Paris facing the climatic crises of the Little Ice Age (15th-19th centuries)

This scientific project is funded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge,
USA) within the framework of MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI).
It is coordinated by Professors Emmanuel Garnier (CNRS) and Anne E.C. McCants, both
climate historians, and involves the MIT School of Humanities Arts and Social Sciences as well as the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences.

Description of the proposed project

For the UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) and the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Climate change is a global phenomenon that will have a large impact on urban life. Rising global temperatures are a concern in their own right, but also cause sea level rise, increase the number of extreme weather events such as floods, droughts and storms, and facilitate the spread of tropical diseases. All these phenomena have costly impacts on cities’ basic services, infrastructure, housing availability, human livelihoods and health. In view of recent events, such as the 2003 and 2019 heat waves in Europe, cities are proving to be both poorly adapted to climate change. In particular, they are not very resilient from a socio- economic standpoint. Faced with this observation, urban authorities increasingly fear more and more the occurrence of crises that could lead to phenomena of mass dislocation, contagion, social protest, or even violence.

Under these conditions, the project seeks to discover what we can learn from past climate crises in terms of lessons learned from an exceptional urban observatory. Indeed, the city of Paris offers the double advantage of being a city with very high heritage value and of having the richest documentary collections in Europe (and probably in the world) in terms of both duration and content coverage. Our choice of the period (covering the so-called ‘Little Ice Age’) is strategic since it corresponds to one of the worst phases in climatic history of the last millennium. Indeed, the Little Ice Age (LIA) was an extremely challenging time, with advancing glaciers, crop failures, severe extreme weather events in the Paris region (snow, cold, droughts, heat-waves and floods) and of course the famines that accompanied extreme weather events in a predominantly agricultural economy.
There are many potentially sensible approaches to addressing the climate crisis, but also a great many conflicting ideas about the best way forward. This is precisely why there is an urgent need to consult multiple disciplinary approaches as we move forward to strategies for the present. More precisely, this would involve combining the experience of climate historians (CNRS-University of Franche-Comté) and climatologists (CEA Saclay) with that of economic historians from MIT in order to better understand a past episode of climate change and its myriad social and ecological impacts in Paris.
Our first task will be to characterize these extreme events in terms of intensity by using the instrumental data (temperatures, barometric pressure, etc.) available in the Parisian archival documentation. Second, we will assess the damage caused by these disasters by probing both the economic data available (including price, unemployment, fuel sources) as well as social and health indicators (for example mortality, epidemics, riots, etc.). Such an approach has never been carried out to date, which is why we now wish to initiate this new collaborative project.

As part of the time allotted by the France-MIT 2021 call for projects and well aware that its
progress could be further disrupted by the current pandemic, we will focus our research on the following objectives:

  1. An exhaustive study of three key periods in terms of the climate crisis in Paris, namely the years 1570-1660 which were marked by a peak of the LIA and very strong socio- political tensions (migrations, revolts, religious conflicts between Protestants and Catholics); 1700-1740 during which the city had to concurrently face very cold winters (example of the ‘Great Winter’ of 1709) and also hot summers, if not scorching; and finally the pivotal years of 1783-1789 for which it will be necessary to see how the episodes of climatic extremes played a role in the popular discontent which culminated in the revolutionary period beginning in July 1789.
  2. We will focus on the evolution of the prices of two foodstuffs essential for the survival of Parisians, namely bread and firewood, which we will compare with the evolution of mortality and popular protest phenomena in the city.
  3. Finally, we will be interested in the forms of adaptation undertaken by Parisian urban societies from the study of the quality of building construction and energy practices associated with heating in particular (wood, peat, charcoal, and the potential distribution of stoves).

To achieve this, the project will make use of the documentary collections of several major
Parisian institutions with which the French partners already have very strong existing or
ongoing collaborations.

  1. The archives service of the Comédie-Française in Paris, a Mecca of French theater since the 17th century, with which Emmanuel Garnier has already collaborated within the framework of the “Comédie-Française Register Project” coordinated by Jeffrey S. Ravel and funded by MISTI in 2009. These exceptional cultural archives make it possible to study between the years 1660 and 1900 the impact of the climate on this cultural activity, the price of the wood needed to heat buildings and the cost of repairs caused by meteorological disasters.
  2. The National Archives in Paris for their part contain important documents that will be consulted such as the “livre de raison” (private diary) of the bookseller Hardy (1750- 1789) which records all weather hazards and their impact on city-dwellers (price of bread, traffic problems, popular discontent and riots) and the deliberations of the City of Paris which describe the hazards (flood, snow, droughts, storms) that have occurred in Paris and their socio-economic consequences. Access to these documents will be easy because of the current research project « Le Journal de Hardy » in which the French partner is participating and to which the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM) and the Ecole Normale Supérieure (https: // journaldehardy .org / scientific-committee- and-collaborators /) is already linked.
  3. Finally, at the National Library of France we will study the records of the public press, most notably the “Journal de Paris”, a daily newspaper very popular with the bourgeoisie and the nobility which contained meteorological sections and informed Parisians of the risks of flooding from the Seine in particular. We also consult multiple collections of private diaries (ego-documents) kept on site since the end of the 15th century and known under the name of “journals of the bourgeois of Paris”. The specific study of these memoirs and private diaries, will partly concern the history of the genre since some of them were written by women belonging to the court aristocracy, a population that remains underrepresented in the ego-sources used by historians.

RISCDIS persons involved in the project
Anne E.C. McCants (MIT)
Emmanuel Garnier (Chrono-Environnement)

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