Medieval climate change…

A couple of weeks ago here in the UK, we put our clocks back one hour from daylight saving time. So now it’s more or less dark by 5pm. I know that some people suffer from SAD, seasonal affective disorder, brought on by the shorter days. I’m not one of them but, even so, I do always have a sense of descending gloom at this time of year, which I know won’t be relieved until the spring.

But I do take pleasure in any splendid sunny days, such as the morning I am writing this, when the sky is utterly blue and the sun is bright, casting a glorious golden light on those deciduous trees whose leaves are turning brown. I suspect it is not all that warm outside but, later on, I will don my coat and maybe a scarf and gloves, and go for a reviving walk.

However, as so often when weather is on my mind, my thoughts turn to the folk I write about in my novels, people who lived in the fourteenth century. For us, shorter days may signal the arrival of a period of “hunkering down”, but we can to a considerable extent still get on with our lives without too much disruption. We generally have on-tap heating and lighting in our homes, and even travel and going to work are mostly manageable (in temperate climes like the UK, at any rate). But, for my Meonbridge folk, especially the poorer ones, shorter days meant fewer hours in which to work, especially outdoors but also, I imagine, indoors too.

It is hard to imagine, isn’t it, how restrictive life must have been? With only a wood fire burning in the central hearth, undoubtedly emitting a good deal of smoke but possibly not all that much heat, the long evenings and nights would often have been very cold and “hunkering down” might have meant wrapping yourself in every garment you possessed (which might not have been all that many), and huddling around the fire.

The lack of light too must have severely limited what people could do indoors. Spinning or sewing, or any craft or repair work, would have been difficult to manage by candlelight, or, worse, by rushlight. And, in the depths of winter, when bright sunny days might be infrequent, the days too would offer little opportunity for industrious activity. Windows in peasant cottages were few and small and, if shutters or blinds were closed to keep out the winter weather, it would be dark indoors, even at midday. If outdoor work was not required, then confinement inside could be excessively tedious!

I don’t have any special insight into how such medieval lives would have been lived, but bringing my imagination to bear, as I try to do when writing my novels, leads me to assume that winter life would have been uncomfortable and dull for them at best. Not of course that they knew any different, so undoubtedly they did simply get on with life as best they could. 

If you’d like a little more insight into winter life in Medieval Europe, this article might be of interest:

As I am writing this, the COP26 conference in Glasgow, Scotland, has recently ended. I can scarcely contemplate the difficulties the world faces in tackling the problems caused by centuries of industrialisation, but I won’t comment on it, as I have no expertise to offer on reasons or solutions.

But, again, because I spend my days “living with” people from the fourteenth century, I am bound to think about how their lives might have been affected by particularly challenging weather situations.

I can share with you a little of what I have learned about these conditions when I have been researching for my historical novels. Unusual weather did not much affect my Meonbridge people, for the period in which the Chronicles are set, the middle couple of decades of the fourteenth century, the weather was, if hardly benign, not often especially extreme. However, at the end of book 4, Children’s Fate, an extraordinary wind does cause disquiet and in some places severe disruption.

This is how I describe it in my Author’s Note:

“Plague left England in December 1361, though it was still in Scotland. In Hampshire, I think it would have passed on by the autumn. By Christmas, people were presumably beginning to think the time had come at last when they could move on from horror and disaster. But, two weeks later, on 15th January 1362, came yet another cataclysm: the Saint Maurus’ Day storm, a wind – the “Great Wind” – one of the most violent extra-tropical storms ever to hit the British Isles and northern Europe. It was so strong that it toppled church spires, destroyed houses and mills, and caused huge damage to farms and forests across the south of England. A chronicler of the time said it was “as if the Day of Judgement were at hand… no one knew where he could safely hide, for church towers, windmills, and many dwelling-houses collapsed to the ground”.

The storm was in fact much more damaging in the Low Countries, where the event was called Grote Mandrenke, the “Great Drowning of Men”. Storm surges caused sea floods that washed away towns and villages, leaving tens of thousands dead.

But, following on from months of plague, one can perhaps appreciate why some people might have thought the end of the world had finally come.”

Storm in the Sea by Pieter Mulier, c 1690. In  Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

And here is an extract from Children’s Fate showing my imagination’s take on the storm: 

“The following Saturday, Eudo was humming as he made preparations as usual for the office of Vespers. It was already fairly dark but, chancing to look up at the great window behind the altar, he thought it looked beyond the glass more like midnight than late afternoon, albeit it was the middle of January.

