What Can Seventeenth-century Sources Teach us About Living With Climate Change?

By Timothy Grieve-Carlson at OUP: At the beginning of another summer that will likely prove to be the hottest in the planet’s recorded history, it is easy to feel like we are living through a moment without precedent in human history. But it’s a mistake to assume that our histories have nothing to teach us about living under climate change. In my work as a historian of religions, I explore the ways that the religious beliefs of common people during the early modern period were shaped by the Little Ice Age, a period of severe global cooling that peaked in the second half of the seventeenth century.

Rather than turning to orthodox or traditional religious authorities, common people in Europe and the Americas during the Little Ice Age largely turned to esoteric religious sources to make sense of their changing climate. They read and used texts like almanacs, devotional literature, and other popular writings that relied on Hermetic, alchemical, and astrological perspectives to interpret the world around them. What made these texts worthwhile to rural people living through the tumult of the Little Ice Age?

As scholars of esotericism have long suggested, the basic perspective of Hermetic literature and the alchemical traditions that arose from it is a kind of cosmotheism, a religious sense that divine forces are at work in the physical world, the environment, and that human beings are connected with these forces in their environments. These texts portrayed the cosmos as an intelligent and communicative entity, constantly transmitting divine knowledge for anyone who cared to listen. Climate phenomena like frigid cold, failed crops, and darkened skies were symptoms of our interconnection with an environment that seemed to be communicating its own decline.

One of the most popular examples of what I call Hermetic Protestantism was a German devotional author named Johann Arndt. Arndt is largely forgotten today beyond historians of Protestantism, but in seventeenth-century Germany, a place ravaged by war and climate change, he was one of the most popular authors working at the time, bar none. Arndt’s book of Protestant devotion, True Christianity, was in constant print and circulation during the period, even outselling the Bible in some parts of Germany.

What made Arndt’s book so popular? Johann Arndt used (and even plagiarized) esoteric authors like the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus in order to give the Protestant people of northern Europe a religious perspective on their changing climate. As historians of modern Christianity have consistently noted, Lutheranism and an emphasis on scripture and word is entirely absent from Arndt’s work: in its place is a largely Hermetic cosmology of macrocosm and microcosm, derived from his own deep engagement with alchemy and the work of Paracelsus.

Arndt presents a Christian vision of a cosmos in which the suffering of human beings is mirrored by a wider suffering of nature:

The suffering of the macrocosm, that is, the great world, is subsequently fulfilled in the microcosm, that is, in humanity. What is to befall man, nature and the great world suffer first, for the suffering of all creatures, both good and evil, is directed towards man as a center where all lines of the circle converge. For what man owes, nature must suffer first.

In this deeply Paracelsian passage, Arndt envisions an almost ecological (if admittedly anthropocentric) Hermetic Christianity, in which the suffering of the human being is connected to and shared with a wider suffering of the cosmos.

More here.

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