Friday 17 November 2023

Medieval climate change by Carolyn Hughes

A couple of weeks ago here in the UK, we put our clocks back one hour from daylight saving time. So now it’s more or less dark by 4.30pm. I know that some people suffer from SAD, seasonal affective disorder, brought on by the shorter days. I’m not one of them but, even so, I do always have a sense of descending gloom at this time of year, which I know won’t be relieved until the spring. 

But I do take pleasure in any splendid sunny days, such as the morning I am writing this, when the sky is utterly blue and the sun is bright, casting a glorious golden light on those deciduous trees in my garden and beyond whose leaves are turning brown. I suspect it is not all that warm outside but, later on, I will don my coat and maybe a scarf and gloves, and go for a reviving walk.

However, as so often when weather is on my mind, my thoughts turn to the folk I write about in my novels, people who lived in the fourteenth century. For us, shorter days may signal the arrival of a period of “hunkering down”, but we can to a considerable extent still get on with our lives without too much disruption. We generally have on-tap heating and lighting in our homes, and even travel and going to work are mostly manageable (in temperate climes like the UK, at any rate). But, for my Meonbridge folk, especially the poorer ones, shorter days meant fewer hours in which to work, especially outdoors. Obviously, rural peasants were farmers, so there would be work to do. They would wrap up as best they could to go out and harvest winter vegetables, fertilise fields, repair buildings and fences, collect fuel for fires and, if they had animals, feed them.

But then they had to retreat indoors, and it is hard to imagine, isn’t it, how restrictive life must have been? With only a wood fire burning in the central hearth, undoubtedly emitting a good deal of smoke but possibly not all that much heat, the long evenings and nights would often have been very cold and “hunkering down” might have meant wrapping yourself in every garment you possessed (which might not have been all that many), and huddling around the fire.

The lack of light too must have severely limited what people could do indoors. Spinning or sewing, or any craft or repair work, would have been difficult to manage by candlelight, or, worse, by rushlight. And, in the depths of winter, when bright sunny days might be infrequent, the days too would offer little opportunity for industrious activity. Windows in peasant cottages were few and small and, if shutters or blinds were closed to keep out the winter weather, it would be dark indoors, even at midday. If outdoor work was not required, then confinement inside must surely have been excessively tedious!

I don’t have any special insight into how such medieval lives would have been lived, or whether indeed people then suffered from SAD, not that they would recognise it, of course. But bringing my imagination to bear, as of course I do when writing my novels, leads me to assume that winter life would have been uncomfortable and dull for them at best. Not of course that they knew any different, so undoubtedly they did simply get on with life as best they could. 

If you’d like a little more insight into winter life in Medieval Europe, this article might be of interest:

The 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference or COP28, is scheduled to take place at the end of this month (November) in Dubai.  I can scarcely contemplate the difficulties the world faces in tackling the problems caused by centuries of industrialisation, but I won’t comment on that, as I have no expertise to offer on reasons or solutions.

But, again, because I spend my days “living with” people from the fourteenth century, I am bound to think about how their lives might have been affected by particularly challenging weather situations.

Recently, Storm Ciarán battered the southern counties of the United Kingdom. Some countries of the world of course suffer frequent violent storms, with horrendous winds and torrential rain, more or less as a matter of course, but we are less used to it here. As a result of the storm, there was a good deal of flooding, bringing misery and great discomfort to many people, not to say fear at what the rest of the winter’s weather might throw at them, for winter has barely started.

Unusual or extreme weather did not in fact often affect my Meonbridge people, for in the period in which my Chronicles are set, the middle couple of decades of the fourteenth century, the weather was, if hardly benign, not often especially extreme. In the early part of the century, there had been such torrential and unceasing rains, and flooding so widespread, that harvests were dire and animals died, and the Great Famine stalked the land for three years. This was the beginning of the “Little Ice Age”, an extended period of cooling, particularly in northern Europe, which lasted until 1850, with periods of relatively mild weather and others of more extreme cold.

However, frightening weather was not unknown even in the middle part of the fourteenth century. At the end of my book, Children’s Fate, an extraordinary wind that affected not only the British Isles but also northern Europe did cause great disquiet and, in some places, severe damage, disruption and death.

