The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation

— Lord Byron, excerpt from “Darkness” (1816)


This is The Siècle, Episode 11: The Year Without A Summer. My thanks to E.M. Rummage, host of the excellent Age of Napoleon podcast, for reading this episode’s epigraph.

In the second week of April, 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte sat in Paris, having reclaimed his throne as part of the Hundred Days. As he grappled with raising revenue and reforming France’s constitution, the other powers of Europe were mobilizing armies for the great clash that would climax at Waterloo two months later.

But the most consequential event for France to happen that week did not happen at the Tuileries Palace, nor in London or Vienna. It happened on the other side of the world, 7,800 miles or 12,500 kilometers away from Paris, in the archipelago we now call Indonesia.

It sounded like artillery to a British colonial officer named Stamford Raffles, so much so that officials believed one of the outlying settlements was under attack and dispatched a company of soldiers to fend off the raid. But it wasn’t an attack. The sounds of cannon actually came from the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora — 240 miles or 380 kilometers away from where Raffles heard it, in modern-day Jakarta. And that was just the initial stages of the eruption, on April 5. The great eruption didn’t come until five days later, a massive series of explosions that shook buildings despite the vast distance. Ash fell from the sky, so thick in the air that it was unpleasant to stir out of doors. The ash blocked out the sun, requiring candles at midday, and piled up on the ground to depths of up to nine inches, or 23 centimeters.1

These ominous events were nothing compared to the devastation in places closer to Tambora. The villages near the mountain were effectively wiped off the map, by ash and falling stones and a furious “pyroclastic flow” of fast-moving volcanic gases that swept people, cattle, houses and trees into the air. A tsunami of up to 16 feet tall pummelled the island. The local population of around 12,000 people was almost entirely wiped out. 2

A little further away, death came more slowly but just as surely. The falling ash knocked down houses and got into the water supply, where it may have sparked a deadly outbreak of diarrhea that killed people and animals alike in “great numbers.” Those who survived this had to deal with the fatal effect the ash had on their crops, which provoked widespread famine that killed tens of thousands of people and sent tens of thousands more fleeing as refugees.3

None of this was noted on the other side of the world, where the skies remained clear, the crops healthy and attention firmly focused on the great drama of the day: Napoleon’s stunning return to power. But make no mistake about it: the eruption of Mount Tambora was a catastrophe for France and its neighbors. It was just a slow-moving disaster, rather than explosively sudden.

Volcanic winter

The culprit was not lava or tsunami, but Tambora’s ash, which had rained down with such violent force in the volcano’s vicinity. A British sea-captain in Indonesia, who awoke to find his deck covered in vast heaps of the ash, described it as “nearly the color of wood-ash,” a nearly “impalpable powder” that nonetheless was quite heavy when compressed. The ash was tasteless, did not burn the eyes and had a “faint burnt smell, but nothing like sulfur.”4 But it wasn’t the ash that fell that caused problems. It was the ash that didn’t.

Tambora’s eruption ejected at least 50 cubic kilometers of volcanic ash 40 kilometers into the stratosphere. (That’s 11 cubic miles of ash, shot 25 miles high.)5 Much of that fell back down to Earth in the days and weeks after the eruption. But while the ash was up there, its sulfur dioxide particles mixed with water vapor to produce sulfuric acid aerosols, which linger in the upper atmosphere and have a very significant effect: they reflect sunlight before it reaches the Earth’s surface, deflecting away its heat and energy.6

As time passed since the April 1815 eruption, these sulfuric acid aerosols were blown around the world by the wind, bringing their sun-blotting effect to China, India, North America, and Europe. Slowly, as the calendar turned to 1816, and France’s political life was dominated by the Chambre introuvable, people around the world began to notice the weather change.

In Hungary, a two-day January blizzard blanketed the country, which was bad enough, except the snow was ominously not white, but “brown or flesh colored.” In Massachusetts, observers noted that spring was “nearly six weeks less forward than common,” and nighttime frosts were observed throughout the month of May.7 But the real impact didn’t become evident until summer — or at least, what should have been summer. Because first June, and then July, and then August came and went, but the summer heat never arrived. In Paris, the high temperature on June 10 was 59 degrees Fahrenheit, or 15º Celsius. It reached 61º Fahrenheit or 16º Celsius on June 24. On July 29 it was 59º Fahrenheit or 15º Celsius; it was the same high a month later on August 20.8

Now, those are unusually cold days that I cherry-picked for effect. Paris’s average temperature reached the 70s on many days that summer. But it only passed 80º Fahrenheit, or around 27º Celsius, twice that entire year. Compared to what was usual for that period, Paris was an average of around 3 degrees Fahrenheit below normal in June, 5 degrees below in July, and 4.9º below in August.9 Those don’t sound like big swings — temperatures regularly vary by 5 degrees from day to day! — but precisely because of that variation, even changes in average temperatures of a few degrees can reflect the difference between what laypeople would describe as a “unseasonably cold” or a “unseasonably hot” month. And the summer of 1816 was a ceaseless string of cold months.

The year 1816 was, in fact, dubbed “The Year Without A Summer” because of the perpetual cool temperatures all across Europe, Asia and North America. Summer just never came.

