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The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850 Paperback – December 24, 2001

4.0 out of 5 stars 135 customer reviews

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"Climate change is the ignored player on the historical stage," writes archeologist Brian Fagan. But it shouldn't be, not if we know what's good for us. We can't judge what future climate change will mean unless we know something about its effects in the past: "those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." And Fagan's story of the last thousand years, centered on the "Little Ice Age," reminds us of what we could end up repeating: flood, fire, and famine--acts of God exacerbated by acts of man.

For all that he takes a broad--a very broad--view of European history, Fagan's writing is laced with human faces, fascinating anecdotes, and a gift for the telling detail that makes history live, very much in the style of Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror. When Fagan talks about the voyages of Basque fishermen to American shores (probably landing before Columbus sailed), he puts in the taste of dried cod and the terrifying suddenness of fogs on the Grand Banks. The Great Fire of London, what it was like when the Dutch dikes broke, the Irish Potato Famine, the year without a summer, ice fairs on the Thames, and volcanoes in the South Pacific--Fagan makes history a ripping yarn in which we are all actors, on a stage that has always been changing. --Mary Ellen Curtin --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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The role of climatic change in human history remains open to question, due in large part to scant data. Fagan, professor of archeology at UC Santa Barbara, contributes substantively to the increasingly urgent debate. Contending with the dearth of accurate weather records from a few parts of the world, for little over a century Fagan (Floods, Famines, and Emperors: El Ni?o and the Fate of Civilizations) draws discerning connections between an amazing array of disparate sources: ice cores, tree rings, archeological digs, tithing records that show dates of wine harvests, cloud types depicted in portraits and landscapes over time. He details human adaptation to meteorologic events for example, the way the Dutch, in the face of rising sea levels, engineered sea walls and thus increased their farmland by a third between the late 16th and early 19th centuries. Explanations of phenomena like the North Atlantic Oscillation (which "governs... the rain that falls on Europe") lucidly advance Fagan's conviction that, though science cannot decide if the current 150-year warming trend (with one slight interruption) is part of a normal cycle, we should err on the side of caution. His study of the potential for widespread famine further bolsters his nonpartisan argument for a serious consideration of rapid climatic shifts. But Fagan doesn't proffer a sociopolitical polemic. He notes that we lack the political will to effect change, but refrains from speculating on future environmental policy. Illus. not seen by PW. (Mar. 1) Forecast: This topical book will appeal to fans of John McPhee, as well as to science and history scholars. With publicity targeted at the coasts (author tour in L.A., San Francisco and N.Y.; a talk at N.Y.'s Museum of Natural History), a forthcoming review in Discovery magazine and Fagan's enthusiastic readership, it should sell well.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; 1 edition (December 27, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465022723
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465022724
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (135 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #72,180 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Tim F. Martin on May 8, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
_The Little Ice Age_ by Brian Fagan is a fascinating, very readable, and well researched book on the science and history of a particular period of climatic history, the "Little Ice Age," which lasted approximately from 1300 to 1850. Despite the name, the Little Ice Age (a term coined by glacial geologist Francois Matthes in 1939, a term he used in a very informal way and without capitalized letters) was not a time of unrelenting cold. Rather, it was an era of dramatic climatic shifts, cycles of intensely cold winters and easterly winds alternating with periods of heavy spring and early summer rains, mild winters, and frequent and often devastating Atlantic storms as well as periods of droughts, light northeasterly winds, and intense summer heat. The Little Ice Age was "an endless zigzag of climatic shifts," few lasting more than 25 years or so.

Nevertheless the climate of the time proved difficult and overall was uniformly cooler, often considerably so, than the time before and afterwards. The Little Ice Age was an era when there used to be winter fairs on the frozen River Thames during the time of King Charles II, one that produced the great gales that devastated the Spanish Armada in 1588, was when George Washington's Continental Army endured a brutal winter in Valley Forge in 1777-1778, when pack ice surrounded Iceland for much of the year, when Alpine glaciers destroyed villages and advanced kilometers from their present positions, when hundreds of poor died of hypothermia regularly every winter in London late into the 19th century.
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Format: Paperback
Brian Fagan claims that "we can now track the Little Ice Age as an intricate tapestry of short-term climatic shifts that rippled through European society during times of remarkable change - seven centuries that saw Europe emerge from medieval fiefdom and pass by stages through the Renaissance, the Age of Discovery, the Enlightenment, the French and Industrial revolutions, and the making of modern Europe."
The interesting question is to what extent did these climatic shifts alter the course of European history?
In some distinct cases, in my opinion, the answer is quite clear-cut. Norse settlement in Greenland, for example, became impossible because of the cooler temperatures after the 13th century. Famine in rural areas throughout the Middle Ages was also an undisputed consequence of sudden weather shifts. The damage done to the Spanish Armada in 1588 by two savage storms is patently climatic in origin, too.
In most cases, however, the climate is just one - mostly minor - factor out of many that contributed to the occurrence of major historical events like the French Revolution, for example. Fagan rightly calls climatic change "a subtle catalyst." Finally, if we look at historical developments that unfolded over centuries - like the Renaissance or the making of modern Europe - the influence of the climate does not explain anything.
A book like Fagan's "The Little Ice Age" is most interesting for historians who examine grass roots history, such as the daily lives of farmers and fishermen in the Middle Ages. At first I thought the climate would provide answers for economic historians, too. But as Fagan shows, the human response to deteriorating weather differs widely from region to region.
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Format: Hardcover
Major climatic events impact history. Most of the time the impacts are short lived although severe at the time, e.g. the class 4 and 5 hurricanes that batter the U.S. Rare are the events that though short lived, have long term consequences, e.g. the bitter winters that contributed to Napoleon's and Hitler's ill-fated invasions of Russia. Or the storms that sank the Spanish Armada. Rarer still are climatic events that are themselves long-lived and have profound historical repercussions for human societies. Brian Fagan has now produced two books about these latter type of events - an earlier book about the impacts of el Nino, and the present book on the period of intense cold that gripped Europe and much of the rest of the world for about a 500 year period that ended in the middle of the 19th century. Although the writing occasionally appears hasty, or to suffer from rather incomplete editing, this is a story well told. Fagan draws upon extensive historical documents, both formal and informal, to describe the impact of a climate that not only was on average somewhat colder than that of the 20th century, but also highly variable. Indeed, the often rapid and large swings in temperature and rainfall appear to have had a severer effect on human societies than the cold itself. After all, once you know that it is going to be colder or hotter than average - and stay that way - you can take appropriate measures (at least within certain limits). But wide and unpredictable swings in temperature and precipitation can have devastating effects. Fagan is able to convey these effects in a very personal way. Fagan concludes with thoughts on the potential effects of the present global warming.Read more ›
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