This is how I describe it in my Author’s Note:

“Plague left England in December 1361, though it was still in Scotland. In Hampshire, I think it would have passed on by the autumn. By Christmas, people were presumably beginning to think the time had come at last when they could move on from horror and disaster.

But, two weeks later, on 15th January 1362, came yet another cataclysm: the Saint Maurus’ Day storm, a wind – the “Great Wind” – one of the most violent extra-tropical storms ever to hit the British Isles and northern Europe. It was so strong that it toppled church spires, destroyed houses and mills, and caused huge damage to farms and forests across the south of England.

A chronicler of the time said it was “as if the Day of Judgement were at hand… no one knew where he could safely hide, for church towers, windmills, and many dwelling-houses collapsed to the ground”. Norwich Cathedral lost its wooden spire, Salisbury Cathedral was so badly damaged the bishop appealed to the Pope for funds, and St Albans Abbey was destroyed.

The storm was in fact much more damaging in the Low Countries, where the event was called the Grote Mandrenke, the “Great Drowning of Men”. Storm surges caused sea floods that washed away towns and villages, leaving tens of thousands dead.

But, following on from months of plague, one can perhaps appreciate why some people might have thought the end of the world had finally come.”

Storm in the Sea by Pieter Mulier, c 1690. In Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
And here is an extract from Children’s Fate showing my imagination’s take on the Saint Maurus’ Day storm:

“Eudo was humming as he made preparations as usual for the office of Vespers. It was already fairly dark but, chancing to look up at the great window behind the altar, he thought it looked beyond the glass more like midnight than late afternoon, albeit it was the middle of January.

It was then he noticed too that the brisk breeze of earlier seemed to be blowing harder. He could hear the wind quite clearly from the chancel, whereas normally the thick walls of the church stifled any sounds of weather. It was a while yet before the office had to begin, and he hurried to the porch door to look outside.

Unthinking, he lifted the door’s great latch, and was almost knocked off his feet, as the door, heavy as it was, blew open. The edge caught him in the chest and, for a few moments, he was unable to catch his breath. Holding fast to the door, he eased it open sufficiently for him to step out into the porch, then closed it carefully behind him, ensuring the latch had dropped. He moved towards the porch’s front, his feet shuffling through all manner of debris presumably whisked in by the wind.

It was indeed as black as midnight out beyond the building. Yet, as his eyes accustomed to the dark, he realised the churchyard yews were swaying wildly, and small branches of other trees, and objects he could not identify, were being tossed about, spinning through the air. He clapped his hands over his ears to muffle the din of it.

He had surely never heard or witnessed such a wind before.

Eudo turned and hurried back into the church. He had to lean hard upon the door to close it, and he again made sure the latch had fallen, and hoped the iron fastener was strong enough to hold.

He had no intention of trying to get home to the parsonage whilst this storm was raging. He suspected there would be no Vespers congregation now, for surely no one would venture forth in this? Nonetheless, he returned to the chancel to complete his preparations. He would of course recite the office regardless of the absence of any worshippers.

But, as he waited to see if any of his congregation did come, the wind outside seemed to gather force, and it fairly roared around the walls of the chancel. He recoiled as flung debris struck the glass of the great window, just feet away from where he stood at the altar, and his heart raced with anxiety.

When it was clear no one was coming, Eudo did wonder for a moment if he might give Vespers a miss. The wind was so loud, it was likely he would not even be able to hear himself. Yet, God would surely know if he did not perform his duty and, anyway, he really did not want to leave the safety of the church.

[Eudo tries to recite Vespers…]

Yet he made little progress with the office as the roaring swelled, and his heart thudded within his breast. His throat went dry and he could no longer speak the words, even if he could remember them. And his memory was now distracted by a new persistent noise, the clattering of what were surely tiles being torn from the church roof and thrown down onto the ground. Unable to concentrate, Eudo looked up towards the rafters, but the chancel candles cast too dim a light for him to see so high above him. Despite the raw cold inside the church, his face grew hot. What if all the tiles were stripped away? Would the wind then strip away the rafters too and invade the church? Of course he had no way of knowing.

