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Crusaders of Climate Change? The Debate on Global Warming between the Medieval and the Present Age

Crusaders of Climate Change? The Debate on Global Warming between the Medieval and the Present Age

Keynote paper by Johannes Preiser-Kapeller

Given online at the International Medieval Congress on July 7, 2021

Abstract: The study of the climate of the past has become an essential instrument of climatology for contextualising the scale, pace, and potential impact of modern-day climate change within the longer history of planetary and social dynamics. This, however, equally entraps historical climatology in current debates on ‘global warming’, with climate change deniers pointing to a ‘Medieval Warm Period’ as evidence that modern-day temperature trends are only ‘normal’ fluctuations. Furthermore, the still common use of the term ‘Medieval Climate Optimum’ in popular as well as scholarly publications suggests a simplistic linear or even deterministic interplay between environmental parameters and historical developments, with medieval global warming enabling the Vikings to settle Greenland or the Crusaders to conquer Jerusalem.

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This paper employs a critical dialogue between historical and archaeological evidence and scientific (proxy) data in order to illustrate the temporal oscillations and spatial variances of the now so-called ‘Medieval Climate Anomaly’ (MCA). Comparing case studies across Afro-Eurasia in order to ‘provincialise Europe’ within the MCA, it highlights the diversity of political, socio-economic, and intellectual responses to constant environmental challenges, which this alleged ‘optimal’ period between the 10th and the 13th centuries comprised. Finally, it poses the question if graphic periodisations such as ‘Roman Climate Optimum’, ‘Medieval Warm Period’, or ‘Little Ice Age’ are at all helpful for a more nuanced analysis of climate-human entanglements, which balances the relevance of long-term trends and short-term variances. Through such a debate, the study of medieval history could become more helpful for present considerations on climate change and more resistant against deliberate misinterpretation.

Johannes Preiser-Kapeller is a Researcher at the Institute for Medieval Research,  Austrian Academy of Sciences. You can learn more about him on his Academia.edu page or follow Johannes on Twitter @Byzanzforscher

Top Image: Abbo’s map of the world according to Macrobius in the manuscript Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Ms. Phill. 1833, fol. 39v.

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