This Summer’s Drought Is Europe’s Worst in 500 Years. What Happened Last Time?
The 1540 megadrought brought mass suffering to the continent, but European society quickly bounced back
The summer of 2022 has not been kind to Europe. Northern Italy went more than 100 days without rain. Droughts reduced seasonal crop yields by as much as one-sixth. And cities across Europe were forced to ration water as once-mighty rivers like the Tiber and Rhine dried up, revealing long-submerged traces of the past: a World War II barge in Germany, a 2,000-year-old bridge in Rome, a megalithic monument in Spain.
These sobering statistics recently led Andrea Toreti, a researcher with the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in Milan, to make a shocking declaration: that the 2022 drought is likely Europe’s worst in nearly 500 years, rivaling a 1540 “megadrought” that has long been an object of fascination for climate historians.
“1540 is a very famous event, and if we look back over the last 500 years, it is the only one that gets close … in terms of severity,” says Toreti.
Occurring during a stretch of unusually warm summers in the midst of Europe’s “Little Ice Age,” a period of global cooling and extreme weather that affected the continent between the 14th and 19th centuries, the 1540 drought’s heat was so extreme that even state-of-the-art climate models could not predict it when fed nearly 1,200 years of climate data.
That hasn’t stopped scientists from trying to understand the drought and its impacts on European society. For nearly four decades, Christian Pfister, a climate historian at the University of Bern in Switzerland and co-author of Climate and Society in Europe: The Last Thousand Years, has pored over tree ring data, pollen samples and centuries-old chronicles in hopes of determining exactly what happened.
The 1540 drought began much like today’s. “Northern Italy was extremely dry,” Pfister explains. “There was not a drop of rain during winter.” Italian chronicles say it was “like July” in December, with no rain falling for nearly 200 days in a row.
Soon, the drought that began in Italy spread to Germany, Poland, Switzerland, France and Czechia. In a 2014 paper that calls the drought a “worst case,” Pfister and his colleagues showed that rainfall was down by as much as 80 percent in some regions. Rivers like the Rhine, Elbe and Seine dried up to the point that people could wade across them on foot. The Thames was so low that the sea flowed inland and reversed the river’s direction.
Like today, receding waters revealed lost treasures from previous generations. Chroniclers marveled when, on the shores of the shrinking Lake Constance, a woman named Anna Schmid came across 900 silver coins from the time of Emperor Augustus.
Away from the water, there was little silver lining. Farmers’ fields became so dry that giant cracks deep enough to swallow people’s legs appeared in the soil. That dried-up earth reflected even more heat into the atmosphere, feeding an unbearable heatwave that the Protestant reformer Martin Luther interpreted as a sign of the end times. Officials ordered clergy in Germany, Italy and England to beg God for forgiveness and pray for the deliverance of rain.
Instead of water, God delivered wine—some of the best ever created, according to some sources. The extreme heat meant that by the usual harvest time, grapes in Germany and France had dried almost to raisins. The resulting “late harvest,” or Spätlese, wine was deliciously sweet. A bottle of the 1540 vintage became so coveted that Swedish soldiers tore apart the German city of Würzburg looking for a barrel of it almost 100 years later; the previous inhabitants had hidden the wine in a wall. In 1540, however, the drink was cheap and abundant. Chronicler Hermann von Weinsberg, writing in Cologne, described people all over the city lying in the gutters, dead drunk, “like pigs.”
At the time, drinking wine was perhaps cheaper—and safer—than drinking water, which was often contaminated by human waste that could no longer be washed away. In some places, water was in such short supply that peasants were charged for well water and laundering of clothes was forbidden. “Everything stank terribly,” Pfister says. “People [in the chronicles] complained about this.”
An epidemic of dysentery, an intestinal infection that causes bloody diarrhea, soon ripped through the continent. Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist, a historian and physical geographer at the University of Stockholm, says the death toll from disease had “probably the highest impact of all” the miseries wrought by the 1540 drought. Experts are unsure of how many people died of dysentery and similar illnesses in 1540, but Ljungqvist estimates that half a million Europeans succumbed to diseases, most after drinking tainted water.
Food was in similarly short supply. With nowhere to pasture, cattle died of heat stroke and hunger, decimating Europe’s dairy supply. The price of bread skyrocketed, too, not because Europe’s grain crops were failing, but because there was no water to power the mills that made flour.
As if famine wasn’t enough, Europeans were also chased from their homes by forest and structural fires—the most in any peacetime year since at least 1000 C.E. One blaze reduced the entire German town of Einbeck “to ashes in a matter of hours,” causing as many as 500 deaths, wrote Pfister in 2017.
With tens of thousands left unhoused, unemployed and often diseased, local leaders quickly gave in to paranoia to explain the calamities. Authorities searched for the alleged secret symbols of mordbrenner, or organized arsonists, whom they blamed for setting fires.
“They needed scapegoats,” Pfister says, and they found them in religious opponents and climate refugees wandering between German towns. Resurrecting the methods of 15th-century witch hunts, officials rounded up and tortured migrants in hopes of eliciting confessions; figures as esteemed as Martin Luther gave credence to theories of a papal plot to incinerate Protestant towns. In the German region of Baden-Württemberg, a man and his wife were tortured five separate times after threatening to burn down a woman’s house in a moment of anger.
