Study questions on Brian Fagan, The Little Ice Age:  How Climate Made History, 1300-1850 (New York:  Basic Books, 2000)

The purpose of these study questions is to help you focus your attention to main points of Fagan's argument, and in particular to prepare you to answer any of the three questions on which you must write your term paper (see syllabus).  It is always a good idea to take notes as you read a book.  Answering these study questions in writing is a way to do that.

The questions are arranged by chapter, with one question on each sub-section within each chapter.


Font Matter: 

?What can you assume about Fagan's argument based upon the two graphs at the beginning of the book ("Historical Events" and "Climate and Historical Events"?

Table of Contents: 

?How is the book organized?  Is it thematic or chronological?  If he is using a chronological organization, how is he dividing up time periods?  (By century? By dynasty?  By climate conditions?)


I've given you several questions on the Preface, because it is in this section of the book that Fagan tells you what he is going to argue in each part of the book.  If you understand the preface, the rest of the book will fall into place.

~If you do not know how to convert temperatures in Celsius (Centigrade) to Fahrenheit, it would be a good thing to learn (not only because Fagan uses Celsius, but because everyone else in the world outside the US uses the metric system).  Look it up on Google (etc)--If it is 76 degrees Fahrenheit, what is the temperature in Celsius degrees?

?What influence does Fagan think changes in climate have had on human history generally?

?How does Fagan explain the causes of global warming since the 1850s?

?When and what was the Little Ice Age?

?How do historians know what the climate was like in past centuries?

?What "Big Question" is Fagan asking in this book?

?What is his "Big Argument" in this book?

?What is the focus of Part One of the book?

?What is the focus of Part Two of the book?

?What is the focus of Part Three of the book?

?What is the focus of Part Four of the book?

?What does Fagan consider to be the two "lessons" of the Little Ice Age?


Author's Note:  Again, like 90 percent of the world, Fagan (who is English) uses the metric system.  You should pay attention to the author's note about this (p. xxi), so that you understand what he means when he says "16 kilometers" or "25 degrees Celsius."


Chapter 1.

?How does Fagan link the activity of the Norsemen (the Vikings) to climate conditions in 800-1200, and did warmer temperatures help or hinder Norse expansion in Iceland?

?How did warmer conditions influence Norse efforts to settle Greenland and explore costal North America?

?What does Fagan tell us about the influence of weather on the medieval European economy, and in particular about the economic consequences of the warming climate in that time period?

?What connection does Fagan see between the warming medieval climate and the construction of Gothic cathedrals?


Chapter 2.

?What is the North Atlantic Oscillation, and according to Fagan why is it important to understanding historical changes in climate?

?What kind of weather conditions contributed to the Great Famine of the 1300s, and was weather the only cause of the famine?

?What effect did the famine have on the rural poor (most of the population), and was hunger linked to increased crime and social unrest in towns and cities in the 1300s?

?When after the Great Famine of the 1300s did predictable weather and stable harvests return?


Chapter 3.

?Was the Little Ice Age a period of constant cold temperatures?  In other words, in what geologists call the "Recent Holocene Era," were temperatures and weather constant and stable, or at some points did they fluctuate dramatically and "unpredictably"?

?What methods have historians used to "reconstruct" the history of the weather during the Little Ice Age (1300s-1850s)?

?What do we know about the causes of the Little Ice Age?

?Is Fagan saying that climate was the only cause of important historical changes during the Little Ice Age? (What is the difference between a "cause" and a "catalyst"?)


Chapter 4.

?In Northern Europe, what kinds of costal weather phenomena accompanied the climate shift of the 1300s and 1400s?

?What does the fate of Norse settlement in Greenland tell us about the impact of climate changes in the 1300s?

?Why did medieval Europeans eat so much salted codfish, and how did climate change at that time alter the cod fishery?

?How did changes in the cod fishery change the lives of fisherman in Northern Europe?

?How did European boat builders (especially the Basques) adapt boat designs to the new needs of cod fishing once changes in climate altered the fishery?

?Why would so many men risk their lives in the 1400s to fish for cod?

?Why did British fisherman begin fishing off the cost of North America in the late 1400s, and what did that have to do with the eventual British exploration and settlement in North America?


Chapter 5.

?What was the general trend in Europe's weather between the 1320s and 1600?

?How did most Europeans feed themselves and their families (what did they do for a living) in the 1300s-1600?

?In the 1300s and early 1400s, horrible wars and bad weather had contributed to the repeated outbreaks of famine and continuing waves of epidemic disease--When and where did agricultural production in Europe first begin to recover from these disasters?