You can visit the online version of this episode, at thesiecle.com/episode11 — that’s t-h-e-s-i-e-c-l-e dot com, with “11” as a numeral — to view a graph I made of the temperature observations at the Paris Observatory throughout 1816, along with citations, bonus information, and other charts and images.

Compounding these cool temperatures was the rain, which seemed to fall ceaselessly around the entire continent. A dispatch from the French interior ministry took note of “the abundant rains which have fallen for several months, and the overflowing rivers which have followed them.”10 Germans complained that “every storm of the past summer moreover was followed by the most severe cold, so that it regularly felt like November.”11 In Switzerland, which possibly suffered worse than anywhere in Europe, especially poetic descriptions come from a group of British travelers who had thought to take a summer vacation by Lake Geneva. As one of the travelers noted, “it proved a wet, un-genial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house.”12

For the sake of literature, at least, the Year Without A Summer proved fortuitous, for the traveler I just quoted was Mary Shelley, describing the summer in which she made the best of being trapped indoors by inclement weather by writing a ghost story — a story that she later developed into the novel Frankenstein. Another of the travelers, the poet Lord Byron, wrote a few fragments that a third traveler, John Polidori, expanded into The Vampyre, which created the modern vampire mythos. Byron had more luck with verse, writing a poem called “Darkness” inspired by the cold and wet year, and its hazy, obscured sky. You heard E.M. Rummage of the Age of Napoleon podcast read an excerpt from that poem to begin this episode.

Crop failures

The cold, wet summer of 1816 wasn’t just miserable to live through. It had devastating consequences for agriculture, which in 1816 was not only necessary to live but also how a huge percentage of the population made their living. The cool spring delayed planting. Cool summer days often meant cooler summer nights, sometimes with frosts that could kill or damage crops. The summer also brought hailstorms, with their own damage. The simple lack of heat could be bad in its own right, as with the grape crop, which relies on temperature cues to ripen. The year 1816 saw the latest ripening of France’s grapes in recorded history, and in some areas the grapes failed to ripen at all.13

Meanwhile, such crops as were harvested were in poor condition. One British company involved in the grain trade had conducted a survey to predict the harvest, which estimated a terrible harvest of just 25.3 bushels per acre in 1816 — down from 37 bushels per acre the year before. But even this was an overestimation, because the wheat that was harvested, due to damage and poor development, could be made into less flour than usual. The indispensable wheat crop, in the words of one observer, had “a lamentable deficiency in quantity, and a miserable inferiority of quality.” Similarly, in France, good wheat at the time typically weighted 75 kilograms per hectoliter. But 1816’s damaged wheat often weighed no more than 61 kilograms, and often much less. Overall, taking both quantity and quality into account, some experts estimate that 1816’s harvest was no better than half the year before.14

Now recall from Episode 10: People of the Land, that most peasant farmers produced only a moderate surplus of food above their needs in a good year. A 50 percent drop in yield in those circumstances is a catastrophe that threatens both your livelihood and life.

Experts noticed the looming crisis by midsummer, such as a newspaper report in July warning that, “should the present wet weather continue, the corn will inevitably be [ruined].”15 The next month, the French interior ministry started ordering prefects to distribute guidance to farmers about how to adapt to the bad weather. But overall, the crisis got much less public attention than you might expect. The official government newspaper, the Moniteur, mentioned the bad weather only casually in 1816, and none of the independent papers were any better. There were no public declarations of emergencies, and even that August circular giving advice to farmers noted that “the Royal Society of Agriculture does not believe the harm as great as has been feared.”16 This appears to have been due to an attempt to prevent a panic, bad in the best of times, and especially feared by a government on such shaky footing as Louis XVIII’s twice-restored monarchy.17 This attempt would not work.

As the harvests started to come in the summer and fall of 1816, realization sunk in that food would be in extremely short supply. Food prices started to rise sharply — up an average of 45 percent in 1816 over 1815, a huge strain to already strapped family budgets.18 The prior year, 1815, had seen a good harvest despite the year’s political chaos, so it took a while for this excess to consumed and the shortfall of 1816 to take full effect. And so the true crisis year for France and the rest of Europe was not 1816, the Year Without A Summer, but 1817, when people needed to eat but didn’t have enough food because of the cold, wet summer prior.

That 45 percent increase in grain prices in 1816? In 1817, France saw grain prices reach 85 percent above 1815’s prices.19 In Episode 10, I shared how a typical peasant family spent more than 60 percent of their income on food. You can do the math — that kind of increase puts the cost of food above 100 percent of typical income.

