Tuesday 31 May 2016

Some early thermometers

Record-breaking Fahrenheit thermometer 1718

Not French I know, but it isn't very often that antique thermometers make the national newspapers. In 2012, this thermometer, one of only three known examples manufactured by Fahrenheit,  was sold by Christie's in London for "a whopping £67,000"!

"Thermometer from 300 years ago made by Mr Fahrenheit sells for a whopping £67,000 at auction". Daily Mail  article of 10.12.2012
"Third original Fahrenheit thermometer surfaces", The History Blog, post dated 11.09.2012  http://www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/19606

The first thermometers in France

The first viable thermometer is generally considered to have been the "Florentine termometer" invented under the patronage of Ferdinand of Tuscany in 1653. This was an alcohol thermometer, with sealed tube and bowl, usually calibrated using 50 divisions.  The Florentine Accademia del Cimento distributed a number of such instruments around Europe and created a short-lived network of observers. In May 1658 the very first thermometer to reach France was sent to the astronomer Ismaël Boulliau from Warsaw by his correspondent Pierre Desnoyers who was secretary to the Queen of Poland.  Boulliau's manuscript observations for 1658-60,  conserved in the collection of the Paris Observatory, have been utilised by Daniel Rousseau in a paper of 2013 to reconstruct average temperatures for the period 1658-75.

 Thermometers used by La Hire and Morin

La Hire began his observations in  1669, again using a "Florentine" thermometer, this time constructed by the Parisian glass-blower Hubin.  Delisle in 1749 made comparative measurements with this very instrument and described it in detail:  filled with coloured esprit de vin,  hermetically sealed, it had a bowl of  5 centimetres in diameter and a substantial tube of 1.3 metres in length.  La Hire sited it in the unfinished east tower of the Royal Observatory which was open to the air but shaded from the sun.  It remained in the Observatory for almost a century  - comparative reading were taken at various times, notably in 1732 and 1754 using Réaumur thermometers.  In  1776 it was no longer to be found and assumed to be broken.  A second thermometer belonging to La Hire which was in the possession of the instrument maker Mossy in the 1780s may be tentatively identified with one on display in 1992 in an office of the Academy of Sciences (see Legrand & Le Goff, p.265).  The thermometers of Morin are known only by inference.  It can be deduced from his series of measurements that he used three different instruments in the course of his observations, adapting the scales so that zero was the mid-point.

Reconstructions of the series of Louis Morin:
Legrand J.-P. et M. Le Goff, 1992 : Les observations météorologiques de Louis Morin. Monographie n° 6, Direction de la météorologie nationale, tome 1, 36 p, tome 2, 176 p.
Daniel Rousseau, "Les moyennes mensuellesde températures à Paris de 1658 à 1675"  La Météorologie - n° 81  mai 2013


 Early Réaumur  thermometers

Although interest in meteorological observation was more marked by the early 18th century, thermometers were still few and far between.  Few of Kanold's observers had a thermometer and there were none at all in the American colonies prior to 1715. According to the abbé Nollet, measurements were "vague and uncertain" since  instruments had no fixed starting point and varying scales.  Scientists sought ways of improving the situation. In 1717 Daniel Fahrenheit built his famous mercury thermometer with 32° for freezing point of water and 96° for temperature of human blood. In France René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur  reverted to an alcohol thermometer but proposed 0° for the freezing point of water and 80° for its boiling point.  Like the Florentine thermometers, Réaumur's first instruments  were enormous (1.6 m in length).  The abbé Nollet, who directed  Réaumur's laboratory from 1733,  subsequently improved the design by refining the calibrations and reducing the length of the tube.  According to Louis Cotte, writing in 1765, the Réaumur's instrument  represented the first crucial step towards standardisation:  "one can build such thermometers, that function comparably, anywhere and any time". 

Louis Cotte;  Réaumur  thermometers, at the centre: "the great thermometer as Réaumur first built it"
 Louis Cotte, Traité de météorologie (1774); Livre second: "Des Instruments météorologiques"
Plates from the treatise of père Cotte:


Duhamel's château de Denainvilliers claims to have the oldest surviving thermometer in France. The château, which is now open to the public, preserves Duhamel's workshop and, in the adjacent bathroom, where he conducted his meteological readings, his barometer and Réaumur thermometer. Sadly, there is no photograph to be had.

