A network of interdisciplinary scholars studying past climate change
On 5-6 May 2014, the Institute for Advance Study in the Humanities at Essen held a two-day workshop on “Climate Change and Global Crisis in the Seventeenth Century.” The program opened with an address by organizer Franz Mauelshagen, who also followed with a talk about the drivers of 17th-century climate change, with a focus on Jack Eddy’s sunspot hypothesis (the “Maunder Minimum”). Next came two presentations on climate reconstructions of the 17th century, the first by Ricardo García-Herrera describing new circulation indices from documentary data and ship logs, and the second by Jürg Luterbacher on new syntheses derived from proxy data and climate indices. That afternoon, a paper was read from Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, who unfortunately could not attend in person. There followed a presentation by Fabian Drixler discussing crisis mortality patterns in death records from Tokugawa Japan—evidently among the most detailed records for the early modern world. Ulf Ewert then presented data comparing climate records of the Maunder Minimum period with the height of French military recruits, illustrating connections among harvests, nutrition, and health. Last, Sam White gave a talk comparing impacts of the terrible weather of the 1590s in Spain and England, emphasizing how the same disasters led Spanish writers to complain of depopulation and advocate imperial retrenchment and yet led English observers to complain of overpopulation and advocate colonization abroad. That evening participants reconvened for a public forum with B. Roeck, Wolfgang Behringer, and Geoffrey Parker to discuss Parker’s new history Global Crisis—the culmination of decades of research into climate history and the “general crisis” of the 17th century.
The second day began with Tim Brook’s presentation comparing environmental disasters and famine prices in Ming China, with a focus on the unparalleled crisis of the 1640s, leading up the dynasty’s collapse. Andrea Janku followed with a study of the emergence of benevolent societies in the late Ming in light of those same climatic events and environmental disasters. Mirkka Lappalainen presented findings from her new monograph on the great Finnish famine of 1690s, explaining the complex connections between natural disaster and human mortality. That afternoon, Georgina Endfield gave a talk on Mexico’s own “phenomenal” decade of the 1690s, while emphasizing long-term shifts in the resilience of Mexican colonial society from the 17th to 18th centuries. As a counterpoint to the crisis of the 17th century, William Atwell discussed evidence of volcanic eruptions, cold, drought, and imperial crises across the late 12th-century world. T.K. Rabb, who unfortunately could not attend, sent a video presentation on “memories of climate history,” recounting the origins of the Journal of Interdisciplinary History and the groundbreaking interdisciplinary work on climate reconstruction and climate impacts of the 1970s and 1980s. Geoffrey Parker then discussed some of the history of his own research, leading to a concluding conversation focusing on two themes: the shift from world history as a story of networks to a story of common conditions (such as global climatic events), and the revival of interest in environmental disasters in history and their role in human disasters, particularly famine.