Topography and Climate

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Topography and Climate


Landscape and Lifestyle. The economic and social foundations of medieval Europe were based on agriculture. Time was regulated according to seasons for plowing and harvesting, picking fruits, or collecting wood. A drought or flood, hail storm, or wildfire could have disastrous consequences for medieval peasants and, by extension, all those who depended on them for labor and produce: nobles, clergymen, and town dwellers. Moreover, the technology available to medieval Europeans to alter their environment and provide against climatic shifts was limited compared to that with which most modern Westerners are familiar. Dams, dikes, and aqueducts to direct water supplies and drain land fell out of use during the early Middle Ages as Europeans gradually lost the engineering knowledge of the Roman Empire. For earthmoving equipment medieval Europeans had carts and wheelbarrows; to put out fires, they relied on buckets of water or firebreaks prepared with wooden rakes and shovels. For these reasons, geography and climate had a profound effect on the lives of everyone at all social levels during the Middle Ages (814–1350). Soil composition affected the types of crops that could be grown and ultimately the diet of most people living in an area. Buildings were constructed using local materials: stone or wood for walls and different types of grasses for roofs. A temperature shift of only 1-2 degrees during the summer could stunt the growth of basic crops and lead to famine and death for large parts of the population. Because of their profound influence, differences in climate and geography played a key role in forming the many distinct cultures of medieval Europe.

Latitude and the Gulf Stream. A region’s latitude is based on its relation to the sun. Latitude is how far north or south a territory is of an imaginary center line drawn around the world from east to west. In this sense, Europe has a high latitude, with southern cities such as Rome being as far north as New York, while cities such as London and Paris are at the same latitude as Newfoundland, Canada. Being this far north would make Europe quite cold, and almost uninhabitable given the technology of medieval Europeans, if it were not for the moderating effects of several other geographical and climatic qualities. Probably the most significant is the Gulf Stream, a current of warm water that travels from the equator across the Atlantic Ocean. It bathes the Atlantic coast of Europe with warm water, which helps keep the temperature of Europe warmer and more consistent than its latitude suggests it would be. In addition, the European continent itself is essentially a peninsula of Asia and is surrounded on three sides by water. The Mediterranean Sea to the south, the Atlantic Ocean to the west and northwest, and the Baltic, North, and Arctic Seas to the north introduce warmer and more humid air to the European continent. The islands that comprise Europe—England, Ireland, and Sicily among others—share this benefit but to a greater degree. Ireland, for example, might expect four to six months a year of snow based purely on its latitude, but it is rare if snow stays on the ground there for a week. Moreover, these islands and the European continent itself include a series of smaller peninsulas jutting into these bodies of water, and these landmasses enjoy even more-balanced climates. Because of the relatively flat plain that stretches from central France through Germany into Eastern Europe and western Russia, the warming effect of the Gulf Stream and bodies of water can be felt hundreds of miles inland.

Climate Zones of Europe. Although water moderates the climate of Europe as a whole, there are six smaller “climate zones” on the European continent. To the south, the Mediterranean Basin enjoys a warm climate with long, dry summers. These summers made droughts and water management an ongoing problem in the Middle Ages, and the relatively loose and sandy soil that existed in many parts of this region molded the types of crops planted and even the plowing technology developed. Just north of the Mediterranean Basin is Alpine Europe, a series of mountains that stretches from the Pyrenees, through southern France and the Alps into the greater Caucasus and Urals in modern Russia. In these regions climate is largely influenced by elevation; with limited potential for cereal growth, animal husbandry often had a greater role in the local economy than in other zones. The third and fourth zones are those of Western-Northwestern Europe and Central Europe. Both of these regions are relatively flat, and an important factor in their climate is the degree to which ocean influences can be felt. In Western-Northwestern Europe, roughly equivalent to modern France, England, Belgium, western Germany, and the Netherlands, which is closer to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf Stream, the climate tends to be more humid and moderate with year-round rain, an ideal environment for farming without irrigation. In Central Europe, which corresponds approximately to eastern Germany, Austria, and the western territories of modern Eastern Europe, the winters tend to be longer and colder, although frequent rainfall during the summer helps with crop growth if the rain is not excessive. In the fifth zone, Eastern Europe, the effect of the ocean is much less, and the winters tend to be longer, colder, and dryer while summers are hotter. Compared to the previous two zones, the growing season is shorter, and the living conditions are harsher. The final zone is that of the Scandinavian Mountains. These lands have long winters with heavy snowfall and an extremely short growing season. As in the Alpine regions, animal husbandry and hunting are extremely important in this zone’s economy, as is fishing.

Landscape and Commerce. Climate and geography (environment in its broadest sense) were extremely important in determining the basic activities of medieval society; there was no point for Swiss mountaineers to try to grow wheat, which demanded warm, hot summers, while farmers in northern France could more profitably and easily grow grain. Landscape, however, influenced the economy in more-complex ways as well. Bodies of water provided products (fish, salt, and plants) and transportation routes; the Mediterranean Basin had been a commercial zone since at least the second millennium B.C.E. Medieval Europe was crisscrossed with navigable rivers, and in those regions where portage was needed between two bodies of water the medieval Europeans could not frequently rely on roads and other routes developed by the Romans and maintained by local lords, who enjoyed rights to taxes from all who used them. Rivers provided cheaper, quicker, and often safer transportation than overland routes. The Danube, Oder, and Elbe in Central Europe, the Rhine, Thames, Loire, and Seine in western Europe, the Tiber, Guadalquivir, and southern Rhone in Southern Europe were all major trade routes. In addition, the rich soil and ready access to water around these rivers made them valuable agricultural sites as well. As such, it is no surprise that many medieval cities and even smaller villages developed around rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans that could provide water for transportation, drinking, irrigation, technology, and even defense.

