Francis Bacon and the Mastery of the Winds

In 1622 Sir Francis Bacon published his Historia ventorum, a systematic natural history of the winds. In the work Bacon sought to answer a number of outstanding questions about the nature of the winds, which had exercised scholars from Aristotle onwards, including notably their origins and the causes of their potentially threatening ‘great and violent motion’. This chapter argues that, as well as an important intervention into early modern science, Bacon’s history of the winds also sprang from his political philosophy and his lifelong interests in trade, commerce, and colonization. While these elements have all received careful attention from Baconian scholars in recent years, their significance for the Historia ventorum has not been sufficiently noted. In this chapter I therefore trace their connections with Bacon’s natural history to offer a new account of that work and thereby show how it (and his interest in the winds more generally) belonged to both his scientific and his political programmes. Bacon’s underlying aim in the work, the chapter argues, was the mastery of the winds—with how the winds might be controlled and put to human use and improvement, and with how the threat of natural disaster that they otherwise posed might therefore be averted. From discussions of the designs of ships’ sails to investigations of wind power, and reports of his own experiments into both wind and air, the subjects of the history all reflected that central aim. They were also, the chapter shows, intimately connected with his commercial and colonial interests, with what we might call his ‘mercantile imperialism’. They therefore reinforce that the Historia ventorum was, indeed, as much a civil and political project as a scientific one.

Angus Vine (University of Stirling)

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)

The Impact of Climate on Early Modern Watercolours

Nicholas Hilliard’s Arte of Limning warns limners against the deleterious effect of “some ayers, especially […] the sulfirous ayre of seacole and the guilding of Gowldsmithes” on pigments. Besides showing Hilliard’s chemical understanding of the materials he used, his awareness of some pigments’ liability to discolouration and blackening tells us a great deal about both the London climate in the closing years of the 16th century and limners’ working conditions in and around Cheapside. I will be showing how Hilliard’s concern for the preservation of lustre in the disastrous London air ties in with a threefold environmental, aesthetic and social perspective.
Anne-Valérie Dulac (Sorbonne Université)

Comparative collapsology: from Shakespeare to George R.R. Martin

            William Shakespeare’s King Lear and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire are both built around a natural disaster imbued with multiple layers of meaning. The motto “winter is coming” in the fantasy saga literally announces an upcoming winter, which paves the way to the supernatural threat of the White Walkers, but also symbolizes the political crisis which destabilize the Seven Kingdoms. In King Lear, the storm can be read as Lear’s materialized tumultuous state of mind provoked by the disunification of both his kingdom and family. The semantic syllepsis of the saga and the polysemic storm thus act as the warning signs of the impending systemic collapse looming over the two crumbling worlds.

            Since the multiple catastrophes destabilize the kingdom and lead to the downfall of the society, it opens the way to a collapsological reading of the two works. As collapsology has mostly studied the collapse of societies from a civilizational perspective, this paper aims at focusing on two fictional collapses and, therefore, on their literary construction. First, I will highlight the apocalyptic imagery of the collapse built around the entanglement between the natural, the supernatural and the political. Then, I will focus on the character’s rejection and denial of the warning signs announcing the collapse. Finally, among the numerous reactions regarding the downfall of society, some characters accept the warning and try to confront the upcoming collapse.

Vincent Martins (Université Clermont Auvergne)

Disturbances, Accidents and Disaster. The Emergence of a Concept.

This study (work in progress) seeks to trace the emergence of the multifarious concept of natural disaster in the burgeoning published science of the second half of the seventeenth century, particularly in the Royal Society’s innovative Philosophical Transactions.

Exploring how the Philosophical Transactions, as repositories of what we might call cutting-edge investigative practice, addressed the occurrence of events that are today labelled « extreme, » may be useful in generating a foil to parallel literary processes, allowing insight into potentially osmotic pressures, identifying – in terms of the representation of natural disaster – who or what informed whom and what, and how. Adopting 21st century benchmark definitions, however wide-ranging, of terms like “natural”, « extreme », and « disaster” and using these to conceptualize the emergence of the natural disaster concept in the Philosophical Transactions – might constitute methodological entry into the bulk of the archive.  As well as considering the articles themselves, another data set may also be taken into account in literature-content analysis – the Philosophical Transactions were divided up into Volumes, and a Preface opened each of these. These prefaces could also then be discursive spaces in which concepts of extreme events, disaster and disturbance emerge.

For this Round Table discussion, in order to test these methodologies, I have focused on the first Volume of Transactions which covers the initial two-year period (1665-1666). Ensuing research would look at the emergence of the concept, in the above terms, in more than 350 years of material as the notion seemingly continues to lack semiotic cogency even today.

