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Effects of Climate on the Origins of the French Revolution

Updated on October 5, 2013

The Storming of the Bastille

The storming of the Bastille marks the official beginning of the French Revolution
The storming of the Bastille marks the official beginning of the French Revolution | Source

Civil Unrest: No Food, No Money

Throughout history there are many events that have been influenced by environmental factors such as climate change. Historians have just recently begun to investigate the effects of climate change in writing histories of the world. The French Revolution is no exception. While there are many factors which contribute to the uprising of the bourgeoisie to overthrow the monarchy of France, climate change played an important role. Climate change led to two key factors which led to greater civil unrest among the people. The first factor is that climate change led France to do poorly economically. The second is that climate change led France into a period of famine. Both of these factors are intertwined because they are the result of lower crop yields. While scholars agree that climate caused these two factors, there is discrepancy in what climate event caused lower crop yields. There are three hypotheses as to what climate event caused this fluctuation resulting in crop failures. 1) The Little Ice Age caused consistently lower yields in the 18th century, a fluctuation of climate within the Little Ice Age caused a more dramatic effect destroying crops in the years surrounding the French Revolution. 2) The eight month Icelandic volcano eruption in 1783 caused the reduction in crop yields in France contributing to the French Revolution. 3) A major El Nino event occurred causing major fluctuations in temperature and weather leading to crop failure leading to the French Revolution.

Pissarro's The Harvest

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The Devastation of Lower Crop Yields

It must first be explained how reduction in crop yields caused both economic strife and famine, and in turn they contributed to the French Revolution. As a result of climate change, the temperature in France fluctuated dramatically leaving very cold winters and very hot summers. The year 1788 is a prime example of this, and as a result the crops of that season were crippled. The very next year 1789 marks the beginning of the bread riots, a crucial step toward the French Revolution.[1] This specific climate event was the tipping point toward active social unrest, however even before, France had been suffering from lower crop yields resulting from climate change. As early as the 1760s climate change affected crop yield. As a result, a lower surplus of crops was available for export reducing revenue for France. Decreased crop yields occurred consistently enough that the amount of surplus crops was further reduced because they had to be redistributed around the country to make up for food shortages.[2] Food shortages were particularly painful to the lower classes of France who relied on their own agricultural productivity to support their family because their farming practices were barely above the subsistence level.[3] Increasing the strife to the poor, grain prices increased 50% due to the shortages.[4] These factors led to even more economic strife for France in the years leading up to the French Revolution.


[1] Mandia, Scott. "The Little Ice Age in Europe." Sunysuffolk.edu. Web. 9 Dec. 2011.  <http://www2.sunysuffolk.edu/mandias/lia/little_ice_age.html>.
[2] Cullen, L. M. "History, economic crises, and revolution: Understanding eighteenth century France." Economic History Review 46, no. 4 (November 1993): 635-657. Historical Abstracts, EBSCOhost (accessed November 16, 2011). 640.
[3] Sexauer, Benjamin. “English and French Agriculture in the Late Eighteenth Century” Agricultural History 50, No. 3 (Jul., 1976): 491-505. Jstor.org. 498.
[4] Grove, Richard. “The Great El Nino of 1789-93 and its Global Consequences: Reconstructing and Extreme Climate Event in World Environmental History.” The Medieval History Journal 75, no. 10 (2007): 75-98. Sagepub.com

Winters of the Little Ice Age Became Extremely Harsh

The harsh changes in climate of the Little Ice Age reduced crop yields and made them unpredictable
The harsh changes in climate of the Little Ice Age reduced crop yields and made them unpredictable | Source

Hypothesis 1: The Little Ice Age

The first hypothesis is that The Little Ice Age is the climate event resulting in the loss of crops contributing to the French Revolution. The Little Ice Age was a climate event lasting from 1150 to 1460 and returned from 1560 to 1850 that impacted Europe a great deal. In the second phase of the Little Ice Age, there were six fluctuations causing glaciers to expand in Europe. Two glacial maximums were reached in the years surrounding the French Revolution.[1] As a result the French Revolution occurred at a time of dramatic climate change. Glaciers expanding and receding significantly altered the amount of moisture and flooding during this time period. Such fluctuations in glacial expanse and retreat express the dramatic shift in temperature that occurred in the time frame as the French Revolution as well. It is hypothesized that as a result of these glacier fluctuations crop yields were severely reduced causing both economic strife and food shortages.


