The Little Ice Age
The worldview of a culture is revealed in the way it responds to calamity.
Welcome to Episode 79 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 30 minutes we will go back in history to talk about a very significant event which, unfortunately, has never been covered by your history textbooks. It was certainly not covered by mine when I studied world history. My history textbooks, of course, were all written from a Marxist perspective, based on the Marxist view of history. Your history textbooks, most probably, were written from a Western secular perspective, based on the Western secular view of history . . . if there is such a thing in the first place, of course. All secular views of history are always forced to ignore certain significant historical facts, for a very simple reason: their view of history doesn’t allow for the existence of such facts. To be precise, their presuppositions about reality do not allow for such facts. All secular views of history are materialistic and naturalistic; that is, they presuppose that the only valid causes for historical trends and developments are those causes that are material and “natural.” Secular philosophy and historiology (historiology or historiography is the philosophy and method by which we study history), so, secular philosophy and historiology reject all interpretations of history that would involve any supernatural acts of God that would direct history. Of course, our listeners would know that, given the presuppositions of the secular thought. But there is another presupposition of secular thought that many Christians are not aware of: Secular historiology rejects not only all interpretations that presuppose a divine, supernatural agent, it also rejects all interpretations that presuppose any covenantal frame for history. And remember what “covenantal” means? It means “ethical/judicial,” that is conditioned upon and revolving around issues of good and evil. Thus, whatever happens in history can never be allowed to be the product of the self-conscious ethical and judicial decisions of men, based on some standard of ethics. Whatever ethics men have, and however consistently they apply it, has no bearing on the course of history. (As a side note, this view is not peculiar to secular historians; it is also shared by the majority of modern pastors and theologians. Yes, even your pastor in your church; odds are, if you examine him, you will find out he has the same philosophy of history as secular historians. But more about it in a different episode.)
Such anti-covenantal view of history is so prevalent that with all the books on history we have today, we have almost none that employ a covenantal philosophy of interpreting history. I have been asked hundreds of times, “Do you have a good Christian book on the history of this or that historical event or period?” And I never have one that I can recommend; because, even Christian historians have fallen prey to the same secular interpretation of history where history is the product of impersonal, natural forces, and the ethics and the worldview of a culture have no bearing on the history of that culture. Marxists see the determining factor of history in economic forces (or, more precisely, in the developing tools of production), racists and nationalists see the determining factor of history in the genetics of men (and we will see in a future episode why modern secular libertarians like Lew Rockwell and Stephan Molineux also adopt racism as their frame of interpretation), modern liberals see the determining factors of history in the environment (climate, geography, etc.), and modern theologians just adopt any of these secular philosophies when they try to interpret history, if they ever do.
It is for this reason I have always said that R.J. Rushdoony’s book, The Foundations of Social Order, is the most unique book ever written in the history of Christendom. If there has ever been a book that completely, unapologetically, and uncompromisingly interprets history covenantally, it is that book. It is not just a supernatural interpretation (“God moves history”), it is also a covenantal interpretation, namely, “God moves history through the worldview and the self-conscious action of men who were redeemed by His Gospel and influenced by His Word.” Of course, there are other books that touch somewhat on a covenantal approach to interpreting history: for example, Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, or Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Dignity, and a few others, but nothing has ever been close to Rushdoony’s consistency in applying it.
Either way, to make a long story short, secular historians don’t like mentioning some important historical events exactly because these events, and the consequences of them in history, have no explanation in terms of secular historiology. And once we look into these historical facts, we may find out that they only fit a covenantal frame of interpretation of history.
And the historical event we are going to cover this week is one of them. It was not something insignificant. It continued for 5 centuries. It had very abrupt, disastrous, and profound effect on the Christian civilization in Europe. It is well-documented; we have hundreds of thousands of historical documents that inform us about it. But it is seldom mentioned, except in marginal books and theses that don’t make it into the official textbooks and lesson plans. And there is a reason for it.
That historical event is the Little Ice Age, a historical period of unusually cold climate that can be loosely dated from the early 14th century and continued until the last decades of the 19th century. But let’s start from some earlier dates, to have some context.
