This is about how we write religious history, and also about a dimension of that history that we need to think through.
When we study the history of religions, we usually focus on significant moments of change – great revivals, conflicts, persecutions, awakenings, and reformations. In my next few columns, I am going to suggest why such events need to be placed firmly in a wider context, and seen in a comparative dimension. Often, when we look at (say) a revival or crisis in one country, it coincides neatly with similar upsurges in other regions and even other faiths, although there is no sign of direct influence from one to the other. What these moments had in common was that they coincided with larger trends that did not necessarily have anything directly to do with religion at all – with crop failures or famines, plagues or natural disasters, and (often) with climatic changes.
To make that point is in no sense to trivialize the religious event, but rather to supply its essential context. We need to understand why people in particular eras felt such stress and anxiety, which was expressed in religious forms. If we try to write the history of religion without taking account of these secular crises taking place in the background, then we miss a large part of the story.
The 1670s: Paranoia and Scapegoating
I offer an example. I began my scholarly career working on the Popish Plot, an upsurge of passionate anti-Catholic fury that occurred in Britain between about 1678 and 1682. Reputedly, Catholic clergy (led, of course, by Jesuit priests) were plotting to kidnap or assassinate the king, Charles II, as part of a coup d’etat that would place his Catholic brother on the throne. The supposed plot was revealed by a number of informers and supposed defectors, most notorious of whom was the loathsome Titus Oates. The resulting panic led to the deaths of some dozens of clergy, either through execution or systematic maltreatment. The best known was Oliver Plunkett, the Catholic Primate of Ireland – hanged, drawn and quartered in London, in 1681.
Popular anti-Catholicism was rampant, and it acquired a virulent apocalyptic strain. This is a description of London’s November festivities in the 1670s:
The apprentices fired an effigy of the Whore of Babylon, bedecked with a range of papal symbols. Similar scenes occurred over the following few years. On 17 November 1677, anti-Catholic fervour saw the Accession Day tilt marked by the burning of a large effigy of the pope—his belly filled with live cats “who squalled most hideously as soon as they felt the fire”—and two effigies of devils “whispering in his ear”.
That whole story can be written in many ways. You might for instance discuss the background of anti-Catholic sentiment in Protestant England, or the rivalry between court factions in the late 1670s, or of conflicts within particular families that were deeply divided between Protestant and Catholic wings. Each of these would be a legitimate approach. But it is also helpful to note another very similar story that was in progress in almost exactly the same years, but which is never mentioned in the same context.
Between 1677 and 1682, French elites were bitterly divided over the Affair of the Poisons. The case focused on a group of what were loosely called “witches” but we might term a mixture of fortune-tellers and poisoners for hire. The case revealed a court culture in which powerful individuals targeted rivals for murder, while using love potions to secure the affections of the king. Allegedly, some of the main witches actually used black masses and human sacrifices to promote their causes, making it defining moment in the history of Satanism. Following lengthy investigations, some dozens of participants were killed and others exiled. The carnage would have been worse if the king had not feared the scandalous effects of any resulting publicity.
At first sight, these cases seem to be wholly independent and free standing. The French cases never mentioned Protestant-Catholic tensions, and the English Popish Plot never delved into witchcraft. But the two affairs had much in common beyond the general chronology, in suggesting an atmosphere of raging paranoia, and the furious quest for scapegoats. Both, too, hinted at the fear of sudden murder by sinister cabals. The worst phase of the British scandal was initiated by the still unexplained murder of a London magistrate in 1678. If you traveled between London and Paris in those years, you would have had a powerful sense of déjà vu.
Or to expand the story a little, look at the remarkable boom in witchcraft cases in these very years, all of which involved a similar repertoire of charges and nightmares – secret murder and poisoning, heretical and anti-Christian practices, vast underground conspiracies. Although no one example survives in public memory to set alongside Salem, cases were numerous, and some of those exceedingly damaging. Between 1675 and 1682, we find the following major outbreaks:
1675-76 several sensational cases in Sweden, including the Torsåker affair
Late 1670s Salzburg Austria
1682 Bideford, England
Some of these affairs led to noteworthy judicial massacres, each vastly larger than the Salem incident (which claimed nineteen dead). In the Liechtenstein event alone, a hundred people died. Over 130 died in the Salzburg (“Zaubererjackl”) cases, seventy in the main Swedish affair. One Swedish case in 1676 was the only instance of a witch actually being burned alive in that country. (The Bideford trials were, incidentally, the last ever executions for witchcraft in England.) This list does not include minor instances of minor individuals being prosecuted for the offense, of which Connecticut produced a few in these years.
