Storms of the (Seventeenth) Century

I’m only teaching two broad surveys this semester, a welcome departure from the more topical and graduate courses of the spring and summer. Surveys can be tricky: you can easily get lost—or lose the students–in a stream of narrative if you don’t impose an illustrative theme. The theme I chose for my Introduction to European History course —turning points—was not serving me well: it was simultaneously too loose (it was taking me forever to lay the foundation for my chosen turning points, which were not the predictable ones) and too constrictive, and also much too History-Channel-ish (cue dramatic music signally important EVENTS, primarily related to the rise and fall of the Third Reich, when the swamp people are not on, of course). So the other day I navigated a midstream change of course and plunged my students headfirst into environmental history: we were approaching the end of the Medieval Warm Period anyway! As we go forward into the devastating (weather-wise, and in other ways too) fourteenth century—and then further still into the seventeenth century, another time of dramatic climate change, I think this focus on environmental changes will highlight corresponding changes in how men and women viewed the world they lived in—plus I can take advantage of my students’ focused attention on all the weather in the news.

My approach to environmental history is more oriented towards human perceptions and responses than the scientific, structural changes which provoked expressions of the former–it is an extension of my academic interest in the concept of pre-modern wonder, or the physical manifestation of God’s power–and will. In the seventeenth century, for example, “wonderful” weather—storms, winds, floods—were all perceived as punishment for the sins of mankind, until, quite later in the century, they were not quite. The terrible floods in the west country in 1607 (possibly caused by a tsunami) were portrayed in quite a fearful manner in contemporary pamphlets, but the floods of 1674 were relayed in the form of a ballad, to be sung in the taverns and streets:  still, lives should be “amended” lest a worse thing befall us. Then as now, the details of human suffering and responsive heroism are offered up: water-men were forced to row up and down the streets with their boats, to take men, women, and children, out at their windows, and to save little children that swam in their cradles. Nature gets a bit less mysterious and a bit more objective as time goes by, though maybe we are returning to a time which emphasizes its wrath–and our requisite amendment–yet again.

Famous English floods of the seventeenth century in 1607, 1651, 1655 & 1674: I found only freshets (a word I just learned last month!) on this side of the Atlantic (at least in NEW England).

Flood 1607 Anon-1607_Lamentable_newes_out_of_Monmouthshire-STC-18021-722_05-p1

Flood 1607 Anon-More_strange_nevves_of_wonderfull-STC-22916-723_27-p2

Flood 1651 Anon-A_true_relation_of_the_great_and-Wing-T2959-2900_02-p1

Flood 1655 Anon-The_Sad_and_dismal_year_Or_Englands-Wing-S231-129_E_853_1_-p1

Flood 1674 L_W-A_true_relation_of_the_great_flood-Wing-W83-2123_2_236-p1

Lamentable Newes out of Monmouthshire in Wales, 1607; More strange nevves: of wonderfull accidents hapning by the late ouerflowings of waters, in Summerset-shire, Gloucestershire, Norfolke, and other places of England, 1607; A True Relation of the Great and Terrible Inundation of Waters, 1651; A Sad and Dismal Year, or, England’s Great and Lamentable Flood, 1655; A True Relation of the Great Flood that happened in many part of England in December and January last, to the undoing of many the drowning of cattell and driving down of bridges and houses the drowning of people and washing up by the roots which was the means of rising the prices of corn in and about the City of London; with a warning for all people to amend their lives lest a worse thing befall us. The tune is, aim not to high, 1674, all accessed via Early English Books Online. 

11 responses to “Storms of the (Seventeenth) Century

  • sail5610

    I very much enjoyed reading your blog.I am from England and also come to Salem now and again .
    I also enjoyed your blog on the Derby house garden.Do you still volunteer there ? I’m a Gardener by profession and was interested in the planting schemes and history behind it . Would love to work in a garden such as that .

    • daseger

      Thank you–you probably have the same “transatlantic” perspective that I do. I don’t volunteer at the garden anymore–I just didn’t have time this summer–BUT they had a great staff person who really took charge of it and it looks better than ever. It’s a recreated “Colonial” garden–what we call “Colonial Revival” in the US, which is the model for my own garden as well–so there’s lots of information about the planting schemes.

      • sail5610

        Thanks for the information.Ill look into it.You don’t happen to know if they have volunteers working in the gardens do you as I’m in Salem for 3 weeks next Summer whist my husband is working in Boston and I think I’ll need occupation.

      • daseger

        I’m sure they would love your help. When you nearing your arrival–please contact me and I’ll put you in touch with their volunteer coordinator. My email address is in “About”.

      • sail5610

        Thankyou so much .Wondered if I would be exempt as I’m British but glad I may not be .

  • Danielle Luman

    I LOVE this idea! I think that’s such an intriguing approach and definitely a great way to capture attention.

  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    It’s interesting you mention the word “freshet.” I’ve come across it several times in 19th century writing describing what must be a sudden downpour, but have never seen it in contemporary journalism. At some point between, I would guess, 1900 and 1925 it seems to have just slipped out of circulation.

    • daseger

      I came upon it 2 weeks ago for the first time in my life! On a sign adjacent to a covered bridge in NH, the two previous versions of which had been washed out by spring freshets–melting of the snow causing river surge.

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Good for you – “changin’ it up” for your survey course. I agree – “…I think this focus on environmental changes will highlight corresponding changes in how men and women viewed the world they lived in—plus I can take advantage of my students’ focused attention on all the weather in the news.”

    Another seismic event that always interested me is the 1755 Lisbon earthquake/tsunami/fire which occurred on November 1, All Saints Day.
    The event fascinated Enlightenment philosophers of the time and permanently affected the colonial ambitions and fortunes of Portugal going forward.

    Effects of the Earthquake were felt throughout the whole North Atlantic coast of Europe.

    • daseger

      I know, Helen; that was a very interesting moment. HUGE earthquake. I posted on it a bit when we had a few tremors here in Salem (the first I had ever felt) and was amazed at the variant responses.

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