Yes, this is another boring book review that will have most red-blooded wargamers reaching for the soap opera button. But of course, I read these books and tell you about them so that you do not have to. And so to Geoffrey Parker’s ‘Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century’ (2013: Yale University Press, New Haven).
Geoffrey Parker’s is a name that should be familiar to any serious historical wargamer with an interest in sixteenth and seventeenth century history. He has written extensively on such subjects as the Thirty years War, the Dutch revolt and the ‘Military Revolution’ which, according to some ideas around, gave Europe the military power to start to dominate the globe in the succeeding two centuries. As serious historians go, he certainly has the track record to produce a synthesis on the scale of the title of the book.
The book is long and complex, the the overall thesis is fairly simple. Parker identifies the fact that the sixteenth century was fairly benign climatically, and that, overall, the world population expanded, with agriculture extended into more marginal areas. In the early Seventeenth Century, the global climate cooled. A 0.1 degree C cooling reduces that growth time of crops by one day. This may not sound serious, but it also increases the probability of crop failure and the probability of double crop failure substantially. If you are already farming on marginal land, the combination of these factors is catastrophic: the population can no longer feed itself.
To famine is then added the problems of disease. There were few methods of disease control in the early seventeenth century, and smallpox and the plague were rife. For example the Manchu high command was decimated during the war with the Ming through exposure to smallpox, as were the Native American populations in North America. The Manchu eventually ordered that only smallpox survivors could assume high command positions.
This indicates that third issue associated with the century: war. Political leaders across most of the world showed an unerring instinct for increasing the miseries of their people by choosing to go to war just as the crops failed. At the least, this lead to an increase in tax demands on a people whose ability to pay was already compromised. At worst it entirely depopulated areas of their country. As statistical services were almost unknown, rulers largely decided that the population were simply being recalcitrant and started to increase demands and threaten. This led, almost inevitably, to revolts and in extreme cases (Portugal, Catalonia, Naples, Palermo, Ireland, Scotland, England, China, Muscovy, Ukraine…) to war, civil or not.
These causes are interlinked. Agricultural communities under stress have few options, assuming that quietly starving to death is rejected. There is an increase in banditry. People flee to the cities. Political chancers take advantage of the unrest to make a stab at glory. On the other side, governments struggle with commitments far larger than income, and attempts to maximise taxation also causes unrest.
The upshot of all this is a world of starvation, disease and war. The best estimate available is that around one third of the world population died between roughly 1618 and 1688. Some governments did better than others ar staving off the problems. For example, the Moghul Empire weathered the Little Ice age slightly better than others, because its hinterland was bigger and its wars were at the periphery. Thus the bulk of the population were spared some of the traumas of warfare, and fared a little better, at least until later in the century.
The top spot for surviving the crisis was Japan. On the other hand, this seems to be because the wars of the Sixteenth Century had so depopulated the country before the Little Ice Age hit that there was no food crisis. A strng central government also kept the lid on popular unrest, and built a string of granaries across the country to help in times of crisis. Strict control over foreign traders also helped reduce the issues of epidemics, although this was not quite as total as we are often led to believe. Nevertheless, if you wanted to survive in the mid-seventeenth century world, and did not mind too much about your freedoms, Japan was the place to be.
Other places fared much worse. Louis XIV probably rules over fewer people in 1700 than he did in 1661. Not only that, but his soldiers were shorter, averaging 5’ 3”, due to the famines in the later part of the Seventeenth Century. Constant war from the 1630’s through most of the rest of the century dislocated French society. The soldiers of the early eighteenth century were short (try representing that on the table).
Britain fared little better. Between 1638 and 1651 it is estimated that half a million people died. This is on a population of about 5 million, and represents a larger proportionate death toll than the First World War. In places, such as Ireland, things were worse. In Germany, as well, although the scene is patchy, some areas lost half or more of their population. Parker notes that the possibility of recovery in population is lost if women marry later, as they tend to in times of dearth and crisis. A woman marrying at 28 rather than 18 has ‘lost’ three children, more or less. It took a century or more for some areas to recover their population numbers to the 1600 level.
Parker’s book is designed as something of a warning. There may be arguments over the reason for climate change (most of them sponsored by the fossil fuel industry) and politicians are easily bought, especially those who have no knowledge, interest, or desire to learn anything about science. Sometimes it feels like what passes for acceptable in some areas would be termed corrupt in others. However, even discounting these arguments, the climate is changing, and does change. It is a dynamic system, after all. We have, Parker notes, the technological and intellectual equipment to do rather better than our seventeenth century forebears in dealing with and anticipating the problems this will cause. However, there is little evidence of political will to do so.
Overall, Global Crisis is an excellent book, packed full with treats and delights for the wargamer from places across the globe. For me, the description of the Manchu versus Ming wars were very interesting, although, as with the rest of the book, the death, suffering and destruction created by the wars give the whole work a very downbeat flavour.
Buy it and read it. Read it and weep.