Whatever Happened to Puritan Wine?

Tom Finnerty17 Sep, 2020 4 Min Read
Massachusetts or bust.

Writing back in February, Christopher Horner had a great line which pops back into my head every now and again:

[C]limate changes – it always has, it always will. Of course, saying “climate changes” makes one a “climate change denier.” Go figure.

I was reminded of his observation recently, while reading David Hackett Fischer's classic historical study, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. The book itself argues that America's complex culture can be understood, in large part, by looking at the waves of English-speaking settlers who came to the New World between 1629 and 1775, with each wave bringing men and women from a particular region of England to a particular region in America, and with them the peculiar habits and mores (and accents) of their points of origin.

In the first section of the book, concerning the emigration of East Anglians to Massachusetts in the early 1600s, Hackett Fischer describes the initial, and fairly grim, encounter with the New World of those Puritans who had crossed over on the advance ships of the Winthrop Fleet, as documented in their journals:

Their first sight of America was not encouraging. In the month of June 1629, when England was all in bloom, these weary travelers reached the Grand Bank of Newfoundland. Suddenly the wind turned bitter cold and they passed an enormous iceberg hard aground in forty fathoms of frigid water, with the green Atlantic surf roaring against it. It seemed to be "a mountain of ice, shining as white as snow, like to a great rock or cliff," towering above their little ships. In great fear they sailed onward through a foggy night, while drift ice scraped dangerously against fragile hulls and the ships' drums beat mournfully in the darkness.

Dress warm, Pilgrims!

As they traveled further south towards Massachusetts Bay, things became more pleasant, but Hackett Fischer spends some time meditating on the unusual climate of the land the Puritans found themselves in, which proved surprisingly amenable to the foundation of their "Calvinist utopia."

The first and most important environmental fact about New England is that it was cold -- much colder in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than today. The Puritans arrived in a period of the earth's history which climatologists call the "little ice age." Ocean temperatures off the coast of New England were three degrees centigrade colder in the eighteenth century than the mid-twentieth. In the coldest years of the seventeenth century, the water temperature off New England approached that near southern Labrador today. The Puritans complained of "piercing cold," and salt rivers frozen solid through the winter. One wrote that many lost the use of fingers and feet, and "some have had their overgrown beards so frozen together that they could not get their strong-water bottles into their mouths."

It's worth noting that Hackett Fischer doesn't say a single word about the industrial revolution or any other purported horseman of anthropogenic climate change. Most historians would include a virtue signalling nod in this direction today, but Albion's Seed was written in 1989, just before the current climate narrative had hardened into gospel. He simply states the widely shared interpretation of climatological data of the time.

Welcome to the Bay State: brrrr.

That interpretation was, essentially, that fairly dramatic worldwide climatic fluctuation is a common feature of both the historical and scientific records, with the Roman and Medieval warming periods providing a background to the expansion of the Roman Empire, the far-flung voyages of the Vikings, and the building of the great cathedrals. (There is also agricultural evidence for this warming, memorably mentioned by Mark Steyn, who pointed out that in the Middle Ages, there were vineyards "in places where one would certainly not dare to drink any local wine now," such as northern and southeastern England).

And then, round about 1300, the world began to cool, with the aforementioned Little Ice Age as the result. (Though even this is an overly-neat presentation of the data, as we know that there was a dramatic cold spell in the 900s A.D., and tree-ring records seem to indicate that some of the hottest years in the history of the Mediterranean occurred during the Little Ice Age).

Temperatures began to rebound in the mid-19th century, though they haven't done so in anything like a straight line, as the popular presentation seems to suggest. In 1974, Time Magazine famously warned us all about what was then "three decades" of global cooling, which, it was speculated, could be "the harbinger of another ice age." More recently, beginning in the late 1990s, temperatures have been more or less flat, which climatologists have taken to calling the "pause" in global warming (though one wonders if this "pause" is the basis for their terminological shift to the more accurate, if less meaningful, "climate change"). All of which is to say, there have been ups and downs, as well as plateaus.

Of course, from the perspective of the experts invested in climate change, these fluctuations had to be made to disappear. As John Robson put it,

Climate doomsters don’t like to talk about the Little Ice Age for obvious reasons: a natural temperature drop between around 1300 and 1650 and a rebound after 1850 make it pretty plain that much of the increase in the last 150 years was, at least prima facie, natural as well. And to get rid of the LIA they also had to do in the Medieval Warm Period, along with the Roman and Minoan ones and for that matter the Holocene Climate Optimum.

The climate changes. Modern climatologists would have you believe that change is rare, that gentle cooling was the norm for at least a thousand years before humans started emitting significantly more carbon through industrial activities. But both sides of that statement -- the gentle decline and dramatic increase of temperatures -- are contradicted by both science and history.

Just ask the Puritans, who might not have been induced to leave East Anglia had it been full of the vineyards their distant ancestors had once tended there. Then again, considering the abstemious nature of their sect, had they grown up surrounded by the grape, they might never have become Puritans.

Tom Finnerty writes from New England and Ontario.

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