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The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations

The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations

3.8 4
by Brian Fagan

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From the 10th to 15th centuries the earth experienced a rise in surface temperature that changed climate worldwide-a preview of today's global warming. In some areas, including much of Western Europe, longer summers brought bountiful crops and population growth that led to cultural flowering. In others, drought shook long-established societies, such as the Maya and


From the 10th to 15th centuries the earth experienced a rise in surface temperature that changed climate worldwide-a preview of today's global warming. In some areas, including much of Western Europe, longer summers brought bountiful crops and population growth that led to cultural flowering. In others, drought shook long-established societies, such as the Maya and the Indians of the American Southwest, whose monumental buildings were left deserted as elaborate social structures collapsed. Brian Fagan examines how subtle changes in the environment had far-reaching effects on human life, in a narrative that sweeps from the Arctic ice cap to the Sahara to the Indian Ocean. The lessons of history suggest we may be yet be underestimating the power of climate change to disrupt our lives today.

Editorial Reviews

William Grimes
…[a] fascinating account of shifting climatic conditions and their consequences from about A.D. 800 to 1300, often referred to as the Medieval Warm Period…Mr. Fagan, an anthropologist who has written on climate change in The Long Summer and The Little Ice Age, proceeds methodically, working his way across the globe and reading the evidence provided by tree rings, deep-sea cores, coral samples, computer weather models and satellite photos. The picture that emerges remains blurry…but it has sharpened considerably over the past 40 years, enough for Mr. Fagan to present a coherent account of profound changes in human societies from the American Southwest to the Huang He River basin in China.
—The New York Times
From the Publisher

“Fagan is a great guide. His canvas may be smaller than Jared Diamond's Collapse , but Fagan's eye for detail and narrative skills are better.” —New Scientist

“[A] fascinating account of shifting climatic conditions and their consequences.” —New York Times

“The Great Warming is a thought-provoking read, which marshals a remarkable range of learning.” —Financial Times

“‘The Great Warming' is a riveting work that will take your breath away and leave you scrambling for a cool drink of water. The latter is a luxury to enjoy in the present, Fagan notes, because it may be in very short supply in the future.” —Christian Science Monitor

“Brian Fagan offers a unique contribution to this discussion [of climate change]...Readers should not underestimate this book, writing it off as another addition to a burgeoning genre: the travel guide to a torrid world. Fagan's project is much bigger. He re-creates past societies in a lively and engaging manner, aided by his expert synthesis of obscure climatological data...In his ability to bring nature into our global, historical narratives, Fagan rivals Alfred Crosby, William H. McNeill, and Jared Diamond, scholars who revealed to large audiences the explanatory power of microscopic biota or gross geography. Fagan promises to do the same for longterm climate dynamics...We would be fools to ignore his warnings.” —American Scholar

“An alarm bell ringing out from a distant time.” —Kirkus

“Superbly integrating the human and climatological past, Fagan's expertise wears easily in a fine popular treatment relevant to contemporary debate about climate.” —Booklist

“This is not only World History at its best, sweeping across all of humankind with a coherent vision, but also a feat of imagination and massive research. If Fagan has given the medieval period throughout the globe a new dimension, he has at the same time issued an irrefutable warning about climate change that is deeply troubling.” —Theodore Rabb, author of The Last Days of the Renaissance

“Climate has been making history for a very long time, though historians have rarely paid much attention to it. But as it turns out, a few less inches of rain, a change in temperature of just a degree or two can make all the difference in how human events unfold. The Great Warming demonstrates that although human beings make history, they very definitely do not make it under circumstances of their own choosing.” —Ted Steinberg, author of Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History and American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn

“Looking backward, Fagan presents a well-documented warning to those who choose to look forward.” —Publisher's Weekly

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The Great Warming

By Brian Fagan Bloomsbury
Copyright © 2008
Brian Fagan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-5969-1392-9

Chapter One A Time of Warming

The occurrence in medieval York of the bug Heterogaster urticae, whose typical habitat today is stinging nettles in sunny locations in the south of England, discovered by ... archaeological investigation to have been present there in the Middle Ages ... presumably indicates higher temperatures than today's. -Hubert Lamb, Climate History and the Modern World (1982)

Southern England, Fall, A.D. 1200. The chilly mist hangs low over the treetops. A pervasive drizzle drifts across the plowed strips, misting the weathered faces of the two men sowing wheat from canvas seed bags slung around their necks. Snub-nosed and tousle-haired, they are barefoot, clothed in dirty, belted tunics and straw hats, swinging effortlessly to and fro, casting seed across the shallow furrows. Behind them, an ox-drawn harrow, a square wooden frame with wooden spikes pointing into the earth, covers the newly planted seed. As one strip is sown, the men move on to the next, for time is short. They must plant before heavy autumn rains can wash the seed from the earth.

