Philipp Blom (Picador, £20)

Climate change is an issue that’s not going to go away, so Philipp Blom’s account of a society turned upside-down by a period of extreme cold is keenly relevant to our times. But over and above its topicality, Nature’s Mutiny is simply a fascinating and revelatory study of what’s come to be known as the Little Ice Age.

Fierce cold spells in the 1560s were the harbingers of the most severe winters ever recorded, the average global temperature dropping by as much as two degrees. Bodies of water as far south as the Bosphorus froze over and there were years when summer never arrived, causing “a pervasive feeling of threat and crisis”. By the time the planet warmed up again, in the 1680s, Europe was a changed place. It had entered the Little Ice Age a feudal society “where theologians had the last word”. It emerged from the freeze with capitalism firmly established and the intellectual foundations for the Enlightenment in place. Blom’s aim here is to show the extent to which this was a result of the altered climate.

The trigger for most of these changes was, he finds, failed harvests, and he spins a spellbinding tale of how grain shortages toppled the dominoes of the old order one after another. Lower wheat production meant that peasants couldn’t pay their regular portion of grain as tax to their lord. This was a bodyblow to the aristocracy, who responded by, among other things, concentrating their land among fewer hands and shifting the focus of agriculture from local consumption to the international market. One consequence was that millions of now-landless peasants flooded into cities, where the Guilds, which were accustomed to exercising “ironclad protectionism and corporatism” found themselves out of their depth with both the influx of peasants and the challenge to their dominance by an expanding middle class profiting from the increase in international trade.

Another hugely significant result of the grain shortage was the rise of the Netherlands, which, on the back of its ability to export grain from the Baltic, knocked a weakened Italy from its position as Europe’s top trading nation, transforming itself from unimportant backwater to economic powerhouse. The Netherlands’ success is one of the central threads of this book, the country’s tolerant attitude towards dissenting thinkers making it the hub of an intellectual community grounded in rational, empirical enquiry which would challenge the authority of the Church and lay the groundwork for what we recognise as the modern nation-state.

It’s an enthralling story, which alights on more aspects of the period than there is space here to list, let alone discuss. Furthermore, Blom’s book reminds us that, beyond our ideological, economic and territorial concerns, there are forces over which we have no control, and which have the potential to impact immeasurably on our civilisation. A penetrating enquiry into a tumultuous, transformative era, Nature’s Mutiny forces us to consider what unexpected metamorphoses might take place in the wake of a future climate catastrophe.