman times. We can now track the Little Ice Age as an intricate tapestry of short-term climatic shifts that rippled through European society during times of remarkable change—seven centuries that saw Europe emerge from medieval fiefdom and pass by stages through the Renaissance, the Age of Discovery, the Enlightenment, the French and Industrial revolutions, and the making of modern Europe.

To what extent did these climatic shifts alter the course of European history? Many archaeologists and historians are suspicious of the role of climate change in changing human societies—and with good reason. Environmental determinism, the notion that climate change was a primary cause of major developments like, say, agriculture, has been a dirty word in academia for generations. You certainly cannot argue that climate drove history in a direct and causative way to the point of toppling governments. Nor, however, can you contend that climate change is something that you can totally ignore. Throughout the Little Ice Age, and even as late as the nineteenth century, millions of European peasants lived at the subsistence level. Their survival depended on crop yields: cycles of good and poor harvests, of cooler and wetter spring weather, could make a crucial difference between hunger and plenty, life and death. The sufficiency or insufficiency of food was a powerful motivator of human action, sometimes on a national or even continent-wide scale, with consequences that could take decades to unfold. These same climatic verities still apply to millions of people living in less developed parts of the world.

In The Little Ice Age I argue that human relationships to the natural environment and short-term climate change have always been in a complex state of flux. To ignore them is to neglect one of the dynamic backdrops of the human experience. Consider, for instance, the food crises that engulfed Europe during the Little Ice Age—the great hunger of 1315 to 1319, which killed tens of thousands; the food dearths of 1741; and 1816, “the year without a summer”—to mention only a few. These crises in themselves did not threaten the continued existence of Western civilization, but they surely played an important role in the formation of modern Europe. We sometimes forget how little time has passed since Europeans went hungry because of harvest failure. Some of these crises resulted from climatic shifts, others from human ineptitude or disastrous economic or political policy; many, like the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, from a combination of all three—and a million people perished in that catastrophe. Its political consequences are still with us.

Environmental determinism may be intellectually bankrupt, but climate change is the ignored player on the historical stage. This is partly because of a long-held and erroneous assumption that there were few significant climatic shifts over the past millennium that could possibly have affected human societies, and also because few archaeologists or historians have followed the extraordinary revolution in paleoclimatology over the past quarter-century. Now we know that short-term climatic anomalies stressed northern European society during the Little Ice Age, and we can begin to correlate specific shifts with economic, social, and political changes, to try to assess what climate’s true impact may be. (I focus on northern Europe in these pages, because this is the region that was most directly affected by atmospheric/ocean interactions during the Little Ice Age and where climatic data are most abundant. The effects on Mediterranean lands are still little understood.)

The Little Ice Age is a narrative history of climatic shifts during the past ten centuries and some of the ways in which people in Europe adapted to them.

The book is divided into four parts. Part One describes the Medieval Warm Period, roughly A.D. 900 to 1200. During these three centuries, Norse voyagers explored northern seas, settled Greenland, and visited North America. William the Conqueror invaded England and the pious embarked on a frenzy of cathedral building. The Medieval Warm Period was not a time of uniform warmth, for then, as always since the Great Ice Age, there were constant shifts in rainfall and temperature, at least one caused by a great volcanic eruption in the tropics during the year 1258. Mean European temperatures were about the same as today, perhaps slightly cooler.

Tree rings and ice cores tell us that Little Ice Age cooling began in Greenland and the Arctic in about 1200. As the Arctic ice pack spread southward, Norse voyages to the west were rerouted into the open Atlantic, then ended altogether. Storminess increased in the North Atlantic and North Sea. Colder, much wetter weather descended on Europe between 1315 and 1319, when thousands perished in a continent-wide famine.