The French government did launch relief efforts in the fall of 1816 and winter of 1817, but they were hamstrung by the country’s terrible fiscal position, which I talked about in Episode 8 — massive debts and a huge ongoing deficit, a legacy of the chaos of the Napoleonic Wars. Ordinary revenues weren’t sufficient for ordinary expenses, let alone the extraordinary costs of dealing with a national famine. But Louis remembered how harvest failures in the 1780s — coincidentally also due in part to volcanic eruptions, in this case Icelandic volcanoes — had undermined his brother’s regime, and he wasn’t about to just ignore the shortages altogether.20

Perhaps the most direct response the French government took was to place massive orders for 1.46 million hectoliters of imported grain, from the expanding fields of Russia, at a net cost of around 50 million francs. These first orders were placed in November 1816, but in the early 19th Century, it took a very long time for an order to be placed, communicated, produced and shipped.21

In the meantime, the government tried smaller-scale efforts. That Royal Society of Agriculture continued to produce advice for farmers on coping with the crisis, such as the August 1816 circular on protecting fodder grains, a November pamphlet on preserving potatoes, a February 1817 piece on proper planting of spring wheat, and an epic 18-page essay in that same month on the best way to bake bread from damaged grain, which was so abundant after the crisis.22 Of course, since a huge portion of France’s farmers were illiterate peasants, these helpful pamphlets may have had limited effect. In an precursor to more modern responses to economic crises, local officials were instructed to launch road construction projects, which would provide starving workers with food and money, and not incidentally provide some much-needed improvements to France’s often-dismal local roads.23 The government also suspended taxes on grain that had only just been implemented,24 and issued a crackdown on illegal grain “speculation,” which was blamed for causing “false increases” in the price of grain. 25

But the most consequential decision was to provide government funds to subsidize bread purchases. This was consequential not only because it lowered the price of bread — which it did — but because of where these subsidies were targeted. The French government did not subsidize everyone’s bread. They subsidized bread in the cities, and most importantly in Paris. Louis lived in the Tuileries Palace in the heart of the capital. His ministers lived there, and the chambers of parliament met there. Everyone remembered the power of the revolutionary mobs, and so the government made it their single biggest priority to keep Paris content.26

So in Paris, the average price of a 2-kilogram, or 4-pound, loaf of bread rose from about 60 centimes in 1815 to 82 centimes in 1816 and 96 centimes in 1817 — about a 65 percent increase, and one that was felt dearly by the city’s struggling workers. But in rural areas of France, which didn’t get subsidies, the price of bread increased by as much as three times the pre-crisis rate.27

You can visit thesiecle.com/episode11 to see a graph showing the average price of bread in Paris from 1801 through 1820 — such an important piece of data for the bureaucrats of the time that they kept tracking it in minute detail even through all the political upheavals of that time period.

This differential had several side effects. The most immediate one is what the government’s massive expenditures (19 million francs for the Parisian subsidies alone, plus another 5 million from the city government) were intended to accomplish: keep Paris quiet. Despite everything, Paris did not see riots or rebellion. Louis’s regime was not toppled. This episode is titled “The Year Without A Summer,” not “The Revolution of 1817.”

Of course, France still had relative freedom of movement, and people picked up on the fact that bread was cheaper in Paris than out in the countryside. So people streamed into Paris, threatening even the Capital’s subsidized food supplies. An 1817 Census showed 84,461 of Paris’s 713,966 residents were “destitute.”28

But the bigger impact of these Parisian subsidies was to worsen the crisis in rural areas. The subsidies meant Paris bakers could pay the inflated market price for grain when almost no one else could — so what little surplus grain there was all over the country was packed into wagons and shipped to Paris, even as nearby farmers were on the verge of starvation.29 Despite efforts to conceal this, such as shipping at night, peasants noticed that their region’s grain was being shipped away despite the urgent need for it in the rural areas, and they didn’t just complain, either. They took matters into their own hands.

Unrest

The unrest began in the fall of 1816, after the poor harvests were confirmed. A typical example happened in October in the Vienne department in west-central France. A crowd of demonstrators gathered in the city of Poitiers, demanding that the local government impose price controls, setting a maximum price for wheat. The local government called out the national guard — the volunteer citizen militia — to restore order, but the guardsmen “refused to disperse the protesters.” Protesters stole several wagons of grain until regular army soldiers were brought in to put down the protests, with a few arrests but not too much violence. This kind of “minor disorder” occurred throughout the country that autumn.30

In some areas, the unrest got more serious, such as in the southern city of Toulouse in November. When the price of wheat rose to 34 francs per hectoliter, locals refused to pay that price, and forcibly “prevented several shipments of wheat from leaving the town.” Meanwhile, in the market, crowds would approach vendors, insist that the fair price for their wheat was 24 francs, and force the vendor to sell them wheat at that price — almost certainly below what the vendor had paid in the first place. Eventually, a unit of dragoons from the army was brought it to clear away the protests.31

Meanwhile, disorder in other areas could be disruptive even when it fell short of mass action. There was a huge increase in beggars just about everywhere, an increased that was observed firsthand by none other than Stamford Raffles, the British official who compiled our best written account of the eruption of Mount Tambora. Back in Europe in 1817, Raffles was traveling through France with his cousin Thomas, who wrote about their journey through eastern France:

The only unpleasant circumstance in crossing the Jura, and which bespoke the deep poverty of the people, was the great increase of beggars. They were chiefly children, and their number and their importunity were truly astonishing.32

Along with begging, many areas saw an increase in crime. In Normandy, for example, officials saw a rise first in petty thefts, then increasingly highway robbery. By the depths of the winter of 1816-17, the crime rate outstripped the ability of magistrates to combat it, and increasingly they didn’t even bother to seek out offenders.33

