Friday, 5 December 2014

Stranger Than Fiction: Climate Change

A column dedicated to pointing out interesting tidbits of history, some of which would be cool to see in a fantasy novel or two.

I recently finished reading The Third Horseman by William Rosen.  The premise of the book is that a good deal of the problems that arose at the end of the 13th and beginning of the 14th Century in Northern Europe, was caused by 2 great climate changes.  The first, which occurred 400 years before this, made temperatures warmer, allowing for increased crop yields and a population explosion, requiring expansion to find more land to cultivate in order to feed the ever increasing population.  This kicked off the Viking raids, which colonized Iceland, Greenland, made it to Nova Scotia and terrorized the coast of England and more.

The second major climate shift, which the book deals with directly, decreased the amount of sunlight while increasing the amount of rain, involved colder, longer winters and destroyed several years worth of crops in the summer through flooding, followed - perversely - by destroying crops through drought (because the topsoil had all washed away).

The book has a few dry spots, where the science of weather is detailed, but for the most part, it's a highly accessible story of war - between England and Scotland (it's the time of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace), England and France, and France and Flanders, and how those wars exacerbated the problems brought about by the weather to create famines that decimated Northern Europe.  The war between England and Scotland - and its constant draw on resources and destruction of arable land and crops along the border - increased hardship for villagers.  And when food prices rose in the towns, the people - who had no ability to grow their own, unlike the hard hit villagers - died in larger numbers than the villagers.  There are also two amazing chapters, one on the famine that spread and the trickle down effect it had on the people and population, one on the economic factors that hit when sheep started to get sick and die.

I didn't realize the extent to which animals - specifically sheep - were crucial to the English economy.  I knew wool was important, but not how important.  Consider this aspect of climate change: sheep don't lamb well when it's too cold.  In addition to the cold, the famines meant there wasn't much stored food to feed the animals, and flooding meant grazing them was more and more of a challenge.  Assuming the herd didn't catch one of the diseases going around requiring the animals be put down the wool they sheered was sent to Flanders to be made into cloth, which was then reimported to England.  Wool was the collateral used by the kings to get loans to finance their wars, and was taxed at the ports.  Edward II, desperate to reclaim Scotland, increased the taxes, which raised the price of cloth while decreasing the trade surplus those in the cities needed in order to afford food.

The book on the whole is worth reading, but if you're strapped for time, chapters 7 and 9 are brilliant, and terrifying.  I took notes of those chapters, there was so much interesting information.  Here's a sample of what you'll learn from this book:

- rye is hardier than other grains, able to survive in wet, cold lands; only disadvantage was vulnerability to mold that causes ergotism (hallucinogenic ingredient in LSD)

- seed grains for bread & beer the most common crop in Europe (word Lord derived from Old English hlaford = keeper of the bread & lady from hlaefdigge = kneader of the dough

- during the rains & flooding salt became harder to get, which pushed up prices of foods that needed salting to preserve, like fish and cheese

- ale was cheap (traditionally 3 gallons for a penny in England) and safer than water to drink, it was typically served fresh as it soured quickly, peasant brews were weaker in both flavour & alcohol than what nobility produced  

- diets were deficient in calories, lipids, calcium & vitamins A, C, & D

- diet contained so much fibre it blocked absorption of minerals like calcium, magnesium & zinc (which was bad for women of childbearing age)

- for perspective, the death toll in a modern city is 8/1000; the pre-crisis death toll was roughly 27/1000, during the crisis (and remember, this was BEFORE the Black Death) the death toll reached 50/1000; in towns it was closer to 100/1000 

The author has also written Justinian's Flea, about the first pandemic the world encountered, when the Black Death struck Constantinople.

If you're mentioning a war in your fantasy novel, remember that they eat up resources, both in terms of what the army needs, but also with regards to the lands they ruin (burning fields so your opponent can't use the grain is a common tactic).  Also remember that other factors affect the lives of peasantry and citizenry, and that food production and weather can have huge impacts on the wider world.  Also remember that your country's economics are probably intertwined with those of their neighbours, and shifts in production can impact their prosperity too.

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