Great Frost of 1709


The winter of 1709, called the great winter of 1709, was an episode of intense cold in Europe, which left a lasting impression on people”s minds because it caused a subsistence crisis that led to a famine. This episode began brutally on the day of the Epiphany 1709, by a sudden cold wave which struck all Europe.

In France this winter was particularly cruel. In Paris, temperatures were very low (Paris would not experience lower temperatures until much later, notably in December 1879). The regions of the South and West of France were severely affected with the almost complete destruction of olive groves and very big damages in the orchards. Moreover, the event took the form of successive cold spells interspersed with significant warm spells. Thus, in February, a two-week mild spell was followed by a fairly sharp cold spell that destroyed the wheat and caused a fruit crisis.

Some chronicles are questionable, as it is sometimes stated that the frost was continuous for more than a month, which is inaccurate because there were also pronounced thaws and important rains. The precise observations of Louis Morin de Saint-Victor confirm that the cold was not continuous. Overall, the whole year 1709 was cool, some authors going so far as to say that it froze every month of the year. Some later winters were even harsher but did not make as much of an impression because the historical conditions were different.

General conditions in Europe

The winter of 1708-1709 in France was extremely irregular. Periods of intense cold and mildness followed one another. December 1708 was mild and rainy. In January 1709, there was a period of intense cold from January 6 to 22, which was followed by a sudden thaw. At the beginning of February, the temperature dropped briefly, followed by another mild spell, and then dropped sharply again at the end of the month.

The weather in Western Europe was equally unusual, as several westerly and southerly wind storms occurred; notwithstanding the occasional occurrence of freezing weather. Normally, storms bring mild weather, hence the strangeness of the phenomenon. Volcanic eruptions in 1707 and 1708 (Mount Fuji and Vesuvius), which produced a veil of ash in the stratosphere, could explain this severe winter (volcanic winter) in 1709. Overall, the average temperatures in Europe were 7°C lower than the averages of the 20th century.

Weather conditions in the South of France

In the period preceding the great cold of January 1709, the conditions had been extremely mild with a lot of rain. In the South of France, the vegetation had started to grow again and the sap was rising. Verifying the saying “It is better to see a thief in his attic than a ploughman in his shirt in January”, the very mild temperatures of the beginning of January followed by a big cold snap had disastrous consequences for the crops.

It would seem that a returning cold front swept across the kingdom of France, manifesting itself in the presence of stratocumulus accompanied by light snowfall, and temperatures fell rapidly on the day of the Epiphany (within 24 hours). Such a phenomenon is often followed by a blockage of cold air.

Thus, notwithstanding the previous mild weather, the Rhone began to freeze the following night in the vicinity of Avignon. In Marseilles, on January 8, the temperature dropped by more than 19 degrees Celsius, from +8.5 °C to -11.2 °C. The Old Port was frozen over.

On January 11, it was -16.1 °C in Montpellier and -17.5 °C in Marseille, a remarkable minimum maintained until January 14 in Marseille. François Arago noted that the cold peak occurred two days earlier in Montpellier than in Paris, and that all the rivers of the Midi were frozen, while the Seine never froze completely.

It is mentioned that most of the olive trees in the Grasse area froze completely, and had to be cut off at the foot. The olive trees, known to be strong trees, started to grow again from the foot by giving offsets. When the regrowth was sufficiently advanced, it was necessary to prune the offshoots and wait for the trees to produce olives again. Orange trees in the Grasse region. On the edge of the olive growing area at Mas-Cabardès in the Black Mountain, all the olive trees were destroyed and had to be replaced.

The day of the Epiphany 1709 was marked by a very brutal fall of the temperature in the South of France. The morning was sunny and pleasant, then suddenly in the afternoon the weather became overcast and a bitter cold took place. Thus Pierre Billion in Avignon notes:

“On Sunday January 6th 1709, the weather appeared beautiful and sunny until about three hours after midday when it was covered by a cold bize which increased so much that during the night, all the banks of the Rhosne and the Sorgues which crosses our city, were frozen; which violent and dry cold was so much so that the said Rhosne and Sorgues were frozen until Thursday 17th of the said month…”

The reason book of the Paris family of Arles states that :

“On the sixth of January 1709, that day was very beautiful, and during the night, it was so cold that the Rosne was caught before it was cold the next day at noon and increased so much from one day to the next for fifteen days, that no one living had ever seen such a harsh winter. We passed over the ice of the Rosne with carriages and carts, and we paid a lot of money because all the wheat, both from our land and from other countries, were all dead as well as the olive trees, orange trees, fig trees and the ortolailles of the gardens. It was written throughout the country that this cold weather had been general”.