It was then he noticed too that the brisk breeze of earlier seemed to be blowing harder. He could hear the wind quite clearly from the chancel, whereas normally the thick walls of the church stifled any sounds of weather. It was a while yet before the office had to begin, and he hurried to the porch door to look outside.

Unthinking, he lifted the door’s great latch, and was almost knocked off his feet, as the door, heavy as it was, blew open. The edge caught him in the chest and, for a few moments, he was unable to catch his breath. Holding fast to the door, he eased it open sufficiently for him to step out into the porch, then closed it carefully behind him, ensuring the latch had dropped. He moved towards the porch’s front, his feet shuffling through all manner of debris presumably whisked in by the wind.

It was indeed as black as midnight out beyond the building. Yet, as his eyes accustomed to the dark, he realised the churchyard yews were swaying wildly, and small branches of other trees, and objects he could not identify, were being tossed about, spinning through the air. He clapped his hands over his ears to muffle the din of it.

He had surely never heard or witnessed such a wind before.

Eudo turned and hurried back into the church. He had to lean hard upon the door to close it, and he again made sure the latch had fallen, and hoped the iron fastener was strong enough to hold.

He had no intention of trying to get home to the parsonage whilst this storm was raging. He suspected there would be no Vespers congregation now, for surely no one would venture forth in this? Nonetheless, he returned to the chancel to complete his preparations. He would of course recite the office regardless of the absence of any worshippers.

But, as he waited to see if any of his congregation did come, the wind outside seemed to gather force, and it fairly roared around the walls of the chancel. He recoiled as flung debris struck the glass of the great window, just feet away from where he stood at the altar, and his heart raced with anxiety.

When it was clear no one was coming, Eudo did wonder for a moment if he might give Vespers a miss. The wind was so loud, it was likely he would not even be able to hear himself. Yet, God would surely know if he did not perform his duty and, anyway, he really did not want to leave the safety of the church.

So he began.

Domine, ad adiuvandum me festina… Lord, make haste to help me’ Eudo intoned, raising his voice above the noise. ‘Gloria patri et filio et spiritui sancto…’

Yet he made little progress with the office as the roaring swelled, and his heart thudded within his breast. His throat went dry and he could no longer speak the words, even if he could remember them. And his memory was now distracted by a new persistent noise, the clattering of what were surely tiles being torn from the church roof and thrown down onto the ground. Unable to concentrate, Eudo looked up towards the rafters, but the chancel candles cast too dim a light for him to see so high above him. Despite the raw cold inside the church, his face grew hot. What if all the tiles were stripped away? Would the wind then strip away the rafters too and invade the church? Of course he had no way of knowing.

What was next? A hymn? A psalm? But his throat was unfit for singing. Perhaps he could manage a passage from the Bible… One he knew by heart… Not that there were many… Yet the repeated rattlings and clatterings on the window drove all Bible readings from his mind, and he leaned against the altar and closed his eyes, trying to steady his spent nerves.

But his efforts were undone when some object, much larger than the debris flung at it already, crashed into the great window, the only glazing in the church, and the glass exploded, showering Eudo with sharp and stinging fragments.

Eudo screamed and threw himself prostrate upon the floor before the altar, wrapping his arms over his head. ‘Mea culpa, mea culpa,’ he cried out, weeping. ‘Oh God, forgive me, for I have sinned…’

For surely it was God who had sent this terrible wind…

Perhaps the pestilence had not been chastisement enough. God saw mankind had not learned its lesson, but had simply returned to their old ways… Such a wind as this could wreak destruction across the land, topple great oaks, rip up fields, fling beasts into the air, demolish houses and even bring down mighty churches. God had the power to destroy the Earth, if mankind no longer merited it…

Yet maybe it was not mankind…? Was God chastising only him? For continuing to sin, week in, week out… For promising to fulfil the penance, whilst knowing he would not do so…

Another roar around the chancel walls brought a swirl of flying debris through the shattered glass, small branches, twigs, dead leaves, shingle, and fragments of every substance, all scooped up from the ground and now tumbling down upon his back.

Eudo fell to sobbing, drumming his feet against the cold stone floor.The Day of Judgement most surely was at hand. But was it for mankind, or for Eudo Oxenbrigge alone?”

