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What Was Life Like In The Little Ice Age? – Part I

October 7, 2014

By Paul Homewood


Three years ago, I reviewed Brian Fagan’s book, The Little Ice Age”. Fagan is a Professor of Archaeology, and, I might add from what he writes, a firm believer in AGW.


The book, originally published I believe in 2000, tells the story of the turbulent, unpredictable, and often very cold years of modern European history, how this altered climate affected historical events, and what it means for today’s global warming. Building on research that has only recently confirmed that the world endured a 500-year cold snap, renowned archaeologist Brian Fagan shows how the increasing cold influenced familiar events from Norse exploration to the settlement of North America to the Industrial Revolution. This is a fascinating book for anyone interested in history, climate, and how they interact.


I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in this period of history, so have decided it worthwhile to repost my reviews, which are split into two parts. I would stress that everything in the following review is based on the book, and not my interpretation or opinion. Actual quotes from the book are in italics.






Medieval Warming Period 

A look back to the Medieval Warming Period offers an insight into how things changed in the following centuries. Most people are aware that the Vikings colonised and farmed parts of Greenland in ways that are still to this day not possible. In Europe summer temperatures were between 0.7C and 1.0C warmer than 20th Century averages. Central European summers were even warmer, as much as 1.4C warmer than now. During the height of the Warm Period, so many lords quaffed prime English wines that the French tried to negotiate trade agreements to exclude them from the Continent.

Populations rose sharply during medieval times. Numerous examples are quoted which show how crops were grown at altitudes where crops cannot be supported today such as Dartmoor and the Pennine Moors. In Scandinavia farming spread 100 to 200 meters farther up valleys and hillsides in central Norway, from levels that had been static for more than 1000 years. To the south in the Alps, tree levels rose sharply and farmers planted deeper and deeper into the mountains. During late prehistoric times, numerous copper mines had flourished in the Alps until advancing ice sealed them off; late medieval miners reopened some of these when the ice retreated.

This quote from the book seems to sum up the times.

For five centuries, Europe basked in warm, settled weather, with only the occasional bitter winters, cool summers and memorable storms. Summer after summer passed with long, dreamy days, golden sunlight and bountiful harvests. Compared with what was to follow, these centuries were a climatic golden age.



Eirik the Red is credited with discovering Greenland in the 10th Century and Viking colonists followed him to set up farming settlements as far north as Godthab. They found the green summer pastures were better than either back home in Norway or Iceland. However in the 13th Century Greenland and Iceland experienced increasing cold. Sea ice spread south creating difficulties for Norse ships sailing from Iceland as early as 1203. By 1250 many fewer ships made the crossing to Greenland and those that did had to take a more hazardous route further south in the open Atlantic to avoid pack ice off southeastern Greenland.

Around 1350 a Norse party from the Eastern settlement in Greenland ventured north to aid the Western settlement around Godthab. They found the settlement deserted and discovered that the inhabitants had butchered their dairy cows (in direct violation of ancient Norse Law) and finally resorted to eating their prized hunting dogs. The ice core analysis for 1343-1362 reveal two decades of much colder summers than usual.

In 1492 Pope Alexander VI remarked “shipping to Greenland is very infrequent because of the extensive freezing of the waters – no ship having put into shore, it is believed, for eighty years”. Around this time the Norse gave up their foothold at the warmer Eastern settlement. The Little Ice Age had started.


Extent of the Little Ice Age

There is been plenty of historical evidence which confirms the existence of a much colder climate in much of Europe between the 14th and 19th Centuries. This is not surprising because there is such a wealth of historical records and documents which has been handed down from the Europe of those days. The book however presents considerable evidence that the phenomenon was a worldwide one:-

1) In New Zealand the Franz Joseph glacier was “a mere pocket of ice on a frozen snowfield nine centuries ago”…. “Then Little Ice Age cooling began and the glacier thrust downslope into the valley below smashing into the great rain forests that flourished there, felling giant trees like matchsticks. By the early 18th Century, Franz Joseph’s face was within 3 km of the Pacific Ocean” .

“ The high tide of glacial advance at Franz Joseph came between the late 17th Century and early 19th Century, just as it did in the European Alps”.

2) “ Glaciers in the European Alps advanced significantly around 1600 to 1610, again from 1690 to 1700, in the 1770’s and around 1820 and 1850”.

3) “ Ice sheets in Alaska, the Canadian Rockies and Mount Rainier in the NW United States moved forward simultaneously”.

4) “ Glaciers expanded at the same times during the 19th Century in the Caucasus, the Himalayas and China.

5) “The Qualccaya ice core in Peru provides evidence of frequent intense cold from 1500 to 1720, with prolonged droughts and cold cycles from 1720 to 1860”.

6) “ High mountains in the Andes of Ecuador were perennially snow-capped until the late 19th Century”

7) “Travellers in Scotland reported permanent snow cover on the Cairngorm Hills at about 1200 meters”

8 ) “The late 1870’s were equally cold in China and India, where between 14 and 18 million people perished from famines caused by cold, drought and monsoon failure.

