Bright Blue Dark Blue
- Weatherland by Alexandra Harris
Thames and Hudson, 432 pp, £24.95, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 500 51811 3
When does weather begin? In the sense of detailed, day-to-day observations of light and temperature, the stuff of art and conversation, weather would seem to be a relatively late development. Seasons, the overarching and background reality of life, are older, although as Alexandra Harris explains, ‘spring’ was invented only in the late Middle Ages. Before all that there was just climate and what people thought about it is all but unknowable. In the temperate zones, where the waxing and waning of the year is more noticeable than in the tropics and more gradual than near the poles, summer and winter solstices were often marked with what archaeologists like to muffle under the blanket term of ‘ritual’, but what that means, even at Stonehenge, the most studied of Neolithic sites, nobody knows.
Of necessity then, Harris moves rapidly on from the last Ice Age, where her book begins, through prehistory to pause only briefly at the Romans, where the material is still sparse: a mosaic floor portraying Winter; Tacitus’ dismissive view of Britannia with its ‘foul … rain and mists’; letters to and from legionaries on the outskirts of the empire, sending for more socks. With the Middle Ages the sun comes out, at least in art, in the brilliant enamel-blue skies of illuminated manuscripts, books of hours marking the rotation of the days and years, and stained glass in which saints hover in cerulean bliss, varied only with an occasional rainbow, a piece of virtuoso craftsmanship, marking the end of the Flood. But this is all still background. Bright blue means day, dark blue night. Nobody perhaps needed more at a time when a weather-proof building was a luxury for most people and the indoor weather made by coloured light falling on stone at Canterbury or Chartres must have been a welcome respite from the familiar realities of wind and rain. In the earliest literature in English it is usually cold, as most people presumably were; but here too, detailed descriptions are rare. The ice and the storms are either given as facts, or personified. Gods and frost giants control temperature and wind speed. Even Chaucer, Harris laments, has little to say on the subject. ‘Averylle with his shoures soote’ is no more particular than blue stained glass.
The early chapters of Weatherland therefore seem to be stretching various points not only about weather but about Englishness for, as Harris concedes, many Anglo-Saxon writers were ‘not distinctively English at all’, and at the time of her earliest sources there was no England. She is obliged to fall back on speculation about what the Romans ‘must have’ seen and felt, but the result is nonetheless an enjoyable cavalcade of quotations, incidents and miniatures: scribes whose ink has frozen in winter; the monk at Reading Abbey who, sometime in the 1260s, improvised on the familiar theme of ‘Sumer is icumen in’ by adding jumping bullocks and farting bucks which must have echoed through the cloisters in a riot of onomatopoeia when the song was performed as a round. Harris introduces us to William Merle, who between 1337 and 1344 kept a diary of the weather at Driby in Lincolnshire, one of the earliest such records to survive, and to Sir Gawain watching the seasons turn in the anxious year between his first meeting with the Green Knight and the climactic second.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.