The phrase “Climate Change” is nearly always used as a code-word for global-warming politics, but the phrase CAN be used (after the fact, if honest) more literally to describe long-term weather patterns. The “little ice-age”, Jenkin’s argues, was a critical ingredient in the downfall of Christianity in the near east.
Around the world, in fact, the years around 1300 produced an appalling trend toward religious and ethnic intolerance, a movement that must be explained in terms of global factors, rather than merely local. The aftereffects of the Mongol invasions certainly played their part, by terrifying Muslims and others with the prospect of a direct threat to their social and religious power. Climatic factors were also critical, as the world entered a period of rapid cooling, precipitating bad harvests and shrinking trade routes: a frightened and impoverished world looks for scapegoats. For whatever reasons, Muslim regimes and mobs now delivered near-fatal blows to weakened Christian churches. Even today, jihadi extremists look back to the hard-line Muslim scholars of this very era as their role models in challenging the infidel world.
-Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, p.33
Around 1300, the world was changing, and definitely for the worse.
If we seek a common factor that might explain this simultaneous scapegoating of vulnerable minorities, by far the best candidate is climate change, which was responsible for many economic changes in these years, and which increased poverty and desperation across the globe. Populations had swelled during the warming period between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. Europe’s population more than doubled during these prosperous times, forcing settlers to swarm onto marginal lands. In the late thirteenth century, however, Europe and the Middle Easter entered what was described as the Little Ice Age, as pack ice grew in the oceans, and trade routes became more difficult both by land and sea. Summers became cooler and wetter, and as harvests deteriorated, people starved.
Desert also reclaimed much farm-land in the middle-east. The fact that irrigation infrastructure had recently been trashed by the Mongols didn’t help anything either.
Against this social background, states foundered, kings were murdered, and popular revolts and uprisings became commonplace. (This age of crisis is the backdrop to the Scottish national revolution portrayed in the film Braveheart.) Whatever the religious coloring of particular societies, this was a world that directly attributed changes in weather or harvest to the divine will, and it seemed natural to blame catastrophes on the misdeeds of deviant minorities who angered God. Bitter experience taught governments of all faiths not to try to stem the rage of mobs against hated minority grounds. The anti-Christian persecution in Egypt in 1354 followed shortly after the visitation of the Black Death, which killed a third of the residents of Cairo.
Even when the Muslim’s conquered much of the middle east and north Africa in the 7th century, they largely let the Christian communities survive. There was some oppression, but not genocide. Large portions of the population was still Christian. This went on for hundreds of years, but it all changed dramatically in the 1300s. This is an excellent example of what Girard calls “the escalation to extremes” and the confusion of acts of God with acts of man. The classic time for a minority to be oppressed or expelled from society is in the wake of a plague (like the Black Death) or a natural disaster such as a devastating earthquake or famine. The society is unified against the innocent victim.
With Satan working behind the scenes in every man’s heart, it is astonishing how EASY it is for people to blame _______ (fill in the blank with minority group of your choice) for all the terrible things happening and rise up in murderous wrath against them. Once the scapegoat has been expelled (or killed) and the people have “let off steam”, then things return to normal, for a while at least. Probably for that generation.
The advance of the gospel, as well as the advance of science has made this sort of scapegoating and hatred ridiculously obvious to us. But we can fall back into it at a moments notice if we’re not careful.