The Year Without Summer: “Eighteen hundred and froze to death”


Historian William K. Klingaman and meteorologist Nicholas P. Klingaman combine forces in The Year Without Summer: 1816 And The Volcano That Darkened The World And Changed History. Working in a vein similar to Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map, the Klingamans weave together modern scientific explanations, nineteenth-century scientific (and religious) speculations, and historical events into a compelling account of what happens when weather goes wrong.

The book begins with the violent eruption of Mount Tambora in the Indonesia archipelago on April 5, 1815 and the immediate impact on the surrounding region. But the eruption is only the background. The main story is the disruption of weather that followed: more than twelve months of heavy rains in Europe, drought in North America and unseasonable cold everywhere. The Klingamans follow the extreme weather and its consequences month by month, drawing on witnesses that include Jane Austen and Thomas Jefferson, as well as newspaper accounts, sermons and government reports. They describe the cumulative impact of failed harvests, failed relief efforts and apocalyptic fears. Perhaps most important, they draw connections between the weather and historical events that are seldom considered together: the outbreak of religious revivalism in New York State known as the Second Great Awakening, American expansion west, political battles over the Corn Laws in England, growing unrest in post-Napoleonic France, and even the creation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

The Year Without Summer is a fascinating blend of science and story, particularly relevant in the context of modern debates about climate change.

This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

What Did the Old Pretender Pretend?

Prince James Francis Edward Stuart studio of Alexis Simon Belle. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery. (NPG348)

The story of England's Glorious Revolution is generally summarized as follows:

In 1688, the Protestant nobility of England, outraged by attacks on their constitution, rose up against the man usually described as the last Stuart king, James II, and offered his throne to his daughter and son-in-law, William and Mary of Orange.* James fled to France with his wife and infant son, James. For the rest of their lives, James Francis Edward Stuart and his son Charles Edward Stuart, known as the Old Pretender and the New Pretender**, attempted to regain the British throne. I've always assumed that the title Pretender referred simply to their efforts to reclaim the throne. It turns out the story is a little more complicated, as is so often the case.

The first thing you need to remember about James II is that he converted to Catholicism before he became the king of England. Today that would be a matter of personal choice, but in seventeenth century England it was a red flag. Popery and absolute monarchy were linked in the public's imagination and neither were popular.   Got it?

In 1673, James, then the Duke of York and heir presumptive to the British throne, married the (Catholic) Italian princess Mary Beatrice d'Este. She was his second wife and, at fifteen, only four years older than his oldest daughter, Mary. *** In 1676, she gave birth to a son who lived only a few days. For the next twelve years, the couple remained childless****--a fact that reconciled English Protestants to his succession to the throne in 1685. After all, Catholic James would be succeeded by the devoutly Anglican Mary and her Calvinist husband William.

In 1687, Mary Beatrice visited the spa city of Bath, not yet the popular resort it would become in the Georgian period, and took the waters. Late that year, the royal couple joyfully announced the Queen was pregnant. The popular reception was mixed. English Catholics were elated. English Protestants were not; if the Queen gave birth to a healthy son it would mean a new Catholic dynasty on the throne. Bath's PR people credited the waters with restoring her fertility. English Protestants began to comment on Bath's then reputation for licentious behavior and began to murmur about the "suppositious baby". Rumors spread that James was not the father. Others said the Queen was not even pregnant. In Holland, James' daughter Mary was convinced that it was a plot to trick her out of her inheritance.

After the Prince of Wales was born, an even wilder rumor took hold. James' opponents claimed that a male baby was smuggled into the Queen's chamber in a warming pan to replace her stillborn child. Witnesses to the birth testified before a Privy Council meeting, but the rumors continued. As far as Protestant England was concerned, the "warming pan baby" was a pretender to the throne.

In order to avoid such questions in the future, the Home Secretary attended all subsequent royal births until that of the current Prince of Wales.

* Technically, William and Mary were Stuart rulers and so was their successor, Queen Anne, but these little details are often lost in the synopsis version of history.

** Aka Bonnie Prince Charlie

***James introduced his daughters to their new step-mother saying, "I have provided you with a playfellow."

**** Not for want of trying. Between the death of her first child in 1676 and the birth of the Old Pretender, Mary suffered miscarriages, still-births and the death of four additional infants.

The Birth of the West

Several weeks ago I mentioned a Big Fat History Book that had me gasping at my own ignorance. I left you dangling, but now that the review has appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers, I can share the details with you.

The Birth of the West: Rome, Germany, France, and the Creation of Europe in the Tenth Century resembles the world that it describes. Former priest Paul Collins' broad-brushed history is fascinating, complicated, messy, occasionally confusing and dominated by a fundamentally Catholic world-view.

Collins chronicles both the dissolution of order after Charlemagne's death and the first steps toward its return. He begins with an Irish monk's fears of Viking attacks in the mid-ninth century, ends with widespread apprehension at the close of the first Christian millennium, and offers few peaceful moments in between. Tenth century Europe was under attack from within and without. Charlemagne's empire collapsed into political chaos as his descendents fought for control over smaller and smaller kingdoms. The Latin church was both a unifying force in a troubled world and a political weapon for ambitious princes and warlords. Viking, Magyar, and Saracen invaders were a constant threat to what little stability existed.

The first three sections of the book are a historical page-turner. Two-thirds of the way through, Collins abandons his action-packed account of state-building, backstabbing, and political and religious intrigue and makes a thematic and stylistic detour to discuss everyday life in tenth century Europe. Several chapters later, he returns to politics and religion, this time focusing on two major figures from the end of the century: Gerbert, later Pope Sylvester II, and Holy Roman Emperor Otto III.

Structural problems aside, The Birth of the West is an engaging account of an often-overlooked era.