22 January 2011

The Great Frost of 1709

A painting of Venetians frolicking and lollygagging on the city's icy lagoon, frozen over by the harsh winter of 1709. Members of the city's gondoliering guilds still recall despairingly that horribly unprofitable fiscal year.

In this bleak midwinter of 2011, I bring you the heartwarming tale of a winter past, that of 1709. Remembered as The Great Frost in England and The Great Winter in France, Europe experienced an icily frozen spell thought to be the continent's coldest winter of the last five hundred years.  

The Frozen Thames, 1677.  

The great London waterway "The River Tims" froze over several times during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It has not frozen since 1814, however, perhaps because of some Napoleonic plot to sabotage the popular winter carnivals held on the ice-covered river and demoralize the British public.  

A depiction of one of the infamous "Frost Fairs" held on the Thames from 1608 to 1814.  Although drunken revelry and frivolous celebration ruled the day, many lost body parts from frostbite and suffered death-by-hypothermia (not to mention the aggravation it caused gout-sufferers).  

Church of England clergyman William Derham (1657-1735), who moonlighted as a natural philosopher, wrote that he believed the Frost "greater, if not more universal also, than any other within the memory of Man." He recorded temperature readings as low as -10 degrees Fahrenheit (250 Kelvin, for our non-American or Liberian readers).  It is estimated that 600,000 people in France starved to death, forced to subsist on cake because of the failed winter wheat crop.  The soil, many reported, froze to a depth of three feet, and large bodies of water, like the Baltic Sea, the Venetian Lagoon, and the reflecting pool at Versailles, also turned to ice. 

Part of fear-inducing modernist Virginia Woolf's 1928 novel Orlando is set against the backdrop of The Great Frost. Woolf would appreciate the warmer winters of  post-Little Ice Age Britain during her 1941 "Ophelian swim."

Several stories about the extreme cold that winter have survived. It was said that trees exploded because of the low temperatures! Loaves of bread froze so thoroughly that it took an ax to cut it! People reported that their nightcaps (standard-issue attire in the eighteenth century) froze to their headboards overnight! Livestock froze to death in their barns and coops (which makes one wonder why all those French people starved to death with all that meat around)! King Louis XIV became mildly uncomfortable for several hours at Versailles on the 18th of January!

Fun in the snow! (I think that might be an exploded tree at lower-center.)

I hope this tale of winter long ago indeed has warmed the cockles of your heart. Now, brave the frosty air of your northern climes, and be glad nightcaps and unsliced bread are now passé!


  1. fear-inducing modernist? explain!

    1. Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?

    2. Thank you, Anonymous, for clearing up this murky matter!


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