The threat of climate change tends to represent a call-to-arms for historians. Intervening in a public conversation typically dominated by physical sciences, they are the secular prophets of our age, using their powers of long-term hindsight to alert all to the future calamities that will surely arise from unmitigated anthropogenic global warming (Parker, 2013; White, 2011). Whether adopting doom or hope, then, our historical understanding of climate is forged in view of imminent danger – a fatalism that obscures the far less obvious, more complex and more discursive connections that always exist between weather and people. While calamity attracts attention, it also smothers a forgotten narrative about how public and private conceptualisations of ‘climate’ have emerged within the fraught and contested terms of the human body, domestic living, politics, colonialism and religion.
Exploring these in turn, this thesis redresses current historical understanding of climate change with reference to England’s so-called ‘Little Ice Age’ (c. 1550-1700; hereafter LIA): a one-hundred-and-fifty-year period of prolonged winters, droughts and floods across Europe. At the heart of its investigation is the question of how to precisely represent historical climates prior to (post-c1700) weather documentation. Though the cumulative impact of quantitative studies can give a strong impression of long- and short-term changes, they cannot serve to adequately explain the prismatic cultural impact of climate. Undoubtedly, this was a period that witnessed an unprecedented amount of climatic anomalies, but do such events inevitably materialise in social and economic disorder? As this thesis will show, the early modern understanding of climate and climatic variance depended not only on disruption, but continuity: the interrelationship between people, places, and air determined character and health, gifted sustenance, influenced politics, and revealed providence.