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Weather chronicler relates of medieval disasters

Heatwave nowadays ‘bearable’

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

DE BILT, the Netherlands - While the 2003 heatwave might rate a distinct entry in the record books, it hardly is the most severe summer to ever strike the Netherlands. Modern Dutch man, with his continued quest to ‘seek the sun’, is quite capable of dealing with the solar onslaught. In fact, most people considered the Summer of 2003 to be quite pleasant.

Heatwaves in earlier days, not unlike other harsh weather phenomenons, were more intrusive, and often disastrous. These days, many cars and office buildings have air conditioning, beverages are stored in fridges and ice cream makers are a growth industry. Consider the situation in earlier times when 35 degree temperatures or higher resulted in spoiled food and milk, and danger of fire everywhere.

That concludes historical geographer and retired science teacher Jan Buisman, who has dedicated much of his life to recording, investigating and analysing extreme weather conditions. Exact information on the weather in the Netherlands has been recorded since 1706.

Cruquius and Fahrenheit

In that year, Delft cartographer and hydraulics engineer Nicolaus Samuelis Cruquius began measuring - quite primitively, three times a day - temperature, air pressure, and precipitation. Eventually using a measuring device developed by Daniel Fahrenheit, who had moved to Amsterdam, Cruquius continued his meteorological research, which from 1734 on also was done by others throughout the country. Cruquius was unable to convince the government of setting up a meteorological institute similar to the one in England he had dealings with. Only a century later, instigated by scientist Buys Ballot, did the Netherlands form its own such institute, now known as the KNMI.

The wealth of weather-related data covering three centuries encouraged Buisman, in cooperation with KNMI, to dig further into history. He researched chronicles, letters, diaries, harvest data, travel journals and other de-scriptive material to obtain an impression of the weather in the Netherlands throughout the ages.

Rhine ran dry

Duizend jaar weer, wind en water in the Lage Landen (One Thousand Years Weather, Wind and Water in the Low Countries) is a multi-volume standard work by Buisman, who has reached the year 1720 at the end of the just-published part IV. Another three volumes will complete the work.

According to Buisman’s recent findings, the year 1540 was one with an even more severe summer than was 2003. All over Europe, the heatwave lasted, off and on, for seven months, with parched fields and dried up rivers, such as the Rhine. People in Paris, France could walk on the river bed of the Seine without getting their feet wet.


In medieval times, such severe weather conditions often led to other disasters. Although the Summer of 2003 presumably led to the untimely death of some 15,000 people in France alone, death and disease in 1540 struck many countries even worse. Drought caused famine, countless deaths from dysentery and other ilnesses caused by lack of safe drinking water, and to large-scale starvation of farm animals. Another disaster usually associated with heatwaves and droughts was fire, often destroying entire villages or even towns such as Harderwijk in 1503. Wooden houses became tinderboxes, dry peat, forests and undergrowth ignited readily and led to massive wildfires.

The disasters associated with the Summer of 2003 should not be minimized. The extremely high number of heat-related deaths in France, the massive forest fires in France, Spain and Portugal, the U.S. and in Canada (B.C. and Alberta) confirm that weather not only is unpredictable but also defies human intervention, however advanced technology may be. Buisman’s research shows, that dealing with weather related disasters has been an ongoing struggle. Even with technology to assist him, modern man this year found that his abilities easily can be overwhelmed when disasters strike.