In all these cases, the underlying cultures had always been in existence, and there was nothing radically new in the mid-late 1670s. English Protestants had always suspected Jesuits of trying to launch coups; the French court had always been a theater for intrigue and (probably) poisoning; and villagers had always dabbled in magical practices. Yet most eras escaped without the kind of meltdowns we see in the late 1670s. So what, if anything, was new at this time?
Harvests, Dearth and Famine
Let’s shift our focus to the dynamics of a chiefly agricultural Early Modern society. They key event of the year was the harvest, and bad harvests betokened bad times for everyone, for landowners and merchants as well as peasants. Bad harvests meant food shortages, non-payment of rents, defaults and debt crises, and sharply declining trade. Weakened people were also vulnerable to high mortality, and to infectious diseases. (Typhus was always a good indicator of famine years). Now, a single bad harvest was not a catastrophe, as there were food reserves. Two or three bad years were alarming, but it was when four or five years succeeded each other that things moved into the realm of catastrophe. It was at that point that we begin to talk of “dearth”, of subsistence crisis, and even active famine.
In the words of Finnish historian Timo Myllyntaus,
Famine typically causes ancillary problems such as widespread malnutrition, the use of surrogate foodstuffs, chronic digestive disturbances, infectious diseases, miscarriages, and above-average death rates. Social disruption also frequently characterizes famine periods. Unemployment rises, poverty expands and deepens, and vagrancy becomes common as people leave their homes in search of work and food. Occasionally, famines have prompted crime waves, riots, or mass migration.
Such eras were virtually always followed by political explosions, which in the context of the time often had potent religious dimensions. In a society deeply imbued with ideas of Providence, there is a strong temptation to seek explanations for bad times in human action, whether the failings of government, or the misdeeds of suspicious minority groups. Hungry people are frightened people. They needed to know why God was so angry with his people, and what national sins might have provoked his wrath.
This situation provides rich opportunities for factions to direct public anger and fear against rivals and enemies. At such moments, governments have a powerful vested interest in attributing the horrible events to minority groups or sinister individuals, to distract blame from themselves.
At such times too, you can predict the texts and doctrines that religious leaders will be citing so enthusiastically to interpret the signs they see around them – to Revelation, above all, to understand the famine, plague and war. Often, both persecuted and persecutors turn to exactly the same texts, although they draw radically different conclusions.You can easily map such trends by tracing the price of grain or staple crops in particular years. Where you see four or five dreadful harvest years in succession, you will know to expect some kind of crisis or breakdown – a revolution or coup, a witch-panic, or the massacre of minorities and dissidents (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or whoever else was available). If the situation is not handled properly, then you might see civil wars and revolutions. If Charles II had followed the advice of his senior ministers in 1678-79, then he would virtually certainly have faced a civil war like that which claimed his father’s life in the 1640s.
In turn, political disasters such as war and revolution interfered still further with agricultural production and economic growth, making it difficult to recover from the cycle of failure and decline. The late 1590s were one such classic era, a time of systematic crisis throughout Europe, and even these paled in comparison with the really horrific 1640s. One magnificent book on this era is Geoffrey Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (2013). Reviewing Parker in the London Review of Books, David Parrott observes a perfect storm in the mid-seventeenth century:
endemic hunger, malnutrition, subsistence crises and the resurgence of virulent epidemics. When these natural scourges were accompanied by intense warfare, heavy taxation and economic disruption, the pressures provoking resistance and revolt multiplied.
Sam White, by the way, wrote a fine study of the climatic and economic context of crisis in one part of the world in the 1590s, with the significant title, The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire. “The Climate of Rebellion” – a great phrase.
Climate, Cold, and the Late Maunder Minimum
Some of these factors were completely beyond human control. Between 1645 and 1715, the world entered the so-called Maunder Minimum, when sunspot activity virtually ceased altogether. That cosmic phenomenon (probably) caused a major cooling on Earth, which now reached the depths of the Little Ice Age. (The nature of causation is much debated, rather like everything else in climate history). In fact, we can see this era as an acute ice age within the larger ice age. Timo Myllyntaus comments that “The Late Maunder Minimum (LMM) from 1675 to 1715 was one of the harshest periods in the recent history of climate in northern and central Europe.” Although historians used to focus on the 1640s as the era of “General Crisis,” in many ways, matters continued to be utterly miserable long after that.