But his efforts were undone when some object, much larger than the debris flung at it already, crashed into the great window, the only glazing in the church, and the glass exploded, showering Eudo with sharp and stinging fragments.

Eudo screamed and threw himself prostrate upon the floor before the altar, wrapping his arms over his head. ‘Mea culpa, mea culpa,’ he cried out, weeping. ‘Oh God, forgive me, for I have sinned…’

For surely it was God who had sent this terrible wind…

Perhaps the pestilence had not been chastisement enough. God saw mankind had not learned its lesson, but had simply returned to their old ways… Such a wind as this could wreak destruction across the land, topple great oaks, rip up fields, fling beasts into the air, demolish houses and even bring down mighty churches. God had the power to destroy the Earth, if mankind no longer merited it…

Yet maybe it was not mankind…? Was God chastising only him? For continuing to sin, week in, week out… For promising to fulfil the penance, whilst knowing he would not do so…

Another roar around the chancel walls brought a swirl of flying debris through the shattered glass, small branches, twigs, dead leaves, shingle, and fragments of every substance, all scooped up from the ground and now tumbling down upon his back.

Eudo fell to sobbing, drumming his feet against the cold stone floor.

The Day of Judgement most surely was at hand. But was it for mankind, or for Eudo Oxenbrigge alone?”

The Last Judgement (detail) by Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1525/1530. In Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, USA.  Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The priest Eudo is a sinner, and is perhaps justified in his terror (even if his rational mind might realise the storm couldn’t possibly be aimed solely and specifically at him). But I’m sure it wasn’t only sinners who were terrified by the destruction caused by storms. For everyone assumed it was a punishment sent by God; indeed, bishops told them it was His punishment, and bid them to atone for whatever sins they had committed and to pray daily for God’s mercy. Amidst all their fear and agony, they believed what was happening was their fault: they had brought it upon themselves, and prayer was all they had to try to avert the punishment and expiate their guilt.

Coastal areas in particular across the world are today much threatened by climate change, because of rising sea levels. Flood defences are being constructed everywhere to try and mitigate the damage. The east coast of England has always been notorious for suffering from erosion, which has been going on since the end of the Ice Age, when sea levels rose dramatically from the effects of melting ice. Storms, particularly those at sea, can cause devastation to such low-lying areas. Many towns and villages have been lost over the centuries.

A famous one is Dunwich in Suffolk, an example of a once thriving town that almost totally disappeared in the late thirteenth century. Dunwich was a great port of medieval England, with several churches, hospitals and two seats in parliament. The town battled constantly against the sea. In 1328 a great storm blocked up the port and by the 16th century the town and its houses were regularly falling into the sea. Today all that remains is a quaint village with a tiny population, which is still under threat from the sea. In East Yorkshire, there used to be a seaport called Ravenser Odd. It was too a thriving place, with warehouses, and cargo ships and fishing vessels going in and out, customs officials, a market and an annual fair. But by 1346 already two thirds of this busy town had been lost to the sea from the effects of storms and erosion. Then, in that great Saint Maurus’ Day storm of January 1362, Ravenser Odd vanished altogether. 

The erosion of England’s east coast does of course continue, as melting ice at the poles once more threatens sea levels. And our present changing climate will continue to threaten us, even here in the temperate isles of Britain, with more storms, more floods, more grief for many.

Much like our ancestors, we know that we – aka mankind – are (at least partly) to blame for what is happening to the world’s climate. But even if we too have “brought it upon ourselves”, our accountability is obviously not the same as theirs. We do not believe our sinfulness is at the root of our culpability, nor that the change in the weather has been instigated by some wrathful divine being. Moreover, we have options other than prayer to alleviate our present situation, for we do understand its causes and have some notion of the sort of remedies required to try to mitigate its worst effects.

Yet, as always, what I find so thought-provoking is to recognise the differences between our medieval forebears and ourselves, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the similarities and connections.


The Deluge by Francis Danby c. 1840. In Tate Britain, London. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Deluge by J. M. W. Turner, 1805, Tate Britain, London. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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