In the winter of 1776 Louis XVI inquired whether it  was as cold as it had been in the great frost of 1709.  The lowest temperature of 1709 had been marked on La Hire's thermometer but this was no longer extant.  However his scale had been compared in 1732 with a thermometer of Réaumur which still existed.  There was much dispute over the figures, but  finally Lavoisier concluded that the winter of 1709 was colder "by 20 degrees than the winter of 1776"

In this early Réaumur thermometer the scale is drawn in ink on a paper sheet, glued to the wooden tablet.  The extreme cold of 1709  (−15.5 °R ) and of 1767  ( −12.5 °R) have been marked. See:

Sunday 29 May 2016

The weather - some 18th-century French observers

The prodigious quantity of  causes ... troubles us, makes us afraid, and hides from us the secret of the Creator.  It is beneath appearances that are deceptive only to us that is hidden the wisdom of His admirable operations...So much has research into effects been neglected in favour of causes, that all we have done in physics is babble.  If Nature is better known today than in the centuries of ignorance, it is because we apply ourselves  more to the knowledge of effects than causes, and we use the accumulated knowledge of these different effects to find true causes.
Louis Le Cotte, Traité de météorologie

Early observers:  La Hire, Maraldi and Morin

The first significant series of air temperature readings in France was begun at the newly constructed Royal Observatory in 1669 by Philippe Le Hire (1640-1718) and continued after 1720 by Jacques Philippe Maraldi (1665 - 1729).  A geometer and surveyor, Le Hire's interest in meteorology was prompted by his surveying work in the 1680s for the water supply at Versailles. As he explained in a memoir of 1704 the practical requirement of Louis XIV's cisterns prompted him to make exact observations of rainfall; he noted that it rained more when the air was lighter as measured the descent of the mercury in the tube of the barometer and resolved to compare rainfall with both air pressure and temperature.  Le Hire's complete registers of temperature readings do not survive, only his summary reports to the Academy of Sciences which were concerned mainly with annual extremes and unusual weather events.

The first complete series of observations for France were  made by the Parisian botanist and doctor Louis Morin (1635-1715). Morin was a physician of some repute, numbering Boileau, Racine and the Princesse de Joinville among his patients. After the death of the Princess in March 1688, he retired to the Abbey of Saint-Victor near the present site of the Jardin des Plantes.  In  1692 he was made a "Botanical associate" of the Academy of Science and 1707 became a full member,  succeeding  Louis XIV's doctor Denis Donard. Fontenelle's official Eloge, noted that his life observed "an order almost as uniform and precise as the movements of the celestial bodies". Since Morin was a  botanist and physician rather than a physicist, he presumably hoped to elucidate the influence of climate in these areas, though his work seems never to have progressed beyond the collection of data.

Morin's metereological registers span a phenomenal forty-eight year period, from February 1665 to July 1714.   He took readings three or four times a day, including measurements of temperature, barometric pressure and humidity (hydrometry), plus observations on clouds, direction and force of the wind, rainfall, snow and fogs. The most complete series are the thermometer and barometric readings [Manuscrit. Ms 1488, Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France, Paris]  In 1992  the metereorologists Jean-Pierre Legrand and Maxime Le Goff  were able to use this register to reconstruct daily temperatures for the period 1676-1713.

After 1715 there was a general upsurge of  interest in the collection of meteorological data among the learned societies of Europe, coupled with a recognition of the need for networks of observers.Johan Kanold in Breslau compiled readings from a dozen locations across Europe, and in 1723 James Jurin, the secretary of the Royal Society, laid out a plan for daily recording of barometer and thermometer readings, wind strength and direction, precipitation and state of the sky.  The English network eventually boasted fifteen observers, ranging from Bengal and St. Petersburg to Massachusetts.  The weather diaries were collated by the indefatigable William Derham who was a Fellow of the Society.  
By the 1740s these early initiatives had largely floundered. Derham submitted his last series in 1734 and it was finally published in 1742.  In France Le Hire and his successors felt that they had failed to receive the recognition that they deserved; In 1743 Du Hamel was to complain that science based on observation had been sacrificed to the superficial éclat of  the system builders. In part results fell short of expectations due to lack of equipment.  But the real problem was lack of  any practical application  - there was little to do with the data  other than compiling reports and reading them. Jurin had hoped to be able to predict weather from patterns in the data but,  although observers  sometimes drew parallels between conditions in different locations, they failed to understand that they were part of a single weather system (See Feldman, p.151)

Duhamel and meterology in the mid-century

With the mid-century France came a new awareness of the importance of the study of climate for public health and agriculture.  The term"climat" in this period encompassed a whole range of environmental conditions, not all of them strictly atmospheric. ( See Montesquieu's famous speculations on the relation between "climate" and national character in L'Esprit des Lois, which was published in 1748)  In medical theory "humours"were  replaced by the idea  that environmental factors - hot cold, wet, dry -  acted mechanically on the body.  Exponents hoped to correlate weather patterns with disease; as for example,  Paul Malouin in his History of epidemic diseases, observed at Paris, with differences of  air temperature, which was published annually from 1746 to 1754.  Agriculturalists boasted less theory, but there was a general perception that the success of crops could be studied in relation to the weather.