Interestingly, the severity of the food shortages in particular regions doesn’t really correlate with where the biggest protests and worst unrest was. Some of the areas where the shortage was most severe, such as eastern France, had very little social unrest, while others with relatively mild famines were in complete chaos. This might not be as bizarre as it sounds — one theory holds that riots were the result of the fear of hunger rather than hunger itself; people in the worst-hit places may have been too weak for organized violent uprising, compared to places that merely foresaw the danger of famine.34 In fact, the most unrest seems to be explained not by the price of food, but by proximity to Paris.35

The capital’s neighbors, struggling to feed themselves, observed wagonloads of wheat being hauled down their highways and saw both injustice and an opportunity. Bands of vagabonds began robbing the grain caravans, sometimes in small groups, and sometimes in surprisingly massive numbers. For example, in June 1817, a group of some 5,000 people seized an entire town, the city of Château-Thierry. There they “emptied the food warehouses and then intercepted the grain boats moving on the Marne River.” When soldiers were called in, the looters fled into the countryside, where more peasants from nearby towns joined them, until there was an actual battle against the army! The soldiers, we are told, fired “only with reluctance,” but eventually did open fire, killing or wounding several peasants. But the rest of the band just scattered “and carried on a campaign of plunder and looting in the countryside.” Unable to suppress the riots, the local government caved, and ordered farmers and grain merchants to turn over a share of their wheat to feed and placate the peasants.36

You might think that a remarkable story, a small army of peasants launching a veritable rebellion and effectively winning. But the uprising at Château-Thierry was not actually that exceptional for the summer of 1817! Similar disturbances involving thousands of armed peasants happened at other cities around Paris, including Sens on May 30, Bar-sur-Aube on May 31 and Troyes on June 5. Vagabonds “smashed down doors or scaled walls, carried away bread and flour, abused, terrorized, and even threatened to shoot victims.”37

Despite all this, and despite various concessions to try to calm the unrest, the government never backed down from its policy of prioritizing cheap food in Paris. Faced with either unrest in Paris or unrest around Paris, the government decided that the rural uprisings were the lesser of two evils. The grain shipments continued.38

Mayhem on this scale, this close to the capital, could no longer be concealed, even by officials desperate to maintain calm. But official dispatches, which were reprinted by many Parisian newspapers, played down the severity of the chaos and violence and struck an optimistic tone that everything would soon be resolved. Historian John Post notes how this policy actually ended up creating major problems for the government — when official dispatches insisted that everything was fine even when people’s own eyes and stomachs told them it wasn’t, they stopped trusting the government. And that made it easier to believe in conspiracy theories — that the government was shipping wheat not just to Paris but out of the country, that officials and wealthy merchants had secret hoards of grain that they were hiding to make a profit from speculation — that, in effect, the entire shortage was being created by the government, though the supposed motives were never terribly clear. This conspiratorial thinking only heightened people’s willingness to turn to violence in response.39

Politics and famine

Of course, all these food riots were happening at the same time as the political turbulence I’ve discussed in earlier episodes. France was currently ruled by a monarchy, upheld in part by foreign bayonets, after serious experiments in recent memory with various forms of republican and imperial governments. For all that royalists would talk of “legitimism,” Louis in 1816 was suffering from a serious shortage of popular legitimacy. Large portions of Louis’s country didn’t really want him (though other large portions certainly did), and Louis knew it.

So to what degree was the unrest in 1816 and 1817 primarily about food, and to what degree was it political rebellion?

Louis’s government certainly believed it to be heavily political, if not driven by foes of the regime then inspired or instigated by them. Bonapartist sympathizers were regularly charged with sedition during the unrest, and even ultra-royalists came under suspicion.40 Remember, it was in September of 1816, right in the middle of this crisis, that Louis dissolved the Chambre introuvable, as I discussed in Episode 8.

And the thing is, the government wasn’t necessarily crazy to see conspiracies at work. This was an extremely politically charged time. Everything from flowers in your coat to the brand of liquor you drank could carry political symbolism; peddlers did a brisk business selling Napoleonic memorabilia to an eager customer base. In northern France in 1817, we’re told of a group of young men who decided that growing mustaches was a way to symbolize Bonapartist loyalties; their facial hair appropriately groomed, the young men then walked through town in groups, “provocatively twirling their whiskers.”41 In Paris, politics pervaded the theater, such as with a March performance of a play called Germanicus, a new work set in Imperial Rome. At the play’s premiere, gangs of both Bonapartists and ultra-royalists showed up spoiling for a fight, carrying walking sticks weighted with iron, and wearing distinctive dress codes, with royalists in black waistcoats and white ties, and Bonapartists in white waistcoats and black ties. The two sides fell upon each other at the play’s conclusion, despite the presence in the audience of the prime minister the Duc de Richelieu, the interior minister Élie Decazes, and the Duke of Wellington. The next day, feeling the matter not yet settled, both sides wandered around Paris in groups, wearing ostentatious ribbons and flowers to declare their allegiance, insulting and assaulting the other side.42

