A Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean? New results and theories on the interplay between climate and societies in Byzantium and the Near East, ca. 1000–1200 AD
By Johannes Preiser-Kapeller
Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik, Vol. 65 (2015)
Abstract: This paper discusses a recently proposed scenario of a climate-induced “Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean” in the 11th century AD. It demonstrates that such a scenario cannot be maintained when confronted with proxy data from various regions. On the other hand, data on the interplay between environment and economy in the Komnenian period (1081–1185) and evidence for a change of climatic conditions in the period of the Angeloi (1185–1204) is presented, arguing that climatic parameters should be taken into consideration when comparing socio-economic dynamics in the Eastern Mediterranean with those in Western Europe. The necessity of further research on the regional as well as over-regional level for many aspects of the interaction between human society and environment in the medieval Eastern Mediterranean is highlighted.
Introduction: The reflection about the impact of climate on human society goes back to antiquity. It has gained renewed intensity with the discussion about climate change and its possible anthropogenic causes in the last decades. This lead also to an increase of research on climate history and the contribution of climate to crises of past societies, popularised in books such as Jared Diamond´s “Collapse” (2005) for cases such as the Maya in Yucatan, the Vikings on Greenland or the Easter Island (Rapa Nui). For the history of the Mediterranean in the Roman, post-Roman and Byzantine period, recent path-breaking papers by Michael McCormick et alii and by John F. Haldon et alii have synthesised new findings from historical, archaeological and especially natural scientific evidence.
As the present contribution is not based on such a large scale cooperation of specialists in history, archaeology, palaeo-climatology and other sciences, its aims are more modest: to discuss aspects of the interaction between climate change and medieval Mediterranean history in the 11th–13th century against a combination of historical and natural scientific evidence. I first present theories, data and sources for the climatic and environmental history of the pre-modern period, which are especially of interest for historians not familiar with current methods and debates in this growing field. I try to demonstrate that linear or mono-causal (“deterministic”) models of the impact of climatic conditions on political and economic developments are insufficient to capture the complex interplay between environmental parameters and social structures. I discuss the climatic prelude to the Komnenian period with regard to the recent hypothesis of a climate caused “Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean” in the 11th century.
As I argue, such a scenario of general “Collapse” cannot be maintained when confronted with data from various regions. I then reflect on the interplay between environment and economy in the Komnenian period and finally present evidence for another change of climatic conditions in the period of the Angeloi (1185–1204); here I argue that divergent developments of climatic parameters should be taken into consideration when comparing socio-economic dynamics in the Eastern Mediterranean (or other regions) with those in Western Europe in the 12th to 13th cent. In many cases, findings are preliminary due to the lack of (conclusive) data and demand further research.