On December 9, during the cold snap of December 1879, Le Petit Marseillais recalls the horrors of the winter of 1709. It writes:

“The Constitutional recalls the exceptional rigors of the winter of 1709. This is the most important thing about the situation. The winter had been as warm as spring: the trees were in sap, most of them had buds and some even flowers, when on the eve of the Feast of the Kings, January 5th, snow fell in abundance. The cold lasted for 15 days.

Similarly, Father Giraud in Marseille notes that:

“On the 7th day of January 1709, it snowed a little, the wind melted the snow at first, but the weather was immediately so cold that it would be difficult to express it: however, I will try to give you some idea. The cold increased more and more each day.

Thus, the Rhône River froze during the night of January 6-7. In Mâcon, a similar phenomenon occurred on the Saône. Thus, Bénet wrote that :

“But, on the day of the Kings of the present year, at three to four o”clock in the evening, there arose such a strong wind, which caused such a bitter cold, that the earth, soaked by almost continuous rains, was frozen in twenty-four hours by three feet deep. The wheat, which was just beginning to appear, was surprised by this frost without being covered with snow, which only fell in small quantities three or four days later. Everything yielded to the violence of this cold, which lasted seventeen days with the same harshness; the river was frozen almost to its entire depth; the oaks split from top to bottom;”

Weather conditions in Aquitaine

The winter of 1709 was harsh. The cold snap lasted from January 6 to 23, followed by a temporary warm-up on January 23. It snowed heavily on the nights of January 8-9 and January 9-10. Bordeaux was reported to have temperatures below -18.5°C every morning until January 22. The absolute minimums were -23.2 °C on January 11 and -22.8 °C on January 20. A warm-up occurred on January 23 when the temperature dropped to -2 °C. February was relatively mild; however, a brief return to cold occurred on February 25 with a minimum of “only” -12.7°C.

The Garonne was completely taken in Bordeaux and it was possible to cross it by horse. In Lectoure, the water froze inside the houses near the chimneys where big fires were lit. The wine also froze in the barrels. Even the urine (warm) froze immediately after urination. Entire forests were devastated, the oaks split in all their length, the chestnut groves of the Périgord were devastated as well as the plum orchards in the Agenais.

In Charente, the winter of 1709 was also remarkable. It snowed heavily without interruption from January 9 to 12. The access to the houses was blocked. Snowdrifts the height of the houses were formed. Everything froze, including the urine in the chamber pots, the wine in the barrels and even the steam from breathing. Frozen bread could no longer be cut.

Léonard Blanchier who was a master surgeon in Bouex described the weather conditions in January 1709. He said:

“This great fair began on the 6th of January in the year 1709. The fair the day after was held in Marthon. We were obliged to withdraw that day as the cold was so intense. On the 9th of the month the snow began to fall and continued for 4 days on several occasions that it was so thick that one could not leave one”s home. It was as high in many places as the houses.

He also explained that the trees were bursting loudly and wrote:

“Without this snow there would not have been anything left on the earth, but this did not prevent all our trees from dying because of the great snowfall. We could hear the trees split in half and make a noise like a musket shot.

Weather conditions in the North of the Kingdom of France

During the month of January 1709, the average temperature in Paris was -3.7°C, 6.1°C lower than the average temperature of the 19th century which was 2.4°C.

