Climate and famine in the far North

Finnish historian Heli Huhtamaa is writing part of her doctoral thesis at the Oeschger Centre. She was drawn to Bern by the pioneering work of the group for environmental history and historical climatology at the Institute of History.

Finnish mediaevalists are lucky. They don't have to spend their days endlessly trawling through archives in order to find information. Most documents from the Middle Ages are accessible on line - as is normally the case in the other northern European countries as well. "The number of written sources we have is somewhat limited," laughs historian Heli Huhtamaa, a doctoral student from the University of Eastern Finland. "When people in Bern try to tell me how small the city is, I think to myself: Just come and take a look at us in Joensuu! I come from a very sparsely inhabited area."

Heli Huhtamaa is a historian of the climate - an extremely rare species in Finland. She realised she would have to go abroad if she wanted to break out of her isolation and progress as a scientist. "My first choice was Bern, because this is a place were I can exchange ideas with the pioneers of historical climatology," she explains. She is referring to climate historian Christian Pfister, now retired, and his successor Christian Rohr, in whose research group Heli Huhtamaa is currently a visiting student. She has transferred her work on her dissertation to Switzerland for one year, at the invitation of the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation, which has awarded her a Swiss Government Excellence Scholarship. This is a special award given to only a handful of up-and-coming researchers each year.

Dual speciality an ideal background

In her doctoral thesis Heli Huhtamaa, who has an MA in history and MSc in geography, is looking at the interaction between climate, food systems and human well-being. She is investigating how the resilience of societies in northern Europe to fluctuations in the climate varied during the pre-modern period. In order to trace the relationship between humans and the climate she is combining historical documents with information from climate and environmental archives - such as lake sediments, which contain cereal pollen and other indicators of land-use history. Another important source material is the remains of grains, animal bones and wild berries that are preserved in medieval settlement layers. These micro- and macrofossils, as they are known, yield information not only about which crops were being cultivated when, but also what the hunter-gatherers of mediaeval Finland were eating. "The documents tell us nothing about the way this section of the population lived," she explains.

There is basically very little known about how the populations of northern Europe coped with fluctuations in the climate in the past. This gap in the historiography is exactly what appeals to Heli Huhtamaa. "The general presumption is that societies were very vulnerable to the severe northern climate. I should like to know whether that really was the case, or whether when we say this we are not just repeating the story that has been handed down."

In her MA thesis (entitled: "Frosts, Floods, and Famines - Climate in Relation to Hunger in North-East Europe A.D. 1100-1550"), Heli Huhtamaa, with her interdisciplinary interests, provided some initial answers to this question. She compared the description of famines in the chronicles of the Hanseatic City of Novgorod, among others, with temperature reconstructions obtained from tree rings. This led her to the following conclusions: Climate fluctuations did not threaten people's survival as long as they occurred slowly; it was above all rapid and unexpected changes that led to famine. But not only that: social changes were also a cause of famine in the Middle Ages. Paradoxically, the development of agriculture and the specialisation that came in its wake made people more vulnerable. In other words, it appears that hunter-gatherers were more skilled at dealing with extreme climatic conditions than sedentary farmers were.

Similarities of approach to climate crises

Discussions with colleagues in Bern - "the most interesting exchanges occur quite spontaneously during coffee breaks" - have given Heli Huhtamaa new ideas especially as far as methodology is concerned. But she hopes that the content of her research will also benefit from her new academic environment. "I should like to discover whether there are similarities between Switzerland and north-eastern Europe in the way people coped with food crises," she says.

Heli Huhtamaa sees her personal future in academia - but probably not in her own country. "Finland is simply too small for climate historians for now," she says. Her scholarship year in Switzerland is a first step on her international career path. And she will very soon be taking the next ones. The University of Stirling in Scotland has invited her to deliver a talk at a workshop on medieval mortality crises. And the American Society for Environmental History has accepted her proposal to present a paper at its annual congress in San Francisco in 2014.

Heli Huhtamaa Frost

The interest to understand climate is not a new phenomenon. Medieval people kept close track of weather and seasonal climatic variability. This woodcut illustrates the freezing cold winters of the North. (Source: Olaus Magnus (1555) 'Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus'.)

Olaus Magnus Carta Marina

The Carta Marina (1539) is the earliest detailed map of the Nordic countries. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)