Throughout much of the late second millennium, Europe was locked in the grip of extreme weather as temperatures around the globe plummeted greatly. As the conditions became increasingly volatile, there was quite a bit of suffering, as farms across Europe had crop failures year after year, causing many to die in great famines or disease outbreaks. However, while the people of Britain suffered greatly just as their neighbors in the rest of the continent did, the Little Ice Age actually resulted in the nation being able to advance as a whole. This overall improvement for the country of a whole came from a variety of small steps which the Little Ice Age catalyzed. First, Scotland integrated with Britain with the 1707 Act of Union, uniting the island under one rule, which helped to increase its power. In addition, the economy grew stronger as transition from feudalism to capitalism took place. Finally, Britain was able to develop and expand upon a national cultural identity, leading to increased unity among its people. Although many Britons suffered heavily, or even died, as a result of the Little Ice Age, these tragedies were necessary and were outweighed by the positive effects of unification, cultural development, and a strengthened economy, which ultimately advanced the country as a whole.
Had it not been for the horrible suffering happening in Scotland during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Britain would still remain an island of multiple nations to this day. During a period from 1645 to 1715, the sun was experiencing a period of lowered activity, referred to as the Maunder Minimum by scientists. It is estimated that temperatures were anywhere from one-and-a-half to two degrees Celsius cooler than they were before. Though this may seem like a only a miniscule difference, the consequences of such a shift over many years and such a large area are disastrous. This held true in Scotland during those years; the effects only a small drop in average temperature wreaked havoc on the people and the land. The weather was so extreme that snow remained on the mountaintops all year long, and further south in London, the Thames would freeze over nearly every winter. As a result of this new violent weather pattern, the fragile staple crops of the period failed. Without this life sustaining food, which had been so abundant during the Medieval Warm Period which preceded the Little Ice Age, the people of Scotland began to starve as great famines ravaged the land. These famines also came with outbreaks of disease which killed even more members of the malnourished population. Combined, it is estimated that as much as two-thirds of the population died as a result of these two factors . Those who didn’t perish were reduced to begging. To survive, some peasants even sold their own children into slavery, while many others stole cattle from their neighbors (McKenzie). As this great misery took hold of the kingdom, some Scots decided to try to do something to escape from it. In the late 1690s, a group of them set out on what was known as the Darien venture. They sought to establish a colony in Panama where they could sustain themselves and live a better life, free from disease and hunger. However, this dream was soon plagued by major problems. The new settlers did not know how sustain themselves in the strange new environment, and to add to that, they struggled with other European nations over what little land was still available in that part of the New World. Unable to sustain themselves in the foreign environment, many of the colonists died, just as their contemporaries back in Scotland did. The colony was unable to support itself without major funding from the kingdom itself. This need, coupled with the eventual complete failure of the colony, resulted in huge debts for the Kingdom of Scotland (McKenzie). With a great deal of money owed, Scotland had no choice but to unite with Britain to survive.
In the year 1707, this unification happened as Scotland and Britain came together as one more powerful nation. Officially, the combination of the two countries was termed the Act of Union. As a result of this combination, Britain gained control of all of the lands previously possessed by Scotland. In exchange, all of Scotland’s numerous debts were forgiven and paid for by England. Had it not been for the Little Ice Age, this final merger would likely have never happened. The Little Ice Age directly caused the great suffering in Scotland seen in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. With the majority of its citizens dying, Scotland was pushed to take on risky ventures in a futile attempt to recover. These efforts ultimately failed, and with nearly all of its money gone and no progress made, Scotland needed to integrate with Britain to remain viable (McKenzie). Thus, the Little Ice Age directly resulted in the creation of a stronger, integrated island, whereas it may have taken much longer if temperatures had stayed warm throughout that time period, allowing the population to remain alive and healthy. So, while the colder weather resulted in literal political unity, it also resulted in more cultural unity as the nation’s cultural identity was expanded around the frigid and fickle weather.
With the cooling temperatures came a major period in British literature and art that would have not existed had the environment stayed more temperate, just as it was during the Medieval period. Firstly, from the 17th century to 19th century, the cooler temperatures led to the freezing of the Thames River during the winter months, an occurrence which has not been repeated since the year 1816. Nearly every single year, it would become so solidly frozen that it could be walked upon. So, each winter during that time, thousands of Londoners did just that, taking to the ice for festivities which allowed them to escape from the dirty streets of the industrial city. These gatherings eventually became quite large events, with many Londoners packing onto the ice to enjoy themselves. These assemblies each winter eventually became to be known as “Frost Fairs,” and they continued for many decades until the temperatures again became too warm for the Thames to freeze over during the winter (Mann 504). This is yet another example of one of the positive effects of the Little Ice Age. The frost fairs helped to create a feeling of national unity as the people of London were able to unite under one common activity, the Frost Fairs. Without the cold temperatures, these never would have happened, as the Thames would not have frozen. With an unfrozen Thames, people would have been stuck in the dirty streets of London, instead of being able to go out into the open air and relax. So, this contributed to the cultural development of Britain by providing the people with a common activity that came to be remembered in literature and art. However, not all of the cultural development that resulted from the Little Ice Age was good.