Out in the country, it was sometimes hard to tell how much the peasant vagabonds were actually Bonapartist, and how much this was just a facade. For example, food rioters would often chant “Long live the emperor” not because of any deep-seated loyalty to Napoleon, but in the sense that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and in the popular mind at the time Napoleon was the alternative to the status quo. But many of the people who did move from grumbling to riot were Napoleonic veterans or people who had political disagreements with the regime as well as objections to their handling of the food shortage.43

Ultimately, historians believe that most of the serious unrest in 1816 and 1817 — the armed bands roaming the countryside, not the gangs of upper-class dandies brawling at the theater — were concerned primarily with food rather than politics.44

But in the fevered, suspicious atmosphere of the early Restoration, it could be hard to tell the difference. Exemplifying this confusion was the complicated conspiracy of Lyons in the summer of 1817. On June 18, armed groups began to gather in villages around the city, waving the tricolor flag. The authorities were aware of the plans, and met the uprising with overwhelming force. It was over so quickly that many Lyonnais only learned about the attempted revolution when the government announced it had been defeated.45 More than 100 defendants were arrested, and 12 were sentenced to death for their parts in the uprising. But then a new investigation launched by liberals in the government suggested that the entire “revolution” had in fact been the work of agents provocateur. The prefect and general who had suppressed the uprising were themselves sacked — but then given new, more prominent positions. The degree to which the conspiracy of Lyons was an actual popular rebellion or a false flag operation by ultra-royalist officials remains under debate to this day.46

Repression

None of that was any help to the people who were executed for their part in the alleged uprising, however. Many Frenchmen and women would share their fate in the first few years of the Restoration. In Episode 5, I talked about the so-called “Legal White Terror,” the repressive laws passed after the Hundred Days to crack down on the Restoration’s political opponents. I mentioned that 6,000 or more people were brought up on charges before the special courts of the Legal White Terror.

What I didn’t get into then was how few of the people convicted by these special courts were actually convicted of purely political offenses. Most of them were related to the bread riots of 1816 and 1817. They were handled by these extra-ordinary courts set up to punish the regime’s enemies, and the government may have believed that their actions were indeed political, but historians believe that only a small minority, perhaps 10 percent, of these convictions were purely political in nature.47 Most the convictions, and most of the as many as 3,000 capital convictions, were related to rioting and brigandage as part of the 1816-17 food crisis.48

But compared to the number of people who took part in these disturbances, the repression might actually be fairly small. It’s a hard question to sort through, but remember the example of the Norman crime spree that soon left authorities throwing up their hands, unable to even pursue the criminals due to lack of resources. In other areas, where people were brought up on charges, juries were often unwilling to convict defendants of looting.49 In one region, the prisons were bulging with people arrested for rioting — but only 30 people were ever actually sentenced. This seems to have been typical — far more arrests than actual charges or convictions, with authorities more interested in restoring order than punishing the guilty. Some people charged with sedition may even have intentionally violated the law to be thrown in prison, because prisoners were provided with regular meals!50

In general, Post notes, “criminal justice was dispensed as if the famine itself absolved the crimes it occasioned.” In August of 1817, King Louis made this official and issued a blanket pardon for people accused of crimes related to the food shortage. The king issued a statement praising “the zeal and firmness” of the royal courts, but noting that his “heart has groaned from the severities that justice and the law have commanded against a too large number of persons who… have been involved in criminal disorders through the scarcity and dearness of provisions.” But Louis exempted from this pardon people facing political charges, the “vicious men who would have tried, in some places, to push [unfortunates] into excesses whose most certain result was to aggravate their distress and to increase the ills of the state.”51

The crisis wanes

Even as the effects of the subsistence crisis reached its apex in the summer of 1817, with crime and rebellions, the resolution of the crisis was already in motion. The resolution was the same as the cause: the weather. While 1817 was still a cool year, it was much less cold than the Year Without A Summer. The average temperature in Paris in June 1817 was around 5 degrees higher than the year prior, and each of 1817’s other summer months was also significantly warmer.52 You can see a chart comparing these two years at thesiecle.com/episode11.

This better weather let farmers produce crops, to feed the hungry. In France, the price of grain peaked in June 1817, at about 133 percent higher than 1815 prices. Prices continued to decline the rest of the year, though they remained elevated as 1818 arrived.53

Also helping was the belated arrival of all that Russian grain that the French government had ordered the year before, which started to hit French ports in earnest in the summer of 1817. Ironically, this delayed emergency aid proved to be a double-edged sword — depressing grain prices right when French farmers finally had a decent crop to sell again. The imported grain also inflamed the country’s social tensions, because some two-thirds of the grain was bound for Paris, which didn’t make hungry people in the port towns happy to see food so close and yet inaccessible.54

Still, as food became available and prices declined, crime and protests began to decline, too. After a massive spike in 1817, prison sentences dropped dramatically in 1818 and continued to decline.55

At a raw statistical level, France was not fundamentally transformed by the subsistence crisis, as terrible as it was for the people enduring it. At the peak of the crisis in 1817, the country’s death rate shot up 3.7 percentage points, while its birth rate — which operates on a nine-month delay — fell fell by 2.5 percent in 1817 and 3 percent in 1818. But France’s population continued to grow, even in the depths of the crisis.56 As bad as the subsistence crisis was, especially coming on the tail of the devastating Napoleonic Wars, it wasn’t as devastating as war had been.