[1] Holzhauser, Hanspeter, Michel Magny, and Heins J. Zumbuhl. “Glacier and lake-level variations in west-central Europe over the last 3500 years.” Holocene 15, no. 6 (September 2005): 789-801. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost. 794.

Hypothesis 2: The Laki Volcano

The second hypothesis is that the eight month Icelandic volcano eruption caused reduced crop yields leading to economic strife and famine. The Laki Volcano erupted between June 1783 and February 1784 releasing ash and poisonous gas into the air which was carried across the Atlantic Ocean into Europe. The eruption also led to an unusually hot summer that withered crops. It has also been reported in the historic record to have caused an abnormally harsh winter as well as devastating spring floods. These conditions resulted in crop failures, and as discussed earlier would have lead to the economic stress of France as well food shortages among the people. As the Laki eruption occurred just years before the French Revolution it is easy to see how it may have been a factor in leading to the Revolution itself.[1]


[1] Neale, Greg. "How an Icelandic Volcano Helped Spark the French Revolution | World News | The Guardian." Latest News, Sport and Comment from the Guardian | The Guardian. Guardian.co.uk, 15 Apr. 2010. Web. 10 Dec. 2011. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/apr/15/iceland-volcano-weather-french-revolution>.

Volcanic Eruption

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Hypothesis 3: The El Nino Effect

The third hypothesis is that an El Nino event led to the reduction of crop yields. This hypothesis claims that the crop failures were the result of the 1788-1794 El Nino event. This event was one of the most cataclysmic El Nino events on record. Similar to the other two hypotheses, this event is characterized by creating harsh seasons which destroyed crops. Winter lasted too long, spring was too wet, and summer was too hot and dry. Also as a result from previous harsh El Nino cycles, France was already hurting economically due to prior loss of crop yields.[1] Within this idea, the French Revolution was caused in part by the prolonged bad weather driven by the El Nino event.


[1] Grove. “El Nino.” 90-91.

Conclusions

All three of the hypotheses support the idea that climate affected crop yields contributing to the French Revolution. Also, they all support the idea that a climate event caused the increased extremity of the seasons in years leading up to the revolution, specifically in the winter and summer months. However they disagree on the point of which event was the cause of the extreme harshness of the seasons. Advocates of the first hypothesis believe that they were caused by fluctuations within the Little Ice Age, while advocates of the second hypothesis believe that the extreme seasons were caused by the volcanic eruption in Iceland. Finally, advocates of the third hypothesis believe that an El Nino event led to the harsh seasons.

Of all three hypotheses the most convincing argument comes from the third hypothesis of causation by the El Nino event. The amount of data that supports this argument is far greater than what could be found on either the volcanic eruption or the Little Ice Age hypotheses. Also El Nino events have been linked to other times of social unrest. Another factor lending support to the El Nino hypothesis in comparison to the Little Ice Age hypothesis is that it can be tracked to have occurred more closely to the revolution itself rather than the broad span that is used the track fluctuations of the Little Ice Age. The El Nino hypothesis also suggests why this particular event was so devastating at the time. It suggests that as a result of other recent El Nino events to the French Revolution caused there to be consistently reduced crop yields leading to an already stressed economic state in France as well as food shortages.

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    • profile image

      alex 2 years ago

      interesting, a realy history of humanity

    • justthemessenger profile image

      James C Moore 2 years ago from The Great Midwest

      Intersting, a new spin on history. I recall seeing a television program that suggested that ancient Egypt was hit with a catastrophic drought that led it on a downward spiral. The hypotheses are similar to what may have happened there.

    • purl3agony profile image

      Donna Herron 2 years ago from USA

      Fascinating. In recent years, there seems to be more research into other contributing factors for some of the world's major historical events, and I think it's all very interesting. These major events rarely only have one cause, and it's really intriguing to look at other factors that might have had some effect. Well written and voted up! Congrats on your HOTD!

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      mikeydcarroll67 2 years ago

      Interesting overview. Revolutions almost always have root causes, but sometimes it is hard to discern what those were looking back on them.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      This was a fascinating read about how climate change effected the French Revolution with interesting facts. Voted up and congrats on HOTD!

    • profile image

      jepp 2 years ago

      I think French revolution had saved Egypt from Napoleon Bonaparte.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 3 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Another great article. I also believe the EL Nino event is the most plausible as a primary cause of the poor crop yield. A great review of the issues overall. Thx. Voted up.