By 1400, the weather had become decidedly more unpredictable and stormier, with sudden shifts and lower temperatures that culminated in the cold decades of the late sixteenth century. Fish were a vital commodity in growing towns and cities where food supplies were a constant concern. Dried cod and herring were already the staples of the European fish trade, but changes in water temperatures forced fishing fleets to work further offshore. Part Two, “Cooling Begins,” tells how the Basques, Dutch, and English developed the first offshore fishing boats adapted to a colder and stormier Atlantic, vessels like the English dogger, capable of venturing far offshore in the depths of February gales to catch fish near Iceland and eventually on Newfoundland’s Grand Banks. The cod trade led fleets across the Atlantic and helped sustain the first North American colonists.

In the sixteenth century, Europe was still a rural continent, with the most rudimentary of infrastructures and a farming population that lived from harvest to harvest. Monarchs everywhere wrestled with the problem of feeding their people at a time when climatic misfortune was attributed to divine vengeance and human sin. The colder weather of the late sixteenth century particularly threatened communities in the Alps, where glaciers advancing down mountain valleys destroyed entire communities and overran their fields. Northern Europe suffered through exceptional storminess. The great gales of August 1588 destroyed more of the Spanish Armada fleet than the combined guns of English warships.

Part Three, “The End of the ‘Full World’,” tells the story of a gradual agricultural revolution in northern Europe that stemmed from concerns over food supplies at a time of rising populations. The revolution involved intensive commercial farming and the growing of animal fodder on previously fallowed land. It began in Flanders and the Netherlands in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, then spread to England in Stuart times—a period of constant climatic change and often intense cold. Many English landowners embraced the new agriculture as larger enclosed farms changed the face of the landscape and new crops like turnips provided protection for herds and people against winter hunger. The increased productivity from farmland made Britain self-sufficient in grain and livestock and offered effective protection against the famines of earlier times.

In France, however, the nobility had little concern for agricultural productivity. Despite some centers of innovation, France remained agriculturally backward in the midst of a deteriorating climate that made bad harvests more frequent. By the mid- to late eighteenth century, when much of Europe was growing larger quantities of produce, most French farmers were exceptionally vulnerable to food dearths resulting from short-term climatic shifts. Millions of poor farmers and city dwellers lived near the edge of starvation, as much at the mercy of the Little Ice Age as their medieval predecessors. But it was not until the politicization of the rural poor after the poor harvest of 1788 that reform began with the French Revolution.

When Mount Tambora in southeast Asia erupted in 1815, it created the famous “year without a summer” and widespread hunger. Cool, unpredictable weather continued into the 1820s and 1830s, when the first signs of agricultural problems surfaced in Ireland. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Irish had embraced the potato as a dietary staple. By the early nineteenth century, Ireland exported her oats to England, and her poor lived almost exclusively on potatoes. With the inevitability of Greek tragedy, blight savaged the potato crop after 1845.

Part Four, “The Modern Warm Period,” covers the end of the Little Ice Age and the sustained warming of modern times. The mass emigration fostered by the Irish famine was part of a vast migration from Europe by land-hungry farmers and others not only to North America but much further afield, to Australia, New Zealand, and southern Africa. Millions of hectares of forest and woodland fell before the newcomers’ axes between 1850 and 1890, as intensive European farming methods expanded across the world. The unprecedented land clearance released vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, triggering for the first time humanly caused global warming. Wood also fueled the early stages of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, adding to rising levels of greenhouse gases. Global temperatures began to rise slowly after 1850. They climbed more rapidly in the twentieth century as the use of fossil fuels proliferated and greenhouse gas levels continued to soar. The rise has been even steeper since the early 1980s, with record-breaking summer heat and mild winters during the 1990s. The Little Ice Age has given way to a new climatic regime, marked by prolonged and steady warming, with no signs of a downturn. At the same time, extreme weather events like Category 5 hurricanes and exceptionally strong El Niños are becoming more frequent.

The lessons of the Little Ice Age are twofold. First, climate change does not come in gentle, easy stages. It comes in sudden shifts from one regime to another—shifts whose causes are unknown to us and whose direction is beyond our control. Second, climate will have its sway in human events. Its influence may be profound, occasionally even decisive. The Little Ice Age is a chronicle of human vulnerability in the face of sudden climate change. In our own ways, despite our air-conditioned cars and computer-controlled irrigation systems, we are no less vulnerable today. There is no doubt that we will adapt again, or that the price, as always, will be high.