Indeed, many traditional histories of France in this period mention the harvest crisis of 1816-17 only in passing — a few sentences about bad harvests and rising disorder.57 It’s hard to know the degree to which this is due to the the fact that the subsistence crisis was not associated with a political revolution, unlike several other 19th Century crises, or whether even on its own merits the crisis was mild enough in France to pass over. Certainly it’s fair to say that in terms of actual death and disease, 1816-17 wasn’t as bad for France as some 18th Century harvest failures had been — an improvement that may be due to the rising agricultural powerhouses of the United States and Russia, both of which were able to export substantial amounts of grain to Europe during the crisis. The Times of London called it a “remarkable historical fact” that a “quarter of the globe finds in [Russia] a protection from the almost universal calamity of famine.”58

The rest of the world

The Year Without A Summer was not simply a French phenomenon. Unusual weather and harvest failures happened around the Northern Hemisphere, with wide-reaching consequences. Though I focused on the French experience here for obvious reasons, I don’t want to leave the rest of the world out altogether.

Many parts of Europe were hit by the harvest failure even worse than France was. The Low Countries, Switzerland, southern Germany and northern Italy all saw even bigger average increases in grain prices.59 In Lombardy, Tuscany and Switzerland, as well as Austria and parts of Germany, more people died in 1817 than were born.60

Other parts of Europe also saw social and political unrest. There were food riots nearly everywhere, often on a large enough scale to require military force to suppress. Sometimes these disturbances interacted with other political, social or economic factors, as with France and Bonapartism. England’s famous machinery-smashing “Luddite” protests, for example, were active in 1816 and 1817, though they had begun earlier in the decade. In Germany, rioters targeted Jews in a series of minor pogroms that would escalate, a few years later, to the anti-Semitic “Hep-Hep Riots” of 1819.61

The United States saw considerable upheaval, too, even though harvest failures there fell short of famine. When the Year Without A Summer decreased crop yields, many farmers on the East Coast found themselves unable to cope, especially in New England, where rocky-soiled farms had in many cases been subdivided over the generations into smaller and smaller plots. Tens of thousands of Americans packed up and migrated west, over the Appalachian Mountains, to seek out new land in states like Ohio.62 Meanwhile, the elections of November 1816 saw the single largest defeat of incumbent members of Congress in American history. Nearly 70 percent of the prior Congress wasn’t returned. This was largely attributed to disgust at Congress raising its own pay, but some historians speculate that the “general malaise created by crop failures and threatened famine” contributed to the landslide.63

The Year Without A Summer also had far-reaching effects in Asia, with massive historical echoes.

For example, post-Tambora rice harvest failures in China led to “widespread famine,” a “demographic devastation” that might be a factor in the “great economic divergence” between China and Western Europe in the 19th Century.64

You’re probably familiar with cholera as a quintessentially 19th Century disease, striking at London slums and the Oregon Trail with equal ferocity. And you’re not wrong. But in 1815, cholera was essentially unknown, a regional disease isolated to a few areas of India. Then Tambora disrupted the monsoon winds, causing drought in the summer of 1816, then flooding in the fall. A weakened population was unusually vulnerable to the bacterial infection, and cholera swept across the subcontinent, killing thousands. Within a few years, it reached Afghanistan, then Russia and the Middle East. By the middle of the century, cholera was the worldwide disease you know from popular history.65 Remember this: the cholera pandemic kicked off by the Tambora eruption will intersect our story soon enough.

At the time, Europe saw disease arise close to home. Some endemic diseases flared up with the famine, with outbreaks of typhus fever, dysentery and smallpox occurring in some places — though France was largely spared. More ominously, the bubonic plague returned to Europe, the expansion of an outbreak in the Middle East and Eastern Europe earlier that decade. Despite quarantines, the Black Death raged in Constantinople, Belgrade, Algiers, and parts of Italy. In a deadly irony, the plague was spread in part by the shipments of grain which European countries had ordered from the east to deal with their famines — the holds full of wheat also carried with them black rats, for whom grain is a preferred food. The rats carried with them fleas, Xenopsylla cheopsis, which breed in the debris of cereal grains, and are the direct vector of plague bacteria. But the governments of Western Europe were more organized than their historical predecessors. Rigorously enforced quarantine policies in ports like Marseille kept the plague out of Western Europe. So did effective border patrols, most notably along the Austrian military frontier with the plague-ravaged Ottoman Empire.66

Another extremely important impact of the Year Without A Summer was on the occupation of northern France by the Allied powers, which was still going on throughout this entire crisis. Unfortunately, the intricacies of how that occupation was affected by the agricultural crisis are just too detailed to fit into what is already the longest episode of the show so far. So just know that there are still 150,000 foreign troops occupying northern France as everything I talked about today went down, and that we will cover what happened with them, and how that affected French politics, in a future episode.

Answers

I want to close out this episode by taking it back to the eruption of Mount Tambora and its impact on the climate. Today we know that it was Tambora that caused the Year Without A Summer. But people in 1816 did not.

