Frozen : Journeys to the End of the World

Though anecdotal, one of the most vivid and tangible signs of the Little Ice Age which  affected Europe between the 14th century and the middle of the 19th century is the frozen Thames, which became a recurrent sight around the turn of the 17th century (1564, 1595, 1608, 1621, 1635). The frost turned the Thames into a “wonder” and the magnitude of the cold, and its customary companions (ice, snow, fog, tempestuous winds turning into storms and blizzards), turned what may be qualified as a natural hazard into a natural disaster, both at home and in far-away places. This paper proposes to  observe the frost in two radically different modes : the tragic mode of the Willoughby expedition in 1553-1554 in what turned out to be the first of a long list of Arctic disasters, and the carnivalesque and comical mode of The Great Frost : cold doings in London, published in 1608 and describing the Frost Fair on the Thames. The comparison highlights an unexpected proximity between the pamphlet and the genre of travel-writing: it shows how domestic and global concerns intersected in the local pamphlet and how the frost became the natural territory of British imperial expansion. The apocalyptic description of the frost highlights the ambivalence of the North which is both a living hell, the land of the dead, of silence and agony, and yet holds the promise of heaven on an economic level with its natural resources, and also more mystically as the country of eternal light.

Sophie Lemercier-Goddard (IHRIM, Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon)


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