Book review – Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age Transformed the West and Shaped the Present

In the minds of most people, the words “Ice Age” will invoke images of mammoths and sabertooth tigers. But historians use the phrase “Little Ice Age” to refer to a particular period in recent history when average temperatures dropped for a few centuries. The impact this had on societies was tremendous. In Nature’s Mutiny, originally published in German and here translated by the author, historian Philipp Blom charts the transformations that resulted and shaped today’s world. It is also one of the most evocative book titles I have seen this year.

Nature's Mutiny

Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age Transformed the West and Shaped the Present“, written by Philipp Blom, published in Europe by Picador in March 2019 (hardback, 332 pages)

Depending on who you ask, the Little Ice Age lasted from about the 13th to the 19th century. McMichael gave a brief overview of this whole period in his book Climate Change and the Health of Nations: Famines, Fevers, and the Fate of Populations, while noted archaeologist Brian Fagan wrote a book about it (see The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850). The worst of the cold periods, however, were concentrated between roughly 1570-1680, and this is the period Blom focuses on. Here, too, he is not the first to do so, with Geoffrey Parker’s 800+-page tome Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century providing a general overview for this particular period on civilizations around the world. For Nature’s Mutiny, Blom has decided to furthermore limit his focus on Europe. As he frankly explains in his prologue, he feels he lacks the expertise and language skills to delve into the relevant Asiatic and Aztec histories, plus Europe had an outsized influence on the world during this time. Luckily, Sam White’s A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter with North America partially fills this gap.

Blom is particularly interested in the consequences of the Little Ice Age, rather than the causes, which remain contested to this day. He therefore barely goes into the palaeoclimatological proxies such as ice cores, tree rings, pollen residues, etc. that have been used in climate reconstructions. He has divided his book into three parts, first describing the immediate response by people (what they wrote and thought, and how they explained it), while the second and third part look at more ultimate consequences for society, science, culture, war, and the economy.

The first part of Nature’s Mutiny is therefore really environmental history as you might expect it. Blom explores eyewitness testimony in diaries and letters, and the rise of a new genre in painting: the winter landscape (Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow being a well-known example). Another unexpected source is account ledgers. The fluctuating weather destroyed entire grain harvest, but it was the more expensive commodity of wine (and therefore the grape harvest) for which dates and prices are well documented. The initial responses were as you would expect for a mediaeval society: witch hunts, religious processions, and supernatural explanations were widespread. But God did not seem to be at home and new intellectual currents started taking shape.

“The initial responses [to the Little Ice Age] were as you would expect for a mediaeval society: witch hunts, religious processions, and supernatural explanations.”

For the remainder of the book, the Little Ice Age takes a back seat as Blom explores the more ultimate consequences. One major transformation was the shift from a feudal system with peasants working the land for a lord to a market economy. As grain harvests failed, a way of life almost a millennium old rapidly disintegrated. Land was privatised, including commons normally used by peasants to feed livestock, and large numbers of peasants were displaced into growing cities.

The Netherlands, in particular, played a pivotal role in this period. As they build a maritime empire, the country entered a golden age of trade (see also The Frigid Golden Age: Climate Change, the Little Ice Age, and the Dutch Republic, 1560-1720), which further affected grain prices and land use patterns. Simultaneously, this period of overseas exploration and colonialism led to the exchange of ideas, goods, plants, and diseases (see The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492). It may seem odd to us now, but potatoes were once a novelty to farmers who eyed them suspiciously.

A further consequence Blom highlights is that in a world increasingly shaped by bureaucracies, tax systems, and long-distance trade, there was a need for educated people. Formal education to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic became more commonplace. With literacy came the written word in the form of printed books and especially pamphlets. Warfare changed as technological developments led to new kinds of weaponry, requiring different strategies on the battlefield.

“As grain harvests failed, a way of life almost a millennium old rapidly disintegrated.”

In the third part, Blom focuses particularly on important philosophical figureheads such as Pierre Bayle, Spinoza, and John Locke. With them, religious explanations started to give way to empirical observations, atheist arguments, and humanist thinking. The Enlightenment took off and with it science as we now recognise it was starting to take shape. But this was not a straight, simple path and there was plenty of hypocrisy at play here. Voltaire is given as an example of someone who argued for humanist values such as freedom of speech and tolerance, while at the same being a racist and slaveholder, and lending money to other aristocrats who behaved the same.

Blom’s epilogue is particularly interesting, as he sees our 21st century as a continuation of developments that started in the 17th century, rather than a parallel. We may have become intellectually more enlightened, but capitalism still rules supreme and our economic success continues to depend on the exploitation of cheap labour and (especially) our natural environment. As before, it is defended by uneasy and contradictory reasoning. We decry climate change, but will hardly let it compromise our bottom line, trying to weasel our way out of it with contrived mechanisms such as sustainable development and carbon credits, or token efforts such as green consumerism and recycling. As Blom points out, Voltaire would have understood.

Throughout the latter two-thirds of the book, I regularly found myself thinking “what does this have to do with the Little Ice Age?” I have seen some other reviewers grumble that Blom tries to use this period of climatic change as an explanatory factor for everything. I don’t think that is entirely justified. Yes, he takes the Little Ice Age as his starting point. But rather than saying explicitly that, for example, the Enlightenment was a direct product of it, he sees it as an indirect phenomenon arising from a chain of causes and knock-on effects. In my opinion, the book fairly quickly transitions from environmental history to a more conventional history book, with the climate forming a backdrop. Depending on your expectations, I can see how this might disappoint some. But that doesn’t take away that Blom’s survey is interesting, well-executed, and eye-opening. I admit not having read most other books I mentioned, so it’s hard for me to judge here how it compares. But it has whetted my appetite to read deeper into this topic.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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