How Modernity Erupted from a Volcano

Natural phenomena have profound impacts on society, as we have discovered in the last two years.
Home » Articles » How Modernity Erupted from a Volcano

The summer of the year 1783 was an amazing and portentous one, and full of horrible phenomena, wrote the parson-naturalist Gilbert White:

“…for besides the alarming meteors and tremendous thunder‐storms that affrighted and distressed the different counties of this kingdom, the peculiar haze, or smokey fog, that prevailed for many weeks in this island, and in every part of Europe, and even beyond its limits, was a most extraordinary appearance, unlike anything known within the memory of man.”

According to White, July had been fiercely hot: “butchers’ meat could hardly be eaten on the day after it was killed; and the flies swarmed so in the lanes and hedges”. On 18 August a fireball was seen to course across the skies of southern England. That month and into September, the dank air was tainted with acid aerosol. As many as 25,000 Britons are believed to have died from associated respiratory disease and malaria. And all the while, crops were failing and livestock perishing, meaning the summer of suffering was followed by a winter of dearth and hunger.

The cause of all this misery was Laki, a huge volcanic fissure, 23km long, in the south-east of Iceland. Its eruption, beginning on 8 June 1783, brought the island’s life to a standstill for eight months. Jón Steingrímsson, an Icelandic pastor, described the initial impact: “Great cliffs and slabs of rock were swept along, tumbling about like large whales swimming [a very Icelandic metaphor], red-hot and glowing.” All in all, the eruption disgorged almost 15 cubic kilometres of lava, the greatest single amount ever recorded.

Steingrímsson noted that in the wake of the disaster, a mysterious illness affected his flock — both human and animal:

“Ridges, growths, and bristle appeared on their ribs, the backs of their hands, their feet, legs, and joints. Their bodies became bloated, the insides of their mouths and their gums swelled and cracked, causing excruciating pains and toothaches.”

A “haze” of sulphur dioxide from the eruption had created acid rains, which singed leaves and bark and irritated human flesh. An excess of fluorine in the air caused the bloating and swelling described by Steingrímsson. Almost a quarter of the nation’s human population died during this time, and more than 60% of its grazing livestock. “Those people who did not have enough supplies of food to last them through these times of pestilence suffered great pain.”

The phenomenon, and the tragedy, reached far beyond Iceland; it went global when the “haze” entered the jet stream, soon reaching the Continent. Ash from the eruption travelled as far as Venice, where the haze was so rich in iron that magnets were used to attract it. Italy had already suffered its own seismic tragedy that year: in February and March, Sicily and Calabria had been struck by a series of earthquakes that killed as many as 50,000 people. A tsunami broke over the beach at Scilla, where people were sheltering from their town’s collapsing buildings. 1,500 died.

Meanwhile in Bohemia, a teacher named Antonin Kodytek recorded that “the rising sun could not be seen due to the fires… from six to nine o’ clock the sun looked like a red hot iron ball”. Across Europe, temperatures fell around 1.5 degrees below average. Crops were damaged by acid rain. Monsoons failed, parts of the River Nile dried up and numerous ice floes were spotted in the normally tropical climes of the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi froze at New Orleans. Charleston harbour became a skating rink. Famine was recorded in Japan and the Indian subcontinent.

But perhaps the greatest impact of this lost year of harvests was felt in France — where food shortages, famine and febrile conspiracies became tinder for the fire of the French Revolution.

Louis XVI

By 1783, France had suffered decades of poor harvests. And whereas once ailing crops had been seen as the will of God, by the 1770s they had taken on new meaning. Feast and famine were no longer accepted as part of the cycle of life, but had become the subjects of wild conspiracy theories.

At this time the monarch, Louis XVI, was also known by the title of le premier boulanger du royaume. It was his patrician duty, as the representative of God on earth, to provide his people with a basic diet, and for most that meant bread, however coarse. The wheat harvest took on enormous significance — a matter of life and death, and one open to outlandish and paranoid claims. Grain merchants became hated figures, for it was believed that they short-changed the people, mixing grain with inferior ingredients, even crushed bones. Allegations that they withheld public grain from the royal stores were commonplace. It was a way of rationally explaining the effects of nature, designed for an increasingly rational age.