Do you remember those ancient Greek paintings and engravings of several centuries before Christ, and the clothes worn by the men depicted in them? If you have seen them, you probably remember them, because they are all either naked or almost naked. I won’t go into the philosophy of nakedness here, but I will ask another relevant question: What climate did they have to have to be comfortable with such fashion? Modern Greece’s climate is Mediterranean, but it is certainly not tropical, and the winters can be quite cold. And yet, the Spartan society was known for the fact that their boys trained in military schools and were naked all year round. By the way, the girls, too. How did they survive the winters? Meanwhile, a number of Greek authors mention lions living in Europe at the time, not only in Greece but also as far north as Thrace (modern Bulgaria and Romania), Pannonia (modern Hungary) and Sarmatia (modern Ukraine). There is also evidence that other tropical and subtropical animal species – as well as plant species – lived in those areas as well. But how could they survive? I grew up on the Balkans and I can tell you, winters to the north of the Balkan Mountains can be quite harsh, and the climate is certainly not conducive for having lions, or antelopes, or anything that in modern times live south of the Mediterranean.
The conclusion of all historians, therefore, is that the ancient world enjoyed a much warmer climate than we have today. Or, at best, its coldest period – between the 5th and the 4th centuries BC – was similar to our modern times. What is sure is that starting in the early 3rd century BC, the Mediterranean – and the whole world, in fact – experienced a period of unusually warm climate which lasted for about 7 centuries. Remember the Punic Wars and Hannibal’s crossing the Alps with his elephants in the late fall of 218 BC? The reason he could do it was because of the mild climate in that period. Every time you read the history of the Roman Empire, remember that all of the expansion of the Empire – as far north as Scotland – happened in a period of very warm weather. The growth of the population of the Mediterranean was all due to that warm weather: the Roman Empire is estimated to have had between 50 and 60 million population, an approximate one-third of the world’s population at the time.
This warm period ended in AD 4th century when temperatures worldwide went down by a little, causing rivers in Europe to freeze in the winter (not recorded before AD 300), which made it easier for Germanic tribes to cross the borders of the Empire (the Rhein and the Danube rivers) and invade its richer provinces. The cooler period that started in the 4th century was most probably the reason for the great migration of the 4th through the 7th centuries, forcing many tribes out of their homelands in Northern Europe and Central and North Asia. (Think Goths, Slavs, Huns, Khazars, etc.) The same cooling off of the climate must have weakened the health of the population of the Mediterranean, for during that period, the Roman Empire experienced several outbreaks of different diseases, most of which were probably different strands of the flu. This weakened the Empire – in addition to its political and moral decay – and led to its ultimate demise in the West and retreat in the East. The Goths and the Germans who settled the west proved to be more resilient physically – and also, spiritually, after their conversion to Christianity.
The cooler period continued for about 400 years. Warm weather came back in the early 800s, this time with a vengeance. The so-called “Medieval Warm Period” turned out to be the most productive period in the history of Europe and the Mediterranean. The population of Christian Europe – which would exclude Spain – reached 70-80 million, more than the Roman Empire was at the height of its glory. More notably, this growth happened mostly north of the Alps, unlike the Roman Empire where most of the growth was in warmer regions around the Mediterranean, like Italy, the Balkans, and Egypt. France which was previously devastated by a series of invasions – by Germans, Vikings, Goths, Vandals, Huns – not to mention the earlier pillage of Gaul by the Roman legions of Julius Caesar himself, experienced such demographic growth within just a couple of centuries that it became the demographic center of Europe; an estimated 20 million people lived in France only, compared to less than 5 million in England and Wales. For many centuries, Europe had not been able to feed itself; the Roman Empire solved the problem by taking Egypt and importing grain from the valley of the Nile. Whoever controlled Egypt, controlled the Empire, because they could control the flow of grain and thus starve everyone else. After the 7th century, however, Egypt was lost to the European civilization as a bread basket. But the warm period after AD 800, combined with a few technological novelties, made Europe self-sufficient in terms of food, and this led to a gigantic population growth.
