Guides

Guides are short introductions into topics or research methods related to environmental history.


Romanticism and nature

Romanticism was an intellectual and artistic movement that originated in the second half of the 18th century. It was a reactionary response against the scientific rationalisation of nature during the Enlightenment, commonly expressed in literature, music, painting and drama. But it was not simply a response to the rationalism of the Enlightenment but also a reaction against the material changes in society, which accompanied the emerging and expanding industrial capitalism in the late eighteenth century. Continue reading

The Role of oral history in environmental history

The advantage of an historian researching the second half of the 20th century is that he or she can interview people involved in the events being studied. Oral history is often used to supplement and confirm the information found in the documentary evidence. Documentary evidence is sometimes missing or inaccessible lacking because of the fact that archives are still closed because of the 30 years rule, like in the UK, or simply because material is lost or does not contain the information one is looking for. Oral history is a tool that can plug gaps in the documentary record or literature and provide new insights into historical developments and events.1

Oral history is certainly not a historical research tool that is exclusive to environmental history. There are however a few characteristics that makes it a challenging technique for environmental historians. It seems that oral environmental history has a unique characteristic that makes it stand out in comparison to other environmental histories. Continue reading

The origins of nature conservation in Britain – A short introduction

The origins of public interest in nature conservation in Britain go back to the early 19th century when Wordsworth wrote about that Lake District that it is a “sort of national property in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy”1. Systematic conservation efforts only started in the latter half of the 19th century and are reflected in legislation such as the first Wild Birds Protection Act in 1872 and the Ancient Monuments Act of 1882, which enabled the state to take care of monuments of historic significance, including landscapes. Continue reading

The use of documentary sources in environmental history

Traditional history as it developed during the 19th century depended on written documents that were produced sometime in the past. Originally these sources included only “official documents” produced by government and kings as well as merchants and traders, such as charters but also correspondence. During the 20th century the nature of historical studies changed radically and who is now surprised when historians use economic ideas and data in their studies, or use insights from anthropology, sociology and gender studies? But combining historical sources with data from the sciences takes historical research to an entirely different level. Here is a short guide of the use of documentary evidence in conjunction with data from the natural sciences. Continue reading

Methods and problems in historical climatology

With concerns over global warming, historical climatology has emerged as one of the more important cousins of environmental history. Understanding past climates is important because by understanding the nature of long-term trends and climate fluctuations we can place our present experience in an appropriate historical perspective. In addition, by learning how people in the past responded to extreme weather conditions it may be possible to design strategies to cope with climate change. Here is a brief guide exploring the methods and problems of historical climatology and the opportunities that this provides for historical researchers. Continue reading

Reconstructing past climates

Documentary data
To get a more convincing assessment of a statement such as a regular occurrence of Frost Fairs on the River Thames we need sources that include records of frost dates, droughts, famine, the freezing of lakes, ponds and rivers, duration of snow and sea ice cover, and the dates of flowering of plants. Combined, these historical records can provide insight into past climate conditions. Documentary evidence is, however, generally limited to regions with long literary traditions, such as Britain and parts of Europe, China, and to a lesser extent North America. In addition ship’s logs from Spanish, Dutch and English ships crossing the World’s oceans from the 16th through 20th centuries provide new insights into weather patterns and how these change over time (see CLIWOC project and podcast interview with Dennis Wheeler). Continue reading

Little Ice Age

The Little Ice Age was a period of regionally cold conditions between roughly AD 1300 and 1850. The term “Little Ice Age” is somewhat questionable, because there was no single, well-defined period of prolonged cold. There were two phases of the Little Ice Age, the first beginning around 1290 and continuing until the late 1400s. There was a slightly warmer period in the 1500s, after which the climate deteriorated substantially, with the coldest period  between 1645 and 1715 . During this coldest phase of the Little Ice Age there are indications that average winter temperatures in Europe and North America were as much as 2°C lower than at present. Continue reading