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Catastrophic contributions to modernity

Books | A second excerpt from Rodney Stark’s How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity

Last month we ran an excerpt from Baylor Professor Rodney Stark’s new book, How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity, and today we run one more, with permission of ISI Books. Our excerpt last month contended that the declineof Rome was an advance for Western civilization because decentralization led to more innovation. Today’s excerpt examines the effects of twin catastrophes, the Black Death and the Little Ice Age.  —Marvin Olasky

Chapter 7: Climate, Plague, and Social Change

If historians have been rather inattentive to matters of geography, they have been even less attuned to the implications of climate and disease. Of course, the obvious effects of climate—that Eskimos use sleds and Bedouins do not—have always been noted. What has been given little attention are significant climatic changes. In part this is because until Hubert Lamb wrote about them in 1965, it was not widely recognized that there had been any substantial climatic changes since the end of the Ice Age, twenty thousand years ago, despite the fact that the history of medieval Europe hinges on two major shifts in climate.By the same token, although the conquest of many chronic diseases is regarded as an essential feature of the rise of modernity, historians have largely ignored epidemics, which have had far more dramatic effects on the course of history. Incredibly, generations of historians dismissed the death of nearly half the world’s population from the Black Death (1346–1351) as of little significance compared with, say, the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453). Serious historical studies of the Black Death did not begin until well into the twentieth century, and even now these studies are pursued as an isolated subject matter.

For example, in his well-received Civilization: A New History of the Western World (2006), Roger Osborne devoted one sentence to the Black Death and none to plagues; he gave two sentences to the Ice Age and made no mention of more recent climate changes. In his huge and cele­brated Europe: A History (1996), Norman Davies gave nearly three pages (out of 1,365) to the Black Death, but like so many other historians, he treated it as a self-contained event, writing only two paragraphs on any social effects. Davies also gave one page to climate, but mostly to discredit it as being of historical significance.

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Breaking with tradition, this chapter is focused on two extraordinary developments in the middle of the fourteenth century: the Black Death and the so-called Little Ice Age, when the weather turned bitterly cold. Ironically, these twin catastrophes seem to have made several important positive contributions to the rise of modernity.

Medieval Climates

Amid the bitter contemporary conflicts over whether the climate is getting warmer, and if so why, the most basic fact about earth’s climate has been nearly forgotten: that warming and cooling trends are quite common. Because substantial changes in the climate occur very slowly, people tend to regard their current climatic conditions as normal. Not so. For example, beginning sometime in the eighth century, the earth began to heat up, producing what now is known as the Medieval Warm Period, which lasted from about 800 to about 1250. As temperatures rose, the growing period lengthened all across northern Europe; the Arctic ice pack receded, making it much safer to sail in the North Atlantic; and it became possible to farm successfully as far north as Greenland. Then temperatures began to drop until early in the fourteenth century, when the Little Ice Age dawned; this era of very cold winters and short summers lasted until about 1850. During the coldest decades of the Little Ice Age, in the seventeenth century, the Baltic Sea froze over, making possible sleigh rides from Poland to Sweden; the Thames River froze in London, as did all the Atlantic harbors in Europe.

To make matters more confusing, both eras saw considerable variation from year to year—unusually cold years during the Medieval Warm Period and unusually warm years during the Little Ice Age. In fact, such abnormal conditions could sometimes last for a decade. But the important point is that both eras had substantial influence on the course of history.

The question arises, how do we know that these climatic periods took place? Until recent times our only sources were literary—as when a medieval diarist noted that “this was a year without summer” or an English pastor wrote to a friend about ice skating on the Thames. Then came archaeological evidence, such as analysis of skeletons showing how the Viking colony on Greenland slowly died out from malnutrition. But we now have a far more general, accurate, and sensitive database on the climate obtained from tree rings and from ice cores drilled in glaciers in many parts of the earth. Ice cores have annual layers similar to tree rings. Chemical and isotopic analyses of ice cores reveal many aspects of climate, including temperature ranges, ocean volume, precipitation, chemistry of the lower atmosphere, volcanic eruptions, solar variability, and even the prevalence of forest fires. Because of the great depth of some glaciers, it has been possible to reconstruct the climate for a period stretching back several hundred thousand years. Of course, a recent scandal concerned the falsification of these data on behalf of the man-made global warming thesis, a fraud that involved minimizing the warmth of the Medieval Warm Period and maximizing the temperatures of the Little Ice Age to create the so-called hockey stick graph of temperatures for the past millennium. Now that this fraud has been detected, there can be no doubt that such warm and cold periods occurred and that they greatly influenced human events.

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