Academic journal article Environment and History

Famines during the 'Little Ice Age' (1300-1800). Socio-Natural Entanglements in Premodern Societies

Academic journal article Environment and History

Famines during the 'Little Ice Age' (1300-1800). Socio-Natural Entanglements in Premodern Societies

Article excerpt

Famines occur at the interface of nature and culture. They involve both the bio-physical as well as the social sphere. As 'slow disasters' they provide ample space for the interaction of climate and culture and allow detailed studies of the socio-ecological arrangements of historical societies. Famines, therefore, make an excellent field of study for environmental historians.

However, the study of these complex events frequently suffers from disciplinary constraints. Their broad socio-natural character extends beyond the reach of individual disciplines. The research group 'Environment and Society' at the Heidelberg Center for the Environment therefore convened a workshop on 'Famines During the 'Little Ice Age' (1300-1800). Socio-natura Entanglements in Premodern Societies'. It focused on premodern agrarian societies, where famines constituted 'normal exceptions' to every-day life. The event was hosted by the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF) in Bielefeld. The two-day meeting brought together researchers from the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities that study European as well as non-European cases. They aimed at the integration of the 'archives of nature' (tree-rings, speleothems) as well as 'archives of humans' (chronicles, supplications) in order to challenge deterministic models of human-environment interaction. The participants discussed how the prevalent opposition of natural versus societal factors in famine research can be overcome with reference to recent interdisciplinary concepts (disaster studies, vulnerability studies, environmental history). As a first step, we have identified small-scale high-resolution research designs as a means to establish empirical studies on the socio-natural character of historical societies.

In the introductory methodological session Ulf Buntgen and Jurg Luterbacher discussed how the analysis of complementary 'archives of nature' enables paleoclimatic modelling and reconstructions that trace the impact of extreme weather events on harvests as well as the etiology of epidemics. Examining early modern Finland, Heli Huhtamaa discussed the potential of natural proxies such as dendrochronological records to study areas with a limited body of written sources. Kathrin Moeller used a case study of the city of Halle to showcase the potential of famine research for economic history. Integrating serial datasets on prices and demographic indicators with historical accounts she illustrated the catalytic impact these events had on the understanding of economic 'crises', detailing the way the citizens moved towards secular models of distributing limited food supplies around 1800.

A second session focused on European famines. The contributors explored the entanglement of weather impacts with political and economic stress by integrating various 'archives'. Francis Ludlow discussed the remarkable, time-delayed connections between episodes of violent conflict and extreme weather events in medieval Ireland. His intriguing combination of early chronicles with tree-ring data challenges earlier deterministic linkages of weather anomalies and societal responses. Rudolf Brazdil and Guido Alfani focused on famines in the Czech lands and Italy. They highlighted the momentous confluence of acute biophysical stress with long-term changes in political and economic environments, while stressing the indispensable link of these events to specific socio-natural settings. Bruce Campell argued for a similar approach, tracing the disastrous coupling of extreme weather events in 14th century England with developments in the economic and political sphere. He attributed the harrowing consequences of the crisis of 1346/47 to the impact of these three stressors on an already vulnerable society. All contributions to this session highlighted the broad range of possible 'archives', drawing on chronicles, parish records, account books as well as tree-ring records and isotope analyses based on ice-cores. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.