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Catastrophic contributions to modernity

"Catastrophic contributions to modernity" Continued...

Rodney Stark
Photo by Nick Layman/Genesis Photos
Rodney Stark

The Medieval Warm Period

No one benefited more from the warm conditions that prevailed from about 800 to about 1250 than did the Vikings. The lengthening growing season in Scandinavia greatly increased crop yields, and this, in turn, fed a larger population. The newly benign climate also enabled the Vikings to undertake voyages of discovery and settlement that had been impossible in colder times. The receding ice pack, the reduced prevalence of icebergs, and the reduction in the number and severity of storms at sea favored Viking voyaging across the North Atlantic.

First came the discovery and settlement of Iceland. The Vikings initially reached Iceland by accident, after getting lost while sailing from Norway to the Faroe Islands. Next, a boatload of Swedes accidentally reached the island and stayed for the winter. The first Viking to intentionally sail there, in the 860s, was Flóki Vilgerðarson, who stayed only one winter and named the island Iceland after seeing drift ice in the fjords. The first settler of Iceland was Ingólfr Arnarson, a Norwegian chieftain who arrived with his family in 874. Within the next sixty years all the land on Iceland had been claimed by settlers and a government had been established. The first Christian bishop of Iceland was consecrated in 1056.

Although several Vikings had sailed to Greenland soon after the initial settlement in Iceland, it was not until 982 that someone settled in Greenland. The first settler was a Norwegian under a three-year exile from Iceland for killing several men. When his period of exile had passed, Eric the Red recruited settlers from Iceland to colonize the southern coast of Greenland, an area then quite suitable for farming. Trade with Scandinavia flourished—in 1075 a Greenlander shipped a live polar bear as a gift to King Ulfsson of Denmark. (The coat of arms of the Danish royal family still includes a depiction of a polar bear.) Even at its peak, however, the Viking population of Greenland was probably no more than three or four thousand.

Finally came Vinland. Although this settlement is recorded in several Norse sagas, as well as in Adam of Breman’s eleventh-century Description of the Northern Island, for centuries historians dismissed the claim that Leif Eriksson had sailed his knarr from Greenland to the north coast of America as pure mythology. Then, in 1914, William A. Munn, after close study of the sources, proposed that the Vikings had landed and made their base at L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland. No respectable scholar took him seriously. But in 1960 Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad found extensive remains of a tenth-century Viking village at precisely the spot Munn had proposed. It is now accepted that this was the main Viking settlement in North America and that the Vikings had camped in many other coastal sites. None of this could have happened except for the Medieval Warm Period.

Meanwhile, it was golden days in Europe as well. Wine grapes grew so plentifully in England that local officials in various parts of the continent attempted to limit the import of English vintages. So much new land was cleared or reclaimed by pumping out marshes, especially along the coast, that it would be five hundred years before Europe matched the extent of land under cultivation. As food became abundant, the population of Europe soared from about 25 million in 950 to about 75 million in 1250. Given that the medieval economy rested primarily on agriculture, this was an era of considerable prosperity. Studies of coinage offer one window into this prosperity. Another comes from the nearly two centuries during which wealthy Europeans funded the Crusades and subsidized the crusader kingdoms. But the most obvious manifestations of abundance are the great Gothic cathedrals constructed during this period: Notre Dame (1163), Canterbury (1175), Strasbourg (1190), Chartres (1194), Reims (1212), Amiens (1225), and dozens more. As the archaeologist Brian Fagan concluded, “Like the Norse conquests, cathedrals too were a consequence of a global climatic phenomenon, an enduring legacy of the Medieval Warm Period.”

And then it ended—brutally.

The Little Ice Age

During the winter of 1310–11 Londoners danced around fires on the frozen Thames River—something that had never happened before. Then, starting in the early spring of 1315, rain poured down for weeks and weeks, making it impossible to farm. All across western Europe dikes were destroyed by floods, and new lakes and marshes appeared. In August the weather turned bitterly cold. Hunger began to spread. The next spring, heavy rains again prevented planting, and so again there was no harvest, nor was there fodder for the flocks. Famine became widespread. Meanwhile, intense gales battered the coastal areas. By 1317 all of northern Europe was starving—even the nobility.


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