The chief observer at this time was Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau (1700-82). who  from 1741 to 1780 addressed to the Academy of Science a series of annual Botanico-Meteorological Observations in which he presented tables of meteorological data and general remarks on crops and public health. His efforts provided an important model for later initiatives.
Duhamel's published summary of observations for March 1753

The Château de Denainvilliers in Gâtinais, where Duhamel carried out much of his work

Louis Cotte and later meteorology 

In the second half of the century, particularly in the decades 1770 to 1790, the study of medical and agricultural climatology expanded in line with growing government intervention in public health.
 The number of observations (measured in "station-years") doubled twice over, and there was a corresponding increase in publications.  The key institutional development was the foundation in 1778 of the Royal Society of Medicine which, founded in response to a devastating outbreak of cattle plague, had a strong interest in epidemiology.  By the 1780s the Society had established a network of 150 provincial physicians who generated a mass of meteorological observations from all over France.  The organisation  included provision of several calibrated barometers set up by Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, who planned to extend this system throughout Europe,  The work of co-ordination and collation was undertaken by Father Louis Cotte (1740-1815), who was in charge of the Oratorian  observatory at Montmorency just outside Paris. In 1774 père Cotte had  published a pioneering Treatise on Meteorology, planned as a continuation of Duhamel's "botanico-meteorological" investigations  and stating clearly that the goal should be "the perfection of the sciences of agriculture and medicine".  He made his own observations with the aid of a barometer installed in an unheated room, an alcohol thermometer and an udometer to measure rainfall. The collective findings of the Society  were published in the form of monthly summaries  for each location, based on data reported in standardised forms.  The scope of this work gave Cotte some insight into the geographical extent of weather phenomena and allowed him conclude that given variables might define regional climate.
Nonetheless, he did little with his data, much of which remained unpublished and unstudied until the work of modern climatologists.
Form for meteorological observation, Société Royale de Médicine

Legrand J.-P. et M. Le Goff, 1992 : Les observations météorologiques de Louis Morin. Monographie n° 6, Direction de la météorologie nationale, tome 1, 36 p, tome 2, 176 p.

Theodore S. Feldman, "Late eighteenth century meteorology" in  The Quantifying Spirit in the Eighteenth Century ed.Frangsmyr (1992)

Jérémy Desarthe, "Duhamel du Monceau, météorologue", Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 3/2010 (n° 57-3) , p. 70-91

Pierre Caron, Le père Cotte: Inventeur du thermalisme enghiennois  et de la météorologie moderne. Éditions du Valhermeil,  Saint-Ouen-l'Aumône, 2002, 133 p.

Friday 27 May 2016

1709 - Why was it so cold?

The three-hundredth anniversary of the Grand hiver / Great Frost in 2009 generated particular interest because it coincided with a major new initiative in the study of historical climatology.  The "Millenium" paleoclimate project, which was launched with EU funding in 2006 and ran to 2010, aimed to use the lastest scientific methods to piece together  a thousand years of precise pan-European climate data. The objective was not further historical research per se but  to establish definitively  whether 20th-century climate could be considered to fall within the parameters of natural variability.  The project involved 45 European participants, from Great Britain, Central Europe and Switzerland - though not for some reason from France - and was co-ordinated by Professor Danny McCarroll from the University of Wales at Swansea. In 2009 Professor McCarroll and his colleague on the project Dennis Wheeler, Reader in Geography at the Sunderland University, featured on the Radio Four programme Material World discussing the Great Frost/"Grand Hiver" of 1709. They had some interesting things to say.

The presenter Quentin Cooper began by asking whether the freezing conditions of 1709 were really so exceptional. Dr Wheeler admitted that (in England at least) the worst winter on record was in 1683-4 which according to the archives was even colder in terms of depth and duration of frost.  But 1709 was a "pan-European event of the first magnitude" and remarkable by any standards, particularly since it occurred in a period when the climate was for the most part getting warmer. Danny McCarroll pointed out that it was also exceptional in its geographical extent; Europe froze all the way from Scandinavia to Sardinia.

How cold was it?

Although the project team has developed a whole series of sophisticated "proxy-indicators" of climate change - tree rings, lake sediment cores, peat cores, banded marine shells - they still relied  heavily on contemporary records. By 1709 the thermometer was less than a hundred years old; the instruments were not standardised; there were even different scales in use.  Nonetheless they give a clear indication of prolonged periods of sub-zero temperatures.  Carefully written notes often give us an idea of what was meant by a given reading.

