Hell on Earth: the European drought of 1540


Cora Buhlert tweeted a link to a very interesting article in the German magazine Spiegel Online. The article is in German, but I found an English article about the German article, with some of its own conclusions. This is not a translation, rather a commentary.

Unlike the English article, I’m offering this here without political comment. The reason I found it interesting was that I didn’t know this had happened, and also, as writer I could see huge potential for storytelling.

In the article, the researchers have unearthed fact and and records that show that in the year 1540, it didn’t rain in much of Germany from March to late September. Now in Australia, we are more than used to long spells without rain, and temperature over 30C for much of summer, but northern Europe barely goes a week without rain. 25C is a heatwave. A drought of this scale is a disaster of epic proportions, especially for people who neither understood weather nor had any way of sheltering from its effects.

Think of what the medieval people must have thought. The coming of hell on Earth, the work of the devil. I shudder to think of how many “witches” were burned because they were supposed to have caused this.

I’m going to do a lame attempt at translating some of it:

In the summer of 1540, the people searched ever more desperate for drinking water. Even a meter and a half under the normal water table in Switzerland  was not a drop of water to be found, noted Hans Salat at the time. Spring and upwellings that had never faltered now lay dry. Others were strictly guarded and water was drawn according to a time schedule. Thousands of people along the River Ruhr died of poisoning from dirty water.

The waterlevel in the Bodensee sank so deep that the island Lindau became connected to the mainland in the summer of 1540. This normally happens only rarely in winter, when waters remains as snow on the mountains, and flows into the lake only later when it melts. “The lake was so small,” said the chroniclers of the time.

Creeks dried up as the water flow became ever smaller. Even large rivers such as the Elbe, Rhine and Seine were so low that people walked across, according to records. While the water flow in the river Elbe in the exceptional summer of 2003 was reduced to half the normal amount, in 1540 this would have been one tenth.


The Earth dried up. “Prices for flour and bread went through the roof,” said the researchers. By early August, the trees were starting to shed their leaves “as if it was autumn already,” said a chronicler in Ulm.

Then came the fire. The dry soil ignited. Scrub and bush fires blazed over the land and encroached on towns with their traditional timber houses and narrow streets. More communities were destroyed than ever in peacetime in the past thousand years, says Pfister. For weeks a blanket of smoke shrouded the continent, behind which the sun and  moon disappeared as flaming red balls.

The latter is something we’re very familiar with in Australia (see photo at top of article, taken from our balcony in October last year), but… Germany? Gentle, green, temperate Germany? What the hell?

No one seems to know what caused this freakish occurrence.

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