- Nature's Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age of the Long Seventeenth Century Transformed the West and Shaped the Present by Philipp Blom
It has been nearly two decades since Brian Fagan's The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History (New York, 2001) last synthesized that topic for a popular audience. In the meantime, research in climate history has made major strides. Paleoclimatology and historical climatology have added new methods. Climate history has extended to new regions and periods, and its specialists have posed novel arguments about climate impacts, perceptions, and adaptations. The field has been waiting for the book that can fuse these insights and meet a public need for historical perspective on climate change.
Nature's Mutiny is not that book. Despite the title, Blom has only used the Little Ice Age (lia) as a quick backdrop for vignettes about seventeenth-century European culture. Whatever the merits of this approach for dramatizing a period of European intellectual transformation, readers of the Journal of Interdisciplinary History will come away disappointed.
The prologue sets the scene with a discussion of winter landscape paintings as a glimpse into the world of the lia and "the new social order [End Page 589] that would emerge from it" (9). This beginning leads Blom to a "simple question": "Do societies change when the climate changes? And if so, how?" (10). Yet right from the start, Blom announces the limits of his approach. After a brief nod to global events, the scope narrows exclusively to a few European nations during the period from 1570 to 1690. Blom handles the details of climatic change hastily and hardly acknowledges recent quantitative and qualitative studies about societal impacts from, and adaptations to, past climate variability and change. Instead, Nature's Mutiny ponders the role of the lia, loosely defined, in Europe's cultural and intellectual modernization. Given the challenging and contested nature of that question, it is no surprise that Blom fails to provide a satisfying answer.
The first of the book's three chapters ("God has Abandoned Us") portrays a sixteenth-century Europe mired in superstitious dread, with peasants standing by helplessly as extreme weather devours their crops. Along the way, the story digresses into the life of eccentric polymath John Dee, as well as the lives of Giordano Bruno, Montaigne, and various others. Chapter 2 ("The Age of Iron") turns to a struggling but now modernizing Europe during the seventeenth-century "general crisis," along with further vignettes of early modern daily life and mini-biographies of artists and writers. Early in this chapter, Blom comes closest to delivering a thesis about climate and cultural change. Drawing from the work of Polanyi, he proposes a "great transformation" as the lia undermined "feudal" societies based on grain production, and he concludes, "Europeans were forced to think of alternative ways of organizing themselves" (105).1 Yet Blom's own examples have already undermined his argument. Countries that experienced the worst subsistence crises provide the fewest examples of artists and intellectuals selected to illustrate modernization, whereas Blom's hotbeds of scientific and philosophical change—particularly the Netherlands—already possessed the most commercialized and adaptable food production and economies.
Climate then fades from the story altogether, apart from the odd mention of a cold winter or storm. Chapter 3 ("On Comets and Other Celestial Lights") is devoted entirely to short biographies and anecdotes of European writers and religious figures, from Baruch Spinoza to John Locke. The epilogue proposes historical lessons for global warming, but without much historical insight.
Blom's prose is often engaging and his anecdotes interesting, if hardly original. Even for a popular history, however, Nature's Mutiny lacks rigor and editing. English colonists in Jamestown, Virginia, are mislabeled as "Pilgrims," and Blom conflates their experiences during the summer of 1607 with those of the "starving time" of 1610. He identifies Geoffrey Parker as "Geoffrey Palmer," while ignoring Parker's findings and theories (as he does those of most other climate...