The routine of planting, learned in childhood, is as unchanging as the passage of the seasons. Older men remember cold, dreary days when even a sheepskin cloak could not keep out the pervasivechill. They also recall years when the sun blazed down from a cloudless sky, the heat shimmering above the fields. These were times when the village gambled that it would rain and planted anyhow. Sometimes, the bet paid off. All too often, it did not. When it didn't, there would be hunger the following year.

Their seed bags empty, the two men stretch and sling new ones from their shoulders. They're tired after days of backbreaking labor, harvesting summer crops, then plowing and planting for winter wheat. The work never ceases in a farming world where everyone lives on the edge, where the unspoken threat of hunger is ever present.

The village is coming off a good summer harvest after weeks of fine weather, so there is plenty to eat. Good fortune continues. The winter is mild and not too wet. January and February bring frost, even a little snow; but there are no late cold snaps, and spring is early, with warm temperatures and just enough gentle rain. As the days lengthen, the villagers weed the growing crop. By late July, the grain is ripe and the harvest begins. The fields bake in the hot sun, a deep blue sky with fluffy clouds overhead. The men bend to the harvest. They reap the ripe wheat with short iron sickles, gathering bundles of stalks in their hands and cutting them, only pausing to sharpen their blades. Behind them, the women have tucked their skirts into their belts to free their legs. Brightly colored cloths cover their hair. They bind and stack the sheaves in the field, but soon the grain will be carried indoors, stored on the stalk for threshing and winnowing under cover when the weather turns bad. Children play among the sheaves and gather grain among the stubble. The workers pause at midday to stretch their stiff backs, to drink some ale, as birds jostle and swoop overhead. Soon the harvest will resume, continuing until dark as the village races against time to gather in the crop while it is dry.

To judge by today's subsistence farmers, those of A.D. 1200 would let nothing go to waste, even in a good harvest year like this one. You have only to glance at the deep wrinkles etched into adult faces to get the point. Even men and women in their twenties look old, their countenances withered by brutal hard work and occasional hunger or malnutrition. Yet these people lived in a world that was warmer than it had been for some centuries, in what climatologists call the Medieval Warm Period.

A Thousand Years ago, everything in Europe depended on agriculture. From Britain and Ireland to central Europe, 80 to 90 percent of the population struggled to coax a living-and, if they were lucky, a food surplus-from the soil. Europe was a continent of subsistence farmers, who lived from harvest to harvest, whose fate depended on the vagaries of temperature and rainfall.

There were many fewer people then. The population of London exceeded 30,000 for the first time in 1170, a vast metropolis by the standards of the day. Other English population centers were much smaller. Norwich in East Anglia, for example, had but 7,000 to 10,000 inhabitants. The combined population of France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and the Low Countries was about 36 million in 1200, compared with over 250 million today. Nearly all these people lived in hamlets and villages, or perhaps small towns, for cities were only just becoming a significant element in European life. And everyone, even the greatest lord, depended on a countryside farmed without machines, hybrid seed, or fertilizers. Horses and oxen, even wives, hauled the plow and the harrow. The harvest was gathered by hand, carried on people's backs, perhaps transported by oxcart or river barge to market.

The rural landscape was a mosaic of forest and woodland, river valley and wetland, modified constantly by human activity. Many people lived in small, dispersed settlements, surrounded by haphazard fields. But increasingly, they dwelled in larger, more centralized villages, where the nearby arable land was divided into large, open fields in turn subdivided into small strips of about a half acre (0.2 hectare) each. Each tenant had possession of several groups of strips, often called furlongs, but not all of that land was under crops at once. Every farmer knew that arable land had to be grazed and manured by animals, then rested to regain its fertility and minimize plant diseases. The best-drained, lightest soils supported cereal crops. Animals grazed not only on stubble, but in the woods and in open pasture on heavier, more clayey soils. Like modern-day subsistence farmers in Africa, medieval European peasants knew the properties of different grazing grasses, the subtle indicators of renewed soil fertility, the seasons of wild plant foods. Their only protection against sudden frosts, storms, or drought was a diverse food supply based on far more than cereal crops.