There are some interesting discoveries of that warm period that may be irrelevant to our topic here, but they are worth mentioning in the context of the modern scare of global warming. We all know, of course, that Greenland was, well, a green land, and it was capable of feeding the significant Viking population it had. Iceland was also much warmer and easily approachable by sea: there were seldom any icebergs in the ocean even in the winter. In Scotland, wheat was raised at 800 meters above the sea level; in today’s climate, it would be impossible, and wheat can’t be raised at higher than 300 meters above the sea level. Switzerland had villages very high up in the mountains, in valleys and basins that today are covered with glaciers. (Seriously, archeologists have to dig through 20 to 50 feet of packed ice in order to learn about Switzerland of before the 1300s.) England, based on several sources of the period, was a center of commercial vineyards and wine production. Art of that period is also indicative; we have hundreds of depictions of all four seasons from the period between AD 800 and AD 1300, and almost none of them show snow in the winter. Snow did not assume a prominent place in European art until the 14th century, and we will see why that happened. And while Europe enjoyed a warm period, North America and North Asia did too, and we will see late why the comparison is important to us. Archeological evidence shows a proliferation of local cultures among the native tribes in North America. And in Asia, the vast steppes of modern Mongolia were warm enough and fertile enough to give birth to the Mongolian nation, which, within just a few decades in the 12th century, under Genghiz Khan, created the vastest contiguous empire the world has ever seen in its history, covering 10 million square miles, or close to 17% of the world’s land area. By any comparison, the world between AD 800 and AD 1300 was a nice place to live, with climate warmer than ever, harvests more abundant than ever, and a population growth that exceeded everything the world had seen in its history. Anyone who tells you today that we live in a time of “global warming,” is either ignorant about history, or is a deliberate liar. You know who I am talking about.
But after 1250, it started changing. Temperatures started falling; not abruptly, but gradually every year. The North Atlantic pack ice began to grow, and icebergs began appearing on the sea lines between Norway and Iceland, and especially between Iceland and Greenland. By the end of the 13th century, contact with the Viking colonies in Labrador and Newfoundland was lost. By the end of the 14th century, all Greenland colonies were lost due to the inability of the local population to produce enough food to survive. Glaciers started advancing in Northern Europe and high in the Alps, bulldozing and burying whole towns. By 1300, summers stopped being reliable, and crops productivity fell to 2:1 ratio (2 grains produced for every one used for seed). In Asia, the Mongol heartland gradually turned from a fertile steppe into a frozen desert six months of the year. Kublai Khan’s decision in 1271 to move his capital from the traditional Karakorum in the heart of Mongolia to Khanbaliq (modern Beijing in China) may have expressed his love for the Chinese culture, but it may have also been motivated by the fact that Karakorum, in the middle of the vast Mongolian plains, became increasingly isolated from the rest of the Empire due to harsh weather most of the year. In North America, the cooling upset the regular hunting pattern of the local populations. A number of tribes started moving south, and this created the rather confused language patchwork of indigenous languages in North America. In that period, the Navajos and the Apaches left their homeland in North West Canada and moved to what is today Texas; and they are probably the reason for the migration south of the Aztecs (akin to the Comanches in Texas) who in the 14th century created the Aztec Empire in central Mexico.
Most of this climate change was gradual and imperceptible over short periods. But there were some abrupt events that gave a foretaste of what was coming. In 1257, the Samalas volcano on the Indonesian island of Lombok erupted, shooting between 2 and 3 cubic miles of ash in the stratosphere. (The eruption was so violent, it left for us today a crater 2 miles wide.) The ash spread quickly and blocked solar radiation, which made the next year’s crops, 1258, the poorest crops the world had seen for several centuries. That ash cleared quickly, but a worse event came in several decades. In 1315, or perhaps a year earlier, Mount Tarawera on the North Island of New Zealand erupted, and its eruption continued for several years. Mount Tarawera is not an ordinary volcano. It is a 10-mile-long crevice consisting of three large and several smaller openings. The amount of ash it shot up in the atmosphere is not estimated, but over several years, it may have easily been more than any other volcano in recorded history. This time, with accumulated climate change over half a century, the effect was devastating. The years 1315-1317 became known in Europe as the “years without summers,” or, among modern historians, The Great Famine of 1315-17. For three years in a row, Europe was subjected to merciless pounding by heavy rain in the summer and snow in the winter and fall. Crops failed in 1315, but there were still stocks from previous years. But by 1317, the stocks were all depleted and famine was so widespread that even kings didn’t have enough to eat. (On the bright side, this led to a relatively long period of peace; on the dark side, because of the famine, Ireland lost its last chance to defeat the English armies and become independent.) Weather finally improved in the summer of 1317, but not before a good 10% of the population of Europe died in the famine, and the rest was so weakened that all kinds of diseases killed off another 10% in the following years. And the climate was now different.