Professor McCarroll comments that he was "amazed" by the degree of international correspondence and the careful comparison of observations that existed at this period.  We are here very much in the world of the Early Enlightenment.  There were large numbers of people  - not particularly British, says Danny McCarroll despite the prompting - clerics, medics and other amateurs scientists, who were happy to make observations of  the world around them.  "We are entering a world in which there is much more rational debate and a clearer scientific understanding. And people were beginning to ask questions about why the climate varied the way it did.  Just six years earlier, in 1703, Britain and some parts of Western Europe had experienced the so-called Great Storm.  That was often described as being a visitation by God to remind the people on earth of their sins. As you move through the early 18th century, you move out of that religious interpretation into a more rationalist scheme of thought.  So it is not only interesting climatologically; the period is interesting from the point of view of the history of science and philosophy"

A clearer idea of temperature can be gained from records giving specific physical evidence, for example at what point lakes at a given altitude in the Alps froze. In Stockholm Harbour every ship entering or leaving had to pay a tax; extant registers allow us to determine the first day each year when the harbour was thawed enough to allow the movement of ships. This has formed the basis of a 500-year series.

Dennis Wheeler is the doyen of historical climate research based on ships' logs.  As he explains, these are particularly valuable as there is otherwise little data for maritime areas. The Admiralty imposed an obligation on British Navy ships to make daily records of activities on board ship, including observations of wind strength and direction and copious notes on general state of the weather. There are over 100,000 RN logbooks for the period 1680 to 1850.  Dr Wheeler has compiled a complete series back to 1685 for the English Channel area.

Explanations - or lack of.....

Dr Wheeler was then asked if he had formed any theories about the reasons for the Great Frost of 1709.  It turns out this is something of a mystery.  Periods of extended cold are normally associated with long runs of easterly weather during the winter, bringing cold air from Siberia and Eastern Europe into Western Europe  The logbooks do not give clear picture of easterly winds, nor do the contemporary accounts. William Derham from Upminster in Essex, makes frequent reference to the variability of the winds. So this is a cold winter which doesn't quite conform to what might be expected from present-day scientific understanding

The two meteorologists are then asked about a couple of general theories. The first is the effect of the sun's activity. (It is known that the cold period c.1645-1715 coincided with a period of low solar activity, the "Maunder Minimum", signified by an absence of sun spots)  The influence of solar activity on climate is contentious, but Dr Wheeler is non-committal: the new evidence does not contribute significantly to the sunspots debate;  climate is a highly complex system, and the modern climate is distorted by greenhouse gasses.   Another factor, often cited in French sources, is the influence of volcanic activity - there were four significant eruptions in 1707-8 (including Mount Fuji, Santorini and Vesuvius) in 1707-8. Danny McCarroll is more categorical here: volcanoes do have a big effect on climate, but they generally create a cooling effect in the summer not the winter; often the winters are slightly warmer.   He concludes, honestly, that he has no answers to the causes of the Great Frost. 1709  falls in a period where there were quite a lot of cold winters.  But the severity and extent of the cold weather, when not dominated by easterlies, is"a complete mystery to me".


BBC Radio 4: "The Great Frost of 1709" Material World  introduced by Quentin Cooper, broadcast on 19th February 2009. http://bbc.in/NoaYHf

Stephanie Pain, "1709: the year that Europe froze" New Scientist, 7 February 2009, p46
[This article includes some further comments from Dr Wheeler:
: ". ..."Something unusual seems to have been happening," says Dennis Wheeler, a climatologist at the University of Sunderland, UK. As part of the European Union's Millennium Project, which aims to reconstruct the past 1000 years of Europe's climate, Wheeler is extracting data from Royal Navy logbooks, which provide daily observations of wind and weather. "With daily data you can produce very reliable monthly averages but you can also see what happened from one day to the next," says Wheeler. He and his colleagues have now compiled a database of daily observations stretching back to 1685 from the English Channel area. "This is a key climatic zone. The weather there reflects wider conditions across the Atlantic, which is where in normal circumstances much European weather originates."

The most immediate cause of cold winters in Europe is usually an icy wind from Siberia. "What you would expect would be long runs of easterly winds with a well-developed anticyclone over Scandinavia sucking in cold air from Siberia," says Wheeler. Instead, his data show a predominance of southerly and westerly winds - which would normally bring warm air to Europe. "There were only occasional northerlies and easterlies and those were never for more than a few days," says Wheeler. Another odd finding was that January was unusually stormy. Winter storms tend to bring milder, if wilder, weather to Europe. "This combination of cold, storms and westerlies suggests some other mechanism was responsible for that winter."

