History: Spörer Minimum (1450-1550)
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Early Sporer Minimum: A Period of Extraordinary Climate and Socio-economic Changes in Europe
Climate reconstructions from a multitude of natural and human archives indicate that, during winter, the period of the early Spörer Minimum (1431–1440 CE) was the coldest decade in Central Europe in the 15th century. The particularly cold winters and normal but wet summers resulted in a strong seasonal cycle that challenged food production and led to increasing food prices, a subsistence crisis, and a famine in parts of Europe. As a consequence, authorities implemented adaptation measures, such as the installation of grain storage capacities, in order to be prepared for future events. The 15th century is characterized by a grand solar minimum and enhanced volcanic activity, which both imply a reduction of seasonality
Several cold periods occurred in Europe during the last millennium and affected the socio-economic systems. Here, mainlycontemporary English, German, Hungarian, Czech, Austrian, Italian and Dutch charters, letters, manorial, town and toll accounts, as well as narratives are analysed.
As the reconstruction in Sect. 2 (see Fig. 3) shows, the weather conditions during the 1430s stood out due to harsh and chilly winters. These remarkably cold winters caused the freezing of rivers and lakes in Central Europe, England, and the Netherlands and were accompanied by recurrent frost periods in April and May (Fejér, 1843; Marx, 2003; Brunner, 2004; Camenisch, 2015b). Heavy snow falls followed by outstanding frost were reported in March 1438 in Berne (Morgenthaler, 1921). In Scotland, for instance, the wine in bottles had to be melted with fire before it could be drunk. Extremely cold winters during the 1430s were also reported in Ireland (Dawson, 2009). In South-eastern France, in the Provence area, and in the Netherland the first half of the 15th century was characterised by high levels of hydro-climatic variability. From 1424 to 1433 two flood and five drought years occurred, while the winter seasons from 1434 until 1437 were outstandingly cold (Pichard and Roucaute 2014; Maughan, 2016; Glaser and Stangl, 2003). South of the Alps, the time span from 1430 to 1433 was extraordinarily wet, with the winter of 1431/1432 extremely cold till April 1432 (Bauch, 2015). Likewise, during the 1430s, Bohemia, Austria, and the Hungarian Kingdom suffered from a number of cold winters and one of the greatest known flood anomalies characterised, for example, by the ‘millennial’ July 1432 flood in Bohemia (Brázdil et al., 2006) or by the significant floods of the Danube reported in 1432, 1433, 1436, 1437, 1439, and 1440 (see e.g., Brázdil and Kotyza, 1995; Rohr, 2007; Kiss, 2012). Problems due to major flood events were also documented in the second half of the decade (e.g., in 1435, 1437, 1438 and 1440) in the eastern part of the Carpathian Basin, in Transylvania, and in the Tisza catchment (Brázdil and Kotyza, 1995; Rohr, 2007; Kiss, 2011). This temperature and precipitation pattern is also indicated by the models (see Fig. 6).
The main first-order impact during these years was a decline in food production. In England, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Bohemia, and other places, crop failures were reported during several years of the 1430s (Jörg, 2008; TitsDieuaide, 1975; Camenisch, 2012). In late April 1434, frost damaged vineyards in Hungary, Austria, and Bohemia. In Italy, the years 1431–1435 were characterised by harvest failures and dearth (Bauch, 2015). During the harsh winters of 1434/35 and 1436/37, in the London area special references were made to herbs such as laurel, sage, and thyme, which were destroyed by the frost. Moreover, the lack of fire wood and coal is mentioned (Brie, 1906a). In the area of the Low Countries and the Holy Roman Empire, several authors described frozen vineyards, devastated winter grain, and damages to livestock during the winter of 1436/37. Two frost periods at the end of March 1437 and in the second half of May destroyed vegetables, vine, and grain in the fields (Camenisch, 2015b). Harvest failures and grain shortages were also mentioned in the area of Berne (Morgenthaler, 1921). In 1440, serious problems in wine production and a bad hay harvest were reported for Pozsony/Pressburg (which is todays Bratislava) (Ortvay, 1900).
As a consequence of the poor harvests in many European regions, food prices increased considerably. Early reports on rising food and firewood prices in Paris, Cologne, Augsburg, and Magdeburg date back to the years 1432 and 1433 (Beaune, 1990; Cardauns et al., 1876). In 1433, high food prices prevailed in Austria, the Czech Lands, and the Hungarian kingdom (Höfler, 1865). Even in Scotland and Ireland, high prices and shortages were mentioned in the same year (Dawson, 2009). Special attention was paid to the price development of eatables in 1437/38 and 1438/39 (Brie, 1906a). In many other places in the Holy Roman Empire and the Low Countries, very high food prices were mentioned in the second half of the 1430s (Jörg, 2008; Camenisch, 2015b). In England, the situation seemed more complicated. A chronicle reported increasing wheat prices in 1435 and the consumption of substitute food such as bread made from fern roots was reported in the North (Marx, 2003). In London, rising prices for different grains were noted as well as for wine, sweet wine, meat, and fish.
