Thursday, January 09, 2020

Winter, and the Wolf

Modern climate scientists remain uncertain about the cause of the Great Frost, an exceptionally severe and deadly winter that afflicted Europe in 1709. Their educated guesses point to volcanic eruptions elsewhere in Eurasia, reduced solar activity, and a deepening of the contemporaneous Little Ice Age. About the season’s severity one cannot doubt. In France, crops failed, livestock perished, and trees exploded from frost. The coasts of Italy froze, trapping unsuspecting sailors and binding Venice to terra firma. In the northeast, the Baltic Sea remained a solid highway of ice until April. Throughout the continent, one million people died of exposure and starvation before the year was out. No one who survived had ever seen anything like it, the coldest winter in five hundred years.

Not your usual winter in Venice. (Le Lagon Gelee, Wikimedia)
The monumentally brutal weather and subsequent famine did not help France’s financial and military fortunes in the ongoing War of the Spanish Succession. It certainly contributed to the decisive defeat of Swedish forces in the Great Northern War. Charles XII of Sweden, until then undefeated, set himself against an unconquerable adversary when he chose to winter over in Ukraine. Thousands of Charles’s troops died of cold, and many more succumbed to starvation thanks to Tsar Peter’s methodical despoliation of his own countryside. When the main armies met at Poltava that July, a well-rested and well-fortified Russian force faced a drastically weakened Swedish one.* The Swedes put up a good fight for several hours, but eventually their battle lines buckled and split, and Russian infantry fell upon and destroyed them.

Poltava gold medal (1709), via
Charles lost 9,000 men, his dreams of imperial glory, and very nearly his throne. He fled to Moldavia, then a Turkish protectorate, and did not return home until 1715. The Swedish king's loss did not, however, become the Russian monarch's immediate gain. Peter decided to pursue his adversary into Ottoman territory, forgetting that offensive warfare is particularly risky in a place and time when roads were scarce, supplies ruinously expensive, and soldiers a wasting asset. Voltaire believed that the tsar had "too poor an opinion of his [new] enemy," and that enemy would eventually correct him: a Turkish army under Balaci Mehmet Pasa managed to capture Tsar Peter and his troops at the Battle of Stanilesti (22 July 1711). The Turkish government obliged Russia to sign a treaty surrendering the port of Azov and destroying several border forts. Perhaps the Ottomans could extracted better terms, but their officials seem to have realized what Peter did not, that human fortunes could prove as fickle as the weather, and one would do best not to follow Charles and Peter along the paths of hubris.

What of those too humble to merit the verbiage of Classical tragedy, the French peasants who starved in the countryside, the Prussian widows who froze to death in their cottages, the Swedish soldiers who sickened in their camps or bled out on the battlefield? The sovereigns who fought the Great Northern War built monuments to the Battle of Poltava and its fallen, who had traded their lives for a tiny share of glory. The civilian dead of the Great Frost and famine got at most a burial entry in a parish record. The cheapness and anonymity of their lives the annalists of the eighteenth century took for granted. The revolutions that ended the era had many goals, but one of them was, perhaps inevitably, the re-valuing of those humble lives and the giving of names to the nameless.          


Jeremy Black, Warfare in the Eighteenth Century (Smithsonian Books, 1999), 164-63; Stephanie Pain, "1709: The Year Europe Froze," New Scientist, 7 Feb. 2009; Voltaire, History of Charles XII, King of Sweden, trans. Winifred Todhunter (E.P. Dutton, 1908), quote p. 215.

* The Swedes also had a significant disadvantage in artillery: they had only four field guns to the Russians’ 100.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

An End-of-Year Scrapbook

As the year draws to a close, I offer here a few anecdotes and observations that caught my attention from 2019's reading. Some may form the basis of future blog posts. I hope the rest prove as interesting (or startling) to my readers as to me.

Ashoka at Ramagrama, courtesy of Photo Dharma, Thailand
On the transmission of knowledge between Hellenistic Greece and India: Ashoka, the founder of the Mauryan dynasty, knew a fair amount about the “Yona” (Ionians, i.e., Greeks) living to his west and sent Buddhist missionaries to convert the subjects of “Antiyoho…and Turumaye” (Antiochus and Ptolomy). Apparently, they met with little success. Perhaps a fan of Harry Turtledove's could turn this episode into an alt-history tale. (Peter Thonemann, The Hellenistic Age: A Very Short Introduction (2018), p. 74.)

On live-action Dungeons and Dragons in the Middle Ages: To defend their subjects in southern Anatolia from Arab raiders, the Byzantines in the ninth and tenth centuries built “vast subterranean citadels” in which fleeing peasants could take refuge. These they carved into the soft rock in the vicinity of modern Cappadocia. (Peter Sarris, The Byzantines: A Very Short Introduction (2015), pp. 69-70.)

