Genealogy and the Little Ice Age - New Publication Information


This book deals with the physical parameters of the Little Ice Age (1300-1850), the effects climatic conditions of that period had on people and how the environmental situations influenced the broader society.

That era is particularly important for genealogists to understand as it encompasses the time interval during which most of the records relating to family history interest were created. It was also the time from when surnames were first commonly used by our ancestral families.

In assembling the most complete histories of families it is important to understand the physical environment in which people lived. The Little Ice Age was a cool climatic period, a time in history when, from a physical or environmental standpoint, in comparison to the warm periods that preceded and followed: temperatures around the globe were substantially cooler; weather was mostly unstable; food production was especially challenging; and living conditions overall were difficult and harsh.

These factors had enormous impact on the lives and livelihoods of people, contributing to famine, spread of disease, injury to being and habitat, untimely deaths, social unrest and, in many cases, migration.

Much of the information summarized has been taken from published articles and books researched and written by a large and varied group of scientists and historians concerned with weather and climate; population; economics and marketplaces; sociology; medicine; archaeology; and geology, astrophysics, oceanography, and other natural sciences.

For purchase information, go to the Unlock the Past website. 

Review by Helen Tovey (Editor); Family Tree magazine (UK), August 2023 issue, 39(10), p. 43

As regular readers of Wayne Shepheard’s articles in Family Tree over the years may know, the Little Ice Age is typically considered to span roughly 1300-1850 (some argue that it is mid 1500s onwards) conveniently mirroring the period that is so important to genealogists, on account of the records that are gradually and increasingly available for genealogy research from the Middle Ages onwards.

An Earth scientist by profession, geologist Wayne Shepheard employs his lifetime of experience to genealogical ends in Genealogy and the Little Ice Age – explaining the impact of the climate change upon our ancestors’ lives. The weather wasn’t just something to talk about — Wayne explains that in subsistence societies even minor changes in climate would have had very real implications on the weather and on how and where our ancestors lived, whether or not they prospered — or even survived — and on their lifespan and the survival rate of their children.

With 40 figures to help illustrate the many points Wayne covers, he explains the science behind the climate and touches on how the research was undertaken. Fascinatingly, information on historic climate change was gleaned from: records of the dates on which rivers froze, or comparisons of the numbers of shipwrecks in a given period, as well as ice cores, ocean sediments and tree rings. Trends in baptisms/births, marriages and deaths/ burials in parish registers, and details of harvests in manorial records also inform the research. Wayne writes of the 17th century that: ‘Solid ice was occasionally reported extending for miles off the coasts of the southern North Sea (England, France and the Low Countries) causing severe problems for shipping … [diminishing] access to many ports’. Across mountainous regions encroaching glaciers caused very real destruction of mountain passes and upper valleys previously farmed.

Wayne approaches the topic of climate change and the implications on our ancestors’ lives as a scientist, but also with the fact-informed imagination of a genealogist, inviting us to reflect on our ancestors’ experiences: “How might they have felt during the cold winds that rushed off glacier fronts or coped with ice-cold rivers, filled with debris, that may have overrun their fields, destroying any potential for harvests.”

Understanding that you may well wish to conduct climate-focused research specific to your ancestors’ localities, Wayne also provides information on where relevant sources may be found.