There may be no easy explanation for the Great Frost of 1709, but unexpected weather patterns revealed by Wheeler's data underline why climate reconstructions are so important. "We need to explain the natural variation in climate over past centuries so that we can tease apart all those factors that contribute to climate change. But before we can do that we need to nail down those changes in detail," says Wheeler. "Climate doesn't behave consistently and warmer and colder, drier and wetter periods can't always be explained by the same mechanisms." In the two decades after that terrible winter, the climate warmed very rapidly. "Some people point to that and say today's warming is nothing new. But they are not comparable. The factors causing warming then were quite different from those operating now."."]

More from Danny McCarroll on global warming - it's not looking good.....
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-35431375 - 

Thursday 26 May 2016

The winter of 1709: letters of Liselotte

The correspondence of Louis XIV's sister-in-law, the Princess Palatine Elisabeth-Charlotte, duchess of Orléans (1652–1722), mother of the future Regent, is rightly prized for its down-to-earth comments and wealth of  witty anecdote.  Here is the "Great Winter" as it appears in her letters.

Curiously enough, the weather did  not at first excite that much comment from "Liselotte".  On 10th January 1709 she wrote to her  half-sister, the Raugravine Amalia- Elisabeth without even mentioning the freezing temperature. On 17th January, she alluded to it only in passing:  Last Sunday the cold was atrocious and we had to have a terrific fire lit in the room where we ate.  

Her letter of 10th January to the Electress Sophia of Hanover, however, is more forthcoming:
The cold here is so fierce here that it fairly defies description.  I am sitting by a roaring fire, have a screen before the door, which is closed, so that I can sit here with a sable fur piece around my neck and my feet in a bearskin sack, and I am still shivering with cold and can barely hold the pen.  Never in my life have I seen a winter such as this one; the wine freezes in bottles.

Saint-Simon too marvelled that the cold caused wine to freeze and bottles to break even when stored by a fireplace (Memoirs vol.6, chpt 54).

On 19th January she wrote: 
It has never been this cold in living memory; no-one can recall a winter like it.  For fifteen days there have been reports every morning of people found frozen to death; partridge have been found frozen in the fields.  All theatrical performances have ceased and also all legal proceedings; the officials of the Courts cannot sit in their chambers on account of the cold.

By 2nd February she is reporting to  Amalia-Elisabeth that it was said to be the worst winter since 1606 and that 24,000 people were estimated to have died in Paris since 5th January. 

A week later she reports to her other half-sister, the story of an attack by wolves:

9th February 1709  To Raugravine Luise:  
Many persons have been frozen to death in the countryside, and bands of wolves are committing terrible ravages.  They have devoured a courier from Alençon and his horse; outside the town of Le Mans, two wolves attacked a merchant; one leapt at his neck and began to tear at his jerkin;  he cried out: two dragoons who were walking outside the town came to the help of the merchant.  One of them drew his sword and pierced the wolf right through with it; the wolf let go of the merchant, jumped on the dragoon and seized him by the throat. His camarade hurried to his assistance and fought off the wolf, but the cruel beast had already strangled the dragoon.  The second wolf came from behind, felled the other dragoon and bit at him from behind.  When they arrived from the town to give help, they found two dragoons and two wolves stretched out dead;  the other wolf had made off. 

At the beginning of March, an anecdote of despair and suicide from a hungry Paris

2nd March 1709  To Raugravine Luisa
Never in my life have I seen such miserable times. The common people are dying like flies. The mills have stopped working and many people have therefore died of hunger. Yesterday I was told a sad story about a woman who had stolen a loaf from a baker's shop in Paris. The baker wanted to have her arrested. She wept and said, " If you only knew my misery you would not take the bread away from me. I have three small children without any clothes, and they are crying for food. I couldn't endure it any longer, and that is why I stole this loaf." The magistrate before whom the woman was brought told her to take him to her home. He went thither with her and found three little children bundled up in rags sitting in a corner shivering with cold as if they had a fever. He asked the eldest, " Where is your father?" and the child replied, " He is behind the door." The magistrate went to see what the man was doing behind the door and fell back horror-stricken. The poor wretch had hanged himself in a fit of despair. Such things are happening every day.

18th May 1709, Marly  To Sophia of Hanover 
Would to God that I could say that we had no famine here, but it is unfortunately only too true. The fruit harvest would not matter if only we had enough bread and wine. Merciful God, what sad times these are!

8th June, 1709, Versailles.  To the Raugravine Luisa .
...You are greatly mistaken when you think that no lamentations are heard here. Night and day we hear nothing else. The famine is so terrible that children have devoured each other.
The King is determined to go on with the war, and yesterday replaced his golden service with one of porcelain, and he has sent everything golden he possesses to the Mint to be converted into louis....

