Freak Weather (Climates of Crisis 1)

The weather outside is frightful. Severe and repeated flooding in northern England and Scotland has made this a winter to forget for many, and it is not looking great along the Mississippi either. We have all read several times over that this is the consequence of man-made global warming, short-sighted environmental policies, the strongest El Niño in twenty years (if not ever), and freak weather conditions. Oh the joy of living in interesting times.

Weather and the seasons have, in truth, rarely been particularly predictable. It all relies on systems which are too complex and unstable. If you want some small comfort, flick through Gregory of Tours’ Histories. In 580, there was terrible flooding in the Auvergne after an unprecedented twelve straight days of rain, after which trees came back into bloom in September (V.33). Five years later, it was so wet that it ‘felt more like Winter’ as boats and crops were destroyed by the swollen waters (VIII.23). Floods, famines, plague and unseasonal temperatures are a constant backdrop for the terrible, humorous and inspirational stories on which Gregory otherwise concentrates.

Interestingly, such things are not the ever-present one might imagine in historical narratives of the period. Indeed, you have to get to the ninth-century chronicles to find quite the same litany of awfulness. A persistent cold wind in Gaul through to May, when a battle line of wolves appeared (Ann.B. 846); the time it was so cold the Adriatic froze over (Ann.F. 860; Ann.B. 860); the time it was so cold the rivers Rhine and Main froze and people could not leave their houses to get firewood, with fatal consequences (Ann.F. 874); the time a village flooded which was not even near a stream or river (Ann.F. 875). Terrible things.

Much is in the eye of the beholder. If you read the Annals of St Bertin written by Bishop Prudentius of Troyes (d. 861), he includes quite a few of these kinds of stories. When his opponent Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims (d. 882) took over the writing of the same record, he chose not to include such things. It is unlikely the climate settled down – Hincmar’s time writing coincides with some of the worst stories related in the Annals of Fulda to the East.

It seems, broadly, that two things are going on which victims of the recent flooding will appreciate:
1) Floods, unseasonal temperatures and plague disproportionately hit people with less power and money. Kings rarely suffer. Bishops sometimes turn up to help the afflicted. Basically, disasters rooted in nature tend to expose social divisions, with the result that they often are not covered by writers interested in kings and high politics.
2) But, oh, are these disasters not also very useful for providing a critique of modern politics and morals! Many of Gregory of Tours’ stories are inserted into his stories artfully to ‘pass comment without passing comment’. In one late chapter, for instance, he complains about people observing the wrong Easter tables and then, with no explicit explanation, he lists eclipses, storms, floods and an outbreak of plague. What Gregory is saying, in other words, is ‘this is what happens when you don’t listen’. One wonders how successful a rhetorical strategy this was.

So we can partly reassure ourselves that it is not unprecedented to have unprecedented weather. But perhaps the more interesting part is in the telling and the retelling – when natural disaster moves from being a passive experience, to being part of a wider critique of behaviour and a call to act better.