Experts at the time had their own theories about what was behind the unusual weather. Many noted the appearance of large sunspots that year and believed they were the key to understanding the cold. Others noted the large amounts of icebergs and wondered whether they were cooling the climate, in an interesting confusion of cause and effect.67

Meanwhile, you might recall from Episode 8 that ultraroyalists in the French parliament had waged a fierce political battle to prevent the government from selling off the national forests to cover the country’s huge debts. The primary reason for this opposition was that many of these forests had been seized from nobles or the Church during the Revolution, and the Ultras hoped to return them to their prior owners rather than sell them for a profit. But with terrible weather wracking France that summer, many Ultras seized on another argument: that despoiling France’s forests was contributing to the country’s bad weather.

The royalist politician, writer and noted world traveler Chateaubriand told the House of Peers: “Everywhere that trees have been cut down, man has been punished for his improvidence. I am better equipped to speak on these matters, dear sirs, and on the consequences of the presence or absence of forests, since I have seen the pristine lands of the New World, where nature is newborn, and I have seen the deserts of old Arabia, where creation has all but died.”68

In 1815, in other words, it was the right wing that wanted to protect the natural environment, while the left wing was eager to put the environment to use to benefit the nation and individual owners and workers.

Other thinkers put forth much wilder theories than icebergs or deforestation. Some Americans noted recent earthquakes, such as the famous tremors of New Madrid, Missouri in 1811 and 1812, and wondered whether they “had created an equilibrium of fluid between the surface and the atmosphere.” Others thought an eclipse of the moon might have deflected usual winds. But my absolute favorite theory had to do with electricity. This hypothesis held that much of Earth’s normal heat came from lightning strikes. If this were so, some people wondered, maybe Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rods were contributing to global cooling by preventing the lightning from reaching the ground!69

In fact, Franklin, decades earlier, had been among the first to propose that volcanic eruptions could cool the world’s climate. In 1783, the American inventor noted a persistent haze that seemed to be blocking the sun’s rays and diminishing “their summer effect in heating the earth.” The cause of this haze was unknown, Franklin wrote, but he proposed an answer: “the vast quantity of smoke, long continuing to issue during the summer” from a volcano in Iceland. “It seems… worth the enquiry,” Franklin wrote, “whether other hard winters recorded in history were preceded by similar permanent and widely extended summer fogs.”70

This entirely accurate hypothesis had not yet been met with acceptance in 1816, with the most eminent scientists advancing a theory that the Earth was gradually cooling down. But at least one prominent scholar, the Comte de Volney, proposed a connection between Tambora and the Year Without A Summer, in the process formulating a theory about atmospheric winds to explain how the ash could make its way around the world.71 Another figure, the Swiss engineer Ignaz Venetz, was inspired by the cold summer to study Alpine glaciers for a scientific essay contest. His conclusion that glaciers had once taken up much more space than they did at present not only challenged the global cooling theory, but was the first evidence for the existence of what would soon be dubbed the Ice Age.72 As you can see, the trials and tribulations of the Year Without A Summer had a host of side effects, from literature to science.

I’m going to wrap up this discussion now, but rest assured, we’ll return to the ongoing impacts of the 1816-17 subsistence crisis in future episodes. For now, I’d like to thank again E.M. Rummage of the Age of Napoleon podcast for the introduction to this episode. If you like French history about this era, you’ll definitely want to check him out — his narrative will climax right where The Siècle began, so if you want to learn about what happened before the Restoration, check out Age of Napoleon at ageofnapoleon.com or wherever you get podcasts. There’s also a link to his show in the online version of this episode at thesiecle.com/episode11.

I’d also like to thank The Siècle’s generous supporters on Patreon. Thanks to a number of very generous backers, I’m now getting enough monthly pledges to cover my hosting costs, so I’m no longer losing money on the show. Any support you can provide, even as little as a dollar a month, makes a huge difference, as I purchase a steady stream of books for the show, and also set aside time outside my regular full-time job to research and write episodes. Backers Robert, Preston, Rick Varco, Antonio Vitalone, Mirko Dautović, Angus Wilson, Gavin McLaughlin, Liam Allen-McGoran, Frank Kuo, Claudia Morgenstern and Thad Kelly have all made pledges since I last thanked new subscribers in Episode 9. (My apologies if I butchered any of your names.) Also backing the show is The Age of Napoleon podcast, which has its own Patreon account that I encourage you to check out if you’re a fan. This is an amazing outpouring of support and I’m overwhelmed and grateful.

Because of all these new backers, I’ve got a special announcement to make: everyone is going to get a bonus episode! I passed my $25 per month threshold, which means I’ll make a supplemental talking about some of the sources I use to create this show. In the next few days, I’ll be reaching out to my backers on Patreon for their input on what format the episode should take. If you’d like to join them for as little as $1 per month, visit patreon.com/thesiecle, or go to thesiecle.com and click the “Support” page.

In the meantime, feel free to reach out with any questions or comments. I can be reached by email at david@thesiecle.com, or on Facebook and Twitter under the handle @thesiecle.

The next episode of the show will be out later this month, and I’m really excited to share it with you. It’s an interview about King Louis XVIII with Philip Mansel, a historian who literally wrote the book on France’s restored king.

Please join me in two weeks for Episode 12: Louis Louis.

  1. Sophia Raffles, Memoir of the life and public services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles […] (London: John Murray, 1830), 241-250. 