While there is no agreement between historians what events should be considered the “official” beginning of the Little Ice Age, I personally believe that the three years without summer, 1315-1317, should be given that title. What followed after them was a climate nightmare compared to the previous centuries, a nightmare which, by the way, continues to this day. Starting in the early 1300s, the earth fell into a cold spell. Winters became long and bitter cold. Snowstorms started visiting Europe every year, and blew as far south as Lisbon and Rome. Harbors in the Mediterranean started freezing every year; the North Sea became barely navigable between Norway and England, and the sea lines with Iceland very limited, Greenland was completely lost. The Hanseatic League in Northern Europe, which had grown powerful by trading in the Baltic and the North Sea, reached the zenith of its power and influence in the 14th century and then went into a quick decline, following the closing of the Baltic Sea to navigation for several months in a year, and the depopulation of Northern Europe and Scandinavia due to famine and bad climate conditions. On the Balkans, the established powers of Bulgaria and Byzantium were severely weakened by plagues and crop failures, which facilitated the rise of the Ottoman Turks who, within just a century, would take over the whole peninsula. Farther east, in Asia, the Mongol Empire, having lost its heartland to bitter climate conditions, disappeared from history; in 1368, the last vestiges of the Mongol Empire in Beijing were removed by the Chinese and their forces fled back to their homeland, only to disappear from history for about three centuries. China and the other former subjects of the Mongol Empire, however, didn’t fair well either; the history of Central and East Asia between the 14th and the 19th centuries is replete with stories of famine, devastating storms, and bitter cold winters. And the central part of Asia, which, in previous centuries, used to spew out hordes of mounted warriors, turned into a vast dessert of a few wandering small tribes. Even today, Mongolia, about the size of the American South, from Texas to Virginia, has only 2 million population. (8 million ethnic Mongols live in China, in the provinces to the south and east of Mongolia proper.) In North America, the Little Ice Age led to the disappearance of whole cultures.
Those who are familiar with the history of European art, know that all of a sudden, snow and winter became prominent in it. The same happened in Chinese and Japanese art in the 14th century. In London, the freezing of the Thames became so regular that Frost Fairs became an annual event. One year they had an elephant on the ice. During the Frost Fairs which continued for several weeks, Londoners slept in tents on the ice. To keep themselves warm, they liked to “get wrecked” on Purl – a mixture of strong gin and wormwood wine, which was taken hot. Frost fairs and skating became national past time also in Northern France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Sweden. England lost its commercial vineyards; the production of wine moved to Burgundy and south France. In Switzerland, the weather conditions became so harsh in the mountains that the feudal lords of the Holy Roman Empire gave up on trying to subjugate the rowdy mountain peasants; it was in the 14th century when the original three mountain cantons were capable of defeating the powerful armies of the Empire and expanded the confederacy to its modern borders. Chroniclers of the time specifically mention the winter fighting skills of the Swiss peasants, and the unpreparedness of the Empire’s knights to fight in winter conditions.
Probably the worst impact of the Little Ice Age, however, was the damage it did on the health of the millions of people in the affected areas. The natural resistance and immunity of the body is always weakened by extreme weather conditions (humidity, cold, heat, etc.), and a radical climate change may have some really harmful effect in the long term. It is not a mere coincidence, then, that the 14th century – as well as the centuries after it – saw multiple major outbreaks of different diseases. The Black Death is only the most prominent of them, having killed more than 40% of the population of Europe at the time; but it is not the only one. Smallpox and measles, different strains of the flu, mumps, cholera, tuberculosis, all took a significant toll on the population. Even as late as 100 years ago, right after WWI, the Spanish flu was still able of claiming the lives of 50 to 100 million people worldwide in just two years. Most of us over 40-year-old have grown up with grandparents who remember the times when even the common cold could mean severe complications and even death. And the reason is that even though the thawing of the Little Ice Age started in the middle of the 19th century, the genetic effects of it continued for a few more generations into the 20th century. It wasn’t until after WWII that the population of Europe and North America recovered its resistance to germs. And if you want to know how bad it was, in the 14th century, the average life expectancy for a child that survived his first year fell down to 17 years, down from 40 in the previous century. That continued for a long time, and in fact, contrary to what we may think, the majority of the important figures in the West between the 13th and the 19th century were amazingly young by modern standards. My favorite example is the signers of the Declaration of Independence – the majority of them were below 35, and some were even teenagers or in their early 20s. But that shouldn’t be surprising; 20 years of age was past the middle mark of the average lifespan; a person at 20 had, on the average, fewer years to live than he had lived so far. Such was the quality of life.
I can continue on and on, giving more and more historical details about the Little Ice Age, but we won’t have the time. I will stop here, and ask you to think about it. If you are anything like me, you will now be thinking the following: Why did no one tell me that when I was taught history? For 5 centuries, climate played a significant part in the history of Christendom and the West; heck, so significant that it abruptly changed its course. Who knows what would have happened if the warm climate had continued. Europe may have continued prospering, but she would have to face an expanding Mongol Empire which had no prospects of being stopped. I mean, China, with its gigantic population, couldn’t stop them; and Europe had nothing like the population of China, nor did it have the hope of growing that fast, warm climate or not. Could Europeans have discovered America earlier? They did, but they lost it because of the climate change. And what if the favorable conditions had continued? How would that affect Europe’s social, and political, and especially technological and scientific development?
And also, as a Christian, you would be thinking the following as well: what was the purpose of that Little Ice Age? If God is the direct first cause behind everything that happens in history, what was His plan, and why did He have to reduce Christendom to almost ruins? Was it a curse? Or was it something else besides a curse? It is easy to say that “it was God’s judgment,” but God’s judgments are never so simple. Besides, if it was God’s judgment on Christendom, why did it kill of pagan civilizations as well, and eventually made Christendom stronger than any of them?
So, where is the answer? And how do we go about finding it?
We go about it the covenantal way: start from the original covenant, the Dominion Covenant, the covenant that God made with man to take dominion over the earth and transform it to God’s glory. In that covenant, there were resources that God placed in the Garden for man to use; and there was man’s task to take those resources and build a civilization out of them. This is the original covenant of God with man, and it is still valid. In fact, you can’t even begin to understand the covenant of grace unless you accept the fact that God never revoked that first and original covenant.
But in that covenant, there was the possibility of judgment. Judgment came when man broke the terms of the covenant. And in history, that judgment consisted in God removing from man’s possession the resources that would make his task easier. That what we call “crisis” today. (“Crisis” means “judgment,” literally.) Crisis is when an event or circumstances deprive us of resources. Economic crisis is when we lose economic resources. Demographic crisis is when we lose human resources. Political crisis is when our political system runs out of resources to sustain itself. Natural crisis – or disaster – is when we are stripped of the use of resources by a force of nature. Etc., etc. But, what is also important to understand is, judgment deprives us of resources but it doesn’t free us of the task before us. In all the crises we have, we are still expected to survive, and even prosper. Look at Adam and Eve. They were kicked out of the Garden and deprived of the use of the resources in the Garden; but their task to take dominion over the earth was not revoked. They were expected to continue in that task; except that now, the task would be much harder to accomplish. Which means, he would have to perfect his use of resources, so that he can achieve the same task with fewer resources.
Even without a crisis, man was expected to perfect his use of God’s resources; that was part of his Dominion Mandate. To take dominion over God’s earth was not to squander its resources; if a task could be accomplished with using the timber of one tree, man had no excuse if he felled two trees for the same task. He also had to improve over time: if yesterday he used a whole tree for that task, today he was expected to improve his productivity and use only a portion of that tree, so that the rest is used for something else. We have talked about technology in previous episodes: technology is a fundamental part of God’s covenant with man. And it is exactly because technology is the visible manifestation of the Dominion Covenant applied and fulfilled: fewer resources used for greater output. That’s what Christendom should be about.
The Little Ice Age was a judgment, obviously. Or, to use the other word for judgment, a crisis. Christendom had become complacent in the free availability of resources during the warm period; people could fill their stomachs without much trouble, and live stagnated lives for generations. It was in this period that the system of feudalism flourished; and why not, given that every isolated locality could become self-sufficient in terms of food and other basic necessities, and never think of growing beyond their stagnated state? Europe had inherited a few important technological developments from the classical world, preserved in St. Isidore of Seville’s encyclopedia (the Etymologies). But short of a few other developments in the 700s and the 800s, there was little technological progress, even if there was progress in terms of theology, philosophy, law, and even science. A peasant living in AD 800 would be totally at home with the level of development of AD 1200, 400 years later.
