Herstmonceux Castle, built in the 1440s in southern England, has become part of the DRAGEN project, which will study the impact of environmental change on its land use and human settlement patterns. Michael Coppins/Wikipedia

Into the DRAGEN’s den ...

  • February 27, 2020

To really understand climate change, it helps to ask a medievalist.

With assists from sedimentologists, geomorphologists, core samples, dendro-chronology and $10 million in research funding over the next eight years, St. Jerome’s medieval history professor Steven Bednarski is telling the story of how humans react and adapt to climate change.

Ensconced in the new 3,600 square-foot DRAGEN Lab at the University of Waterloo’s Catholic college, Bednarski heads up an international, cross-disciplinary research project team exploring how a colder and wetter climate played out in southern England from about 1250 to 1400.

DRAGEN stands for Digital Research in Arts and Graphical Environmental Networks, and it wasn’t just an exercise in getting the word “dragon” in people’s minds as they amble across the St. Jerome’s campus. In addition to books and scholarly papers, the lab will oversee production of a computer game for Grade 4 students that will help them explore medieval life in Sussex, England, learning how people adapted to a sudden change in their climate. It will also produce digital tourism apps for mobile phones and 3-D online maps based on research collected and co-ordinated from the DRAGEN lab.

Though much less dramatic than the climate change we see today on a global scale, medieval Europe was hit with new weather patterns during what’s known as the “Little Ice Age.” The longer, harder winters combined with cooler, wetter summers broke a long period of almost ideal weather from around 400 to 1250, known as the “Medieval Climate Optimum.”

The good old days of the dark ages, before 1250, included good harvests and a European population boom.

“It moved Europeans from sustenance farming to surplus farming,” said Bednarski. “They had extra food. And once you have extra food you can afford to support monasteries and cathedral schools and then universities and then intellectuals. That then leads to more science and more knowledge. We see rapid social progress.”

The good old days didn’t last forever. Beginning in 1250 rainfall increased, growing seasons decreased, crops were not quite so surplus.

“All of a sudden, the planet changes the rules,” explained Bednarski. “By about 1315-16-17 and then for a few years after there are successive famines because there’s too much rain. The seeds can’t germinate; it rots in the field. After the great famine there is a decline in the population.”

The Black Death that swept through Europe a generation later didn’t help. It killed off 60 per cent of Europe’s population. But one of the research questions in front of Bednarski and his team is, to what extent did famines in the first part of the 14th century weaken immune systems and society in ways that might have made the plague’s death toll worse?

It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century, as the industrial revolution really took off, that Europe again reached the population levels it had in the 13th century.

“Environments of Change: Digitizing Nature, History and Human Experience in Late Medieval Sussex,” as the research project is formally titled, is an opportunity for scientists and humanists to talk to one another and learn how their methods and data can be integrated to answer critical questions, said Bednarski.

“I’ve learned over the last six or seven years of doing this that pure scientists are really keen to talk to humanists,” Bednarski told The Catholic Register. “They’re really interested in the cultural dimensions, which they don’t do and are not equipped to do.”

The Catholic tradition in higher education is perfect for students and researchers who want to break the barriers between disciplines, he said.

“These liberal arts traditions are ancient and they’re time-tested,” said Bednarski. “If we can incorporate them into modern dialogues we get a richer, more sophisticated and more nuanced output. I’m hoping we can actually find a new way of integrating the liberal arts. Because if we don’t, frankly, we’re going to lose them.”

Over the life of Bednarski’s research project — recently bolstered by a $2.5-million federal grant — it will provide around 400 training opportunities for students, equipping history and humanities students with skills they will use in real life.

“That’s powerful. That’s a way of reinvigorating the humanities and the arts, and making a case for why they matter in the world today,” Bednarski said.

Like most of his contemporaries in medieval studies, Bednarski isn’t only interested in a distant, misty past.

“The challenge we face today, in this age, is the environmental collapse that we’re experiencing,” he said. “It’s sort of logical for medievalists — who are trained to think collaboratively, who are trained to work across disciplines and across party lines — to sort of pick up the next big, pressing question. … We can use the Middle Ages today to look back and say, when our medieval ancestors dealt with this kind of climate change, what types of social reaction were there?”

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