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).
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.