The consequences that were described for the wider population were inferior bread, malnutrition, epidemics, and high death rates; one of the centres of misery was the North of England (Brie, 1906a). Other sources proved moderate prices in 1435 and no price increases in England before 1438 (Munro, 2006). Diseases resurged in these years and deaths from the plague were widely reported during the serious famine of 1438–1439, when predisposing environmental and economic conditions favoured host-vector-human interactions, and from 1450–1457, when summer temperatures were the most depressed and ecological stress was again acute (Biraben, 1975). ‘Pestilentia’ was also reported as far east as the Hungarian kingdom (e.g. ca. 1430: Iványi, 1910; 1440: HNA DL 55213). During the second half of the 1430s, Italy saw a row of country-wide epidemics (Bauch, 2015). Around Easter of 1439, the epidemic disease also reached Berne where a considerable part of the town’s inhabitants were carried off (Morgenthaler, 1921). During the 1440s and 1450s, Europe’s population sank to its lowest levels, due to epidemiological and reproduction regimes that kept deaths in excess of births (McEvedy and Jones, 1978; Broadberry et al., 2015). In fact, the negative human consequences of this conjuncture of adverse climatic, biological, and societal circumstances would have been of an even larger order of magnitude except that the long post-Black Death decline in population raised the returns to labour as a factor of production, facilitated the withdrawal of settlements from environmentally and politically marginal locations, and created conditions of relative resource abundance (Allen, 2001). Thus, the adverse effects of climate deterioration were offset by the dwindling numbers of mouths to be fed and the shrinking proportion of households with incomes below the poverty line (Broadberry et al., 2015).
It also appears that the extreme weather of the 1430s had a strong impact on the health and fertility of sheep flocks in England. Thus, as several manorial accounts from south English demesnes reveals, the years 1432, 1433, 1437 and 1438 saw excessive mortality rates in sheep flocks, with the average figures standing at 32 per cent (compared with 4–5 per cent in 30 normal years). The weather seems to have also affected the fertility rates of ewes (calculated as the ratio between newborn lambs and all mature female sheep).
Another example of how the climate during the Spörer Minimum affected human society concerns fishery. Mutually reinforcing historical evidence plausibly connects the output of medieval fisheries for herring (Clupea harengus) in the North Sea and the Baltic to decadal-scale fluctuations in regional weather conditions. Preserved herring were the most important and widely-marketed fish product in Europe. In particular, they provided the cheapest protein-rich food permitted during the six weeks of Lent in late winter and early spring when Christian rules most harshly forbade consumption of animal products. Recent fisheries science has established a close relationship between the regional climate and the success of these herring stocks. Limits of herring ranges move northwards in warmer and southwards in colder decades. Furthermore, larval herring experience high mortality during cold late winters and springs in their primary habitat of the eastern North Sea, resulting in low adult populations and poor fishing 2–4 years later (Alheit and Hagen 1997, 2001, 2002; Archipelago Research Institute, 2015; Bailey and Steele, 1992; Finney et al., 2010; Krovnin and Rodionov, 1992; Poulsen, 2008).
Between the 1360s and 1540s, three kinds of historical sources indicate fluctuations in herring catches and stocks: contemporaries report losses in specific fisheries; 25 price series from 11 locations document great local volatility but also periods of widespread price peaks; and a unique record of yearly landings, written between 1405/06–1491/92 at Dieppe, a modest port near the southern boundary of the fishery range for herring. Taken together, these records identify at least regional and temporary collapses of herring catches for a time after 1360 (in the southern North Sea), locally in the Øresund from the 1410s, and more generally during the 1440s–1460s, the 1480s, and 1520s–early 1530s (e.g. Allen-Unger Database, 2015; Gemmill and Mayhew, 1995; Gerhard and Engel, 2006; Hauschild, 1973; Hitzbleck, 1971; Rogers, 1866–1902; van der Wee, 1963; Hoffmann, forthcoming).
While some herring fisheries may have diminished in the 1430s, regional and general failures of catches and stocks were most likely greater during the cold spells of the 1360s, mid–1400s, and after 1520.
Epidemics: The Sweating Sickness (1485-1551)
Holinshed's Chronicles, published in 1557, described English sweating sickness as "so sharp and deadly that the lyke was never hearde of to any manne’s remembrance before that tyme." This was written by men whose grandfathers saw the Black Death. The disease began abruptly with fever, extreme aches in the neck, shoulders, and extremities, and abdominal pain with vomiting. Intense chills were followed by a hot phase involving sweating so profuse that the disease soon became known as, simply, “the Sweat." Death came swiftly after profound weakness and agonizing shortness of breath culminated with chest pain, rapid pulse, and cardiac palpitations.
The outbreaks were mostly contained within England, where they occurred during the summers of 1485, 1508, 1517, 1528, and 1551. Then this enigmatic disease vanished. During those summers, physicians struggled madly to understand the disease, notably Thomas Forrestier in 1485 and John Caius in 1552.