  2. Jelle Zeilinga de Boer and Donald Theodore Sanders, “The Eruption of Tambora in 1815 and ‘the Year without a Summer,’” in Volcanoes in Human History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 144-6. Raffles, Memoir of […] Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles […], 249-50. 

  3. De Boer and Sanders, “The Eruption of Tambora,” 146. Raffles, Memoir of […] Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles […], 249. 

  4. Raffles, Memoir of […] Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles […], 246. 

  5. De Boer and Sanders, “The Eruption of Tambora,” 143-4. 

  6. De Boer and Sanders, “The Eruption of Tambora,” 149. 

  7. John Dexter Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis in the Western World (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 22, 11-12. 

  8. François Arago and Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, eds., Annales de chimie et de physique,* vols. 1-3 (Paris: Crochard, 1816). 

  9. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 9. 

  10. Ministère de l’Intérieur, Circulaires, instructions et autre actes ´manés du minstère de l’intérieur de 1797 à 1821 inclusivement, 2nd ed, vol 3 (Paris, 1823), 103 

  11. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 18. 

  12. De Boer and Sanders, “The Eruption of Tambora,” 152. 

  13. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 11-17. 

  14. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 40-1. 

  15. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 16. 

  16. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 17-18, Ministère de l’Intérieur, Circulaires, 103. 

  17. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 17. 

  18. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 37. 

  19. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 37. 

  20. Philip Mansel, Louis XVIII, Rev. ed. (Phoenix Mill: Sutton, 1999), 353. 

  21. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 55-6. 

  22. Ministère de l’Intérieur, Circulaires

  23. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 60-1. 

  24. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 53. 

  25. Ministère de l’Intérieur, Circulaires, 130. 

  26. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 78. 

  27. Recherches statistiques sur la ville de Paris et le département de la Seine […]. (Paris: L’Imprimerie Royale, 1823), fig. 73. 

  28. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 78. 

  29. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 78-9. 

  30. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 71. 

  31. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 71. 

  32. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 88. 

  33. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 73. 

  34. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 75. 

  35. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 78. 

  36. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 78-9. 

  37. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 79-80. 

  38. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 78. 

  39. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 80-1. 

  40. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 81. 

  41. Sudhir Hazareesingh, The Legend of Napoleon (London: Granta Books, 2004), 87. 

  42. Philip Mansel, Paris Between Empires: Monarchy and Revolution, 1814-1852 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001), 112. 

  43. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 81. 

  44. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 81-2. 

  45. André Jardin and André-Jean Tudesq, Restoration & Reaction, 1815-1848, translated by Elborg Forster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 290. 

  46. See, for example, the very different characterizations of the event in Guillaume de Bertier de Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, translated by Lynn M. Case (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966), 151, and Jardin & Tudesq, Restoration & Reaction, 290. 

  47. Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 134. 

  48. Christine Haynes, Our Friends the Enemies (Cambridge, Mass., and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2018), 32-3. 

  49. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 75. 

  50. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 86. 

  51. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 95. 

  52. Local Climate Change: 49.03 N, 2.45 E,” Berkeley Earth, accessed July 10, 2019. 

  53. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 37-8. 

  54. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 74. 

  55. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 198n151. 

  56. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 109-13. 

  57. See, for example, Sauvigny, The Bourbon Restoration, 147: “A serious famine had hit the country during the winter of 1816 to 1817 and had required unforeseen expenditures..”, or Robert Tombs, France 1814-1914 (Harlow: Addison Wesley Longman, 1996), 338: “On top of this came a harvest failure in 1816-17 which caused widespread hunger, market riots and attacks on grain convoys.” 

  58. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 55. 

  59. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 37. 

  60. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 116. 

  61. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 68-86. 

  62. De Boer and Sanders, “The Eruption of Tambora,” 153-4. 

  63. C. Edward Skeen, “‘The Year without a Summer’: A Historical View,” Journal of the Early Republic, 1, no. 1 (Spring, 1981), 64-5. Arguing against this is that James Monroe, the heir to outgoing president James Madison, was elected in a cakewalk. 

  64. Jean-Baptiste Fressoz and Fabien Locher, “The Year Without a Summer,” in France in the World: A New Global History, ed. Patrick Boucheron and Stéphane Gerson (New York: Other Press, 2019), 517. 

  65. De Boer and Sanders, “The Eruption of Tambora,” 148-9. 

  66. Post, The Last Great Subsistence Crisis, 132-6. 

  67. Skreen, “‘The Year without a Summer’: A Historical View,” 59-60. 

  68. Fressoz and Locher, “The Year Without a Summer,” 520. 

  69. Skreen, “‘The Year without a Summer’: A Historical View,” 60. 

  70. Stevie Rocco, “Benjamin Franklin: Politician, Inventor, Climatologist,” Penn State Freshman Seminar in Earth and Mineral Sciences, accessed July 10, 2019. 

  71. Jean-Baptiste Fressoz and Fabien Locher, “A l’ombre du volcan,” in Les révoltes du ciel. Une autre histoire du changement climatique (Le Seuil, forthcoming). 

  72. Fressoz and Locher, “The Year Without a Summer,” 518-9.