- Chapter 5 Adversarial Relationships between Humans and Weather in Medieval English Literature
The seduction of pleasant weather is seen consistently in the settings of Middle English literature. We need only reflect on the opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to verify this assertion:
Whan that Aprill with his shoures sooteThe droghte of march hath perced to the roote,And bathed every veyne in swich licourOf which vertu engendred is the flour;Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breethInspired hath in every holt and heethThe tendre croppes, and the yonge sonneHath in the Ram his half cours yronne,And smale foweles maken melodye…Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.(1, lines 1–12)1
[When April with its sweet showers / Has pierced the dryness of March to the root, / And bathed every vein in such moisture / By which power the flower is engendered: / When the west wind also with its sweet breath / Has breathed life into every grove and field / The tender shoots, and the young sun / Has in the Ram its course half run, / And small birds make melody / … / Then people long to go on pilgrimages.]
This spring opening has been considered a standard topos of medieval literature, related to the locus amoenus of classical literature.2 Why is this opening used so often? In this essay, I will offer some speculative insights into the seductiveness [End Page 67] of the spring setting by commenting on its opposite—inclement weather and the hardships it brings with it. In this light, standard literary settings such as spring and its pleasant weather take on an added seductiveness stemming from the writer’s and readers’ experience with actual weather.
Pleasant late-spring and summer weather is something on which the medieval reader should be able to count, if we take these spring openings as any indication. After the cold of the winter people desire some relief. However, is this a realistic expectation on the part of the medieval reader, or is it simply wishful thinking? I will argue that in many cases it is the latter. Scholarship dealing with the opening of The Canterbury Tales, for instance, often addresses the perceived realism of the setting. Some critics consider the weather in these lines to be representative of actual weather patterns: following a dry March, April rains nourish the fertile soil in preparation for the flowering of May. Others consider this situation to be more representative of a Mediterranean climate than of weather in England.3 Both positions could be defended using twentieth- and early twenty-first-century climate patterns. However, none of these studies takes into consideration climate change. Paleoclimatology shows us that the medieval climate was different from the climate that twentieth-century scholars experienced.
Reconstructing Fourteenth-Century Weather
Climate change does happen, and paleoclimatologists use a variety of methods to reconstruct the climate of previous eras. Tree rings, ice cores, peat cores, corals, speleothems (mineral deposits formed from groundwater, found in caves), pollen, and sediment deposits all provide data that can be used to give us a reasonable estimate of past temperatures and precipitation.4 These reconstructions tend to agree on two points. First, during much of the early Middle Ages, Western Europe experienced warmer-than-average temperatures, perhaps about as warm as we are experiencing now. Beginning in around 950 CE, this period has become known as the Medieval Warm Period or Medieval Climate Anomaly.5 The end of the Medieval Climate Anomaly ushered in what has commonly become known as the Little Ice Age. Jean Grove has convincingly argued that the Little Ice Age began around 1300, when the Alpine glaciers began to advance.6 This was not an ice age, of course. Rather, it was a period of average cooling, only 1 to 3 degrees Celsius throughout the period, characterized by expanding glaciers, the main effects of which were not felt until much later.7 Still, we can see some early effects of this cooler weather. After a long period of relative stability (which permitted, among other things, wine production in northern Europe), we begin to see periods of fluctuation in temperature and rainfall. We must resist the idea...