17th Century Climate Change and Cold Coffee – Getting to an Enquiry Question

STC 25949, title page

The branch of Cafe Nero on the high street is always a bit of a risky proposition, as it happens to be a favourite meeting point for my students. There is always at least a 40% chance of having to encounter a large group of sixth formers hogging the sofas, who all then freeze in unison as I appear at the top of the stairs with my Americano. Nonetheless I decided to brave it last week because I wanted to think about how I could incorporate some of the wider context that I had read about in Parker’s Global Crisis into the enquiry we do on the English Civil War with our Year 8’s. I also wanted to do so in a place where I could access a steady supply of coffee.

I wrote rather enthusiastically about Parker’s Global Crisis in a previous post, both because it’s a fascinating and engaging piece of historical scholarship, and because I thought that it would be an exciting work for my students to engage with. To put this in context, I’ve been working on adjusting our Key Stage 3 schemes of work to include a more international perspective for a while. This is both because I think it’s historically important and because I have had students ask me about what is happening in the rest of the world while covering some of the key events of British History, and I would like to work on giving them some answers. So this seemed like a good opportunity, but one with limitations.

One of my key considerations had to be that while I am in charge of the  KS3 schemes of work in my department, I knew that emailing everyone (including two new members of staff) mid-way through the holidays going ‘hey, I read something really interesting during the break and therefore I am radically overhauling the Y8 scheme of work’ probably wouldn’t go down very well. I could have decided to put it off until next year, but I really wanted to try it out with the year group that was coming up. Therefore the best option for the moment seemed to be to plan a mini enquiry that would introduce  the seventeenth century climate crisis, before we started the sequence covering the causes of the Civil War.

That decision made, I now needed to work out what historical question I wanted my students to engage with and how I’d go about designing the enquiry that would allow them to do so. The focus of Parker’s work is on examining the link between the climate and the political crises of the 17th century, across the globe. An enquiry that used it, therefore, would naturally be inclined towards considering causation and similarity and difference. It was with this in mind that I came up with my first two possible enquiry questions:

Why was the 17th century ‘the century of the soldiers’?
Was the 17th century ‘an age of iron?

The problem with these was revealed as I started thinking about how the students would go about answering these questions  and ended up with about half a term’s worth of possible lesson questions to cover. In order to do justice to these enquiries, my students  would need to consider all of the following: why the climate changed at the start of the 17th century, why it was linked to political crises, whether it was the sole cause of political crises, why composite states and marginal lands were particularly affected, along with a host of other questions. This was potentially an interesting project for re-jigging the entire scheme of work for next year, but in this case I had allotted myself only a couple of lessons. I therefore needed to a) make sure that my students  could come to some kind of worthwhile conclusion, and b) link this sequence of lessons onto the enquiry about the causes of the Civil War that would follow. So I decided to have another go.

Was Britain particularly hard to rule in the 17th century?
Why was the job of ruling Britain such a difficult one in 1625?

Again, the problem with these questions were all the debates that might potentially  follow on from them. Britain in 1625 as compared to when? Britain in 1558 or Britain in 1603 or even Britain in 1714? Or possibly, Britain as compared to where? The Holy Roman Empire? Ming China? At this point I was beginning to fear that I had bitten off more than I could chew. To stave off despair, I opened the packet of biscuits I had meant to save for later and decided to have a think about what exactly it was that I wanted to achieve before I went back to the drawing board. The answer was that I wanted to give the students the idea that the English Revolution was taking place in a context of global climatic instability, and to help them make the link between really rotten weather and political crisis, without leading them down the path of over-determined causal explanations. Once I’d articulated this to myself, it didn’t take long before I came up with an enquiry question and lesson questions which, if not perfect, suited my purposes for this mini enquiry.

Enquiry Question: How did the climate make Charles I’s job difficult?

Lesson 1: Why did the climate make things hard for rulers?
Lesson 2: Why did the climate make things hard for Charles?

As you can imagine, by this time my coffee had become so cold that it was utterly undrinkable.