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'In Cod We Trust' explores how weather, fish, people and faith interplayed

Emeritus Professor Brian Fagan of the University of California at Santa Barbara emphasized the complex interplay of climatic conditions and social and cultural development in his presentation, "In Cod We Trust: Fishing, Subsistence Agriculture and Climate Change, c. A.D. 900 to 1400," presented to an overflow crowd in E51-095 on Friday, Feb. 23.

Fagan noted that even for a period offering scanty evidence to scholars, it is clear that climate change was a major driver of social, political and economic change. The meeting was part of the MIT Seminar on Environmental and Agricultural , sponsored by the history faculty and the Program in Science, Technology and Society.

European food supplies were greater and more reliable during the so-called "medieval warm period" of approximately 800 to 1300 A.D. Wine grapes were grown as far north as England, and cereal crops in Norway. Impacts of favorable weather included population growth and drastic deforestation, as fields were cleared for agricultural use.

The period, now believed to have been a global event, was characterized in Europe by dramatic seasonal differences. Summers were warmer and drier, while winter snow levels rose. This era ended abruptly in 1315, when catastrophic rainfalls began and continued until about 1321. These severe conditions destroyed crops and led to widespread epidemics among farm animals and famine-related diseases among people. The so-called "Little Ice Age" continued until around 1860.

Also during the eighth and ninth centuries, fish became a major part of the European diet. Wild fish were harvested close to shore, and fish farming was widely practiced. Fish consumption was driven in part by Christian symbolism. It was associated with feasting and atonement, attributes of frequently observed religious holidays.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 14, 2007 (download PDF).

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