Coaxing a living from Europe's medieval soils was never easy, but it was done, and sometimes with considerable success, especially during runs of warm, drier summers. Farmers in England and France grew mainly wheat, barley, and oats. As a gross generalization, about a third of the land was planted in wheat, half in barley, the rest in other crops, including peas. Even in good years, the yields were small by today's standards. A good wheat harvest would yield between 8 and 12.5 bushels (2.8 to 4.0 hectoliters) per acre (0.4 hectare). Compare this with today's figure of over 47 bushels (16.5 hectoliters) an acre. When you realize that 2.3 bushels (0.8 hectoliters) of that yield went back into the soil as seed for the next crop, the yield was small indeed, leaving very little chance of a food surplus in any but the best years. The figures for barley, used for beer, were somewhat higher (23.5 bushels/8.3 hectoliters), but the amount of seed planted was greater. In good years, grain yields of slightly under four times seed grain sown were the norm. One survived by diversification.

Everyone grew vegetables. Protein-rich peas and beans were planted as field crops in early spring and harvested in fall; the legumes were allowed to dry on the plant, the stalks plowed back into the soil as fertilizer. Vegetables and herbs of all kinds supplemented what was basically a meatless diet based on bread and gruel.

Most farmers had a few head of livestock-a milk cow or two, some pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens, and, if they were lucky, a horse or some oxen, or at least access to them for plowing. Animals provided meat and milk, also hides and wool. Sheep shearing was an important occasion in spring, undertaken on a carefully chosen fine day when a warm wind from the west brought promises of summer. The breeze sends wood smoke cascading out of windows and doors, opened by the women to let in fresh air. Outside, the village flock crowds in a large wicker pen, sheep jostling against one another. A smell of wool fills the air. The men, dressed in leather jerkins, grab the sheep one by one and shear them with simple iron clippers, deftly flipping the docile beasts on their backs to complete the task. The shorn, bewildered beasts shake themselves as young boys drive them to a nearby corral. Hovering children gather up the wool and lay it on wooden racks to dry in the bright sunlight.

Most of the year, animals grazed and foraged on their own-this was especially true of pigs, which feasted off acorns and beechnuts in the fall. But winter feeding was another matter, the challenge being to keep breeding stock alive. Surplus males and dried-up cows no longer yielding milk were either sold or slaughtered in the autumn to free up hay for the most valuable animals. The hay harvest was all-important. Mowing began in June and continued into July, depending on the weather, for the hay had to be absolutely dry, lest it rot after harvest and become so hot that it would catch fire. On fine days, men with long-bladed iron scythes worked their way across a meadow, leaving the crop to dry in rows across the field. They would return and turn the crop over a couple of times to dry better before stacking it in such a way that the outer layer formed a thatch to keep off the rain. The hay harvest was a major event in the year but so dependent on dry conditions that a wet year could lead to stock losses the next winter, perhaps the loss of every beast. Once again, everything depended on the climate.

Even in a bad year, the farmer still had to pay taxes and church tithes, which ate into food supplies. A man with a wife and two children could survive at a basic level with 5 acres (2 hectares). But everyone, even young children, had to grow vegetables and forage for wild foods such as mushrooms, nuts, and berries. Five acres left precious little margin for poor harvests caused by frost or storms. A succession of years meant famine, famine-related diseases, at best malnutrition, and certainly some dying, especially in the cold and miserable months of late winter, when food supplies were always low and Lent with its fasting was just over the horizon.

Each year, as summer ripened into fall, every community reaped its harvest and gave thanks to God for his bounty, for life was never easy. The endless cycle of the seasons defined human existence. So did the routines of planting, growth, and harvest; the verities of birth, life, and death; and what everyone believed were the arbitrary whims of the Lord.

In an era long before long-range weather forecasting, everyone, whether king or noble, warlord, merchant, or farmer, was at the mercy of cycles of heavier rainfall and drought, savage gales and perfect summer days. They were unwitting partners in an intricate climatic gavotte between the atmosphere and the oceans. But, especially between A.D. 800 and 1300, the dance slowed slightly into a measured waltz, where summer warmth and more settled conditions tended-and one stresses "tended"-to be the norm. The gyrations of climate change slowed momentarily. Europe changed profoundly during these five centuries from 800 to 1300, the Medieval Warm Period.

In the larger scheme of things, the twenty generations or so of medieval warming are but the blink of an eye. The relatively minor temperature changes of these centuries pale alongside those that occurred at the end of the most recent ice age. About twelve thousand years ago, the world entered a period of sustained global warmth, known to geologists as the Holocene (after the Greek words holos, "whole," and kainos, "new," the word thus meaning "entirely recent"), which continues to this day. Generations of scientists, working with inadequate data, conjured up images of over ten millennia of a basically modern climate that had changed relatively little since the warm-up after the Ice Age. But a revolution in paleoclimatology, the study of ancient climate, has transformed our knowledge of the Holocene in recent years.

