In the first blog in this summer series, my colleague Ruth Salter invited us to hang up our umbrellas and celebrate the role played by St Swithin in our summer weather. While Ruth encouraged us to turn our eyes to the heavens, I was musing on the connections between manipulation of the weather, and, well… the other place.
That connection is not as tenuous as it sounds. We know that extremes of weather can leave an indelible mark on collective memory, and it is hardly surprising that these events are reflected in miracle collections, sermons, providential writings and discourses on the supernatural.
The summer of 1666 was so hot and dry that the diarist Samuel Pepys made the prescient observation that ‘even the stones were reading to burst into flames.’ But when the tinderbox ignited, the Great Fire was attributed to the wrath of God, and a day of fasting, prayer and repentance declared for October. That same mindset is evident in the anonymous A True Report of Certain Wonderful Overflowing of Waters(1607) in which such weather events were described explicitly as a call to ‘tremble, be fore-warned, Amend.’
We can see here a reciprocal relationship between weather and human imagination within which it is read and interpreted. And that relationship exposes the extent to which the sky and the land were – and are – a palimpsest on which successive human generations have inscribed their faith and their fears.
In the early modern period, these ideas started to crystallise around the formidable figure of the witch, capable of unleashing storms that caused widespread disruption. The authors of the Malleus Maleficarum (1486) established a clear connection between witchcraft and the weather, including first-hand encounters with witches who used demonic magic to conjure hail.
In response to what was interpreted as a politically-charged act of weather magic in 1589, more than 100 suspected witches were arrested, tortured, and condemned in the area around North Berwick. And when storms swept across Europe in 1562 they left in their wake a sense of panic which was fuelled by preachers and cheap popular print. Sixty-three witches were burned in the German town of Wiesensteig.
References to climate permeated other cultural forms – in A Midsummer Night’s Dream cataclysmic floods left the fold ‘empty in the drownèd field’ while Titania declares ‘the summer still doth tend upon my state.’ Prospero can cause a storm in The Tempest, and the rain and thunder that attends the three witches of Macbeth establish an association between witchcraft and weather.
Torrential rain, storms, and flooding were certainly to be feared, but how do we get to the point at which a fear of climate created a climate of fear in which demonic witchcraft loomed large?
Part of the answer to that question lies in what is often referred to as the ‘Little Ice Age.’ Between c.1300 and c.1850, Europe experienced bitterly cold winters and cool wet summers. Seas and rivers froze, fish migrated to warmer waters, and crops failed, and famines followed.
The English chronicler John Stow recorded near-continuous rain between May and July 1594, and further ‘greate raines’ in September. Rivers swelled, and destroyed vital bridges. Simon Forman’s diary paints an equally dismal picture of a summer “very wet and wonderful cold like winter, that the 10 dae of Julii many did syt by the fyer yt was so cold.” An unusually chilly spring disrupted crop-growing the following year, in a cycle that was repeated across Europe for decades to come.
But such weather itself did not cause witch hunts. A fear of climate might create a climate of fear, but the link between witchcraft and weather events was the product of the linguistic, cultural and religious interpretations that were layered onto personal and collective crises. Witches, providence, and miracles each provided a language of causation that constructed meaning, established accountability, and offered a solution in the face of disaster.
Fifty year ago, in his history of the Mediterranean, Fernand Broedel suggested that humanity was a ‘prisoner of climate.’ I read the opening pages of his book with my second year class as a route into thinking about the ways that climate and landscape shape cultures, societies and beliefs. And yes, we read it in the context of a much sharper awareness of the extent to which we are not just the creation of climate, but also its creators. But the complexities of the human imagination and its imprint on culture, nature and environment demand a better understanding of our history, and enable a more nuanced and ‘human’ response to the challenges of the present.
Helen Parish is Professor in History at the University of Reading, with interests in the history of belief, broadly understood, in the early modern period.