There was no concerted effort for improving productivity, for a better use of God’s resources. There wasn’t even a thought or a concept of it. Now, if you are a modern pietistic Christian, you might not see a spiritual problem in such technological stagnation. But from the perspective of God’s Dominion Covenant, 400 years of such stagnation is a sign of spiritual laziness. It means that the producers of that age were not thinking in terms of serving more people in a better way – and, remember, service is the name of the game, when the social applications of the Gospel are involved. They were simply content to have what they had always had, and if it took less time and effort to produce it, even better. By all evidence, Europe had grown complacent in the most important task of the covenant with God: the use of God’s resources for serving other people. If that warm period had continued forever, Christendom would have been stagnated forever. That’s why it needed some shaking.
And the shaking came in the form of the Little Ice Age. The way to the Garden was shut. The good times of free resources – favorable weather patterns – were over. Christendom did not use these gifts according to their divine purpose. So it lost them.
And the response of Christendom would show if it was worth its name. Would Europe respond the way the Mongol Empire did: die away? Would it respond the way the North American natives responded: try to make up for the lost resources by invading other tribes and try to rob them of their resources? Or would it try to stay faithful to its professed faith and seek a Biblical solution?
To the credit of Christendom, it stayed true to its faith. Ups and downs aside, it eventually set out to find solutions instead of either dying out or trying to plunder resources. Don’t get me wrong, much of Christendom died. And the drive to plunder was still present – the Christian civilization has never been perfect, and it was even less perfect in those early ages. But unlike other civilization, it developed a momentum in science and technology – and especially applied science and technology – that other civilizations lacked. Of course, of course, we can agree with atheists and secularists that other cultures had science and technology, too. Yes, the Chinese had some scientific inventions for centuries. Yes, Muslim scholars had discovered important scientific truths and laws way before Europe developed the scientific method. But it was only in Europe where science and technology were deliberately put to use where it mattered: in higher productivity, so that fewer resources can be used for greater impact, and therefore for greater service to humanity.
By the end of the 14th century, Christendom was down to one-third of the population it had before year 1300. The Balkans, because of the Ottoman invasion, may have been down to even less than that; we know at that time Constantinople, the once largest center of Christendom, couldn’t muster more than 5,000 defenders in times of siege. With the population so decimated, however, the food shortage was not resolved; after all, smaller population means not only fewer people to feed but also fewer hands at work. Chronic outbreaks of famine continued throughout the 1300s and the early 1400s. In fact, famine continued for a long time. Even in the 19th century, areas like Ireland, Poland, and parts of Russia still had trouble feeding their populations.
But in the early 1400, something changed in the mindset of Europeans. And that something was a new search for solutions – especially solutions that were unusual for the time, out of the box, and ingenious. The Little Ice Age and all the disasters that came with it killed off a significant part of the population, but it also killed the stagnant traditionalism that had characterized the centuries before that. In the 1400s, innovation became acceptable. By the 1500s, it was already the norm.
It started with a new perspective on trade. Before the year 1300, with every locality being self-sufficient in terms of food and basic necessities, trade was rather focused on luxury items, or industrial items: high quality timber, silver and gold, spices, purple dye, exotic fruits, wine, etc. The Little Ice Age made it impossible for small localities to independently meet all of their basic needs; the localism and isolationism of the feudal society had to go. Specialization had to become the norm, if Europe was going to survive. Feudalism had to go. Some regions would now specialize in growing grain; others in husbandry and the production of meat and cheese. Still others, in the production of wine, fruits and vegetables. Even under the new, unfavorable climate conditions, specialization helped increase productivity, so that there was more for everyone than under the previous paradigm of localism. Trade thus had to cater to this new reality of specialization between the regions. Traders had to learn to organize their trade in such a way as to carry cargoes that were bulky but cheap per tonne, which would demand lower freight prices – like grain, hay, wine, beer, linen, wool, etc. At the same time, due to the shortage of people, traders had to re-organize their whole trade so that small crews were sufficient. On sea, new types of ships were developed that would both stand the rougher marine conditions and yet take advantage of the higher winds. On land, navigation was developed along the European rivers, and new canals were built, which made it possible to make internal connections between the northern and the southern coasts of Europe. The new ship – the caravel – proved to be a serious advance, and it helped discover new parts of the world with climates good enough to supply Europe with calories which she was lacking. (The colonization of the Caribbean islands and the sugar plantations turned out to be one the most successful solutions for solving the food problem of Europe.) The new organization of trade laid the foundation for the new world that was coming: traders developed concepts that today are taken for granted: double-side book-keeping, insurance contracts, futures, stocks, etc.