Liselotte  also gives the following account of the riot of 20th August: 

22nd August, 1709, Versailles. To Sophia of Hanover.
When I was driving in my carriage through the Porte Saint-Honoré into Paris, I saw everyone running about with terrified looks, while many exclaimed, " Good God!" Every window was full of spectators, and there were even people on the roofs. All the shops and the doors of houses were shut, and the Palais-Royal itself was closed, and I could not imagine what it all meant. But as I was alighting from the coach in the inner courtyard, a woman who was unknown to me, came up and said, " Do you know, Madame, that there is a revolt in Paris which has been going on since four o'clock this morning? " I thought the woman was mad and began to laugh, whereat she said, "I am not crazy, Madame. What I have told you is quite true, so true indeed that already forty people have been killed." I asked my servants whether it was true, and they replied that it was only too true, and that that was the reason why they had shut the gates of the Palais-Royal. I asked them what the revolt was about, and this is the story they told me :

There is some work going on at the Boulevard and Porte Saint-Martin, and each workman is given three sols and a little bread. This morning there were nearly two thousand workmen, but, without being detected, four thousand demanded bread and money with a great deal of noise. As the supplies gave out, a woman, who had made herself conspicuous by her insolent behaviour, was arrested and put in the pillory. Then the row began. Instead of the original four thousand, an additional six thousand arrived and the woman was rescued from the pillory. There were many servants who had been dismissed amongst these, and they began to shout, " Loot, let us loot," and they did in fact rush for the bakers' shops which they pillaged. The soldiers of the guard were called out and ordered to shoot down the rioters, but when the mob saw that they were firing with powder only, and for the sole purpose of frightening them, they cried, " Let us attack them. They have no bullets." The soldiers were then obliged to knock some of them down. This went on from four o'clock in the morning until midday, when the Marechal de Boufflers and the Duc de Grammont happened to drive past the scene of the riot. They alighted in the midst of a shower of stones, addressed the mob, threw them some money and promised to tell the King that they had been promised bread and money which had not been given to them. The revolt died down immediately, and the rioters threw their caps into the air crying, " Long live the King and bread!".....


Where available, English translations are from:
Letters of Madame, the correspondence of Elisabeth-Charlotte of Bavaria, Princesse Palatine, Duchess of Orleans,trans. by Gertrude Scott Stevenson, 1925 . Vol. 2

Otherwise I have followed:
Francis Assaf "L'Hiver de 1709",  Cahiers du dix-septième XII, 2 (2009) p.1–29

Tuesday 24 May 2016

The Great Winter of 1709

The arrival of the frost

On 6th January 1709, the Feast of Epiphany, Europe woke up to one of the most severe winters on record. The temperature plummeted on the night of the 5th-6th January and kept on falling. Although thermometers were in their infancy, the readings broadly tally.  In England William Derham, Rector of Upminster and member of the Royal Society, had been checking his thermometer and  barometer three times a day since 1697.  On 10th January he logged -12°C  the lowest he had ever recorded.  In France Philippe de la Hire  had set up a thermometer at the Royal Observatory in Paris which employed a scale similar to that of Fahrenheit:: he recorded 48° on the 4th January, 30° on the 6th, then 22° on the 7th, 9° on the 10th and 5° on the 13th.  Temperatures then remained at this level for  ten days without respite (Monahan, Year of sorrows p.72). According to reconstructions based on the records of Louis Morin, the minimum temperature dropped  to below -15°C  on the 10th January and stayed there for eleven successive days. On three days (13th,14th and 19th January) readings fell to below  -18°C. Lows were recorded of  -25°C in Paris, -17°C in  Montpellier and -20,5°C in Bordeaux.

In a world of open fires and wood-burning stoves, the cold spared no-one. At Versailles Louis XIV, insisted upon his usual promenade on the 7th, but his entourage was so overwhelmed by the cold that he was then forced to remain inside for two weeks; on the 17th a stubborn effort to escape to Marly was abandoned.  Courtiers found that even the largest fire afforded little protection against the drafts of the palace.  The princess Palatine, the king's sister-in-law, wrote to the Electress Sophia in Germany, "I am sitting by a roaring fire, have a screen before the door, which is closed, so that I can sit here with a sable fur piece around my neck and my feet in a bearskin sack, and I am still shivering with cold and can barely hold the pen.  Never in my life have I seen a winter such as this one" (cited Lyons, p.72) Saint-Simon marvelled that the cold caused wine to freeze and bottles to break even when stored next to fireplaces. (Memoirs vol. 6 chpt 54)

Charity mobilised: Le Secours du Potage

From all over France came reports of people found frozen to death, of limbs and fingers lost to frostbite, of commerce and industry entirely halted.  According to Saint-Simon, within four days, the Seine and  other rivers were frozen solid. Something no-one had before seen, the sea froze solid enough to bear heavy carts; even in Marseille ice was to be seen in the salty Mediterranean.  Agriculture suffered paralysis. In Beaune a canon of the cathedral remarked that "travellers died in the countryside, livestock in the stables, wild animals in the woods.  Nearly all the birds were killed, wine froze in barrels, and public fires were lit to warm the poor"(Quoted Monahan, p.73)  In Paris itself ateliers and shops closed and  public life ground to a halt as trials and audiences were suspended. Public fires were lit in Les Halles and soup kitchens organised. Throughout France, congregations united in prayers  that the winter would not last.