9)  Again in the 1870’s “Antarctic ice extended much further north than in Captain Cook’s time a century earlier.”… “Sailing ships traversing the Roaring Forties from Australia to Cape Horn regularly sighted enormous tabular icebergs, with some seen as far north as the mouth of the River Plate, just 350 south latitude”

10) “In Norway, glaciers advanced destroying farms and burying valuable summer pasture”.





We tend to regard alpine landscapes today such as those in Switzerland as being picturesque and think that the people there live in a beautiful rural idyll. It was not always so. In the 16th Century the occasional traveller would remark on the poverty and suffering of those who lived on the marginal lands in the glacier’s shadow. At that time Chamonix was an obscure poverty stricken parish in “a poor country of barren mountains never free of glaciers and frosts…half the year there is no sun…the corn is gathered in the snow…and is so mouldy it has to be heated in the oven”. Even animals were said to refuse bread made from Chamonix wheat. Avalanches caused by low temperatures and deep snowfall were a constant hazard. In 1575 a visitor described the village as “a place covered with glaciers…often the fields are entirely swept away and the wheat blown into the woods and onto the glaciers”.

In 1589 the Allalin glacier in Switzerland descended so low that it blocked the Saas valley, forming a lake. The moraine broke a few months later, sending floods downstream. Seven years later 70 people died when similar floods from the Gietroz glacier submerged the town of Martigny.

As the glaciers relentlessly pushed downslope thousands of acres of farm land were ruined and many villages were left uninhabitable such as La Bois where a government official noted “where there are still six houses. all uninhabited save two, in which live some wretched women and children…Above and adjoining the village there is a great and horrible glacier of great and incalculable volume which can promise nothing but the destruction of the houses and lands which still remain”. Eventually the village was completely abandoned.

The same official visited the hamlet of La Rosiere in 1616 and found" “The great glacier of La Rosiere every now and then goes bounding and thrashing or descending…There have been destroyed 43 journaux of land with nothing but stones and 8 houses, 7 barns and 5 little granges have been entirely ruined and destroyed”.

Alpine glaciers, which had already advanced steadily between 1546 and 1590, moved aggressively forward again between 1600 and 1616. Villages that had flourished since medieval times were in danger or already destroyed. During the long period of glacial retreat and relative quiet in earlier times, opportunistic farmers had cleared land within a kilometer of what seemed to them to be stationary ice sheets. Now their descendants paid the price with their villages and livelihoods threatened.

Between 1627 and 1633 Chamonix lost a third if its land through avalanches, snow, glaciers and flooding, and the remaining hectares were under constant threat. In 1642 the Des Bois glacier advanced “over a musket shot every day, even in August”.

By this time people near the ice front were planting only oats and a little barley in fields that were under snow for most of the year. Their forefathers had paid their tithes in wheat. Now they obtained but one harvest in three and even the grain rotted after harvesting. “The people here are so badly fed they are dark and wretched and seem only half alive”.

In 1715 the village of Le Pre-du-Bar vanished under a glacier caused landslide. The glacial high tide in the Alps came around 1750 and gradually the glaciers began their retreat, much to the relief of the people who lived there.





I find it astonishing that some people regret the retreat of these glaciers.


In Part II, we look at Storms, Floods & Famines.

  1. mkelly permalink
    October 7, 2014 7:41 pm

    You can get the DVD of the this and it is very enjoyable. I am sure as always the book is better but the images from the DVD make up for it.

  2. October 7, 2014 7:50 pm

    Thanks, Paul. Your book review reinforced my impression that cold is bad for humans and crops while warmth is good for carbon-based beings.
    What’s not to like about an increase in CO2?

  3. Ben Vorlich permalink
    October 7, 2014 8:26 pm

    I find it astonishing that some people regret the retreat of these glaciers.

    Me too, and I hope any sensible person living in Alpine valleys would feel the same.

  4. Brian Gunter permalink
    October 7, 2014 10:33 pm

    Fagan’s book is available on Ebay for US$19.75. It is a great read.

    Such historical evidence confirms that the world’s temperatures have been increasing for the past two centuries. So global temperature rise has been a very good thing for mankind. This book is most useful as it puts a proper perspective to the past and present climate record.

  5. October 7, 2014 11:55 pm

    The Little ice age and medieval ”global warming” are the biggest phony ”Skeptic’s” Crap – best proof why the Warmist are laughing all the way to the bank. There are real explanations about those and other events; they were NOT ”global!!! here is LIA for example::How LIA started:
    Just before LIA, population in north Africa increased – uncontrollable wildfires made Sahara bigger and started producing ”extra” dry heat – that extra dry heat increased evaporation in the Mediterranean, Mediterranean doesn’t have any tributaries to replenish the water deficit from higher evaporation- it’s only Nile – decreasing vegetation upstream decreased water in Nile also. Therefore: EXTRA warm-water in the ”Gulf-stream” was going from Mexican gulf into the Mediterranean – ”gulf-stream” supplies water to Mediterranean and in North-Sea / Baltic – more into Mediterranean = LESS share warm tropical water going to Denmark and Latvia = less warmwater to evaporate around England and less warming the area = LIA. was created.

