Some examples of ‘natural history’ masterpieces

Each week, Symposium Magazine invites an author to guest-blog. This week, Prof. Scott K. Taylor is blogging about “Weather and War, Reconsidered.”

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that Geoffrey Parker is not the first historian to use the “human” and “natural” archives to write the history of climate and weather. One of the earliest and most famous was published in 1966, The Peasants of Languedoc, by French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.

Le Roy Ladurie painted a picture of rural life in southern France in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries in which people’s lives were largely constrained by the limits of agricultural productivity, which in turn relied on the weather. In eras of good weather, life was tolerable, while bad weather led to rebellion. The Peasants of Languedoc is almost a natural history, with the peasants having very little control over their own lives.

Le Roy Ladurie’s book draws from the work of Fernan Braudel, whose 1949 masterpiece The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, dives even more deeply into the physical record than Le Roy Ladurie’s does, portraying grain prices, climate, and even the geography of the Mediterranean world as the true actors of history, while kings like Philip II of Spain and his rival, Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, are tossed like flotsam on the waves of history.

Of course, these books appeared before the current concern for climate change, and studying the effects of climate on history is en vogue once again today. Although this time, as with Parker’s Global Crisis, human agency and events are left in. It’s the weaving together of the slow changes in climate with the rapid events of rebellion and war that make his book so successful.

For anyone interested in the history of climate in the U.S., a good place to start is the recently published The Economics of Climate Change: Adaptations Past and Present, edited by Gary D. Libecap and Richard H. Steckel.

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