The disturbances known as the Flour Wars of April and May 1775, which took place all over France, forced the king’s hand. He instructed his Controller General of Finances, Turgot, to impose a standard price on wheat. This was very much against the Controller General’s instincts at a time when économistes such as Vincent de Gournay, adherents of the invisible hand, were advocating laissez-faire policies.

But nature made a mockery of the king’s response. Poor harvests continued. And then Laki arrived, adding flooding and frost to the rack and ruin. One French priest exorcised a dust cloud, but to no effect. A cycle of extreme, unpredictable weather kicked in, which destabilised a society seeking new answers to old problems.

The spring of 1788, for instance, saw drought take hold. Conspiracy and climate gripped one another tightly in a general panic — the Great Fear — caused by baseless rumours of a plot by the aristocracy to starve peasants and workers. This alleged Pacte de Famine was a factor, too, in the Réveillon Riots of April 1789, another stone on the path to Revolution and Modernity.

A crisis combining climate change and conspiracy. Our age seems well seeded for such a thing. If French peasants of the 18th century, all too familiar with the vagaries of laughing chance and the fragility of nature, can fall prey to such thinking, then populations far more used to having control over their comfortable lives will surely seek “rational” explanations for their misfortune. The discourse surrounding the origins and course of Covid-19, for instance, demonstrates just how difficult it is for the modern mind to deal with contingency. There is a deep need to believe that nothing happens by chance.

That modern mind was forged around the time of Laki. The decades before its eruption had seen an explosion — sorry — of interest in vulcanology, which attracted the attention of Enlightenment philosophers. Immanuel Kant claimed that an erupting volcano was an example of the “dynamic sublime”, impressive in the immediacy of its might. Edmund Burke, in his great reaction to the events across the Channel, Reflections on the Revolution in France, humanised Kant’s insight. He references a Horatian myth about the philosopher Empedocles, who, “in cold blood, is said to have leaped into the flames of a volcanic revolution”. Burke calls this compulsion towards sublime destruction the Empedocles Complex. According to the philosopher David McCallum, he was defining an “extreme psychological state inducing its sufferer to throw himself or herself into the red-hot heat of Revolution in a mad identification with its terrible power”.

European Revolutionaries and Romantics adored the idea of a tragic figure defying God, monarch, or any other fixture of a capricious natural order. The age of Robespierre, of Danton, of Marat was also that of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: the Modern Prometheus. The god who brought fire to humankind was the idol of those who sought to create the world anew, unfettered by nature and its contingencies, which had caused so many to suffer.

Whereas before the Enlightenment, natural disasters were accepted as God’s will, the fathers of modernity politicised the years and lives lost to them, blaming the random on design, the contingent on conspiracy, skewering the order of things when nature wreaks havoc.

Now we look at countries that have “succeeded” in their fight against the virus — New Zealand, Israel, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam — seeking to learn lessons, believing that it was solely the rational acts of politicians and public bodies that brought them success. In doing so, we fail to acknowledge the contingency in those stories: New Zealand’s geographical isolation; Taiwan, South Korea and Israel’s military footing; the experience of SARS in Asia; the lack of obesity in Vietnam. Britain’s new-found success in the vaccination programme is similarly contingent — you might call it “lucky” — founded on the gambling instincts of venture capitalism, a highly centralised health service trusted by the people it serves, and access to world class universities. Policy made in the moment can only do so much.

Soon after its Revolution, France returned to monarchy on a grander scale, in the shape of the Emperor Napoleon, who dressed old-fashioned imperialism in brand new clothing. But Napoleon understood one thing the revolutionaries didn’t: contingency. Rehashing an old saying of Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV’s great diplomat, the Emperor is said to have asked of his generals not “is he skilful?”, but rather “is he lucky?”. Though it seems flippant, it’s an important and enduring insight. The role luck plays in our lives, as individuals, as nations, is a reality we will always find hard to bear.

Paul Lay is the author of Providence Lost: The Rise & Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate. This article first appeared in Unherd.