Little Ice Age: When the Medieval World Froze

by JoHarrington

Think about the Ice Age and your mind may conjure up images of mammoths and glaciers covering Northern Europe. But we've not long come out of one.

No-one can quite agree on the precise dates of the Little Ice Age. When you get academics from different disciplines all working on it, that's inevitable.

For some, it began as early as 1275. For most, 1550 is commonly the year given. As for the ending, that it is generally agreed to be roughly 1850. Ice Ages don't begin and end so neatly, but take a long time to set in and thaw. Hence the confusion.

Those who dispute the effects of global warming now tend to point to the Little Ice Age. They claim that we're still coming out of it.

Recollections of the River Thames

In the 21st century, all of the efforts of engineers are in taming the main artery of Southern England. Fed by the sea, it has powerful currents to match.

One of my favorite memories recalls standing on Westminster Bridge overlooking the River Thames in London.  I've been there many times, but this was with two friends.

We were silent, each of us lost in our thoughts, our eyes gazing out upon that mighty water course.  Huge ships were docked up at the banks, necessitating the raising of Tower Bridge's twin halves to do so. 

Tourist boats chugged along, their guides pointing out historic places of interest along the way.  Adrenaline freaks zoomed between them on speedboats.

All around us were warnings, attached to barriers along the embankment.  Don't go in.  There are strong tidal currents.  You will die.

"What are you seeing out there?"  One of my friends jolted me from my reverie.  It turned out that he had noted the cosmopolitan nature of the people thronging by.  Languages from across the globe could be heard here.  The boats carried notices in more.

Beside him, our other friend was viewing the artistry of the scene. She could see how buildings had been built sympathetically with the river.  It was all an array of color and shapes to her creative eye.

As for me, I was back in 55 BCE, watching from my imagination as Julius Caesar's Roman boats got stuck on a sandbank in the center of the river.  Celts from the shoreline laughed and pelted them with missiles.  It wasn't the Roman Empire's finest hour.

But what none of us could see, nor could even comprehend, is how this whole scene might have frozen fast.  The River Thames is famously too dangerously strong and high for such things. The Barrier has had to be constructed, in order to save Westminster from a catastrophic flood.  There's been a movie about the same.

Yet had we been standing there anything over a century before, we might have looked out over a field of ice hardy enough to hold a fair upon.  The River Thames froze frequently during the Little Ice Age, as contemporary artwork and photography will testify.

The Coming of the Little Ice Age

Encroaching glaciers caused mass starvation throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

There is always ice on the Atlantic.  If there wasn't, then the Titanic would have reached New York quite safely.  But in 1250, this was of a different order entirely.

The Atlantic Ice Pack began to grow, quite rapidly and quite noticeably. This was the first indication of what was to come. 

It's known for certain that the glaciers in the North Atlantic and Greenland began coming further south than at any time since the major Ice Ages.  But there is also oral history to suggest that this was a worldwide phenomenon.

By 1275, plant life had frozen in Iceland.  Some of them are still trapped beneath the ice now.

From then until 1300, summers were uniformly bad across Europe, North America and North Asia. Each year, the average temperatures dropped just that little bit more.  After that, nobody even expected a warm summer anymore.  Everyone was resigned to the cold.

This was a little more than just putting on a warm coat if you went outside.  Crops need sunlight; and they don't need excessive rain.  The rains came with a vengeance.

It had been quite wet throughout Northern Europe since 1310, but what happened in 1315 was unprecedented.  Only oral and legendary memories of the thawing of the Great Ice Age, around 9,300 years previously, was worse. That had led to the Great Flood of (quite literally) Biblical proportions.

Now heavy rain in Spring washed away the seeds in the ground. It rained heavily and constantly until 1317; and people starved.  Seed stores were consumed for sustenance, which made it impossible to plant crops even when the bad weather was over.  Famine overtook much of Europe and North Asia until 1322.  Average life expectancy averaged just 35 years old.

The stories told of that time are horrific.  Cannibalism, elderly people voluntarily starving, children cast out into forests to fend for themselves (the origin of Hansel and Gretel by the way), riots and violence formed just some of the tales.

And still we weren't in what historians call the Little Ice Age.

Books on the Great Famine of 1315-17 and the Little Ice Age

The 14th century was not a great period in which to be alive. The dropping temperatures and rain brought starvation and social upheaval on a massive scale.