The Last Judgement (detail) by Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1525/1530. In Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, USA. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But it is not only coastal towns and villages that are affected by such natural phenomena. There have been many instances of widespread famine, arising when sustained bad weather caused terrible harvests and the loss of animals from disease. There were a number of famines in Europe at intervals throughout the fourteenth century, but the “Great Famine” occurred in 1315-17, when appalling weather and the resulting famine affected all of Europe. Perhaps 10-25% of people perished. This particular period of famine ended in the summer of 1317 when the weather returned to normal. But it was years before the food supply and the population recovered, only for famine to recur every few years.

In my as yet unpublished novel, The Nature of Things, which spans the entire fourteenth century, the second “book” is set partially during this time of famine. In this extract, it is the summer of 1315, when the rain and cold seem to be unending – a “year without a summer”. Crops are struggling to grow, animals are dying from disease, harvests will be dire, and many people will die from hunger. 

“For weeks, Ma sent Joan daily into the village with a basket of whatever she had available to sell – a few vegetables, sometimes a little cheese and butter – though she insisted she accept only the smallest of coins in payment. Ma was constantly sowing seed, in the hope of winning yet another crop of onions or cabbage but, in truth, the weather was against her, the rewards for all her efforts becoming daily yet more pitiful. As the days passed, Joan’s basket was becoming lighter, for Ma was unable to refill the bare patches in the garden and their stocks were running low.

Yet Joan still went, to those families suffering the most: those with no land left, no kin to help them, no money to buy bread. She wished it was bread she was taking them but they’d none to spare.

She headed downhill towards a cluster of cottar cottages at the edge of the village, near the river. She’d visited these families only a week ago and they were struggling then to have any life beyond survival. Their cottages were already ruined, with gaps in the walls where the daub had become so weakened by the rain that it had washed away, leaving the rotten timber struts uncovered. And their roofs gave little shelter now, where the rain had punched holes in the mouldy thatch. So what few things these poor folk had were stacked up in a corner to keep dry.

Reaching the Fletcheres’ cottage, she waited a moment outside the door. She could hear the baby crying, but there was no other sound. She knocked and called out her name.

‘Come in, Joan,’ returned a voice she knew was Maud’s.

She lifted the latch, leaning hard against the door to shove it open. She slipped off her hood and stepped inside, heaving the door closed behind her. The cottage had no window, and to her eyes it was deep dark inside, apart from the feeble flickering light of a low fire. But, after a few moments, she could see the family hunched round the fire – Maud, her baby daughter, three months old, on her lap, her husband Arthur, and her other children, Ann and Arnold, nestling against her old mother Agnes. The baby whimpered, but the other little ones were silent, their heads sunk into their shoulders as they huddled underneath a blanket. Maud got unsteadily to her feet, cradling the baby in one arm, and came over.

‘I’ve brought what I can, Maud,’ Joan said, ‘though it isn’t much – I’m sorry.’

Maud gave me a weak grin and shook her head. ‘Mistress Tyler’s so kind, Joan. Anything at all’s better than the nothing we don’t get for ourselves.’

She cocked her head briefly towards her husband. ‘We seem to have given up,’ she said loudly. ‘We could be out hunting a cony, or even gathering grubs.’

Arthur spat into the fire and whipped his head round to glare at his wife. ‘Grubs, woman?’ he said, his voice raised. ‘We’re not bleeding badgers.’

Maud shrugged. ‘Don’t mind his mouth, Joan.’ Then she sighed. …

‘What d’you have, Joan?’ she said. Her face was so grey and grooved she looked older than her mother, though Joan knew Maud wasn’t above five years more than her.

She lifted aside the piece of blanket covering her basket and showed Maud the undersized onions and yellow-leaved cabbages. Taking out two onions and a small cabbage, Maud put them in the pocket of her apron. Then she looked up, tears in her eyes.

‘I can’t pay you, Joan,’ she said, her voice the merest whisper.

Joan felt a warmth rush to her face, remembering Ma telling her never to ask for much, but Pa insisting she must always ask for something. Yet what could she do if Maud had nothing to give? She couldn’t demand back what she’d already taken – could she? She was sure her face was pink, and she could Maud had noticed. Her hand went to her pocket.

‘I’ll put them back,’ she said, but Joan shook her head.

‘No, Maud, keep them. Ma won’t mind.’

‘I’ll make a pottage. Maybe a few worms or grubs’ll make it tasty.’ She sniggered and, for an instant, she was the cheerful Maud Joan once knew. But the light had gone entirely from her eyes. 