It’s hard to convey just how extreme these conditions were. In England at least, 1683-84 was one of the worst Winters in recorded history, with a temperature drop below normal greater than any year recorded for the next three centuries. (I base that on Philip Eden, Great British Weather Disasters, 2008). The early 1680s were also a time of memorably frigid winters in North America.
To take one event from the absolute depth of the Maunder Minimum:
The Great Frost of 1683–84 is still the worst frost recorded in England. During the bleak winter of 1684 the River Thames froze for two months solid, leading to London’s legendary Frost Fair being established. Gambling, ice-skating and bear-baiting, all took place on the river which according to contemporary reports was covered in 11-inch thick ice. The ground across parts of the UK was also frozen solid meaning no ploughing or planting of crops could take place. 1684 remains the coldest winter in the English instrumental record. [My emphasis]
The 1670s: The Worst of Times
With that background in mind, let us look at decade 1675-85, the years of the Popish Plot, the Affair of the Poisons, and all those witch trials.
Take a book like Mary J. Dobson, Contours of Death in Early Modern England (Cambridge 2003) which traces these trends of hunger and disease year by year for areas of south-eastern England, some five hundred parishes in all. (Do note, it does not cover the whole country). She shows, for instance, that 1676 was marked by a mortality crisis in France. Horrors accumulated to reach a nightmarish crescendo between 1678 and 1682, with “crisis mortality” in 1679. Among other things, this year featured “the most widespread epidemic or group of fever epidemics in seventeenth and eighteenth century England …. August to December 1679 was the period of severest local mortality crises on the national series.” Conditions improved marginally in 1680 and 1681, when deaths were high rather than crisis proportions, but “average” conditions did not return until 1682.
To put this in perspective, Dobson’s book categorizes years according to the mortality rates for the regions she studies. The absolute worst rates, over 40 percent above the general trend, are years of CRISIS MORTALITY, with HIGH MORTALITY as the second worst category. For the period 1601-1710, certain very bad years and eras stand out:
1612 High Mortality
1625 * Crisis Mortality
1638 * Crisis Mortality
1639 High Mortality
1658 High Mortality
1678 High Mortality
1679 * Crisis Mortality
1680 High Mortality
1681 High Mortality
By this standard, the four year period 1678-1681 was the most sustained period of very high death rates for the whole century. 1679, specifically, was one of only three “Crisis” years in the century. It was in fact the last of its kind measured by Dobson for the whole period up to 1800.
Or take another authoritative source, The Population History of England 1541-1871, by Wrigley and Schofield. In the 1670s and 1680s, this book notes growing mortality crises across the British Isles and northwest Europe. 1679-1680 marked the beginning of several catastrophic years, coinciding with very high mortality in France and the Low Countries in 1680. The larger crisis was at its worst between 1679 and 1682.
Anywhere you looked around the globe, you saw similar grim times. Persia suffered terribly: “The 1670s witnessed drought, harsh winters, locust swarms, famine and earthquakes.” (Andrew Newman, Safavid Iran, 94). Plagues and famines continued to strike Persia through the mid-1680s. Meanwhile, the vast area of the African Sahel suffered famine through the 1680s.
The Americas too had their crises, which I will discuss at length in my next post.
Looking at those trends, it would have been astounding if there had not been religious persecutions and panics of some kind beginning in the mid 1670s, and enduring through the middle of the next decade. Of course there was tension, desperation, paranoia, fear, and the only question was just how these troubling forces were going to be directed. Of course there was going to be a religious and cultural crisis around 1680: how could there not be?
So, if you are writing the religious history of the later seventeenth century, whichever tradition you are looking at, you really need to know something about such mundane realities as grain prices and recorded temperatures. And the same is true of many other eras. As Voltaire famously remarked, “Three things exercise a constant influence over the minds of men: climate, government and religion.” He later added demography to his list.
Oh my, does that climate and religion model work well for the Great Awakening. More in a later post.
I have cited several sources in the text, including Geoffrey Parker’s sweeping book.
Beyond this, a valuable source I have used throughout these columns is Phil D. Jones, et al, eds., History and Climate: Memories of the Future? (Springer, 2013). This includes a good survey of the whole topic of climate and history, which as an academic discipline really dates to the late 1970s.
Brian Fagan has written several titles on climate issues, including: The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850 (2000); The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization (2003); and The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations (2008).
Although he focuses on a somewhat later period, the influence of frigid weather on the great Salem panic is discussed in Emerson W. Baker, A Storm of Witchcraft (Oxford University Press, 2014).