Illustration of the different shapes of snow in Olaus Magnus Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (History of the Northern Peoples), book 1 chapter 22 (1555).
Photo: [wikimedia commons]

Freezing cold. Northern European imaginaries of winter, snow and ice during the Little Ice Age

Research project
Active research
Project period
2023 - 2026
Project owner
Department of Literature, History of Ideas, and Religion

Short description

The project explores winter, snow, and ice during the historical period known as the Little Ice Age (approximately 1550-1800). It examines how cold was represented in natural philosophy, travel diaries, art, and literature. The sub-projects focus on the Swedish winter during the 17th and 18th centuries, innovative theories about cold in early modern natural philosophy, and the dramatic encounters of polar explorers with Arctic nature. The project engages various scientific disciplines, but the project participants are rooted in history of ideas and aesthetics. By mapping and investigating conceptions of cold in early modern Northern European culture, the project offers new perspectives on the cultural significance of cold and contributes to the cultural history of climate.

Freezing cold. Northern European imaginaries of winter, snow and ice during the Little Ice Age

What is the cold? In times of global warming the question calls for new attention. Is the cold first and foremost a measurable temperature in an object or in the atmosphere? Or, a spell of cold weather? A physical sensation of the lack of heat? A tangible freezing perception? And, how does scientific explications of the cold correspond to existential experiences? This project takes its starting point from the assertion that climate change has emphasised the need to historicise our understanding of natural phenomena, such as cold and heat. It puts today’s concern and worry about climatic transformation in perspective and investigates a period in history that was marked by extreme weather conditions. By exploring imaginaries of northern European winter, snow and ice during the Little Ice Age (ca 1550–1800) it aims to advance our understanding of discursive, experiential and existential dimensions of the cold. It will thereby contribute to the cultural history of climate. The overall research questions are:

• How did the cold become an object of knowledge during the Little Ice Age?
• In what ways were different experiences and theories of the cold articulated, represented and disseminated?

These questions will be addressed through three teamed up case studies each responding to specific aspects of the cold as an emerging object of knowledge in early modern northern European culture: theories of the cold within early modern natural philosophy; encounters with the cold, snow and ice in polar region travelogues; lived experiences, knowledge and imaginaries of the winter season in early modern Sweden. Accordingly, the project offers to the cultural meaning of the cold.

The motivation for the project theme is inspired by Brian Fagan’s words that “[t]he vicissitudes of the Little Ice Age remind us of our vulnerability again and again. In a new climate era, we would be wise to learn from the climate lessons of history” (Fagan, The Little Ice Age. How Climate made History, 2000:217). What climate lessons? While the ongoing effects of climate change on the earth systems and the biosphere are fairly well mapped, the existential dimensions of the current waning cold have been less researched, though frequently highlighted in public media. The environmental crisis has surely created a heightened emotional consciousness in relation to the cold: “It breaks my winter heart”, a Swedish skier recently said in response to the prognosis that the winter season is shrinking and becoming more unpredictable. Social movements such as the NGO Protect Our Winters mobilise lovers of cold outdoor life in the fight for climate actions at large. Winter bathing and other chilly activities are promoted as ways to personal health and happiness. And, upon the increased need of artificial snow for winter sports a journalist sadly comments: “Without the [natural] snow, life is deprived of the feeling of safety and trust”. Snow represents a core feature of who we are, our shared culture and heritage, and solastalgia has been suggested as a name for this kind of anxiety caused by environmental changes and rapidly transformed landscape. The project will give ear to these northern European worries by calling attention to our shared heritage of cold experiences in history.

Naturally, long before the Little Ice Age and not least in the northern hemisphere, the cold was always a regular part of human life. It was a familiar and well-known experience, but at the same time something frightening, puzzling and mysterious. Its origins were disputed and the chill often associated with repulsion, death and magic. Northern and polar travellers reported of their first meeting with the “cold, comfortlesse, dark and dreadfull” conditions, but also marvelled at the “many, many wonders”. In early modern times these wondrous features were brought to the fore. Snow, ice and wintry landscapes became objects of curiosity as a part of the search for new knowledge within the so-called scientific revolution. In this context the cold was addressed in unprecedented philosophical, aesthetic and explorative ways and contexts, and impulse to study the cold was often expressed with a sensation of amazement. René Descartes’s vivid impression of a snowstorm in Amsterdam in 1635 is telling, as are his scientific illustrations of snow flakes, cold weather and wind. Robert Boyle, a self-appointed pioneer of the study of cold, dedicated a whole book to the matter in 1665 in which he stated that “notwithstanding Cold being so important a subject, it has hitherto been almost totally neglected”. These first steps were followed up by the development of meteorological instruments and scientific work, but a century later a philosophical agreement on the nature of cold was far away, as was declared in the Encyclopedie article on “FROID” in 1757. By highlighting the intellectual as well as the emotional complexity of the cold, the project will explore both fears and wondrous aspects.