Sandhya Patel (Université Clermont Auvergne)

Acqua Alta in Venice from an English Perspective

Following the latest catastrophic acqua alta in November 2019 and the current Covid-19 pandemic, Venice effectively provides a mirror to the world when it comes to natural disasters. Coping with natural calamities is a challenge the city has been facing since its foundation. This paper will be dealing with the representation of flooding and plague from an early modern British perspective and study to what extent these events participate in the cultural perception of Venice. How is the City-state’s management of these disasters analysed or imagined?  The representation of the City’s resilience will be looked at through the prism of travellers’ accounts, histories, and fictional works. Starting with a lexical overview of key words, this paper argues that British authors predominantly reproduced the lagoon mythology created by Venetian historiographers. Natural disasters are mainly seen through the lens of social and political contexts rather than the contemporary scientific debates. It further considers how fictional discourses explore Biblical, metaphorical or satirical narratives allowing insights into the City’s various strategies of survival.

Anne Geoffroy (Université Versailles Saint Quentin)

Tending One’s Own Garden: Husbandry, Weather Lore and Prognostication in Early Modern England

In his Essays, Civil and Moral, Francis Bacon (1561–1626) offers the following insight into gardening: “GOD ALMIGHTY first planted a garden. And indeed it is the purest of human pleasures[1]”. Both a pleasure and, when it comes to agriculture, a necessity, this earthly practice was and still is strongly dependent on meteorological conditions, at the time believed to be controlled by God’s hand. Accurate weather predictions, crop preservation and protection techniques remained largely unknown to the farmer of the early modern period, whose crops were often destroyed by natural disasters. Whether they originated from the sky in the diverse forms of storms or frost, depending on the season, or from the ground, carried by pests and diseases, disasters were seen as a form of divine punishment, or trial by ordeal. Indeed, the failure of a crop was considered as the expression of divine desire and wrath, since undeserving sinful men and women would be punished by having to cope with the hardships and outcomes of the disasters themselves. With the increasing abundance of publications dealing with topics unrelated to religious matters, such as almanacs, which offered information regarding tide and moon cycles, a plethora of inexpensive pamphlets as well as more thorough volumes started to circulate massively during the Renaissance. Books dedicated to husbandry[2], intended for farmers and gardeners, started to circulate, proving instrumental in dealing with specific agricultural issues. They offered a range of gardening techniques, weather predictions and recipes for potions to encourage growth or eradicate pests. Although the level of interest in the matter would not match the level of scientific understanding, advice was based on experience and observation, adopting a deeply didactic format known as weather lore[3]. With an absence of efficient air and pressure measuring tools, prognostication based on practical knowledge only was an accepted method of weather prediction and would also play a key role in the organization of time throughout the farming year. To that end, each season, following a regular pattern, was mostly dictated by proverbs, beliefs and superstition. Though people accepted the postulate that it was impossible and ungodly to prevent disasters, they would offer observations, remedies and advice first orally, then in written form.

This paper aims at presenting a range of suggestions in dealing with natural disasters, as they are given in a selection of primary sources focusing on husbandry and farming methods, offering a variety of interpretations and recommendations in order to establish a pattern of prognostication and weather lore. It will first focus on the approaches used to understand the consequences of climatic issues on crops. It will then highlight weather forecasting methods as a budding empirical science, before turning to techniques Renaissance farmers used in the hope of mastering the elements.

Julie Van Parys-Rotondi (Université Clermont Auvergne)


  • Abenezrah, Kinki, An euerlasting prognostication of the change of weather collected and compiled for the common vse and profit of all countrey men. By Kinki Abenezrah, a wandring Iew, STC STC / 864:09 (2nd ed.) British Library 1625.
  • Anon., A Prognostication eueverlafting of ryght good effecte, frutefully augmented by thauthor, cōteyning playne, brief, pleafant, chofē rules to iudge the weather, by the sunne, Moone, Sterres, Cometes, Raynbowe, Thunder, Cloudes, with other extraordinarie tokens, not omitting the Afpectes of Planetes, with a briefe iudgement for euer of Plentie, Lacke, Sickneses, Death, warres, &. Opening alfo many natural caufes worthy to be knowen.  To their and other nowe at the laft are adoiuned diuerse general pleafāt Tables, with many cōpendiousnrules, eafy to be had in memorie, manifolde ways profitable to al maner men of underftāding : once againe publiffed by Leonar Digges Geentleman, in the yeare of our Lord 1556.
  • Anon., The husbandmans practife, or Prognostication for eueer. As teacheth Alberte, Alkin, Haly, and Ptholome. Imprinted at London in fleete ftreate, beneath the Conduite, at the Sygne of Saynt Iohn Euaungelift, by Hugh Iackson.
  • Anon., A table plainly teaching ye making and use of a wetherglas, 1 sheet ([1] p.) :. London: s.n.], 1631.
  • Hill, Thomas, A most briefe and pleasaunte treatise, teachyng how to dresse, sowe, and set a garden : and remedies agaynst wormes, flies, and fuche like, that noye Gardens, gathered oute of the principallest Aucthors which haue writtē of gardening, as Palladius, Columella, Varro, Quellius, Dopbdnes, learned Cato, and other manye moe. And nowe englifhed by Thomas Hyll Londiner. [1558 ?]

[1] Francis Bacon, Essays, Civil and Moral, The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909, Vol. III, Part 1. p. 117.

[2] OED 3.a. “The business or occupation of a husbandman or farmer; agriculture, cultivation; (deployment of) farming methods and techniques”

[3] OED 5.b. “† A body of knowledge, a science. Obsolete.”