The Little Ice Age Picks up Pace

The 15th century saw weather at its most extreme opposites; and chased the Vikings out of Greenland.

If the Atlantic ice had grown during the late 13th and 14th centuries, then that was nothing compared to what happened next.

Between 1430 and 1455, the glaciers edged across the ocean and land at an alarming pace. To a certain extent, ice begets ice.  The greater the surface to reflect sunlight, the colder the air above.  In the resultant freeze, more ice is added to the whole, until it becomes a vicious circle.

All of this was much too late for the Vikings of Greenland.  The worsening weather had seen them abandon their Western Settlement by 1350.  The Eastern Settlement was in rapid decline too.  There was a wedding there in 1408, which constitutes the last written document in Norse Greenland. 

Sometime between 1450 and 1480, the Norse were completely gone from the country. Most had starved or frozen to death, while there's some anecdotal evidence that others had made the perilous journey across the icy ocean back to the European mainland. This was in open longboats, without shelter from the elements.  The majority did not make it.

Even those who did reach Europe found the continent in uproar.  It wasn't so much the constant cold.  That could be adapted to, as the Inuits in Greenland did quite nicely and later Europeans would too.  It was the fluctuation in temperature.

The weather in the 15th century was a matter of extremes.  One year would perish under cold and torrential rain.  The next would burn under a mini-heatwave.  As much of the peasant crop food was cereal based, this led to much starvation still.

Also in the mix were terrible storms.  They would continue throughout the Little Ice Age.  Yet we're still not in the age itself. 

Books about the Abandoned Viking Settlements in Greenland

Buy these histories and studies to discover more about what went so wrong for the Norse in Greenland; and how those circumstances could happen again.

Entering the Little Ice Age in Post Medieval Times

We've finally got there! It's not an ice age until everywhere begins to freeze. Until now, it's just been a bit miserable out there.

We half expect Northern Europe to be cold.  Writing this in Britain in December, I can confirm that even without a Little Ice Age, it's very chilly.  But what about South Africa? 

The stalagmite records tell geologists that temperatures suddenly dropped around the year 1500.  Next door in Mozambique, the sediment cores of Lake Malawi tell the same tale. Up in Timbuktu, the population suffered no less than thirteen major floods from the Niger River.  That had never happened before or since the 16th century.

Across the ocean in Argentina, data gathered from tree rings suggest that it went a bit nippy from 1520.  Further north, the chroniclers of both the Maya and Aztec people were telling of how it had gone cold in Mexico.

Over in the Eastern Hemisphere, China had to stop growing oranges in Kiangsi Province.  It was too chilly to produce them.

If it was like that in such traditionally hot countries, can you imagine what it was like in Northern Europe?  You don't need to.  There are plenty of contemporary stories, histories, poems and artwork to describe it in intimate detail. 

The year 1550 is often cited as the beginning of the Little Ice Age.  It was from this moment that rivers and canals habitually froze in winter, in the Northern Hemisphere.  Glaciers were expanding on a global scale and temperatures dropped everywhere accordingly. 

Across the world, there had been between 0.5 and 3 degrees drop in average temperatures.  The winters became the worst in recorded history.

By 1607, the River Thames had frozen to such an extent that Frost Fairs were held on it.  Stalls set up, dancing and entertainment for the masses, ice skating in the middle.  It was also around this time that people in Manhattan discovered that they could stroll perfectly safely across the Hudson River onto Staten Island. 

Yet it would all get even colder still.

Hunters in the Snow, February 1565

Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder started a whole artistic movement in recreating the bitter winter conditions engulfing Europe.
Hunters in the Snow, February, 1565

The Worst Decades of the Little Ice Age: 1645-1715

Global temperatures dropped on average by another three degrees Fahrenheit, in these perishingly icy years.

With all this talk of celebrations on frozen rivers, it may have sounded like fun.  But those fluctuating weather patterns, terrible storms and ruined crops were on-going all of this time.

Now we add even colder temperatures and rising sea water levels. Most of Northern Europe, America and Asia had severe snow in August in 1663.

Storms and gales became even worse; and even in areas prone to hurricanes, these were notable. Like the 'Dreadful Hurricane of 1667', which pretty much destroyed south-eastern Virginia in America.

