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Image from a book titled "Kometenbuch" (The comet book).

What can seventeenth-century sources teach us about living with climate change?

At the beginning of another summer that will likely prove to be the hottest in the planet’s recorded history, it is easy to feel like we are living through a moment without precedent in human history. But it’s a mistake to assume that our histories have nothing to teach us about living under climate change. In my work as a historian of religions, I explore the ways that the religious beliefs of common people during the early modern period were shaped by the Little Ice Age, a period of severe global cooling that peaked in the second half of the seventeenth century.

Rather than turning to orthodox or traditional religious authorities, common people in Europe and the Americas during the Little Ice Age largely turned to esoteric religious sources to make sense of their changing climate. They read and used texts like almanacs, devotional literature, and other popular writings that relied on Hermetic, alchemical, and astrological perspectives to interpret the world around them. What made these texts worthwhile to rural people living through the tumult of the Little Ice Age?

As scholars of esotericism have long suggested, the basic perspective of Hermetic literature and the alchemical traditions that arose from it is a kind of cosmotheism, a religious sense that divine forces are at work in the physical world, the environment, and that human beings are connected with these forces in their environments. These texts portrayed the cosmos as an intelligent and communicative entity, constantly transmitting divine knowledge for anyone who cared to listen. Climate phenomena like frigid cold, failed crops, and darkened skies were symptoms of our interconnection with an environment that seemed to be communicating its own decline.

One of the most popular examples of what I call Hermetic Protestantism was a German devotional author named Johann Arndt. Arndt is largely forgotten today beyond historians of Protestantism, but in seventeenth-century Germany, a place ravaged by war and climate change, he was one of the most popular authors working at the time, bar none. Arndt’s book of Protestant devotion, True Christianity, was in constant print and circulation during the period, even outselling the Bible in some parts of Germany.

What made Arndt’s book so popular? Johann Arndt used (and even plagiarized) esoteric authors like the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus in order to give the Protestant people of northern Europe a religious perspective on their changing climate. As historians of modern Christianity have consistently noted, Lutheranism and an emphasis on scripture and word is entirely absent from Arndt’s work: in its place is a largely Hermetic cosmology of macrocosm and microcosm, derived from his own deep engagement with alchemy and the work of Paracelsus.

Arndt presents a Christian vision of a cosmos in which the suffering of human beings is mirrored by a wider suffering of nature:

The suffering of the macrocosm, that is, the great world, is subsequently fulfilled in the microcosm, that is, in humanity. What is to befall man, nature and the great world suffer first, for the suffering of all creatures, both good and evil, is directed towards man as a center where all lines of the circle converge. For what man owes, nature must suffer first.

In this deeply Paracelsian passage, Arndt envisions an almost ecological (if admittedly anthropocentric) Hermetic Christianity, in which the suffering of the human being is connected to and shared with a wider suffering of the cosmos.

Following the work of comprehensive histories like Geoffrey Parker’s 2013 book Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, we are still at the beginning of understanding how exactly climate change has been a profound factor in even relatively recent human history. In the seventeenth century as surely as today, human beings felt the changes in their environments (even if they did not use contemporary frames of reference like “the environment” to describe them) and expressed their own understandings of themselves as connected with and dependent on the wider world around them. What is striking to me about these sources, which were intensely popular but remain largely understudied, is how they seem to reveal a common population that was remarkably intent on engaging, understanding, and drawing meaning from their changing world, while elite and university sources from the time seem largely oblivious to or unwilling to engage with the environmental signals around them. The more things change.

Reading sources from the seventeenth century will not provide us with strategies for mitigating global climate change—we already have those, and merely lack the political will to implement them. Rather, I interpret sources from this period to better understand the world we inhabit now, a world which has not stopped sending environmental signals to people who are willing to listen. If nothing else, the world of the seventeenth century shows that we are not alone as people living through climate change.

Featured image: Kometenbuch, 1587, State Library and Murhard Library of the City of Kassel. No known copyright restrictions.

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