    You will instantly say: but now Sahara is just as big, why and how LIA finished?!! Constant debate when LIA finished, because in the finishing years might have influenced other freak events, so, it’s unclear for them, but, YOU will tell them exactly which year the LIA officially finished! I’ll tell you how: you go to the library, or Google and find out what year exactly the Suez canal was opened. BECAUSE: from that year on; some of the water ”deficit” from evaporation in Mediterranean was supplied by water coming from the Red sea into Mediterranean (I think was 1883, can’t remember) ”Less gulf-stream hot water” needed to come to Mediterranean = BIGGER share of warmwater started going to Denmark – more tropical hot-water started evaporating around England and was warming the area = LIA finished!

    Plus: you will find out that: since finishing day of LIA until today; LESS water from river Rheine and river Seine from Paris drains now in the sea; plus many other small rivers and creeks from Latvia to northern Spain; because of use of lots of water for industries, for bigger cities, much MORE irrigation = LESS cold water from the Alps drains into north sea from Rheine, probably only half of the water now, than during LIA. What that means: because is high evaporation there where hot and cold water meet = north sea and Baltic started sucking EXTRA tropical warm-water from the Mexican gulf – when more warmwater evaporation, warms more around England. Do you think that those events affected the WHOLE planet. The ”Skeptics” think so…

    The biggest proof of LIA you have is: on a picture people scatting on frozen river Thames for few days. Well, two years ago, 1000miles south/ closer to the equator; in Serbia and Romania river Danube 10 times bigger river than Thames, was completely frozen for two weeks, well recorded, same as Thames frozen scatting (people record unusual events, good days are boring) , BUT – now the shonks were not able to declare it as: midi ice age for 150y, because: when Danube was frozen and people were dying from cold in England, Poland – at exactly the same time was record braking heat in Australia and people were dying in the big bushfires. Now you know how and why LIA happened – tell the world in your English.

    There is logical explanation for all those ‘’cycles’’ phony ‘’global’’ warmings in the past and phony ‘’global’’ ice ages. The ‘’normal / honest laws of physics’’ don’t permit for those events to be ‘’global’’!!! Temp in the atmosphere is as water in the full bucket I.e. you cannot fit another cup of water in the full bucket, it would overflew. B] temp gets to extreme on different places, but NEVER on the whole planet – same as the children’s ‘’see-saw plank’’ the higher one side goes -> the lower the other side goes, simultaneously; both sides of the plank can’t go up, OR down, simultaneously!:

    • Otter (ClimateOtter on Twitter) permalink
      October 8, 2014 8:24 am

      There is a /sarc tag or something similar for your rant, yes?

    • October 8, 2014 9:24 am

      Are you Michael Mann with a wig on?

      I expect you deny the ice age as well.

  6. October 8, 2014 12:10 am

    Medieval ”GLOBAL” warming is even bigger crap… Vikings did try to grow things, but failed… them going to Greenland doesn’t tell of ”GLOBAL” warming – at that time they went and occupied Sicily also = they went from Scandinavian to Mediterranean climate = does that prove ”GLOBAL” cooling?! Grow up people!!! Climatologist didn’t start lying in the 80’s – lying has being always their bread and butter – Warmist have built their lie, based on the ”lies” the skeptics use about the past phony GLOBAL warmings and ”global” coolings…
    The ”globe” is a big place!!!! England, or Greenland are NOT ”the globe” shame, shame!!!

  7. October 8, 2014 10:52 am

    The change in the pendulum (increase/decrease in high energy particles due to lower/higher solar magnetic field strengths) that drags the temperature and rainfall up and down is set to change in 2016. This is: if all goes well on the sun and the planets arrive in time to flip the switch. I figure that if something like a comet, or anything like, that could affect some orbits of the planets in our solar system and prevent the switch from happening, temps. could continue to plummet for another 22 years.
    I figure something like this happened in the LIA. It is not likely to happen in 2016.
    I hope so.

  8. October 8, 2014 11:01 am

    Mind you, an ice age is a bit of a trap as well. The more ice, the more light is deflected off earth, etc So more ice causes more ice. I figure that if we see this happening, and it is happening around us, mankind will be clever enough to reverse the trap.
    Could we not melt the ice with laser beams or something? I also heard that we could use carbon (!!!!) dust to cover the ice sheets to so that sunlight will not be bounced off from earth.

    • October 8, 2014 5:21 pm

      What always strikes me is how remarkably stable the Earth’s climate is.

      Warmists say that a little bit of warming will trigger a lot more. Yet we have not had such runaway warming in the past, or runaway cooling either

      • October 8, 2014 5:50 pm

        This is true, and it explains why life exists, and was able to develop, and, by design, produce talented and intelligent people. But do not be fooled into believing there were no ice ages or periods of relative great warmth, leading to a time where water levels in the Cape (South Africa) were 30 meters higher than they are today. Times when big dinosaurs were able to develop and thrive…How else to explain the presence of coal on Antarctica?

  9. October 8, 2014 11:40 am

    Reblogged this on the WeatherAction News Blog.

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