Sixth Century Climate Change?

17 Oct

The new issue of Speculum showed up in the mail last week. The first article was by Paolo Squatriti titled, “The Floods of 589 and Climate Change at the Beginning of the Middle Ages: An Italian Microhistory.” I read the title and thought it would be a really good article, in part because this is an area I’m pretty familiar with. One of the things I do is when I’m at a Medieval Conference and introduce myself, when someone asks me what my field of study is, my usual response is, “I’m a pure amateur, I believe I’m the least intelligent person here.” Obviously I know there’s a difference between intelligence and knowledge but I’m shooting for humor – I don’t want people to think I’m whining about the situation. If the person I’m talking to is interested enough, I might invite him or her (humorously) to a Conference I’m presenting at and say, “Don’t worry – there are places where I’m actually fairly intelligent. Feel free to come and then I can be the smart one.”

So I read the title and thought this might be an opportunity, on my blog, to demonstrate that yeah, there are things I’m actually competent in. The first few pages of the article did nothing to alter my thoughts. Dr. Squatriti tracked how the flood event in 589 that impacted Rome has frequently been pointed to as a symptom of climate change, including statements such as, “The result [of climate change described by historians] was a post-Roman Italy of scraggly forests and soggy marshes, traversed by wild torrents that Muratori [an 18th century historian] repeatedly contrasted with the agricultural order he and his contemporaries in Modena could see around them.” (799) He continued to track the evolution of this position to “. . . the phenomenon modern historians usually call the ‘rotta della Cucca,’ or ‘the Cucca Breach.'”

The Cucca Breach is a title given to a series of alterations in the landscape of sixth century Italy resulting from heavy rains and snows. This changed watercourses, caused the abandonment of previously productive agricultural lands in the Italian peninsula and the growth of swampland. On first reading, I didn’t sense that Squatriti was going to do anything but fine tune this concept – add some details regarding the 589 event but subscribe to the overall theory. By this time I had mentally crafted a blog post in response discussing the abandonment of lands due to loss of population from the Plague, Justinian Wars, Lombard Invasion and Merovingian raids and wars. I planned to download some Italian data layers (or maybe not – I have 20 Gigs of worldwide GIS data on CD’s) including forests, soil types, waterways, throw them in ArcMap, combine them with some of my own layers related to land use, soils and drainage, and describe why some other options may be more feasible than climate change to explain the growth of swampland. This was gonna be good.

 Artificial drainage structures for a Central Indiana County necessary to keep it from being a swamp

Imagine my disappointment when I arrived at this statement, “In this essay I will . . . disengage the extreme weather events recorded for late 589 from the so-called climactic worsening of late antiquity.” (802) I then woke up, realized this article was not about me – or at least not a means by which I could demonstrate my brilliance through my blog, went back to re-read the first few pages, and regained a bit of sense about this.

The severe weather events of 589 are mentioned in multiple sources. The sources describe a massive flood whereby the banks of the Tiber were breached causing massive destruction in Rome. Some of the sources are a bit more creative. Gregory of Tours was quite analytical, describing a chain of events resulting in the election of Gregory the Great as Pope. 1

The Liber Pontificalis is less colorful, “At that time the rains were so great that everyone said the waters of the Flood had overflowed; so great was the disaster that no one could remember anything ever like it.” 2

Paul the Deacon recounted events much as Gregory did (you kind of have to assume that, writing at Charlemagne’s court, Paul had access to Gregory’s Historiae) complete with snakes, dragons, pestilence and Gregory the Great becoming Pope. 3

Gregory the Great himself refers to this event in his Dialogues though his account was much less dramatic than those of Gregory of Tours and Paul. 4

In any case, what we have here is a big flood, remarkably well-dated to the fall of 589, sometimes(according to Gregory of Tours and Paul) accompanied by rain and storms, which did substantial damage to Rome.

Here’s where this article gets interesting. After tracing the 589 Flood historiography and its mentions in sources (I haven’t listed all of them – just those I have) Squatriti enters into a discussion of whether this can be seen as an event accompanying climate change. He believes it should not. First – and I have a hard time believing a historian would do this – he restates the caution against the cardinal sin of using an isolated weather event, however severe, as a symptom of longer-term, broader climate events. He then begins to separate 589 from a series of events which could be linked to describe this broader event.

He makes several points leading up to this however his ultimate and most interesting comments related to this involve regional or micro-climates. He recognizes that there is some evidence to suggest that Europe was becoming cooler and wetter during the 6th century – but that this evidence is not from Italy but from areas to the north and west. He further discusses Italy as part of the “Mediterranean isoclimactic area” rather than continental Europe, where so much of the climate data originates. (813)

He relates several periods where climate impacting the remainder of Europe does not seem to have impacted Italy, such as the lack of tree ring alteration during the Medieval Warm Period and suggests that this indicates that a cooler wetter continental Europe in the 6th century does not necessarily indicate the same in Italy. Finally he points to alluvial deposits (deposits from flooding) and delta growth. The Tiber delta was relatively stable during the 6th century, as were its deposits from flooding, indicating that nothing remarkable was going on. (815) The Adige River is much more interesting as, south of Verona, in some areas there is evidence of increased flooding – and in some areas the flooding appears to be reduced from the norm. (816-7) Overall, Squatriti does not see evidence for major climate change in 6th century Italy, or that the 589 flood should be used as evidence of this.

What he does believe the 589 event can be used as evidence of is something I had never considered before and relates to how it was referenced by the sources. Squatriti believes the emphasis this event has received in the sources is related to Gregory the Great, not the flood itself. He argues that the flood was viewed as a direct precursor and in fact as something of a triggering event in the elevation of Gregory as Pope. “Its [the 589 flood] unusual memorialization is certainly related to the renown of Gregory the Great in the Middle Ages, much more, I would suggest, than to any sense that the floods were especially devastating.” (819)

He argues that Gregory of Tours’ account relates to his view that good may come from even the worst occurrences and that Paul the Deacon uses it to point out that the Lombards were not the enemies of God. (820-1)

One issue he doesn’t raise which I think should be considered is that Gregory of Tours would likely have considered the flood a necessary cleansing event where evil is washed out from the city, as represented by the serpents and dragon, to prepare the way for good, in the person of Gregory the Great, to lead the Catholic religion and faithful. Perhaps it’s just that I’ve recently read so many of Gregory’s miracle stories but his propensity to relate a cleansing purge; as indicated by the ejection from the body of blood, pus or vomit; with healing seems to me to have a very strong parallel with a flood washing away evil serpents in order to cleanse Rome.

In any case, though I wasn’t able to show everyone how smart I am, (grin) I found this to be an interesting article. To a certain extent I think the climate change in 6th century Italy issue is still a bit up in the air with some contradictory evidence however I found Squatriti’s argument persuasive; that the prominence of the 589 flood in sources was related to the importance with which the authors viewed Gregory the Great.

1 Historiae X.1; Gregory’s deacon, Agiulf, told him about an event on November of 589 where a flood destroyed several churches and large stores of grain. The flood was accompanied by a bunch of snakes swimming downstream, including “. . . a tremendous dragon as big as a tree-trunk . . .” The snakes and dragons washed up on shore, died, began to rot and caused a plague which killed the current Pope, Pelagius, resulting in Gregory the Great’s elevation to the papacy.

2 Liber Pontificalis 65

3 Historia Langobardorum III.24; Unlike Gregory, Paul neglects to connect rotting carcasses with the onset of disease.

4 Dialogues, 3.19; How dramatic is a bit objective. If you’re interested in the Church of the martyr Zeno, Gregory’s account had plenty of drama. If you’re into serpents and dragons, not so much.

Davis, Raymond, trans., The Book of Pontiffs (Liber Pontificalis), 2nd ed. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (2000). ISBN: 9-780853-235453.

*Gardner, Edmund, ed., Warner, P. L., trans., The Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great. Merchantville, NJ: Evolution Publishing (2010). ISBN: 9-781889-758947.

Peters, Edward, ed., Foulke, William Dudley, trans., Paul the Deacon: History of the Lombards. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2003). ISBN: 9-780812-210798.

Squatriti, Paolo (2010). “The Floods of 589 and Climate Change at the Beginning of the Middle Ages: An Italian Microhistory”, Speculum 85, 799-826.

Thorpe, Lewis, trans., Gregory of Tours: The History of the Franks. London: Penguin Books (1974). ISBN: 9-780140-442953.

*This is not the greatest edition. I’d recommend getting the Deferrari (1939) edition if you can find it. Unfortunately it’s out of print and used copies are very high priced. I finally picked this up so I’d at least have something.

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Posted by on October 17, 2010 in Environment


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