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The winter storms that rocked medieval Europe

The ‘Little Ice Age’

In the winter of 1363–64, mainland Europe experienced unusually cold weather. In southern Europe, the shores of the Atlantic ocean near Bordeaux, France, as well as the Venetian lagoon and the Rhône’s estuary, froze solid.

The Rhine river was so deeply frozen that the people of Cologne were able to hold a market on the river. Near Mainz, the Rhine remained ice-bound for 70 days. In Belgium, the people of the town of Fosses witnessed a snow cover that lasted 100 days. That particular cold winter corresponds to the early stages of the ‘Little Ice Age’, a cooling period that only dissipated in the 19th century.

In Belgium, the people of the town of Fosses witnessed a snow cover that lasted 100 days

Before the invention of the thermometer, which wouldn’t come until the 17th century, medieval chroniclers could only describe the consequences of terribly cold winters. To differentiate regular winters from harsh winters, texts therefore accentuated the extraordinary nature of the weather, such as extreme cold, great snowfalls and enduring frosts. They highlighted the damages snow and ice caused to humans, animals, crops and infrastructure.

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Despite the difficult weather conditions, some texts showcased more fun moments associated with these terrible winters, when people went on to build snow towers and sculptures.

A depiction of winter in an early-15th century Dutch village

A depiction of winter in an early-15th century Dutch village. (Photo by Pierce Archive LLC/Buyenlarge via Getty Images)

From c900 to the end of the 13th century, western Europe experienced a climatic optimum dubbed the ‘medieval warm period’. Mild weather enabled the settling and development of new arable lands. Agriculture was possible at higher latitudes and elevations than before. In England, for instance, grapes grew hundreds of miles north of their current range. During that period, winters were less severe, with fewer and lighter snowfalls, even if some winters proved to be especially harsh.

By the early 14th century, the first signs of the Little Ice Age, an era of cooling, were noticeable on the continent. From 1304­–28 for example, Europe experienced a run of cold and very cold winters (meaning below average), some of which deemed “severe” by climate historians. One century later, people from western Europe experienced again a series of very cold winters, described in great detail in narrative texts. According to a classification index designed by climate historians, the winter seasons of 1431–32, 1432–33, 1434–35 and 1436–37 were “extremely cold”. In 1433–34 and 1437–38, winter was “very cold”, while only once during that time, in 1435–36, was winter described as “not exceedingly cold”. Chroniclers usually describe these winters as “grand froit” in French, or “frigitas magna” in Latin, meaning a great or enormous cold.

The Little Ice Age was not characterised by unremitting cold weather (as, like today, global warming does not mean a linear increase of temperatures). Atmospheric cooling – like atmospheric warming – manifested itself through weather anomalies and extreme events, such as sudden floods, hail and snowstorms, temperature fluctuations, intense rains during summer, and colder-than-usual winters. In sum, while temperatures did decrease during the Little Ice Age, extraordinary and intense weather phenomena were its most striking features.

“The coldest winter since the birth of Jesus Christ”

Chroniclers were aware of the extraordinary nature of these weather events, and emphasised how long it had been since similar disasters had occurred, often with exaggeration. In a 14th-century English poem, one writer asserted that the 1317–18 winter was a thousand times colder than any winter before.

Elsewhere, Philippe de Vigneulles, a scribe from north-eastern France, wrote that “for at least a hundred years there had been no colder winters” than the one he was experiencing in the mid-1430s. About the same winter, Cölner Jahrbücher, a German chronicle, had it that it was the coldest winter since the birth of Jesus Christ.

Long frost and lengthy snow falls were another measure of extraordinary cold temperatures. In Romania, writers reported that the Moldava river froze without interruption between November 1317 and March 1318, to the point that people could “walk over it daily, as if one’s foot was passing over dry land”.

16th century illustration of family chopping wood in the snow

Illustration from a 16th-century Flemish Prayer Book shows a family chopping wood in the snow. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Italian chronicles recorded that a snow cover persisted for an entire month in the Florence area in February 1352. Chronicles from Antwerp and Ghent (now Belgium) counted 15 weeks of frost in 1433–34. The Cölner Jahrbücher recorded 13 weeks of frost the following winter in the Cologne area. Intense and enduring snow falls were also a parameter. In Cologne, 36 consecutive days of snow were recorded in the winter of 1434–35.

Scribes also chronicled the depth of snowbanks. In 1359, across central Italy, “the snow rose to an extraordinary height; so, to lighten up the roofs, the snow was thrown into the streets, and some of the towns were blocked so the inhabitants were trapped for several days in their homes”. In Bologna, 18 feet of snow had reportedly fallen, and even more covered the city of Modena.

In 1442, the queen of France was visiting the southern French city of Carcassonne. The city’s annals reported that six feet of snow fell, keeping the queen in town for three months.

Fallen houses and failed farms

Another narrative device used to highlight the extraordinary nature of winters were descriptions of the catastrophic consequences of ice and snow. During the 1389 winter, the chronicle of Montpellier, southern France, reported dramatic snowfalls in the region of Lozère.

“That year,” wrote the scribe, “in January, February and March, the snowfalls in Lozère were so great that they destroyed many farmsteads and that many people died, because their houses fell down on them. Other people died of cold, others of hunger, because snowfalls had lasted so much longer than usual that people had run out of provisions. And there are people of the country whose memories date back 80 years who say that they had never seen such great snowfalls.”

During cold winters, food could become scarce or freeze. Chroniclers described the damage wrought to trees, vineyards and fields by the cold, damage that would ultimately result in poor harvests later on.

Several authors, like the anonymous priest in the 15th-century Journal d’un Bourgeois de Paris, linked the disruption of water and land transportation routes (caused by icebound rivers and snow-covered roads) with scarcity of food and high grain prices. German chronicles told of frozen rivers in the winter of 1432–33, which prevented the transportation of firewood and charcoal, commonly used as heating materials. Ice could also damage water mills, leading to flour shortage.

Ultimately, extreme cold was a threat to people’s lives. A book of accounts from Montpellier reported in the late 14th century that a homeless man had died of cold in the streets. The anonymous author of the Journal d’un Bourgeois de Paris noted that beggars were afraid they would die out in the cold. Another Parisian author reported the death of poor people, frozen to death in the winter of 1437–38. That same winter, German writers recorded that cattle perished because of the extreme weather.

Polar opposites

Even if chronicles and narrative texts often highlighted the dramatic consequences of cold temperatures, they sometimes provided insights on the joys that snow and ice could bring, cue to the market held on ice in 14th-century Cologne.
When the Italian river Po froze in 1215–16, people organised jousts on the ice. Later, inhabitants of Cologne built snow houses, snow castles and towers, while snow bears and snow lions were sculpted during the huge snowfalls of the winter of 1434–35. The chronicles also report instances of people going sledding on snow-covered roads.

Illuminated calendars sometimes featured scenes of winter leisure. The Hours of the Duchess of Burgundy, dated c1460, shows a snowball fight in a city, with adults and children hard at play. An early 15th-century fresco from the city of Trento, Italy also shows a snowball fight. Perhaps the most surprising element of these images is that none of the participants are wearing winter clothes!

Dr Lucie Laumonier is a historian of the Middle Ages and Assistant Professor of Journalism at Concordia University, Canada

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