Monday, July 8, 2013

Geoffrey Parker's "Global Crisis"

Winner of the 2012 Heineken Prize for History, Geoffrey Parker is a renowned British historian who taught at the University of St Andrews, the University of Illinois, the University of British Columbia and Yale University before becoming Andreas Dorpalen Professor of History at The Ohio State University. He is also a Fellow of the British Academy, the Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Spanish-American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Cadiz), and the Royal Academy of History (Madrid). His many books include The Grand Strategy of Philip II, published by Yale in 1998 (winner of the Samuel Eliot Morison Prize) and The Military Revolution (winner of the best book prize of the American Military Institute and the Society for the History of Technology), as well as seminal works on global military history and early modern Europe.

Parker applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, and reported the following:
My heart sank when I was asked to apply the “The Page 99 Test” to Global Crisis, because I found the entire page occupied by graphs about children abandoned at the Foundling Hospital in Milan, Italy, in the seventeenth century. One diagram showed that most foundlings were delivered to the staff by their parents by day, but that after dark most arrived via the scaffetta: the “wheel of fortune” located on an outside wall where parents deposited their children anonymously and then rang a bell that alerted the staff within to turn the wheel and recover the child.

The time for abandoning infants varied with the season of the year – between 5 and 6 PM in December and January; between 9 and 10 PM between June (presumably to spare the distraught parent the shame of being seen) – and with fluctuations in food prices: in years of dearth, four or five infants might be placed on the wheel in a single night.

Many of those who left their child on the scaffetta also wrote a heart-wrenching note of explanation – some written on a scrap of paper torn from a book or on the back of a document (in one case on the back of a playing card) – stating the child’s name, date of birth and saint’s day and whether it had been baptized. A few provided a brief explanation (parents too poor; mother abandoned by her lover; mother died in childbirth; “a well-known lady who does not wish to be found out”). The saddest messages of all were those written in the first person:
My name is Ana. I have been baptized. My parents are honorable people who, because they are poor, entrust me to Our Lady and St Joseph. I beg you to entrust me to someone who will look after me. A

[image of Ana's letter above left; click to enlarge]
These details meet “The Page 99 Test,” because Global Crisis contains hundreds of heart-rending first-person accounts from the seventeenth century; and the Index reveals that data about foundlings appear on ten pages and in one illustration. Their plight reflected a fatal synergy in the seventeenth century between climate change and human inflexibility – above all the failure of governments to avoid war in times of global cooling – that eradicated one-third of the planet’s human population. Most survivors would have endorsed the verdict of the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes in 1651: “the life of man” had become “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Learn more about Global Crisis at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue