Ask Me Another cont.
This is a continuation of the “Ask Me Another” conversation with Michael Jones, the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies.
You’ve suggested that climate change and subsequent famine had much to do with the displacement of the Britons by Anglo-Saxon invaders in the fifth century. What prompted your scholarship to go in this direction?
In Europe, I studied historical geography, which focuses on many of the same questions and interests that environmental studies is developing in the United States.
I was enamored with the historiographical tradition that came out of the Annales School of France, with Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel. They pioneered the concept of “total history,” that history was more than politics, war or social relations. You also had to understand the natural world to understand human culture in a particular time. So, they contrasted traditional history based on events with total history. I thought that sensible.
Braudel in particular said that climate and geographical location were important factors. But he believed that climate changed so slowly that effects on peoples’ conceptions of themselves or their actions would not be noticed. This gradualist model of climate change was what I inherited from my interest in historical geography.
But Braudel and others were studying the Mediterranean world. And they had not experienced in their lifetimes much in the way of climatic variation. So, it was wrenching for me to say that Braudel and the Annales School were wrong — climate change can occur quickly enough to create measurable and significant historical change, as it did at the ending of Roman Britain.
What is your scholarship focused on now?
I’m trying to chart the occurrence of famine between A.D. 300 and 700 in western Europe, north of the Alps, to test how important famine might be as a historical driver. In isolating particular episodes of famine, I’m trying to discover which famines were induced by environmental crisis and which famines were caused primarily by human agencies. Within the study of famine, there’s a lively theoretical debate as to whether famine is caused in a neo-Malthusian way, by overpopulation, lack of resources and environmental factors, or if it is more often the result of power inequities.
If I can find a corpus of closely dated famine episodes that seem to be the result of environmental crisis, and if I can match those episodes against ice-core records — which include proxy information about the atmosphere and climate — I might be able to correlate a particular set of environmental conditions with the occurrence of environmentally caused famine. Significantly, ice cores provide a continuous record, so historians could make inferences about the relative scarcity of food supplies in periods even where there are few or no written records at all. Of course, I might be chasing a philosopher’s stone!
Is there a famine you have in mind?
After the initial success of the fifth-century Anglo-Saxon invasions, there’s a political and military deadlock between the Anglo-Saxons and other peoples in Britain. Then in the mid-sixth century, something happens to allow the Anglo-Saxons to break out and run the table all the way to what will become the Scottish frontier in the north and the Welsh frontier in the west.
A year that sticks out in the ice cores and pollen records and tree ring chronologies is about 540 A.D. Something catastrophically awful happened then. Maybe a volcanic eruption, or meteor or comet strike. There are terrible suggestions of economic problems and economic crisis, and probably renewed famine. It is intriguing that the Anglo-Saxon invasions might be bookended by environmental crisis and famine.
Because we are now in a period of apparent climate change, does it inspire scholars to look at the past through the lens of climate?
When secondary-school educators adopt a topic such as abrupt climate change and use it in their classes, that creates an interest and, in a sense, a market for that idea. When graduate schools focus on a topic, this perpetuates study of that topic topic and related interests. Then the products of graduate schools teach in colleges. Inevitably, present concerns are brought back to the study of the past, sometimes with good relevance, sometimes not. It’s a good example of how the present always influences the investigations of the past.
In all honesty, however, when I started looking at the climate angle and the end of Roman Britain, popular issues of global warming were not at all present.
You’re a Texan. Are you amused or bemused by the Puritanical devotion to the Red Sox, and by your colleague Peg Creighton’s Short Term course on “Red Sox Nation”?
To agitate my good friend, I feign a contemptuous indifference to the Red Sox Nation. They’re mercenaries with sticks. As a Texas Longhorn fan and a historian, however, I can understand how identity and sports teams work together.