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What Was the Medieval Warm Period?

The end of the Dark Ages was brought on by a period of global warming.

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After the Dark Ages and the Justinian plague, evidence suggests the climate in Europe warmed. This created what people now call the Medieval Warm Period (MWP).

No all scientists and historians agree on the facts about the MWP. Some think it lasted from about 950 to 1250, while others think it was a shorter period of time – and even others doubt it ever happened. They also often disagree about just how much the world warmed during this time. Still, several studies show that Europe enjoyed reliably warm conditions during the period.

Population Growth

The theory is that warm summers that lasted longer meant farmers could grow more food over longer growing seasons. This is believed to have supported a big increase in the population. The climate was so warm that it was possible to grow grapes in Scotland, which is now known for its cold and somewhat harsh weather.

University

During this time, European Christians founded universities. In these universities, students learned theology and knowledge of the natural world. The first was founded in Bologna, Italy, in 1088.

These institutions were very important for the future of the West and the entire world. One scholar who was educated in university was Thomas Aquinas, a leading thinker of the Renaissance, the era that would follow the Medieval period.

The Black Death

Around 1250, there were reports that sea ice was building up in the North Atlantic. By 1300, reliable warm summers were gone. Europe was once again falling into a cool period known as the Little Ice Age. In 1315, Europe experienced its first great famine in hundreds of years.

Once more, pandemics returned to Europe. In 1346, the Black Death arrived. It was the same type of bacteria that had killed millions during the reign of the reign of Justinian in Byzantine. Today we call the bacteria Yersinia pestis, and we know it causes plague. While modern scientists realize the bacteria is carried by infected fleas on rats and other small rodents, Medieval societies had no idea what caused it. It killed an estimated 75 million to 200 million people in Eurasia and North Africa during that time, which amounted to about 20% of the world population. In Europe, the Black Death was even deadlier. Between 30% and 60% of the continent’s population died. By comparison, COVID-19 has so far killed 0.05% of the people in the world.

Cool Climate, Hot Philosophy

The end of the Medieval Warm Period began centuries of famine, plagues, and war in Europe. Unlike previous times of hardship, Europe had spent its warm period rediscovering the great thinkers of the ancient world. So, despite all the death and suffering, Europe still advanced in technology and knowledge.

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