?What evidence from Switzerland suggests that the weather was much colder in the 1400s-early 1800s than it has been in more recent past?

?What impact did climate change have on economic and social problems in Europe in the 1500s? 

Pay particular attention to cases where Fagan links climate-aggravated famine conditions and high grain prices to popular unrest (such as food riots)!  From this point on to the end of Part Three, the relationship between hunger and popular unrest will be a theme that runs through the background of several chapters.

?In the 1500s and early 1600s, where the European colonies in North America spared the hardships that bad weather had caused in Europe?


Chapter 6.

?Why was stable and predictable weather so important to the lives of subsistence farmers in Europe in the 1500s (meaning almost everyone in Europe!), and was weather the only factor that could cause crop failures and famine?

Notice that in this first section of this chapter he is starting to introduce the idea that there was a relationship between bad weather and the causes of the agricultural revolution.  The idea that farmers in some places adapted to weather conditions in a way that pushed along the agricultural revolution in another theme that runs through several chapters of this book.

?There we big volcanic explosions in South America in 1600--how did that affect world weather patterns?

?Who "invented" the new farming techniques that led to the agricultural revolution in Europe, and what kinds of "inventions" did the anonymous farmers of the low countries introduce?

?What innovations did individual landowners introduce in England that transformed agriculture there, and why did those innovations virtually require the enclosure of fields?

?When and where did European begin growing potatoes and why was that an important change in agriculture?


Chapter 7.

?What was Europe's weather like in the late 1600s-early 1700s?

?Was the cold weather in that time period restricted to Northern Europe?

?Why is it notable that there were few sunspots between 1645 and 1715?

?What happened to glaciers in the Alps in the 1600s-early 1700s and what effect did that have on the region's population?


Chapter 8.

?How might climate change have contributed to the Great Fire in London in 1666?

?What was Europe's weather like in 1680-1700, and what kinds of problems did that create for people?

?What was the weather like in Europe in the early 1700s, and what impact did that have on people's lives?

?What about the 1730s and 1740s?  What was the weather like then, and who suffered the most as a result?

?According to Fagan, what social group was making the biggest changes to English agriculture, what were they changing, and what was the impact on British society?


Chapter 9.

?How did pre-industrial agriculture in France (circa 1600s-1700s) differ from pre-industrial agriculture in England (in the same time period)?

?According to Fagan, what explained the relative absence of innovation and change in French agriculture?

?According to Fagan, what were some of the consequences of the relative backwardness of French agriculture (when compared to England and the Low Countries)?  In particular, does he seem to think that there was a major crisis looming in France by the 1700s?

?What was life like for most French peasants in the 1770s-1780s?

?According to Fagan, how did climate-effected food shortages contribute to the causes of the French Revolution of 1789?


Chapter 10.

?What impact did volcanic eruptions have on world weather in the early 1800s?

?How did Europeans feel the effects of "volcano weather" in 1816?

?What sort of impact did "volcano weather" have on people in North America?

?Was hunger the only cause of human suffering connected to the weather and food shortages of 1816-1817?

?What is Fagan's point about the possible connection between cold weather in 1812-1820 and the conservative backlash in Europe after the Napoleonic wars?


Chapter 11.

?Why had the rural population in Ireland become dependent on potatoes by the 1840s?

?Why had industrialization and the commercialization of agriculture aggravated the problem of poverty in Ireland in the early 1800s?

?What had happened to the actual quality of potatoes in Ireland in the 1820s-1830s, why, and what were the results?

?What were the immediate (short-term) causes of the Great Hunger of the 1840s in Ireland?

?What were the long-term consequences of the Great Hunger on Irish society?

?When did the Little Ice Age end, and did it end all at once?


Chapter 12.

Remember that I'm asking you to explain what Fagan argues in his book.  I'm not asking you for your own opinion here.  Your own opinion is not my concern...

?Were the consequences of human economic activity (e.g., industrialization and the clearing of forests for commercial farm and grazing land) limited only to Europe and North America in the 1800s?

?Besides cutting down forests, what other human activities helped warm global temperatures in the 1800s and 1900s?

?How has the climate pattern since the 1890s differed from the climate pattern in the 1700s-1800s?

?What factors do specialists agree contribute to the Greenhouse Effect?

?What factors besides human activity might be causing global warming, and what are the odds that human activity is the most important factor in global warming?

?Does Fagan seem to think that a global warming disaster is unavoidable?