On bling: Like the modern Hmong, the medieval Norse literally wore their money. When purchasing goods, they would cut pieces off of the silver collars and arm bands they wore, and merchants would then weigh the “cash” they had received to determine its value. Archaeologists have found these merchants’ weights in sites from tenth-century Ireland, among other places. (Fintan O’Toole, A History of Ireland in 100 Objects (2013). ch. 37.)

Drogheda Massacre (1651), courtesy of Wikimedia.
On making Ireland less attractive to tourists: After Oliver Cromwell’s scorched-earth campaign of 1651-52, a traveler in Ireland observed that “You may ride twenty miles and scarce discern any thing…but dead men hanging on trees and gibbets.” (ibid, ch, 63.) Unpleasant fellow, that Cromwell.

On Tsar’s Alexander’s misunderstanding of the relationship between autocracy and popular ignorance: During an 1814 visit to England, Alexander I of Russia saw a display of the new “Lancastrian” method of education, whereby older students helped train newer and younger students. He was sufficiently impressed that he opened a Lancastrian school for Russian soldiers billeted in France. It proved very effective. So began a slow but dangerous climb in Russian literacy rates. (Christine Haynes, Our Friends the Enemies: The Occupation of France after Napoleon (2018), ch. 6.)

Roughly, "Shut up and win the war."
On Spanish antecedents to famous English novels: During the Civil War in Spain, George Orwell likely saw a Spanish communist poster “emblazoned with the image of a boot stamping ‘on all who resist forever.’” (D.J. Taylor, On Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Biography (2019), p. 38.)


Happy holidays to all.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Any Good News in 2019?

I'm posting this a bit early this year because the mainstream (political) news in the United States has been so depressing, I figured my readers could use a cheerier alternative. I know I could.


2018 was a good year for those fighting malaria. Algeria and Argentina have now eradicated the disease. New cases of malaria dropped by half in India. Malawi is immunizing all children with the new vaccine; other African nations are expected to follow suit.

Vaccinations in Malawi, via Doctors without Borders.
2018-19 was also a positive year for public health. The Philippines introduced universal health insurance. Rwanda is vaccinating 95 percent of its children against measles and polio. Sudan vaccinated thirteen million children against these illnesses. Less remarked upon, but still important: India has since 2014 supplied 90 million sites with flush toilets. Most families now have access to one.

In Europe and North America (though perhaps not the White House), dementia rates have fallen by 15 percent in each decade since 1990. In 2018, U.S. drug overdose deaths declined, suicide rates in Japan fell to their lowest level ever, and life expectancy in Russia reached its highest level ever.

Globally, HIV deaths are down 33 percent since 2010.

Environmental improvement:

South Africa, England, Canada, Belize, and Argentina have created new marine conservation sites. Australia has initiated a re-wilding project on the Yorke Peninsula. Chile is turning 407,000 hectares of private land into a national park. The U.S. Senate has passed a law protecting 1.3 million acres of federal land. Perhaps Mitch McConnell isn't 100 percent evil.*

Ethiopia announced a plan to plant four billion new trees and monitor their growth with its new satellite. On 29 July the nation planted 350 million trees in twelve hours. China announced that forest now covers 22 percent of its land surface. Costa Rica has reached 50 percent forestation.

Tree planting, Ethiopia, via
Poaching of rhinos and elephants declined by over 25 percent last year. Populations of Siberian tigers and humpback whales are recovering; the latter has reached 90 percent of its pre-hunting total.

Britain ran its electrical grid without coal for two weeks. Germany announced it will shut down all its coal-fired electrical plants by 2038. Senegal and Israel have joined an international anti-coal pact, Powering Past Coal. India in 2018 added to its grid 12 gigawatts of clean power. Paris has purchased 800 electric buses to begin replacing its old fleet.

Social and economic justice:

The number of human beings living in extreme poverty ($2/day) continues to decline. Between 1990 and 2018 this cohort shrank from 2 billion people to 600 million.

Nine U.S. cities have eliminated veteran homelessness. The 30 largest American cities experienced a 3.5 percent decline in crime last year. American states that have decriminalized marijuana report a precipitous drop in domestic violence injuries. I bet they all experience shortages of Doritos and miniature candy bars, though.

Nineteen African countries have since 2009 reached gender parity in primary schooling. Northern Ireland has legalized abortion and same-sex marriage. Saudi Arabia has granted women the right to travel alone, register vital records, and serve as legal guardians. Botswana and Angola have decriminalized homosexuality.


The news stories above are via FutureCrunch’s Good News page, which is worth the occasional visit.

* He is, in fact, 98.7 percent evil.