Early modern endeavours to understand the effects of the cold can certainly be connected to the lived experience of the extreme weather conditions during the Little Ice Age. As a geohistorical epoch this age is broadly dated from the late Middle Ages to mid-1800s. The project is nevertheless framed by a time span from the late 1500s to the early decades of the 1800s, when cold spells were particularity frequent and severe. Historical research has shown that the age was marked by frequent famines and political crises, and that the cold had social, economic and political repercussions. While acknowledging these important results, the project focuses on other aspects of the cold. It explores how “cold imaginaries” of epistemological and aesthetic significance were created, represented and contested during the studied time period.

The climatic state of the Little Ice Age affected different parts of the world in various ways, but the phenomenon of the cold as such was generally associated with the North and the characteristics of a northern landscape: snow, ice, glaciers, icebergs, northern light, sounds of breaking ice, the silence of snowfall etcetera. The North as a concept is here understood as the sum of material and cultural constituents. It is a dynamic state of imagination, conceptualisation, practises, and representations as much as a measurable reality with clear and fixed borders. While recognising that this “imaginary North” includes all polar and circumpolar regions of the Globe, the project will be limited to northern Europe. This delineation is thematically motivated by the abundance of sources on the cold emanating from this region – such as travel accounts, newspaper reports on winter conditions and poetical renderings of icy nature. So, the urge to fathom the cold, expressed by European natural philosophers like Descartes and Boyle, was not an isolated quest. The discoveries within natural philosophy during the Little Ice Age and the success of new measuring technologies, indeed tapped into large-scale production of “cold imaginaries” in early modern culture at large. To these belong Olaus Magnus’s very influential descriptions of the “huge power which the frost, or cold, possesses in the North, as if this were its own native region [demonstrated] through the sense of feeling rather than by authorities”; illustrations in scientific publications, such as the iconography of snowflakes begun by Kepler and Descartes; the golden age of the magnificent winter landscapes of Dutch painting; travelogues from northern whaling expeditions. These representations could act as exotic curiosities but also legitimate sources of information on the North. And, intertwined with the amazement and motivation for pursuing knowledge of the cold, both in science and in art, was of course practical realities and less marvellous aspects of the cold on everyday life: the storage of food, the usage of winter roads, the colonial exploration of northern resources, Rembrandt’s depictions of freezing beggars, and so on.

The project has a multidisciplinary approach. Its originality lies in that it brings together history of ideas and science with aesthetics, to contribute to the culture history of climate.

By addressing cold experiences as something with existential significance, generating various “cold imaginaries”, the project offers novel insights into the ways in which climate and weather can imply cultural meaning. Contributing to an underexplored part of the cultural history of climate, the project will develop new knowledge about the innovative forms of experiencing, understanding and imagining the cold in early modern northern Europe during the Little Ice Age. This will be done by paying attention to source material that is largely unstudied or that has only briefly been discussed by scholars. It will also approach previously researched source material from new perspectives. To the first category belongs the many observations, representations and newspaper reports related to the cold in early modern Sweden as well as treatises on the cold by European natural philosophers. To the second category belongs the travelogues from expeditions to Svalbard, from late sixteenth century to early nineteenth century. This illustrated travel literature from Svalbard has not been studied before from the perspective of experience and aesthetics. By studying the northern cold during the Little Ice Age as an experiential, aesthetic and explorative phenomenon, the project will provide new knowledge of the cultural history of climate. The scientific significance is furthermore brought attention to in relation to the current climate crisis that has triggered emotions of anxiety and solastalgia, in particular with regards to the waning winters in the North and the frequency of abnormal spells of summer heat.

Illustration av olika snöflingor.
Some of Carl Johan Wilcke's depicted snowflakes, printed in connection with the article ”Rön och Tankar om Snö-figurers Skiljaktighet” (Observations and Thoughts on the Diversity of Snow Figures) in the Transactions of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 1761.
Photo: Bild ur KVAs handlingar från 1761.