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Rain stops play: Wet summers in Elizabethan England

The world is largely covered by water and most of it seems to have fallen on Britain in the last few months. It is not surprising that Brits are ridiculed for talking so much about the weather, since we do. It is also not surprising we should talk about the weather when it is so changeable and hard to predict.

Last winter was unusually mild and dry leading to hosepipe bans in many parts of the country. Then it started to rain, and April proved to be the wettest April since records began. Things cheered up a little in May, but it started to rain at the beginning of June (just in time for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee) and didn’t really stop until the Olympics had concluded at the end of August. It proved to be the wettest summer since 1912, though as it turns out records only go back to 1910 it’s hard to say where it stands in a league table of wretched summers.

An all-time list would probably have to include the first Elizabethan era when it seems there were heavy rains in May, June and July of 1594 and a further bad summer in 1596. These appear to have inspired Shakespeare’s description of a soggy, miserable world which he gave to Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (apaprently written between those years). In argument with Oberon, she declares,

Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable:
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.

One immediately striking fact about the passage is its length and detail, while adding almost no development to the drama. The second obvious thing is that it doesn’t sound very much like the Mediterranean. When we think of Greece, we think of financial crisis. We don’t tend to think of ghastly summer weather (or Morris dancing, come to that).

This clearly didn’t bother Shakespeare. Whether he was writing about Ancient Greece, or Rome or Illyria or Bohemia, he was really writing about our damp, green island – and his audience would have appreciated an extended grumble about the weather. The speech begins with a tenuous link to the plot when Titania asserts that the cause of all the flooding is her dispute with Oberon. Their quarrel having upset the natural order, this resulted in ‘contagious fogs’ being sucked from the sea and dumped on land, causing the ‘pelting’ rivers ‘made so proud’ to overflow their ‘continents.’

She then moves on to describe the ruined harvest, the ox and ploughman who have worked in vain and the green corn that ‘hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard’. Despite the gloominess of scene, Shakespeare couldn’t here resist a metaphorical flourish, though likening the wispy growth on the ears of wheat to a young man’s downy beard is a deft touch. The crop is lost and livestock equally affected. The sheepfold stands empty in a drowned field and crows fatten themselves on the corpses of diseased animals.

It all sounds grim. For us, a spoilt harvest means little more than a few pence more for a loaf of bread, not the absence of bread. We can buy grain on the world markets. Prices will be high because whilst we have had months of rain, wheat producing areas of the US and Russia suffered drought. Global supplies are short, but we won’t starve, though people in the poorest countries will. Unrest there may follow; ‘A hungry man is an angry man,’ to quote Bob Marley. In the 1590s scarcity of food led to riots in London and in the 1780s a series of calamitous harvests was a contributory cause of the French Revolution.

Shakespeare explored the link between grain shortage and rebellion in Coriolanus (c1607-09) in which plebeians attack the nobility for allegedly hoarding grain at a time of widespread starvation. This might make Shakespeare seem like the people’s friend, though in 1599 he had been accused of holding ten quarters of corn and malt at a time of grain shortage in Stratford.

We’re unlikely to starve and most won’t face other privations. As it rained outside over the summer, the majority of us were indoors watching the Olympics. Shakespeare’s contemporaries lacked sporting distraction, their nine men’s morris ‘fill’d up with mud’ and ‘quaint mazes’ abandoned on the green. Such pastimes were obviously important in rural areas, without even theatre for solace and it’s interesting that he lists lack of entertainment above another consequence of the rotten season, ‘rheumatic diseases’ that ‘abound’.

It all sounds miserable. Most of us have warm, centrally heated houses. Most of us also have the option of escaping to hot and sunny places like, well, Greece. A Tudor peasant would have just had to sit it out on rat infested straw in a cheerless hovel that was damp, cold and draughty. It was all too much like winter, but without even the compensation of nights with ‘hymn or carol blest’.

The sense that the seasons are deranged is familiar. This year saw the second hottest March day recorded in England (only one in 1938 was hotter), later followed by the coldest night in August on record. Things aren’t as they should be, ‘the seasons alter’. The world is ‘upset’ with ‘seasons out of joint’ and changing ‘their wonted liveries.’

At the end of Titania’s long speech, Shakespeare steers us back to the plot by a reminder that the cause of all this ‘progeny of evils’ comes from her ‘dissension’ with Oberon. The two of them are its ‘parents and original’.

We are more scientific and prefer global warming rather than the spat between a fairy king and queen as a likelier explanation of bad weather. It might be that in a few centuries time our concerns about climate change seem fanciful and superstitious. That might prove to be the case, but the fact is that while we were watching the Olympics, the Arctic sea ice was melting at a faster rate than ever before. A satellite image taken on August 27 showed the ice cap covering 4.11 million sq. km, 50% less than forty years ago. This year, 11.7m sq. km of ice had melted, 22% more than the long term average of 9.18m sq. km.

We should be alarmed. It is believed that melting ice and warming seas will lead to severe disruption of global weather systems. We may well come to look back on a wet summer as the least of our problems.


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