Saturday 20 August 2016

Global Crisis

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.


  1. A very interesting review. I vaguely remember reading Parker for my Early Modern Europe course too many years ago. I don't remember climate change coming across as a major factor, though I may not have been paying attention and I may simply have forgotten.

    This being a later work does he reference more recent scientific research in climatology and evidence of changing temperatures and CO2 levels?

    1. I think Parker is one of the first to take the link between climate change and the various crises of the mid C-17 seriously. He does chuck a lot of scientific data across, such as tree ring widths, ice core measurements as well as a lot of correlations from people's diaries.

      From what I remember of earlier works, the link between climate and crisis is hinted at, but not given centre stage, as it were. The little ice age is noted but the implications, as stepped out by Parker, are not really realised.

  2. Sounds interesting - and even rings a few bells from my (mid-1980s) Modern History degree.. I've ordered a copy.

    1. Certainly worth reading, although it is long it keeps the interest.

  3. Thanks for the review- it has made my reading list too.



    1. As I say, certainly worth reading. Lots of wargame potential as well.

  4. Who knew 17th C armies kept such good records?
    I'm too short to have been accepted in the 18thC British army (according to the recruiting posters at least) but would have made it 100 years earlier apparently.

    The link between nutrition and height seems well supported. I was really short in other, richer parts of the country but have lots of company on the economically struggling, remote Maritimes, esp for my generation.

    1. the height data is from the period of the 1690's onward, but the people being recruited were survivors of the various famines of the 1680's and before - actually in France there were a series of crises from the 1660's onwards, roughly every 20 years, so the recruits of around 1700 had had a double dose of it.

      But one of my friends mother was very short, having been in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands in the winter of 1944-5 as a small child. It doesn't take much, apparently.

  5. Thanks for the excellent review. I have very much enjoyed Parker's other books ("Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road" being a standout). He's a very gifted historian (in my view), and a few years ago I enjoyed reading his edited volume on the (controversial) "general crisis" of the 17th Century. It sounds as if he's returned to a similar theme here, re-invigorated by concerns over climate change.

    Again, many thanks for recommending the book and also for your consistently most excellent and thought provoking blog!

    1. I think that you are right, in that the idea of a 'general crisis' has been bubbling around, but now he has explicitly linked it to climate change, as at least one of the drivers of the disasters. I also suspect there is a lot more data available now from climate studies of the C17.

      And thank you for your kind words on the blog. i do my best...