On the night of the 24th January, temperatures suddenly rose and the icy winds vanished to be replaced by rain. 

In many places the thaw proved almost as devastating as the frost. Near Lyon, for instance, the Soane flooded the low-lying valley around Vaie, marooning blocks of ice "the size of two men". Whole trees were washed down and abandoned on the banks and walls built alongside the water were smashed to pieces.  Lyon's three bridges were damaged and tethered boats were were smashed or carried downstream. 

The respite was only temporarily as fresh waves of cold soon followed throughout February and March. Modern climatologists identify six further waves of sub-zero temperatures which kept the country in the grip of frost until mid-March. In February he princess Palatine's letters record reports of people dying of cold, corpses found frozen in fields and travellers devoured by wolves. 

The effect on agriculture

The earth was now froze solid, in places to the depth of a metre or more. The thaw and refreezing completed the destruction of vegetation, which was frozen without a protective layer of snow. Fruit trees and olive trees all perished; vines withered and many growers were forced off the land. Walnuts and chestnut trees, even firs were destroyed.   Great oak trees were reported to have split suddenly with a noise like musket fire.  Beans, which were a staple in many areas, were spoilt.  Domestic animals lay dead in herds, their carcasses rotting in the fields. Game animals perished, even hares and rabbits.  At the edges of the sea, now frozen for several kilometres, the fish lay dead.

All of which paled into insignificance compared with the loss of cereal crops.  According to Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, the miseries of 1709 had been set in train in 1708 when late frosts and prolonged rain had made for a mediocre harvest. In the countryside the cereals crops - 
wheat, rye, winter oats - were now lost. The ground was drenched, then frozen hard, leaving the seedlings dead where they lay.   Only maize and barley sown in the spring escaped.

In March letters from the provincial intendants began to reach Versailles from with news of increasing panic at the delay of the winter wheat crop. Peasants reacted rapidly by replacing the spoilt crop with spring barley.  Despite the warnings, the government hoped for a long time that the wheat would survive and sent out instructions
 to prevent the  reseeding of fields already planted with wheat or rye.

Distribution of bread at the Tuileries in 1709.
Anon. engraving, Bibl. Nationa

Food supply and riots in Paris

In urban areas transport paralysis and  dearth of supplies meant a crisis for consumers. The capital received no supplies at all between January and April and the price of a setier of wheat rose six fold between June 1708 and June 1709. Preoccupied by the dislocation of the War of Spanish Succession royal government was slow to acknowledge the extent of the crisis.  Desmarets failed to act on advice that grain should be imported into the country. Only at end of April  was a commission set up under the direction of Henri François d’Aguesseau (1668-1751) Procurator-General of the Parlement, to co-ordinate the relief effort.  Royal policy was directed mainly at freeing up supplies and  preventing speculation. On 27th April a royal arrêt required all stocks of wheat to be declared on pain of fine, even of condemnation to the galleys.  The lieutenant général de police d'Argenson placed the markets of Paris under surveillance, raids were conducted on storehouses and the purchase of bread was strictly limited by person and time. Intendants were sent the provinces to enforce similar policies. The duc de Saint-Simon affirms that the manège des blés was roughly handled and that many took advantage to profit from the afflictions of the poor.  In his diagnosis, secret royal stockpiling exacerbated the situation. It combined with draconian controls on movement of grain  to bring widespread financial ruin and to induce famine conditions . Enforced taxation, ostensibly for road repairs and poor relief, swelled the iroyal coffers  (Memoirs, vol. 6 chpt 54)  Meanwhile in May the Court, led by Louis XIV, ostentatiously surrendered its plate to the treasury and on 12th June a royal discourse was read from all the pulpits of France asking for the war effort to be renewed.