Today's climatologists drill into sea and lake beds, take deep cores from Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, and pore over tree-ring sequences taken from the trunks of ancient trees. Their research has revealed a Holocene climate constantly on the move. We can now discern not only millennium-long cold and warm oscillations, but also much shorter cycles, especially over the past two thousand years. The shifts from slightly wetter to slightly drier, from warmer to cooler and back again, never cease. Some endure a century or a decade; others, like El Niño events, last no more than a year or so. Few major climatic events lay within the span of generational memory, and were thus quickly forgotten in times when life expectancy everywhere was little more than thirty years. The new climatology has shown us that the climatic timepiece may accelerate and slow down, falter and change direction suddenly, even remain steady for long periods of time, but it never stops.

No one knows exactly what drives the climatic pendulum. Most likely, small changes in the earth's obliquity trigger climate changes. So do cycles of sunspot activity. For instance, a dearth of sunspots during the seventeenth century marked a period of markedly cooler climate during the height of the so-called Little Ice Age. There are other climatic forcing agents, too, among them volcanic activity in Iceland, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere. A massive eruption of Mount Tambora on Java's Sumbawa Island in 1815 blew off 4,250 feet (1,300 meters) of the summit of the volcano. Huge clouds of volcanic ash rose into the atmosphere, masking the sun and causing Europe's celebrated "year without a summer" in 1816. In recent years, however, most climatologists have come to believe that complex, yet still little understood, interactions between the atmosphere and the ocean play a major role in climatic shifts. The climatologist George Philander calls it a dance between very different partners, one fast-moving, and the other clumsier. He writes: "Whereas the atmosphere is quick and agile and responds nimbly to hints from the ocean, the ocean is ponderous and cumbersome." 4 We dance along with these partners, opportunistically, sometimes decisively, and very often with reluctance.

We've learned, too, that the gyrations of the climatic dance have a startlingly direct effect on human societies, like the exceptionally heavy rains caused by a massive El Niño that destroyed generations' worth of irrigation canals in riverbeds along Peru's north coast in the sixth century A.D., or the major drought cycles in the American Southwest that triggered population movements by Ancestral Pueblo families over a wide area a thousand years ago. At the same time as the Pueblo of the Southwest were moving away from their homes in the face of drought, Europe's medieval farmers were basking in more predictable weather conditions and ample, but usually not excessive, rainfall. The effects of the slightly warmer and drier conditions appeared in all kinds of subtle ways-in better harvests, in population growth and accelerating deforestation, in an explosion of trade and deep-sea fishing, and in a veritable orgy of cathedral building. This is not to say, of course, that greater warmth caused all these changes; far from it. What's exciting is that we can now begin to link seemingly minor climatic shifts to all kinds of historical events in ways that were unimaginable even a generation ago. With a few notable exceptions, like the Swiss historian Karl Pfister, who has spent years studying the dates of wine harvests, most historians have tended to ignore climatic shifts, largely because as nonscientists they were unversed in the new climatological data. Today, we can see that climate change was one of many significant factors involved in shaping medieval history, especially the lives of ordinary people living in small villages, growing crops, or fishing in the North Sea.


Excerpted from The Great Warming by Brian Fagan Copyright © 2008 by Brian Fagan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Brian Fagan was born in England and spent several years doing fieldwork in Africa. He is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of many books including Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting, and the Discovery of the New World, and several books on climate history, including The Little Ice Age and The Long Summer.
Brian Fagan was born in England and spent several years doing fieldwork in Africa. He is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of New York Times bestseller The Great Warming and many other books, including Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting, and the Discovery of the New World, and several books on climate history, including The Little Ice Age and The Long Summer.

