Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Climate hysteria, historically viewed

Burning witches in Derenburg, Germany, ca. 1560
 Among the effects of the Little Ice Age, on which I posted recently, were childlessness, livestock epidemics, repeated harvest failures, sudden deaths of children, late frosts, persistent rain, sudden hailstorms in summer. It was an apocalyptic age, as Wolfgang Behringer (Cultural History of Climate) writes: the  heavy snowfalls, avalanches, and flooding, but also harvest failures, price increases, diseases and other effects were all interpreted as signs from God, foretelling either the end of the world or divine retribution.  It strikes me that the 18th-century attacks on superstition and backwardness were less directed at the medieval period, the supposed “dark ages,” than at the mass hysteria of the 16th century.

In this moral climate, witchcraft was “the paradigmatic crime of the Little Ice Age,” with witches directly blamed for the cold weather, “for infertile soil and infertile women, and evidently also for  the ‘unnatural’ diseases that appeared in the wake of the crisis.” 1560–1660 were the high age of witch persecutions, beginning after the disastrous cooling of 1561, the summer storms of 1562, and subsequent harvest failures and epidemics. Thousands of witches were burned after the fruit harvest froze in 1626 in Bamberg, Würzburg, and Aschaffenburg — and “not only women from the lower classes, but city councillors and their families, sitting mayors and even an occasional nobleman or theologian.”

Witches Sabbath, from chronicle of Johann Jakob Wick
Every kind of disaster was laid at the door of witches, who now assumed the role of scapegoat previously assigned to Jews (although Jews and witches became condensed in the term “witches’ sabbath”). In this connection, the pact with the devil was one of the favorite themes around 1600, while the first appearance of the Faust legend in print was in 1587. There were increasing numbers of reports of sexual commerce with the devil, sodomy, incest, bestiality, and rape. Poets seemed to devalue, to consciously belittle, the external goods of life, as can be seen, for instance, in Cervantes and in Shakespeare’s plays, while Andreas Gryphius seemed overcome by the distress of his age. As Behringer reminds us, this was a period when the Rhine and the Rhone repeatedly froze all the way down to their beds.

Europe was living under the sign of “the melancholy planet.” Rudolf II (r.1576–1612), was considered a melancholic, bewitched or insane. Behringer notes that mentally disturbed princes were a political risk, quoting Erik Midelfort to the effect that the roots of the 30 Years War lay not least in the madness of the rulers of the time, which itself was bound up with the psychological effects of the Little Ice Age: “If witchcraft was the crime of the Little Ice Age, melancholy was its symptomatic illness.”

No comments: