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Good Reads  History & Other Humanities  Environmental History

Nature's Mutiny How the Little Ice Age Transformed the West and Shaped the Present

By: Philipp Blom(Author)
332 pages, 40 b/w illustrations
Publisher: Picador
Leaning perhaps more towards history than environmental history, Nature's Mutiny is an eye-opening survey of how Europe changed in the wake of the Little Ice Age.
Nature's Mutiny
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  • Nature's Mutiny ISBN: 9781509890439 Paperback Jan 2020 In stock
  • Nature's Mutiny ISBN: 9781509890415 Hardback Mar 2019 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
Selected version: £10.99
About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

In this innovative and compelling work of environmental history, Philipp Blom chronicles the great climate crisis of the 1600s, a crisis that would transform the entire social and political fabric of Europe.

While hints of a crisis appeared as early as the 1570s, by the end of the sixteenth century the temperature plummeted so drastically that Mediterranean harbours were covered with ice, birds literally dropped out of the sky, and 'frost fairs' were erected on a frozen Thames – with kiosks, taverns, and even brothels that become a semi-permanent part of the city.

Recounting the deep legacy and sweeping consequences of this 'Little Ice Age', acclaimed historian Philipp Blom reveals how the European landscape had ineradicably changed by the mid-seventeenth century. While apocalyptic weather patterns destroyed entire harvests and incited mass migrations, Blom brilliantly shows how they also gave rise to the growth of European cities, the appearance of early capitalism, and the vigorous stirrings of the Enlightenment.

A sweeping examination of how a society responds to profound and unexpected change, Nature's Mutiny will transform the way we think about climate change in the twenty-first century and beyond.


Unit - 1: PROLOGUE: Winter Landscape
Chapter - 1: Life without Money
Chapter - 2: The Great Experiment

Unit - 2: "GOD HAS ABANDONED US": Europe, 1570-1600
Chapter - 3: A Monk on the Run
Chapter - 4: God's Wind and Waves
Chapter - 5: Harsh Frosts and Burning Sun
Chapter - 6: A Time of Confusion and a Fiery Mountain
Chapter - 7: Pilgrims and Their Hunger
Chapter - 8: Truth and Wine
Chapter - 9: Wine in Vienna
Chapter - 10: The Lights Go Out
Chapter - 11: Witches and Spoiled Harvests
Chapter - 12: The Truth in the Stars
Chapter - 13: Doctor Faustus
Chapter - 14: Infinite Worlds
Chapter - 15: The Tower of Books

Chapter - 16: Hortus Botanicus
Chapter - 17: Revolutionary Places
Chapter - 18: The City Devours Its Children
Chapter - 19: The Magic of Green Cheese
Chapter - 20: The Great Transformation
Chapter - 21: A Picture of the World
Chapter - 22: Idle Talk and Fabrications
Chapter - 23: A Warning and a Call to Repent
Chapter - 24: Tears Too Plentiful to Count
Chapter - 25: The Revolution of the Barrel of a Musket
Chapter - 26: Sell More to Strangers
Chapter - 27: The State as Machine
Chapter - 28: A Profitable Trade
Chapter - 29: The Curse of Silver
Chapter - 30: Officer, Retired
Chapter - 31: The Subversive Republic of Letters
Chapter - 32: Germanus incredibilis
Chapter - 33: Virtue in the Drowning Cell
Chapter - 34: Leviathan
Chapter - 35: An Inventory of Morality

Chapter - 36: The Madness of Crowds
Chapter - 37: The Antichrist
Chapter - 38: The Messiah and the Whore
Chapter - 39: The Fair on the Ice
Chapter - 40: The Face of Change
Chapter - 41: The Price of Change
Chapter - 42: Tapissier du roi
Chapter - 43: The Public Sphere and the Vices of Bees
Chapter - 44: The Floating Reverend

Unit - 5: EPILOGUE: Supplement to The Fable of the Bees
Chapter - 45: Songbirds, Wood Lice, and Corals
Chapter - 46: Freedom and Luxury
Chapter - 47: Inherited Compromises
Chapter - 48: New Metaphors
Chapter - 49: The Theology of the Market
Chapter - 50: The Market and the Fortress

Illustration Credits

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Eye-opening survey
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 19 Mar 2019 Written for Hardback

    In the minds of most people, the words "Ice Age" will invoke images of mammoths and sabertooth tigers. But historians use the phrase "Little Ice Age" to refer to a particular period in recent history when average temperatures dropped for a few centuries. The impact this had on societies was tremendous. In Nature's Mutiny, originally published in German and here translated by the author, historian Philipp Blom charts the transformations that resulted and shaped today's world. It is also one of the most evocative book titles I have seen this year.

    Depending on who you ask, the Little Ice Age lasted from about the 13th to the 19th century. McMichael gave a brief overview of this whole period in his book Climate Change and the Health of Nations, while noted archaeologist Brian Fagan wrote a book about it (see The Little Ice Age). The worst of the cold periods, however, were concentrated between roughly 1570-1680, and this is the period Blom focuses on. Here, too, he is not the first to do so, with Geoffrey Parker's 800+-page tome Global Crisis providing a general overview for this particular period on civilizations around the world. For Nature's Mutiny, Blom has decided to furthermore limit his focus on Europe. As he frankly explains in his prologue, he feels he lacks the expertise and language skills to delve into the relevant Asiatic and Aztec histories, plus Europe had an outsized influence on the world during this time. Luckily, Sam White's A Cold Welcome partially fills this gap.

    Blom is particularly interested in the consequences of the Little Ice Age, rather than the causes, which remain contested to this day. He therefore barely goes into the palaeoclimatological proxies such as ice cores, tree rings, pollen residues, etc. that have been used in climate reconstructions. He has divided his book into three parts, first describing the immediate response by people (what they wrote and thought, and how they explained it), while the second and third part look at more ultimate consequences for society, science, culture, war, and the economy.

    The first part of Nature's Mutiny is therefore really environmental history as you might expect it. Blom explores eyewitness testimony in diaries and letters, and the rise of a new genre in painting: the winter landscape (Bruegel's The Hunters in the Snow being a well-known example). Another unexpected source is account ledgers. The fluctuating weather destroyed entire grain harvest, but it was the more expensive commodity of wine (and therefore the grape harvest) for which dates and prices are well documented. The initial responses were as you would expect for a mediaeval society: witch hunts, religious processions, and supernatural explanations were widespread. But God did not seem to be at home and new intellectual currents started taking shape.

    For the remainder of the book, the Little Ice Age takes a back seat as Blom explores the more ultimate consequences. One major transformation was the shift from a feudal system with peasants working the land for a lord to a market economy. As grain harvests failed, a way of life almost a millennium old rapidly disintegrated. Land was privatised, including commons normally used by peasants to feed livestock, and large numbers of peasants were displaced into growing cities.

    The Netherlands, in particular, played a pivotal role in this period. As they build a maritime empire, the country entered a golden age of trade (see also The Frigid Golden Age), which further affected grain prices and land use patterns. Simultaneously, this period of overseas exploration and colonialism led to the exchange of ideas, goods, plants, and diseases (see The Columbian Exchange). It may seem odd to us now, but potatoes were once a novelty to farmers who eyed them suspiciously.

    A further consequence Blom highlights is that in a world increasingly shaped by bureaucracies, tax systems, and long-distance trade, there was a need for educated people. Formal education to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic became more commonplace. With literacy came the written word in the form of printed books and especially pamphlets. Warfare changed as technological developments led to new kinds of weaponry, requiring different strategies on the battlefield.

    In the third part, Blom focuses particularly on important philosophical figureheads such as Pierre Bayle, Spinoza, and John Locke. With them, religious explanations started to give way to empirical observations, atheist arguments, and humanist thinking. The Enlightenment took off and with it science as we now recognise it was starting to take shape. But this was not a straight, simple path and there was plenty of hypocrisy at play here. Voltaire is given as an example of someone who argued for humanist values such as freedom of speech and tolerance, while at the same being a racist and slaveholder, and lending money to other aristocrats who behaved the same.

    Blom's epilogue is particularly interesting, as he sees our 21st century as a continuation of developments that started in the 17th century, rather than a parallel. We may have become intellectually more enlightened, but capitalism still rules supreme and our economic success continues to depend on the exploitation of cheap labour and (especially) our natural environment. As before, it is defended by uneasy and contradictory reasoning. We decry climate change, but will hardly let it compromise our bottom line, trying to weasel our way out of it with contrived mechanisms such as sustainable development and carbon credits, or token efforts such as green consumerism and recycling. As Blom points out, Voltaire would have understood.

    Throughout the latter two-thirds of the book, I regularly found myself thinking "what does this have to do with the Little Ice Age?" I have seen some other reviewers grumble that Blom tries to use this period of climatic change as an explanatory factor for everything. I don't think that is entirely justified. Yes, he takes the Little Ice Age as his starting point. But rather than saying explicitly that, for example, the Enlightenment was a direct product of it, he sees it as an indirect phenomenon arising from a chain of causes and knock-on effects. In my opinion, the book fairly quickly transitions from environmental history to a more conventional history book, with the climate forming a backdrop. Depending on your expectations, I can see how this might disappoint some. But that doesn't take away that Blom's survey is interesting, well-executed, and eye-opening. I admit not having read most other books I mentioned, so it's hard for me to judge here how it compares. But it has whetted my appetite to read deeper into this topic.
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The author of Fracture: Life and Culture in the West and The Vertigo Years, Philipp Blom was born in Hamburg in 1970. After studying in Vienna and Oxford, he worked in publishing as a journalist and translator in London and Paris. He lives in Vienna.

By: Philipp Blom(Author)
332 pages, 40 b/w illustrations
Publisher: Picador
Leaning perhaps more towards history than environmental history, Nature's Mutiny is an eye-opening survey of how Europe changed in the wake of the Little Ice Age.
Media reviews

"A book that skilfully creates a historical panorama, in such a gripping and thrillingly informative way that it's a joy."
Giessener Allgemeine Zeitung

"An exciting history book, and an educational one."

"A case study that connects the birth of the modern world with the climate change of the time. A fascinating panorama of a whole era."
Freie Presse

"An imposing panorama of politics, economics and intellectual history [...] [Blom] has written an informative history of the early modern age, which also prompts us to think about the connections between climate and innovation.
Deutschlandfunk Andruck

"Drawing on rich sources, including diaries, letters, account ledgers, paintings, and religious sermons as well as data gleaned by climate historians and scientists, journalist and translator Blom creates a vivid picture of the European landscape during the Little Ice Age and of social, political, and cultural changes that may have been accelerated by climate change [...] An absorbing and revealing portrait of profound natural disaster."
Kirkus Reviews

"A sweeping story, embracing developments in economics and science, philosophy and exploration, religion and politics. Blom delivers much of his argument through compressed, beautifully clear life sketches of prominent men. [...] Blom's hypothesis is forceful, and has the potential to be both frightening and, if you hold it up to the light at just the right angle, a little optimistic. The idea can be put like this: climate change changes everything"
– John Lanchester, New Yorker

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