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Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
leopardiNJ More than 1 year ago
From about 800 to 1200 AD most of northern Europe and the North Atlantic Basin experienced nearly continuous warmth - a Medieval Warm Period with mean annual temperatures above those of the present day. That is historical fact. However, the assumption that the Warm Period can be extrapolated worldwide is now largely discounted. In his book The Great Warming (latest in a series on climate history), Brian Fagan sets out to review the evidence for world regional climate change during this 400 year period. He then goes on to speculate about what that review implies for the underlying mechanism that triggered the warmth in Northern Europe and the implications that understanding may have for future human-driven climate change. For the major portion of the book, Fagan takes a regional approach with one or two chapters (that could easily stand alone as short articles) on each of the following areas- Europe (and the North Atlantic basin); Asia (Mongols); North Africa and the Sahel; North American Arctic and Greenland; U.S. Southwest; Central America (Maya); Northwest South America (Chimu of Peru); South Pacific (Eastern Polynesia); India and the Middle East; and, East China. This engaging geographical romp has some drawbacks - the consequent repetition and wandering off-topic are the only flaws in an otherwise well-written book. The author makes a point of the fact that for most of the regions surveyed (Asia, Africa, Central & South America, the American Southwest, India and China), drought during the Medieval Warm period was the dominant mode with significant implications for the course of civilization there. As for the Polynesians, the environmental change of greatest impact was a decline in easterly Pacific trade winds during the Warm Period. Thus, dugout catamarans could sail further and further east from their base in the central Pacific. In conclusion, Fagan proposes that the El Nino/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) process in the equatorial Pacific Ocean is second only to the seasons as a climate regulating mechanism. Drought, he concludes, not warming, may be the most important consequence of anthropogenically-driven greenhouse gas emissions. The scale of that impact, he adds, will be vastly greater than it was in the past because of the extreme vulnerability that humans now face as a consequence of vastly higher populations densities and dependence on limited water supplies. Richard R. Pardi, Environmental Science, William Paterson University
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fagan point is simple. What might appear to us as a small change in average temperatures has enormous implications for human societies. He uses well-documented and accepted information relating to climate change centuries ago to narrate how such changes affected societies across the globe. Given the clear and unassailable pattern of climate change change that we are collectively experiencing, Great Warming makes no recommendations. It does, however, make a compelling case. Given the current trends, we should all be concerned about climate change.
GT-Colorado More than 1 year ago
Enjoyed the book (3 1/2 stars) and describes the Medieval Warming and its effects on civilizations in different parts of the world, some good and some not so good. Likely no different than what our civilization is experiencing now. Weather and climate are entirely different throughout the world. The effects of El Nino and La Nina and the various circulation patterns in the Pacific, Atlantic etc... play a big part in the weather and climate we experience year-after-year. Contrast that to what Professor Mann attempted to do with the supposedly "hockey stick" research paper (left out the Medieval Warming Period) that was published and subsequently used in the IPCC report some years back. The author also points to Al Gore and information published in "An Inconvenient Truth at the end of the book which I deem suspect and not based on meaningful scientific research. Nevertheless. the book has value and offers insight in challenges man faces when it comes to our every changing weather and climate.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Brian Fagan explores the story of climate change between 800 and 1300 C.E. and the impact of that climate change on different regions of the world. Unlike Europe, most other regions of the world suffered from drought, not bountiful harvests during that period. Understandably, Fagan is inclined to rename the so called Medieval Warm Period into the Medieval Drought Period. Fagan usually does a good job of explaining how proxies such as tree rings, ice borings, and deep-sea and lake cores can be used to deduce the climatic evolution during a given period in a certain area. Direct methods (instrument records and historical documents), climatic forcings (such as volcanic eruptions), and computer modeling are other techniques used to study ancient climatic change. Today¿s world can particularly benefit from the lessons that Fagan draws from the implosion of both lowland Maya civilization and Angkorian empire. Unfortunately, Fagan¿s narration is at times confusing due to the use of side stories that slows down reading without adding too much value to his narration. Worse, Fagan makes bold, controversial statements at the beginning and end of his book that are apparently built on his exploration of climate change between 800 and 1300 C.E. and its impact on different regions of the world. For example, Fagan states that global warming since the end of the Little Ice Age (from roughly 1300 to 1860 C.E.) is caused in large part by human activity (pp. xvi-xvii, 230). That statement flies in the face of what Fagan explores in the rest of his book. Many non-human made factors play a significant role in influencing climate change. Furthermore, Fagan quotes Al Gore and his documentary ¿An Inconvenient Truth¿ on global warming as an impartial authority on the subject without mentioning at the same time the nine significant errors found in that documentary. Fagan could benefit from reading the ruling rendered by High Court Judge Michael Burton in 2007 in London on that subject if he has not yet done it. Similarly, Fagan could find another perspective on global warming by watching the hard-hitting documentary ¿The Great Global Warming Swindle.¿ To summarize, what the international community needs, is impartial facts instead of propaganda, and workable, economically feasible solutions instead of undue pessimism about the future of humanity.