Vol. 1 No. 1 (2024)

Large Fires and Climatic Variability in Urban Europe, 1500–1800

David Garrioch
Monash University

Published 2024-01-29


  • Little Ice Age,
  • Early modern Europe,
  • urban history,
  • climatic variability,
  • history of fire

How to Cite

Garrioch, D. (2024). Large Fires and Climatic Variability in Urban Europe, 1500–1800. Climates and Cultures in History, 1(1). https://doi.org/10.3197/whpcch.63842135436332


Several hundred large urban fires occurred in Europe during the early modern period, but they did not take place randomly. This article charts their incidence and reveals a peak in the seventeenth century, coinciding with some of the coolest periods of the Little Ice Age. This apparent paradox can best be explained by climatic variability, since overall cooling was accompanied by numerous warm, dry anomalies. While the cause of fires was usually human activity, and small fires happened frequently, this paper shows that many of the largest conflagrations of the early modern period took place in years of such hot and/or dry climatic anomalies, and closer analysis of individual fires confirms that these meteorological conditions facilitated their spread. This strongly suggests that climatic variability associated with the Little Ice Age was a major determinant of the timing of large fires in Europe. Over the same broad period, climatic disasters linked to cooler and damper conditions contributed to social and political instability, and there is evidence that this in turn undermined fire prevention and control and thus further increased the likelihood of small fires becoming large ones.


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