When the apocalypse loomed

There was a time when the apocalypse seemed close.

The climate was changing. It was a time of unprecedented storms, when crops failed and the people went hungry. Governments fell before an unprecedented wave of popular change. A mercenary army roamed the lands in the name of religious zeal, destroying all before it and seizing the hearts and minds of those so inclined.

In case you’re wondering whether this is some kind of metaphorical commentary on what’s happening right now – no, it isn’t (well, not entirely). I’m describing Europe in the early seventeenth century, as the Little Ice Age bit hard and the continent was reduced to turmoil. The climatic downturn didn’t create the upheavals – it merely added a layer that intensified existing social and cultural issues.

Wallenstein: a scene of the Thirty Years’ War, by Ernest Crofts (1847-1911), public domain, via Wikipedia.

Along the way England exported its religious zealots to the new American colonies, executed its monarch and by the early 1640s had set up a ‘Commonwealth’ that was (another) archetypal totalitarian police state. Then they picked a fight with the Dutch, largely for trade reasons.

In Germany – then a collection of largely independent principalities loosely bound together as the ‘Holy Roman Empire’ – the advent of Protestantism broadly prompted an avenging crusade by a Catholic army, ostensibly Swedish. Actually this was mostly a band of mercenaries whose interest was less asserting a sectarian position as having a good time. They roamed the German kingdoms like a plague of locusts, destroying and smashing all in their path. This ‘thirty years war’ added human devastation to the ravages of climate.

On the back of it there were widespread predictions that the end of the world was nigh – the usual date for the apocalypse was held to be 1666, until afterwards. And while that particular end never happened, the practical reality for many across Europe – and the world – was that all that they knew did come to an end, one way or another.

One casualty in Europe was thinking. The certainties of older ideologies faded – expressed, in one way, by the rise of religious fundamentalism. But this was joined by other thinking that gained ground during the century. It is no coincidence that the ‘age of reason’ flowed from the period.

It is possible to point to the climate through the eighteenth and into the mid-nineteenth century as another underlying factor wrapping the ferment of social, cultural and scientific change that followed. One outcome of the whole mix was industrialisation – in itself, partly driven by a conscious effort to improve food production affected by the vagaries of weather (I’m thinking things such as the invention of pastoralism and Jethro Tull’s ‘seed screw’).

The irony in that, of course, is that this same industrialisation has – of itself – now triggered another burst of climate change, this time human-made.

The thing is that we can look on the early-mid seventeenth century as a kind of pivot point in history, a multi-generation long period of prolonged crisis in which thinking and western society (as it existed in Europe) changed dramatically. It brought to an end a cycle generally known as ‘Early Modern’ (to differentiate it from the Medieval period) and eventually introduced the ‘modern’ world which, for all practical intents and purposes, is held to have begun with the industrial revolution and the overthrow of old monarchies from the late eighteenth century.

As always with broad historical cycles there is nothing clear-cut, but the general pivot – over time – is clear enough from our vantage point. And it is possible to identify other broad ‘cycles’ in and around this one.

For all that, the way in which events came together in a ‘perfect storm’ during the early seventeenth century – environmental pressures on an economy that was absolutely reliant on agrarian production, political thought, new religious evangelism and the rest – renders that period decisive. Historical studies have often referred to the seventeenth century as one of ‘general’ crisis (in fact, US historian Theodore K. Rabb wrote a book on the period with that very title).

What worries me is that we seem to be entering another period of such crisis, as the ‘modern’ world reaches a crunch point ideologically, environmentally and technologically; as the ‘us and them’ mind-set so fundamental to human nature bumps up against the limits of production and elbow-room with which to exercise such thinking; and as technology transforms the way we relate to each other. And there are, of course, many other factors. Either way, it is a volatile mix. Add in the obvious issues of human-driven climate change to the set, and you do have to wonder what’s developing – and how long it will take to get through.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017


3 thoughts on “When the apocalypse loomed

    1. Yes, the 18th century was a period of declining temperatures, worldwide – apparently on the back of this sort of event. I’ve looked into it in some detail in my books on New Zealand history through that period as part of an effort I made to reconstruct the Maori population of the day. Of course it affected Europe, and it’s quite possible that dislocations such as the French Revolution were pushed along by it (although not caused) because the price of bread got pushed up beyond what the peasants could support. In this I stand apart from some of the people looking into it who’ve put too much weight on climate – to me it was an accelerating/intensifying factor rather than cause. But we can’t ignore it. There’s a fascinating book on the Little Ice Age by Brian Fagan: https://www.amazon.com/Little-Ice-Age-Climate-1300-1850/dp/0465022723 – a bit dated now but worth checking out if you want a quick summary.

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