Despite the paranoia it inspired and its record-breaking temperatures, Pfister says the 1540 drought had “[almost] no long-term consequences.” European crops and communities seemingly bounced back from 1540 in a way they weren’t able to following unusually cold weather climate events just a few decades later.
That fact is itself a subject of interest among climate historians as they explore the connections between extreme weather events and social upheaval.
“The impacts of … extreme weather are always a function both of the actual weather … and also of social and political vulnerabilities,” says Samuel White, a climate historian at Ohio State University and the author of A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter With North America. In 1540, “we don’t see the kinds of political and economic conjunctures that would make the impact of losing one year’s harvest spiral into a larger crisis.”
The 1540 drought was only the latest in a series of worsening summer seasons that had ravaged Europe over the previous decade. “The 1530s might be one of the driest—if not the driest—decades in the past 500 years,” Ljungqvist explains.
According to one recent analysis, the summers of 1534 and 1535 were nearly as “disastrously dry” as 1540. They were accompanied by their own apocalyptic phenomena, including plagues of crop-devouring caterpillars.
In Transylvania, a 1535 famine caused by drought was so bad that dead bodies littered the roads, their mouths stuffed with grass. A 17th-century chronicle describes men and women in this period wandering naked, mad with hunger, and eating “unclean things”: cats, dogs and even—supposedly—other people.
But the historic droughts of the 1530s and ’40s may actually have been a respite from a more devastating climate phenomenon. “You had many years in this time with even worse harvests, due to wet and cold conditions,” says Ljungqvist.
The 16th century fell right in the middle of Europe’s Little Ice Age. “People were very sensitive to wet and cold summers,” which pushed back the arrival of seasons, infected crops with mold and made animals sick, creating widespread food scarcity and famines, says Pfister. “And if you had several [cold] summers in a sequence, that was absolutely the worst.”
That’s exactly what happened just a few decades after the 1540 drought, when a series of volcanic eruptions in the tropics produced cooler summers in Europe. “You have some of the most significant cooling of the past millennium in the Northern Hemisphere,” White says. “This produces not only severe harvest failures and real famines … but [also interacts] with growing political problems.”
White cites a multi-year famine that killed half of all livestock and worsened a 1590 rebellion in the Ottoman Empire. Pfister, meanwhile, points to the witch hunts of the 1560s, which saw religious puritans blame women for the continent’s bad weather. Other extreme weather effects during the period were less sinister but no less far reaching. The failure of Habsburg vineyards in 1595, for example, prompted a shift from wine to beer that holds true in Central Europe to this day.
The long-lasting consequences of these later decades’ cold spells are one reason White believes the 1540 drought isn’t viewed as so severe in retrospect, despite the remarkable suffering that accompanied it. “We tend to compare [the drought’s effects] to impacts in other stages of the Little Ice Age, which were much worse,” he says. “In comparison to those later events, those impacts really pale.”
European society was on some level accustomed to mass death, its population still shrunken by the ravages of the Black Death, which had peaked some 200 years prior. “They were used to epidemics that caused a lot of mortality,” says Pfister. “They were not so shocked.”
The continent’s inhabitants were also more accustomed to extreme climate events generally. Town sites were often chosen with some consideration for flooding. Crops were selected for their hardiness in a drought. By comparison, 16th-century Europeans had experienced dozens more weather-related crises than modern ones. Pfister counts 18 severe warming events in Europe before 1719. Between 1720 and 1990, when climate change really started having an impact, “we have just one of them,” he says, a heatwave in the summer of 1947 that caused crop failures across Eastern Europe.
Europeans today make more demands of their environment. Ljungqvist notes that they are more dependent on water, using much more per capita in the home. Europe’s power supply relies partly on power plants that use vast amounts of water for cooling or depend on full lakes and rivers for generation. “So we have new types of problems,” he says.
When comparing Europe of 1540 to 2022, one thing matters above all: While severe droughts were the exception to the Little Ice Age’s unusually cold, wet summers, severe droughts may become the norm in the near future. “We’re going to see … events like this occurring very frequently, and we may even see events that exceed the 1540 event very soon,” White says.
Toreti, who made the widely publicized comparison to 1540 in August, says that’s one reason Europe can’t expect to bounce back from this year’s drought as easily it did 500 years ago. “This year’s drought … revealed [for some] the threat that this kind of extreme event could cause to the European system,” he explains.
Without effective mitigation, Toreti says, by mid-century, “these kinds of events become the norm … [and] we will have to change, fundamentally, the way we manage our agriculture and energy sector.”
As Pfister points out, Europeans have always adapted to extreme weather events. In response to the cold summers of the Little Ice Age, they swapped wheat for barley and oats, grapes and wine for plums and brandy.
Still, even Pfister is nervous about the rate of change today. “The speed is so rapid that I’m afraid we don’t have enough time to adapt,” he says.
When it comes to climate, Pfister says, “the focus is always on the averages. [But] what hits people, really, … are the extremes.”
This is only the beginning. With rising temperatures, Pfister adds, “you will get more cold extremes, you will get more hot extremes and you will get more extreme extremes.”
At least the wine will be quite something.