Weather – What Has Shakespeare Got To Do With It?

trees in a sunset
1 Jul, 2019

Weather – What Has Shakespeare Got To Do With It?

The Bard shows how an awareness of weather conditions can help the family historian.

My paper, Answers in the Wind (JGFH-1), set out an argument for weather events to play a greater part in family history research.  In this blog, I would like to offer a less formal walk through how the genealogist can include weather trends and events in their family history quest.

When studying a parish or diocese over a period of more than 150 years, an awareness of harvest levels, bread prices, rainfall, flood and drought puts the historian in a good position to pick up on any part weather may play in their family history, especially migration.

Figure one offers an illustration how these dynamics can illuminate (if not excite) parish history. The table represents a much simplified analysis, showing increased burials in the Nottinghamshire village of Bleasby following peak years in London bread prices. Of course, this does not indicate a causal link but the clear correlation over twenty years offers a respectable hypothesis.

Weather in Bleasby

Records of national trends are readily accessible, even for the early years of our research. Compiling a notebook of local weather and climate indicators, drawn from  local market prices, parish briefs and the church wardens’ accounts, will soon equip the researcher to identify trends for their region. (Other sources are suggested in Answers in the Wind.)

We can go further.

A couple of readers commented that Answers in the Wind gave insufficient emphasis to the value of newspaper archives.  Although that essay focussed on the earlier Stuart and Tudor times, those comments are well made for the broader picture.

Like us, our ancestors enjoyed talking about the weather.  After, say, 1760, the regional newspaper becomes a ready source for weather reports and, even better, weather tittle-tattle. For example, in December 1910 a farmer’s wife  wrote to the Grantham Journal about her fun and frolic in the flood. ‘On Saturday night all the men were busy with their spades, backing up the water to keep it from flooding houses. They were obliged to give it up and hope for the best. This would be about midnight.’  By one in the morning, the  ferryman was wading waist deep to recover his boat. Conditions were so bad at the ford that pigs were accommodated in the saddle house while a pony was given the tap room. Sunday’s milk had to be delivered on horseback and hauled up to the first floor windows. The postman completed his round by boat.[i]

Another example required a little more investigation.  A farmer of Bingham, Notts, learned that pigs, stolen from his farm, had been sold at Derby market. The Stamford Mercury reported, ‘Thither he went and having identified the animals took them back to their former quarters.’[ii]  A further search of the archive, prompted by that notebook of local weather patterns, revealed that it had been a week of heavy snow with several roads impassable and coaches arriving three hours late at their overnight lodgings with little indication of whether or not they would proceed the following morning. The trek from Bingham to Derby would have been quite a task!

But what can we do about our Tudor and early Stuart families?

You may be surprised by the number of books published during this early period of the book trade which help us build a picture of how our ancestors lived and how they expected to live. Fitzherbert’s Book of Husbandry (1536, revised 1596), Dennys’s Secrets of Angling (1613) and, to a lesser extent, Michael Drayton’s Poly Olbion (1612) offer timely insights into the rural and agricultural world.

But a more famous source tells how people thought about the weather in late Tudor period.

Food riots broke out in 1586 and were a repeated feature of London life throughout the 1590s.  The summer of 1594 saw widespread flooding of fields across England, wiping out much of the national harvest. Even the most casual reading of Titiana’s tirade against the weather in Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act II Scene I), written that year or the next,[iii] should convince us that Shakespeare was playing up to his audiences of the day.

The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;

That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose.

Once in gear, Tatiana goes on for thirty-six breathless lines. The passage shows the gods admitting that the storms and tempests were their fault. They had been frolicking and not paying attention. We might wonder, did this notion touch on popular opinion?

The weather is one experience that we share with our ancestors. It is more constant than even the landscape. It brings our family histories to life so let’s give it proper attention.[iv]


[i] Grantham Journal 10 December 1910

[ii] Stamford Mercury 18 February 1830

[iii] Like so much to do with Shakespeare, there is a debate here.  Although the play was not performed until 1601, critics generally take it to be written in 1595 or 1596 (during the spread of bad harvests, although 1594 was the especially bad weather). My own view is that the play within a play in Midsummer Night’s Dream is likely to have been written before Romeo and Juliet rather than the other way around. I think that Shakespeare is more likely to have taken an idea from one play and developed it in another rather than mock a previous play in the subsequent one, so I tend to favour the earlier date.  However, far more expert minds than mine have worried over this question.

[iv] The examples mentioned in this blog were taken from the author’s Plague in Bleasby and The Horsepools.


About the Author

Malcolm NobleMalcolm Noble is an experienced crimewriter who has repeatedly been in the top 12% of authors borrowed from UK libraries. His experience of family history goes back to the time when genealogists found a pair of wellingtons more useful than a laptop.

Guest Writer

Guest writers are non RQG members who are experts in their own field. They range from academics, archivists to experienced (but not necessarily qualified) genealogists.