Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Great Frost, 1607-8

Thursday, January 24, 2013
Isabella reporting,

While it's currently very, very cold in much of America (and from our friends in the U.K., it's much the same there), it could be worse. England in January, 1608 was in the middle of a winter of record-breaking cold, part of the much longer "Little Ice Age" that ranged from roughly 1350-1850. Not that the average Englishman or woman was thinking in climatological terms; all he or she knew was that it was wicked cold, so cold that the Thames froze solid.

The river became an impromptu fairground, with amusements and refreshments available. Though not as elaborate as later frost fairs, this deep freeze was still enough of a wonder to merit its own publication. The great frost. Cold doings in London, is a slender tract printed in 1608, no doubt to cash in on the novelty of the frozen river. The cover illustration, left, shows Londoners amusing themselves on the frozen river near London Bridge - which seems to have shrunk through some mysterious artistic licence.

The tract is written in the form of a conversation between two friends, the Country-man and his urban counterpart, the Citizen, who discuss how the cold weather has affected London and the countryside. It reads a bit like an exchange between a pair of Weather Channel reporters - if the guys in the blue jackets spoke in Shakespeare's English. Here the Citizen describes the frozen river:

"The Thames began to put on his Freeze-coate about a week before Christmas, and hath kept it on till now, this latter end of January. This cold breakfast being given to the Cittie, and the Thames growing more & more hard-harted, youthes and boyes were the first Merchant venturers that set out to discover these cold Landes upon the River; and the first path was beaten forth, to passe to the Bank-Side without going over Bridge or by Boat, was about Cold-Harbour, and in those places neere the Bridge....

Both men, women, and children walked over, and up and downe in such companies, that I verily believe, and I dare almost sweare it, that one half (if not three parts) of the people in the Citie, have been seene going on the Thames. The rivers shows not now (neither shows it yet) like a river, but like a field where archers shoot, while others play at football....It is an alley to walk upon without dread, albeit under it be the most assured danger. The Gentlewoman that trembles to passe over a bridge in the field, doth here walk boldly: the Citizens wife that lookes pale when she sits in a boate for fear of drowning, thinks that here shee treads as safe now as in her parlour. Of all ages, of all sexes, of all professions this is the common path: it is the roadway between London and Westminster, and between Southwark and London."

Above: Illustration from The Great frost. Cold doings in London...Printed for H. Gosson, London, 1608. Harvard University Library.


Lil said...

And that was before central heating!

How welcome Spring must have been in the days when everyone was cold—really cold—through all the months of winter. A fire in the fireplace, even for those who had such luxury, just doesn't hack it.

Unknown said...

I just looked this up after reading about the great frost in the first chapter of Orlando by Virginia Woolf.

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