All measurements in this book are given in metric units. A meter is slightly longer than a yard, and sixteen kilometers is roughly ten miles. Water freezes at 0˚ Centigrade and boils at 100˚C. An ideal temperature to be outdoors is about 25˚C (77˚ Fahrenheit).

Place names are spelled according to the most common usages. Archaeological sites and historical places are spelled as they appear most commonly in the sources used to write this book.

Nonmeteorologists and nonsailors should note that wind directions are described, following common maritime convention, by the direction they are coming from. A westerly wind blows from the west. Ocean currents, however, are described by the direction they are flowing toward. Thus, a westerly wind and a westerly current flow in opposite directions.



When in April the sweet showers fall

And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all

The veins are bathed in liquor of such power

As brings the engendering of the flower…

Then people long to go on pilgrimages.

—Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales

And what a wonder! Some knights who were sitting on a magnificently outfitted horse gave the horse and their weapons away for cheap wine; and they did so because they were so terribly hungry.

—A German chronicler of 1315




I beseech the immaculate Master of monks

To steer my journeys;

May the lord of the lofty heavens

Hold his strong hand over me.

—Anonymous, Hafgerdinga Lay
(“The Lay of the Breakers”)

The fog lies close to the oily, heaving water, swirling gently as a bitterly cold air wafts in from the north. You sit gazing at a featureless world, sails slatting helplessly. Water drips from the rigging. No horizon, no boundary between sea and sky: only the gray-shrouded bow points the way ahead. The compass tells you the boat is still pointing west, barely moving through the icy chill. This fog can hug the water for days, hiding icebergs and the signs of rapidly forming pack ice. Or a few hours later, a cold northeaster can fill in and sweep away the murk, blowing out of a brilliantly blue sky. Then the horizon is as hard as a salt-encrusted knife, the sea a deep blue frothing with white caps. Running easily under reduced sail, you sight snow-clad peaks far on the western horizon a half-day’s run ahead—if the wind holds. As land approaches, the peaks cloud over, the wind drops, small ice floes dot the now-calm ocean. The wise mariner heaves to and waits for clearer weather and a breeze, lest ice block the way and crush the ship to matchwood.

Icebergs move haphazardly across the northern seas. Pack ice floes undulate in broken rows in the endless ocean swell. Far to the north, a ribbon of gray-white light shimmers above the horizon, the ice-blink of solid pack ice, the frontier of the Arctic world. To sail near the pack is to skirt the barrier between a familiar universe and oblivion. A brilliant clarity of land and sky fills you with keen awareness, with fear of the unknown.

For as long as Europeans can remember, the frozen bastions of the north have hovered on the margins of their world, a fearsome, unknown realm nurturing fantastic tales of terrible beasts and grotesque landscapes. The boreal oceans were a source of piercing winds, vicious storms and unimaginably cold winters with the ability to kill. At first, only a few Irish monks and the hardy Norse dared sail to the fringes of the ice. King Harald Hardråde of Norway and England is said to have explored “the expanse of the Northern Ocean” with a fleet of ships in about A.D. 1040, “beyond the limits of land” to a point so far north that he reached pack ice up to three meters thick. He wrote: “There lay before our eyes at length the darksome bounds of a failing world.”1 But by then, his fellow Norse had already ventured far over northern seas, to Iceland, Greenland and beyond. They had done so during some of the warmest summers of the previous 8,000 years.