The procurator d’Aguesseau orders the liberation of stockpiled grain
Illustration from Portraits des grands hommes, femmes illustres (1785-92)

The population reacted in the time honoured way with direct action.  In the countryside bands attacked chateaux and convents which were suspected of having grain reserves. Troops were sent into the provinces for fear of peasant unrest: the tally is  155 uprisings from February to June 1709 and 38 during the summer.  After April there were food riots in Paris, Normandy, Provence, Languedoc, Dauphiné and Val de Loire. The Dauphin was accosted by a crowd of women demanding bread,and the marquis d'Argenson had the windows of his carriage broken. Saint-Simon noted the disquiet of Louis XIV faced with a "flood of placards" which were posted on the gates of Paris, the churches, public places and above all on royal statues.  As late as 20th August 1709 several people were killed in an incident at an "atelier public"which was giving out bread in exchange for labour levelling an area of raised ground between Porte Saint-Denis and Porte Saint-Martin; vast numbers assembled for the bread distribution, bakers's shops were pillaged and the gardes-françaises fired on the crowd.  Following this episode policing of the capital was increased further, the situation eased and the streets remained quiet.

The "Great Famine"

Official records and Court memoirs can only give a limited sense of the scale of the hardship endured by the ordinary people.  It is now clear that 1709 represented the last great subsistence crisis of the Ancien Régime. Social historians reckon that the population of France, on the upturn since 1700, decreased in 1709-10 by perhaps 800,000 (600,000 direct extra deaths, with another 200,000 accounted for by a decline in the birthrate). Behind those figures, lie countless stories of malnutrition, disease and lost livelihoods.  Reports circulated of desperate people eating grass like animals, an image which would endure permanently to tarnish the declining years of the Sun King in men's minds.  There are now numerous local  history websites, each with its piece of testimony.  The cumulative effect of local studies based on parish records, household accounts, local diarists, begins to reveal full extent of the misery.

References - the "Grand Hiver": sources on the internet

"Le grand hiver de 1709", Histoire pour tous, post of 6.2.12.

Hiver de 1709, le "Grand Hiver" Dictionnaire Louis XIV, ed. Lucien Bély (2015)

Françoise Labalette, "Les terribles ravages du « grand hiver »" Historia March 2010 [extracts]:

Wikipedia article: "Grande famine de 1709"

Pastoral letter of 2 June 1709, François de Mailly, Archbishop of Arles, requests prayers for the time of famine, which he attributes to God's displeasure ("l'Auteur de la Nature soit bien irrité contre nous..." ) a formulaic statement perhaps from a man who could not have mentioned the truth, that the endless wars of Louis XIV made everything so much worse. But the writer's main object here is to propose, together with prayer, practical relief efforts for the poor – the sale of church silver to buy them bread.


Parish register from Adon in the department of the Loiret;  in the course of the two years 1709-10, this little village of 400 souls lost 35 per cent of its population.
"Les Evènements Climatiques", post of 20/07/12, Adon: une histoire (blog)

W. Gregory Monahan, Year of sorrows: the Great Famine of 1709 in Lyon.  Ohio State University Press, 1993.  Full-text:

"Le Grand hiver 1709"  Geneawiki.
Summary and extensive primary sources from different regions of France

"1709 - L’année du grand hiver : 25 témoins nous racontent" Histoire passion [blog] - accounts from Saintonge, Aunis et Angoumois

"1709 : le « Grand Hyver»"  Maisdison-Hebdo [blog], post of 16.11.11. Accounts from: Mouzay, Tours, Loches 

Friday 13 May 2016

Port-Royal in 1814

Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck
National Portrait Gallery
The 19th-century writer Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck (1778-1856) was the daughter of the Quaker businessman  Samuel John Galton. and wife of Lambert Schimmelpenninck, a member of a noble Dutch family trading living in Bristol. She was introduced to the writings of Port-Royal through Hannah More and wrote several works popularising Jansenist piety. 

 In 1816 she published a history of the destruction of Port-Royal, which included an account of a journey she herself made to the ruins during a tour of the Continent in 1814. 

Here are a few extracts:

Sunday 8 May 2016

Jansenist pilgrimage (cont.)

STATION VII: Church of Saint-Jean-des-Trous, Boullay

The commune of Boullay-les-Troux, with its church of  Saint Jean l'Evangéliste, is about ten kilometres south of Port-Royal des Champs. In the 17th century Boullay was the seigneurial domain of Guillaume du Gué de Bagnols (1616-57), Maître des Requêtes in the Parlement of Paris and one of the principal protectors of Port-Royal -  the château de Boullay (demolished in 1825) once housed some of the Petites Ecoles. Gué de Bagnols had rebuilt the adjacent church in 1652.  On the night of December 4th 1711 his remains, together with those of his wife, daughter and two other family members, were secretly transferred there from the Abbey. They were initially buried behind the altar, then in 1735 moved by his grandson to a specially constructed crypt.  Gué de Bagnols's original tombstone is conserved in Magny-les-Hameaux.
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