It might not be the conventional way to spend a Saturday, but I really enjoyed my experience at the 1816: The Year Without A Summer Study Day. Following on from my Friday evening talk and concert, I turned up bright and early to enjoy a day of talks around the consequences of the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia.
The world’s biggest volcanic eruption caused severe climate change and led to poverty, famine, disease and migration, as well as influencing creativity. The talks were delivered by experts from the various fields of science, medicine, neurology, culture and history, and culminated in a panel discussion.
Atmospheric Effects of the Mt. Tambora Eruption
Prof Giles Harrison (Professor of Atmospheric Physics, University of Reading)
In this first talk, Professor Harrison gave us a bit of insight into the context of the eruption and what it meant for the atmosphere. Tambora, on Sumbawa Island, Indonesia, had a history of rare but major eruptions. One took place in around 3910 BC. In 1815, there was an initial eruption on 5 April before the ‘proper’ eruption on 10 April.
The immediate consequences of the eruption included whirlwinds, ashfall, a pyroclastic flow and a tsunami. Rock was expelled from the volcano, burying a nearby village. 71,000 people died in the nearby area, 12,000 directly and the rest by starvation in subsequent weeks. The Volcanic Explosivity Index lists the Mount Tambora eruption as 7 out of 8, the largest known historic eruption.
In the wider atmosphere, small particles of sulphur influenced sunlight and temperature. In recent years, ice cores taken from Greenland show that air samples from the time of the eruption contain volcanic dust and sulphur. It has been suggested that the art of the time, such as paintings by Constable and Turner, reflect the condition of the air and the presence of dust, but then again we don’t always know how the paints have aged over time.
At the time of the eruption, a sparse temperature measurement network was developing. Early measurements were usually taken by educated individuals who viewed such observations as a hobby, but their diaries enable us to make deductions about the weather of the period. The evidence suggests that the summer of 1816 was the coldest of the 1810s and the third coldest since 1659. Eastern Europe wasn’t so badly affected, but Western Europe did suffer with the cold and wet. The effects spread as far as North America, with, for instance, snow recorded in New York. Back in the UK, one diarist reported that their cucumbers froze.
Prof Gillen D’Arcy Wood (Professor of English, University of Illinois)
Professor Wood was a particularly engaging speaker and his talk was probably my favourite of the day. He referenced the artistic works mentioned by Professor Harrison in the previous talk, mentioning Constable’s Weymouth Bay of 1816, painted on the artist’s honeymoon, which revealed the state of the sky. Most of his talk was concerned with the myths that built up around the summer at the Villa Diodati.
The summer of 1816 marked the return of British tourists to Europe after the Napoleonic wars. It was Mary Godwin’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, who persuaded Mary and Shelley to visit Lord Byron in Geneva. Along with Byron’s physician Dr Polidori, they spent a legendary summer by the lake. Dreaming of a summer of picnics, walks and mountain climbing, they were instead faced with the coldest, wettest summer in Geneva for 450 years. Surrounded by starving refugees, the group spent the summer holed up in the Villa Diodati, telling ghost stories to pass the time: Byron’s reading of Coleridge’s Christabel had Shelley running screaming from the room.
Professor Wood drew parallels with modern-day climate change, citing a phenomenon called “climate shock”. He discussed the stages of response to climate shock: creative sympathy, political violence, and the “flight into hell”. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Byron’s Darkness and other works can be read as creative sympathy, but there were other, less obvious consequences: the first bicycle prototype was invented to replace horses, many of which had died, while in a bid to deal with the problem of starvation Robert Peel established the group which would evolve to become the British Board of Health. Still, unrest was common. In Britain in 1816, there were riots and protests by starving peasants. Rural communities all over Europe experienced starvation, leaving their homes and seeking shelter and food elsewhere: hence the “descent into hell”. One wealthy figure gathered 25,000 refugees, travelling around Europe, setting up soup kitchens and preaching the imminent apocalypse. ‘Starvation medallions’ were produced as mementoes of the occasion.
‘Not yet saved’: Europe after the fall of Napoleon
Prof Robert Tombs (Professor of French History, University of Cambridge)
Professor Tombs talked about Napoleon, defeated at Waterloo in 1815. Admired by Byron, Beethoven, Shelley and Goethe, he was exiled to St Helena where he acquired much sympathy. His carriage was brought to London, where 100,000 people visited it. Byron bought it and used it to travel around Europe. Wellington, rather oddly, acquired Canova’s statue of the nude Napoleon. It can still be seen in Apsley House. He also “took over” Napoleon’s mistress.
Contemporary cartoons by the French show the English in a bad light, and many of Balzac’s novels featured English characters who were ‘bad’. Back in England, Napoleon was burned in effigy. A ‘geopolitical revolution’ was set in motion.
The fast growth of populations and cities, as well as the influx of newly unemployed soldiers, meant that famine and unrest were common problems. The ‘Bread or blood’ riots in Ely in May 1816 led to the hanging of 83 individuals – an unusually high number. Poor relief was eventually increased, but the consequences of these events lasted many years.
Lightness, Darkness and the Creative Brain
Prof Michael Trimble (Emeritus Professor of Behavioural Neurology, UCL)
This was another talk which I found especially interesting, exploring the connection between the weather (of 1816 in particular) and mental health. Professor Trimble started with a brief history, going back to Greek ideas about the four humours, a Platonic theory promoted by Hippocrates. Galen referred to a “Darkening of the mind”, and in later years a number of books on the theme of melancholy were published: Thomas Horclewe’s My Compleint (1420), Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) and An English Malady (1733) by George Cheyne.
News reports indicated a wider spate of melancholy during 1816, but was the weather responsible? Esquirol’s French Maladies of 1845 suggested that climates and seasons can have an effect on melancholy, while Henry Morselli’s study of suicide in 1881 suggested that the dreariness of the northern climate might be more likely to influence such actions. Weather was seen as a proxy for the human condition.
The influence of the weather on mental state declined as the science of meteorology advanced. However, Seasonal Affective Disorder was first described in 1984. A recent study suggests there is no association between seasons, sunlight and latitude, but a recent review of psychiatric hospitalisations confirms a seasonal pattern, especially for bipolar patients. A literature review from 1979-2009 suggests that the highest number of suicides occurs in the spring and early summer.
Professor Trimble moved on to speak particularly about Beethoven and Schubert. Beethoven’s father and grandmother were alcoholics, his mother a melancholic. A lonely child with few friends, he hated authority and suffered greatly when his mother died. He suffered from depressive episodes in 1812-13 and 1816-17 when his productivity vastly decreased. He may well have been bipolar.
Schubert might have suffered from cyclothymia, being possessed of a bright side that coexisted with a morbid aspect. He tended to experience increased productivity during the spring and autumn, composing very little during the summer. Evidence seems to suggest that while there is no direct link between mood and weather, those already suffering from a condition such as bipolar might be more likely to be affected by it.
The day ended with a panel discussion featuring Judith Bingham, one of the composers featured in that evening’s Byron in Switzerland concert, and chaired by Ian Ritchie. The day as a whole was incredibly interesting, and if I felt like I was back at university again, this is all to the good. I enjoyed the chance to stretch my brain properly.