I have sailed but rarely in the far north, but the experience, the sheer unpredictability of the weather, I find frightening. In the morning, your boat courses along under full sail in a moderate sea with unlimited visibility. You take off your foul-weather gear and bask in the bright sun with, perhaps, only one sweater on. By noon, the sky is gray, the wind up to 25 knots and rising, a line of dense fog to windward. The freshening breeze cuts to the skin and you huddle in your windproof foulies. By dusk you are hove-to, storm jib aback, main with three reefs, rising and falling to a howling gale. You lie in the darkening warmth belowdecks, listening to the endless shrieking of the southwester in the rigging, poised for disaster, vainly waiting for the lesser notes of a dying storm. A day later, no trace remains of the previous night’s gale, but the still, gray water seems colder, about to ice over.

Only the toughest amateur sailors venture into Arctic waters in small craft, and then only when equipped with all the electronic wizardry of the industrial age. They rely on weather faxes, satellite images of ice conditions, and constant radio forecasts. Even then, constantly changing ice conditions around Iceland and Greenland, and in the Davis Strait and along the Labrador coast, can alter your voyage plans in hours or cause you to spend days at sea searching for ice-free waters. In 1991, for example, ice along the Labrador coast was the worst of the twentieth century, making coastal voyages to the north in small craft impossible. Voyaging in the north depends on ice conditions and, when they are severe, small boat skippers stay on land. Electronics can tell you where you are and provide almost embarrassing amounts of information about what lies ahead and around you. But they are no substitute for sea sense, an intimate knowledge of the moody northern seas acquired over years of ocean sailing in small boats, which you encounter from time to time in truly great mariners, especially those who navigate close to the ocean.

The Norse had such a sense. They kept their sailing lore to themselves and passed their learning from family to family, father to son, from one generation to the next. Their maritime knowledge was never written down but memorized and refined by constant use. Norse navigators lived in intimate association with winds and waves, watching sea and sky, sighting high glaciers from afar by the characteristic ice-blink that reflects from them, predicting ice conditions from years of experience navigating near the pack. Every Norse skipper learned the currents that set ships off course or carried them on their way, the seasonal migrations of birds and sea mammals, the signs from sea and sky of impending bad weather, fog, or ice. Their bodies moved with swell and wind waves, detecting seemingly insignificant changes through their feet. The Norse were tough, hard-nosed seamen who combined bold opportunism with utterly realistic caution, a constant search for new trading opportunities with an abiding curiosity about what lay over the horizon. Always their curiosity was tempered with careful observations of currents, wind patterns, and ice-free passages that were preserved for generations as family secrets.

The Norse had enough to eat far from land. Their ancestors had learned centuries before how to catch cod in enormous numbers from open boats. They gutted and split the fish, then hung them by the thousands to dry in the frosty northern air until they lost most of their weight and became easily stored, woodlike planks. Cod became the Norse hardtack, broken off and chewed calmly in the roughest seas. It was no coincidence Norse voyagers passed from Norway to Iceland, Greenland and North America, along the range of the Atlantic cod. Cod and the Norse were inextricably entwined.

Major currents of the North Atlantic Ocean


  • "Fagan shows in this wonderful book how vulnerable human society is to climatic zigzags."—New Scientist
  • "Even without the contemporary relevance lent the book by the specter of global warming, The Little Ice Age would be an engrossing historical volume."—South Florida Sun-Sentinel
  • "The Little Ice Age could do for the historical study of climate what Foucault's Madness and Civilization did for the historical study of mental illness: make it a respectable subject for scholarly inquiry."—Scientific American
  • "A nimble, lively, provocative book."—Booklist
  • "[A] highly readable and erudite analysis."—Guardian
  • "An engaging history.... A fascinating account of events both obscure and well known, including the French Revolution and the Irish potato famine, as seen through the lens of weather and its effect on harvests."—Foreign Affairs

On Sale
Nov 26, 2019
Page Count
288 pages
Basic Books

Brian Fagan

About the Author

Brian Fagan is one of the world’s leading archaeological writers and an internationally recognized authority on world prehistory. He is a Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of several widely read books on ancient climate change. He has lectured about the subject to audiences large and small throughout the world. His latest book is FishingHow the Sea Fed Civilization (Yale University Press, 2018).

Learn more about this author