Predicting Weather. Despite the benefits medieval Europeans received from the surrounding water and the plans Europeans themselves made, shifts in weather could be both frightening and disastrous. For these reasons, medieval Europeans made attempts to predict and control their climate. Many of their methods may seem magical to modern eyes. Astronomical anomalies foreshadowed hot or cold spells, and prayers and processions were made around the fields to assure their protection and growth. There were attempts, however, to put weather prediction on a less-magical footing. In this area medieval European scholars borrowed from the writings of Muslim philosophers, as they did in many other areas during the twelfth century. Yaqub Ibn Ishaq al-Kindi was a famous ninth-century Muslim philosopher in Baghdad who wrote prolifically on mathematics, physics, astronomy, medicine, geography, logic, philosophy, and even music. During the tenth and eleventh centuries his works were brought into Spain and, from there in the twelfth century, transmitted into France, Italy, and other regions of Europe. Al-Kindi’s guides to weather forecasting borrowed from three traditions: native Muslim traditions of predicting weather based on the moon; learned Muslim astrologers who developed ideas found in famous Greek sources such as the writings of Ptolemy; and Muslim, Hebrew, and other physicists indebted to the physics of the famous Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Although al-Kindi’s guide was far more mathematical and detailed than the weather forecasting done at the popular level, it was still based on similar premises. Planetary bodies affect climate; climate follows set rules; these rules can be predicted to some extent; and a knowledge of these rules brings a person closer to a greater knowledge of God.

Little Ice Age . From circa 800-1300, Europe enjoyed a relatively warm and benign climate that fostered European agriculture, culture, and society. Around 1300, however, the temperature of Europe appears to have begun to cool, beginning what climatol-ogists have termed the Little Ice Age. This Ice Age would last until the middle of the nineteenth century. Modern scholars have no clear sense about why it happened, and medieval people appear to have been just as puzzled. Although Europe’s average temperature only appears to have declined about 2 degrees, it had a profound impact on the growing season and, therefore, the amount of crops produced and the number of people who could be fed. The impact of these agricultural shortages would be felt at all levels of society. (As a basis for comparison, modern analyses of global warming are based on temperature changes that are approximately half those of the Little Ice Age.) The 1310s would include a series of long, cold summers, which led

to famines and outbreaks of disease unequalled until the Black Death. It is quite possible that the beginning of the Little Ice Age, and its effects on Europe’s agriculture, “softened up” Europe’s population so that it was more vulnerable to the Black Death when it arrived in Sicily during October 1347. Scandinavian colonies in Greenland and Iceland, which had prospered during the height of the Middle Ages, were abandoned during the early fourteenth century, presumably because of the increased difficulty in growing basic foodstuffs in those regions. Germany’s leading scholar of the European witch-hunts, Wolfgang Behringer, has even argued that the social and economic strains caused by the Little Ice Age might have been a key factor in the renewal of interest in witchcraft and its prosecution that began in the fourteenth century.

Tuscan Villages. Corresponding to approximately the northern quarter of the Italian peninsula, the region known as Tuscany had been noted for its geography and climate since the Roman Empire. During the Middle Ages it would continue to be a prosperous region of Europe, supporting many wealthy cities (Florence, Pisa, Siena, Lucca) and enjoying the benefits of its distinct environment. Tuscany was divided into many valleys separated by low mountains and finally the Apennines, even by that time relatively ancient mountains of lower elevation. Villages and cities developed that specialized in grain, wine, and olive oil production. Frequently the villages were built on hillsides, relying on the mountains for protection, and farmers walked down the hill to their fields or vineyards. Different sides of a valley could specialize in different crops, depending on the soil or the amount of sunlight a patch of land received. These microclimates often led farmers to plant the flat lands with grain while covering the hillsides with trees and vineyards, a system that also eased cultivation and harvest. Because the winters were relatively mild compared to much of Europe, the stone farmhouses built from the most available local materials did a satisfactory job of sheltering peasants, unlike in northern Europe, where they would have been too cold and the stone too expensive.

Rhine Valley. Stretching from the English Channel to Switzerland, the Rhine was one of medieval Europe’s great rivers, and communities developed along it well before the Christian era. In the Middle Ages the river itself was a major transportation route between north and south, and the plain on its eastern and western banks provided extremely fertile farmland. For these reasons, the Rhine Valley would be one of the earliest and most heavily fortified regions in medieval Europe, with stone keeps and larger castles built by nobles and robber-barons at almost every bend in the river. Traders using the river would be stopped at each of these sites, and a duty was demanded to pass that stretch of river. In spite of these taxes, transportation on the Rhine was still more economical and safer than travel by overland routes. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the Rhine Valley would become one of the regions in Europe that experienced a burst of urbanization, fostered by trade and agricultural prosperity.


Wolfgang Behringer, “Weather, Hunger and Fear: The Origins of the European Witch Persecution in Climate, Society and Mentality,” German History 13 (1995): 1-27.

David L. Clawson and James S. Fisher, World Regional Geography, sixth edition (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1998).

Brian Fagan, Floods, Families, and Emperors: En Niño and the Fate of Civilization (New York: BasicBooks, 1999).

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Times of Feast, Times of Famine: A History of Climate Since the Year 1000, translated by Barbara Bray (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971).