Joan gave her a little smile. ‘Maybe.’

‘If they’re good enough for badgers,’ she said, ‘they’re good enough for us,’ and patted her on the arm.

Maud turned to go inside and, covering up her basket and pulling the hood over her head, Joan stepped out into the driving rain. But, as they turned, there was a deafening roar behind them and, spinning round again, they saw the hill behind the cottage sliding down towards them, a brown torrent of thickly muddy water, bringing with it all the trees and bushes that, moments ago, had been clinging to the hillside. Maud let out a scream and hurled herself at the door, yelling at her family to run.

Joan dropped her basket and looked about in a panic. But she’d little time to think, and had no choice but to scramble to a muddy knoll just above the track, as the deluge slammed into the cottage, tearing through the flimsy daub-less walls. At that moment, Arthur burst blaspheming from the house, a wailing child gripped awkwardly under each arm, and waded through the heaving water to join her on the mound. He dropped gasping to his knees, and the children fell to the ground, flailing and screaming for their mother.

‘Where’s Maud?’ Joan asked, yelling above the din of the surging flood.

Arthur shook his head. ‘The old besom!’ he yelled back, his eyes dark.

‘She’s trying to save her mother?’ Joan cried, unbelieving, but, howling, Arthur roared his answer up to Heaven.

Then the front wall of the cottage collapsed with a grinding crash, and the torrent burst through and surged down the track towards the other buildings, carrying with it not only trees and bushes but the cottage walls and the family’s few possessions – a table and a stool, a straw mattress and a cooking pot, and a confusion of bundles large and small, pitching and tossing in the heaving muddy waters as they were washed away. Then Joan heard a frantic shrieking and looked up to see Maud battling against the flood, scrambling between the tumbling debris to try to reach them. 

She was alone.

Flailing her arms, she was screaming at her husband. ‘The baby!’ she shrieked, pointing wildly at the rushing waters. ‘Save the baby.’

Arthur roared and plunged into the water, and Joan realised one of those tossing bundles must’ve been the baby and she was already far beyond saving. Suddenly she was quaking at the poor mite’s terror, wrenched from her mother’s arms, and she dropped weeping to her knees. Yet it wasn’t for her to weep, but to comfort the wailing children who’d just seen their tiny sister swept away. Joan reached out for them and drew them to her.

Then Maud at last reached this side of the torrent, and Arthur was already there. Catching her up in his great arms, he clasped her to his chest, and they howled into each other’s necks.”

Two dramatic paintings to end with…

The Deluge By Francis Danby c. 1840. In Tate Britain, London. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Deluge by J. M. W. Turner, 1805, Tate Britain, London. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons 


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3 thoughts on “Medieval climate change…

  1. keld jegind

    Hello Carolyn It just came to my mind reading your news letter about the medieval climate changes the Little Ice Age and its impacks on the northern hemisphere. It was horrible on Iceland for people and livestock.

    Sendt fra Mail til Windows

    Fra: Carolyn Hughes Sendt: 18. november 2021 16:23 Til: Emne: [New post] Medieval climate change…

    carolynhughesauthor posted: ” A couple of weeks ago here in the UK, we put our clocks back one hour from daylight saving time. So now it’s more or less dark by 5pm. I know that some people suffer from SAD, seasonal affective disorder, brought on by the shorter days. I’m not one of th”


  2. keld jegind

    I forgot to add a link to my post. Evidence for extreme export of Arctic sea ice leading the abrupt onset of the Little Ice Age (

    Yours Keld Sendt fra Mail til Windows

    Fra: Carolyn Hughes Sendt: 18. november 2021 16:23 Til: Emne: [New post] Medieval climate change…

    carolynhughesauthor posted: ” A couple of weeks ago here in the UK, we put our clocks back one hour from daylight saving time. So now it’s more or less dark by 5pm. I know that some people suffer from SAD, seasonal affective disorder, brought on by the shorter days. I’m not one of th”


    1. Carolyn Hughes

      Hi Keld, Many thanks for your comment and your link to that interesting (if very scientific!) paper. The direct link is if others would like to track it down. I didn’t know about Iceland’s particular problems in the Little Ice Age, so I looked it up and found this article, So Iceland lost half its population during that period, as agriculture essentially ceased to function. How very terrifying it must have been. I also learned that the highlands of Scotland were under permanent snow cover at times. Very much global cooling, rather than global warming…


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