The scarcity of resources – and especially of energy – forced the producers to look for new ways to produce the same products as before. Strangely enough, this part of the economic history of Europe is often omitted from textbooks, but it was in this period that coal mining in Europe started in earnest, and gradually replaced wood as the main source of heat. (The first Royal edict prohibiting the use of coal for domestic heating in account of air pollution was issued in London in 1306.) Just about a century later, Europe re-discovered the usefulness of petroleum (literally, stone oil), although, it wouldn’t develop the technology to use its real potential until the 19th century.
What is seldom mentioned also is the amazing proliferation of machines in that period. The previous centuries saw the use of machines mainly in siege warfare; the majority of the work was done by hands or using animals. A decimated population weakened by malnourishment and epidemics, however, demands that human strength be replaced or at least re-inforced by machines. Indeed, after the year 1300, more and more artisans started producing different kinds of machines, using mainly wood as a building material. We have accounts of the building of several cathedrals in Europe at the time, and the machines used to reinforce or support human strength seem to be way ahead of their time. Several varieties of cranes were developed for both construction and cargo loading, the principal design of which is used even today. Water wheels were perfected in France to maximum utility, and artificial cascades were built to re-use the power of falling water. Mechanical clocks became a common occurrence in every city. Metallurgy made such a gigantic step in Europe, that at the end of the 16th century firearms of all calibers (including cannon) became cheap enough to be affordable for the middle class. (Find my article on American Vision’s website, “Lepanto: The Triumph of Christian Technological Superiority.”)
And in the 16th century, thanks to the Reformation, Christendom also changed its view of economic enterprise and accumulation of capital. Before that, being rich was something desirable personally, but spiritually and morally frowned upon by the society. It was in the 16th century Netherlands that the entrepreneur, the businessman, the investor, the successful organizer of production and capital became the society’s role model, as opposed to the political ruler, the soldier, the mercenary, the monk, or the priest. Which means, serving the maximum number of people at the lowest cost became one of the most venerable positions in the society.
These and many more developments made Europe capable of not only surviving harsh winters for 5 centuries, they also made her capable of growing and prospering in the face of adversity, and even defeating her enemies who had the advantage of better resources and better climate – like the Ottoman Empire. When the Venetian galeases – a miracle of the shipbuilding industry in the 1570s – were tearing apart the Ottoman fleet at Lepanto, and when Spanish and Portuguese caravels were charting new sea lanes and bringing new prosperity back to Europe, the Little Ice Age was at its worst, and the winter temperatures in Europe were regularly down to negative 40. When North America was being colonized, Voltaire rightly called it, “a few acres of snow” and advised the French monarchy to abandon its attempts at building a new France out there. The Industrial Revolution in England coincided with the lowest recorded temperatures in the history of England. It was a real ice era, but Christendom found the Biblical way to fight it: namely, through increased productivity, which saved the Christian civilization. And eventually, paved the way for the prosperity of the modern era.
And it is for this reason the Little Ice Age is never mentioned in our schoolbooks: because if they mention it, one thing will become obvious to the students: the different ways Christendom and the other cultures responded to it. And the next question will be: Why did Christendom have such a different response? Why did it focus on increasing mass productivity rather than just die out or try to plunder other cultures. And there, the only possible answer will be the Biblical worldview – imperfect, undeveloped, mixed with pagan remnants, but still powerful enough to steer the course of a whole civilization to true progress in the face of adversity.
There are a few books that I can recommend, but the book I will assign for reading is rather unusual, written by a German journalist, who also has a few historical studies: Philipp Blom, Nature’s Mutiny. Blom is not exactly an example of a covenantal thinker. But amazingly enough, he gets real close to understanding the covenantal nature of reality in writing this 250-pages book. He does look at the ethical concepts at the bottom of Europe’s dealing with the Little Ice Age, and he includes considerations of worldview in assessing the response of the European cultures. Read it with caution, but pay attention to his insights.
In your prayer and giving, consider Bulgarian Reformation Ministries, a mission organization devoted to expanding the Kingdom of God through translating and publishing books that bring the Gospel to bear on every area of life. This topic this week reminded me again of R.J. Rushdoony’s The Foundations of Social Order. We published that book in Bulgarian, and we need help to follow up with Rushdoony’s The Biblical Philosophy of History. Consider it when you make your next donations. Visit Bulgarian Reformation.com, subscribe to our newsletter, and donate. God bless you all.