The ‘Great Frost’ comes to Devon?

A double update for you this week, because, as often happens, another strand of interesting material emerged which I just had to share. As you can imagine, after cataloguing a collection for a few months you begin to become aware of things that are outside the normal run of things, such as a preponderance of highway material for a session, indicating that the road network was particularly suffering at that point in time, or documentation about out of the ordinary events, like the ‘skimmington ride’ I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

Well, for Midsummer Sessions 1740 there were no fewer than 85 presentments (these are the documents detailing allegations) and 113 recognisances (binding people to turn up to court to answer charges, or give evidence about crimes committed). While these are relatively large numbers, that’s not completely out of the ordinary, but the fact that the crimes are, in the majority, related to thefts of food, agricultural equipment and fuel, indicated that times had been hard in Devon the previous winter, and the Midsummer sessions was mopping up the resulting crime wave.

So, I did a bit of digging, and it turns out that 1740 was a terrible year in Ireland, a year whose winter and sping were known as the ‘Great Frost,’ where families burned through winter fuel reserves in matters of days to try to survive, where harvests were meagre, and people perished of famine. Although the hardships of 1740 have been overshadowed by the terrors of the Potato Famine a century later, the Irish Famine of 1740-41 was so terrible that contemporaries called it the ‘Bliain an Áir’ or ‘Year of Slaughter.’

Most scholarship I’ve found so far focuses almost without exception on the situation in Ireland, but even within this scholarship there is an acknowledgement that the weather system causing the hardship in Ireland prevailed over most of Europe; indeed, weather readings from mainland Britain indicate that the weather was just as bad on this side of the Irish Sea, too.

What caused the unseasonal weather is not currently known with any certainty, though similar years or periods of hardship and unseasonable winters affecting the entire Continent often have links to volcanic eruptions in other parts of the world lowering global temperatures through the accumulation of ash and soot in the Earth’s atmosphere, as happened after the Krakatoa eruption in the nineteenth century (the noise of which interestingly, produced what is reckoned to be the loudest sound ever heard in human history). The 1783 eruption of Laki, in Iceland, caused famine across Europe thanks to the volume of ash ejected blocking sunlight, and the flouride within the ash which poisoned crops and livestock. In this light, the eruptions of Mount Asahi and Mount Tarumai in Japan in 1739 and the subsequent unusually cold weather in Europe may indeed be related.

But what of the people of Devon? Well, depressingly it seems the justices of the peace, confronted with this crime wave, reacted by transporting just about everyone convicted of crimes of theft. Eighteenth century society, though often branded ‘enlightened’ had yet to make the link between the reality that when people were facing starvation they became more likely to turn to  crime to survive the period of hardship. It was not the nature of the eighteenth century world to attempt to understand the underlying reasons for waves of crime of this nature; instead such episodes were seen as threats to the social order which had to be removed, in this case to the colonies.

As is often the case with cataloguing this material, I feel gald that I don’t live in the eighteenth century world. We have the tools to understand these kinds of social situations more deeply, and the capacity to respond to them with greater humanity than our forebears did. Nevertheless, we must always remember that it is not whether we call ourselves ‘enlightened,’ as our eighteenth century forebears did, that actually makes us so, but whether we act in similar situations today with an enlightened attitude towards the genuine human misery these situations can cause.

As an optimist, I like to think that we do. And on that philosophical note, I’ll wish you all a great weekend!

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