The St Peter's Flood, on February 22nd 1651, alone killed 15,000 people in Germany; while a second one, the following month, temporarily saw Amsterdam underwater. Parts of the coastal areas around the North Sea were lost forever.  Just over fifty years later, Britain lost between 10,000 and 15,000 people during the Great Storm of 1703.  The majority were seamen.

A third of the population of Finland starved to death.  Half of the population of Iceland froze to death. These were the worst case scenarios, but no country in the Northern Hemisphere was free of the effects.

Famine, and its related epidemics and pandemics, reared their ugly heads time and time again.  Malaria, typhoid and plague took victims by their hundreds of thousands.  That wasn't over until all European countries had followed the lead of Spain and Ireland in growing potatoes instead of cereal crops.

Suddenly famine was under control.  Most of those countries have never had a famine since, though obviously Ireland suffered for its staple potato diet two hundred years later.

Weather Related Disasters During the Little Ice Age

Buy these histories to discover just some of the terrible events which took place during the worst of the Little Ice Age.

The End of the Little Ice Age

The Age of Revolution was raging, as the peasant populations of Europe and the colonies in America finally had enough. But at least it got warmer.

After 1715, things seemed to stabilize a little more.  At least as regards the weather. 

Most affected countries were suffering under wars, revolution, religious extremism and all of the other outpourings of beleaguered peoples.

This isn't to say that it was much warmer. In 1794-95, the French were able to march across frozen rivers to invade the Netherlands.

The Dutch fleet, which would have intercepted, couldn't budge.  The ships were all stuck fast in the ice of Den Helder Harbour.

But Mother Nature wasn't always on the side of the French. The campaign of Napoleon in Russia was testimony enough to that.  The Emperor ordered the retreat in November 1812, and 80,000 French soldiers began the long march home.

Only 20,000 made it.  The rest starved or froze to death en route.

But then, after 1850, it was as if the climate just snapped back.  It took only a decade to return to what had been normal 500 years previously.  There were codas.  For example, Portugal recorded one of its heaviest snowfalls ever in 1886, but on the whole the Little Ice Age was finally over.

It's just left to the scientists to determine precisely what happened, and if we can protect ourselves against it when (or if) it happens again.  While the historians, sociologists and other great watchers of civilizations, pick over the anecdotes and reports to learn from the lessons of the past. 

Our survival as a species may well one day depend upon it.

Books about Ice Ages

Ice Ages: Solving the Mystery

This book tells the exciting story of the ice ages--what they were like, why they occurred, and when the next one is due. The solution to the ice age mystery originated when the...

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Frozen Earth: The Once and Future Story of Ice Ages

In this engrossing and accessible book, Doug Macdougall explores the causes and effects of ice ages that have gripped our planet throughout its history, from the earliest known ...

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Snowball Earth: The Story of a Maverick Scientist and His Theory of the Global Catastrophe That S...

Did the Earth once undergo a super ice age, one that froze the entire planet from the poles to the equator? In Snowball Earth, gifted writer Gabrielle Walker has crafted an intr...

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Updated: 02/05/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 12/16/2012

I can't imagine ice bridges so strong. They must have been something quite awesome to behold.

sheilamarie on 12/16/2012

Interesting discussion. I've lived (in Canada) where we have had ice bridges across rivers. Even large trucks used them, so they were thick. Transposing those conditions to England makes you think.

JoHarrington on 12/15/2012

I shall ask him. Thanks!

Ragtimelil on 12/15/2012

Well, if the ocean level is rising due to melting ice, why did the levels rise during the ice age?

JoHarrington on 12/15/2012

This is why medieval and post-medieval costumes are so heavy and warm to wear.

I've got a Physicist on standby to answer our questions about the Little Ice Age. If you want to ninja in some of your own, now is a great moment to do so.

Ragtimelil on 12/15/2012

Wow! I didn't realize it was so recent. That makes it scary!

JoHarrington on 12/06/2012

It was eight foot thick in places.

It caused problems for the watermen, who had ancient rights to work on the Thames. The ice meant that they couldn't ply their trade in boats, so they set up stalls.

But the coachmen and stagecoach drivers argued that the Thames was no longer water, hence they could also bring people onto it. It all got quite nasty!

It wasn't just the end of the Little Ice Age which stopped the Frost Fairs. The ice had been aided and abetted by the old London Bridge. The pillars holding it up trapped huge blocks of ice coming from further along. This tamed the currents somewhat, as it acted a little like a porous dam. That's what allowed the ice to grow so thick.

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