Some may argue that the negative cultural effects of the cool-down outweighed the positive. For example, the extreme weather led to the development of witch hunts, as people began to seek someone to blame for the horrible and shocking weather conditions, the likes of which had not been seen before by the people of Britain. Before modern science, people needed some way to explain the strange natural occurrences. So, with religion playing a big role throughout much of that era, people naturally turned to the occult. However, with God being seen as good, he was not blamed. Instead, scared peasants laid blame upon people who were believed to be witches. These people, usually innocent, were viewed as against Christianity, and they took the brunt of the fear spurred by the climatic shift because of this. Eventually, public officials bowed to pressure from the public and witchcraft was declared a crime, punishable by the law, which usually meant death for the accused. Soon, large scale witch hunts were conducted around the isle, resulting in many mass executions of the so-called witches. In Britain, this practice first began following the extremely cold winters of 1560-1562, which resulted in high food prices, poor living conditions, epidemics, and a higher death rate of newborn babies. This suffering struck a nerve with entire villages, which would turn on witches seeking someone to take down in exchange for their suffering. The practice of witch-hunting peaked during the late 1500s, which were especially cold in England, climaxing in the years 1586 and 1587. After decades of this practice continuing, it eventually became engrained in the mindset of the public, continuing sporadically through the 17th century and being remembered as a major part of that time period to this day (Behringer 342). So, as a direct result of the cooler temperatures of the Little Ice Age, innocent people were persecuted by the scared masses in one of the darker parts of British history. Had it not been for the cooler temperatures, this persecution would likely have never occurred, with people continuing to farm successfully in warm temperatures, with few failures, and a much lower number of deaths. However, while this is still true, the Little Ice Age resulted in many more positive influences on British culture which far outweighed these negatives.
Another one of the good influences of the cold was the creation of an entire era of British literature. Among the most notable products of that era were the works of Dickens. Dickens, who lived during the Little Ice Age, created a number of important works of literature with themes connected to the cooler weather. Many of his works include a cool and dark mood, which was typical of the climate during that era. In addition, perhaps more notably, he is also responsible for the notion of a white Christmas (Mann 504). If the weather had been more similar to the way it was before and after the Little Ice Age, this idea would likely not have existed. Today, Britain very rarely sees a white Christmas, and any snow that does fall is usually very limited and melts within a few days. However, back in Dickens’ era, snowfall was much more common due to the cooler average temperatures, and it also would last much longer. So, this clearly had an impact on the author’s work, creating this idea which shows up commonly in British culture today. D ickens was not the only British author influenced by the cold temperatures. Mary Shelley was also affected. In 1818, Shelley was on vacation for the summer in Switzerland. However, the cool temperatures and rainy conditions kept her indoors for the majority of this time. During that time she spent indoors, she wrote what was arguably one of the most influential works of British literature, Frankenstein (Mandia). So, as an immediate consequence of the strange climate, some of the greatest works of literature in British history were created. This is clearly yet another positive effect of the Little Ice Age. In addition to literature, the economy of Britain also received a boost.
The colder temperatures actually helped to strengthen the economy of the island. One of the prime examples of this happened in the fishing industry. As the ocean waters cooled, fish were driven from their normal breeding grounds near Scandinavia and Iceland to British waters. This proved to be quite a boom for British fishermen, who were able to bring in huge quantities of fish that fishermen from countries like Iceland, Sweden, and Norway now missed out on (Mann 505). While increasing the sheer number of fish caught by British fishermen, this boom also caused a migration from the countryside to the coast. Peasants sought to escape from cheap agricultural labor and serfdom to better paying jobs. As the poor farmers’ crops failed, they moved to the coast and began to build fishing boats to sustain themselves, creating new cities (Mandia). So, with the cooler ocean temperatures, the island was able to prosper. Had it been warmer as it was before, Britain would likely have remained under feudalism, as its citizens would have had no incentive to move to the coast and give up the customs which had lasted for ages, instead of migrating to new coastal cities and becoming more successful. This was just one more positive bonus of the Little Ice Age, more than balancing the great loss that occurred during that era.
Together, all of the good things that came out of the cooler temperatures did more to advance the country than the massive loss of life did to hinder it. First, the unification of Britain and Scotland in 1707 lead to a stronger island which was together under one rule. In addition to physical unification, the island’s unity was also boosted by a variety of cultural factors, including art and literature, which developed over those years. Finally, the economy of Britain strengthened as new markets were introduced, allowing people to migrate from inland areas to the coast and become wealthier. Together, these factors worked to better Britain as a whole. All in all, it is clear that without the Little Ice Age, Britain would be quite a different place than it is today.
Behringer, Wolfgang. ” Climatic Change and Witch-hunting: the Impact of the Little Ice Age on Mentalities .” Climactic Change, Volume 43 . Netherlands: Springer, 1999. 335-351. SpringerLink. Web. 20 Dec 2010.
Mandia, Scott A. The Little Ice Age in Europe. SUNY Suffolk, n.d. Web. 28 Dec 2010.
Mann, Michael E. “Little Ice Age.” Encyclopedia of Global Environmental Change . Ed. Munn, Ted. Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2002. 504-509. Pennsylvania State University Department of Meteorology. Web. 20 Dec 2010.
McKenzie, Steven. “Scotland and the Little Ice Age.” BBC News . 26 Apr 2009. Web. 13 Dec 2010.