Daily temperature readings were taken by Louis Morin de Saint-Victor, who was an academician, and by Philippe de La Hire at the Paris Observatory. The raw temperature measurements were questionable because the thermometers were hung along the facades. Thus, it was necessary to recalibrate the measurements made at the time. The frost lasted from January 6 to 24 when a warm front reached the region and the temperature became positive again on January 25 when it was 7.5 °C. On Epiphany Day, the cold set in and from January 10 to 20, lows were always below -15°C except on January 17 when the minimum was only -7.5°C. Cold peaks below -18 °C occurred on January 13, 14 and 19. The prevailing wind was from the south-southeast. Snow fell on January 8, 11, 12, 14, 15, and 16, which protected the seeds. On January 25, it began to rain and the warm weather lasted until early February. A moderate cold reappeared between February 4 and 8 with minimums of about -5 °C. A very clear thaw resumed with highs around 12.5 °C. The cold weather returned between February 21 and March 3 with lows of -13.5 °C. This had the effect of damaging the vegetation that had begun to recover.

According to François Arago, who took La Hire”s measurements, the morning of January 4 was cold with -7.5 °C, the morning of January 6 had a minimum of only -1.4 °C, then a clear cooling occurred on the morning of January 7 with -7.6 °C. On January 10, the temperature plummeted to -18.0°C, then on January 13 and 14 it was -23.1°C and -21.3°C respectively. Curiously, the Seine never froze completely.

The parish priest of Aubergenville indicates on the parish register of the end of the year 1709:

The parish priest of Feings wrote in the register of his parish:

“On Monday, January 7th, a frost began which was the hardest day and the most difficult to suffer; it lasted until February 3rd or 4th. During this time, snow came down about half a foot high: this snow was very fine; it melted with difficulty. A few days after it fell, there was a very cold wind between biſe and galerne (it uncovered the wheat, which almost all froze; few people knew that they died at the first thaw.”

The snowfall was limited (15 centimeters) and it seems that it was generated by stratocumulus because it was “very thin”.

In Dieppe, where snowfalls are rare, incredible amounts of snow fell during the night of February 2 to 3. In the streets, the snow reached a height of nearly 3 meters and when opening the doors of the houses, one found oneself with a wall of snow. Thus, it was reported that :

“On the night of the 2nd to the 3rd of February, the streets of Dieppe were filled with it up to the height of nine feet. The burghers on awakening, were frightened on opening their maiſons, to see themselves blocked there by an eſpèce of snow wall.”

The snowstorm was confirmed by Legrelle

who stated that:

“During the night of the 3rd to the 4th of the same month, the snow had fallen so heavily that it reached the height of the second floor windows.

In addition, Legrelle stated that:

“In Dieppe, on Fat Tuesday, February 12, it was possible, at low water, to cross the harbor on frozen fresh water.”

The author stated that during the whole period: “The temperature was maintained at fifteen degrees Réaumur below zero.” Knowing that one degree Réaumur is 54{displaystyle {5 over 4}} degrees Celsius, the temperature was therefore maintained at around -20 °C. This would correspond to much colder conditions than those described by Louis Morin.

Conditions elsewhere in Europe

The United Kingdom was hit by heavy snowfalls that stayed on the ground for several weeks. The coldest observed in London was -17.2°C at Gresham College on January 14. Ireland and Scotland were somewhat spared. The southern part of the North Sea was impassable and in its northeastern limit it was possible to cross on foot between Denmark and Sweden.

In Berlin, François Arago indirectly reported that the lowest recorded temperature was -16.6 °C on January 9 and 10 (according to van Swinden). In fact, it seems that the thermometer went down to -29.1 °C on January 10. On March 8, it was still -20.0 °C in Berlin.

Some sites claim that during all months there was a frost. The readings from Paris do not support this claim, as the minimum in Paris that day was 14 °C, indicating a fairly warm night. The maximum was 23.7 °C which indicates a rather pleasant day in Paris. However, the minimum in Paris on July 12, 1709 was 6,9 °C (park of Montsouris) which makes possible a temperature of 4 °C in the countryside and it is then very plausible that there was a white frost in the vicinity of Trier knowing that in general the ground can freeze when the temperature under shelter at 1,5 m of the ground is lower than +3 °C.

The month of December 1879 in Paris had lower minima than those of 1709 without having such dramatic effects. Indeed, the average temperature of December 1879 was -7.4 °C, that is to say 3.4 °C lower than January 1709. The lowest temperature measured at Montsouris Park was -23.9 °C on December 10, 1879.

The winter of 1956 was also exceptional in its duration and intensity. It has many similarities with the month of January 1709. January 1956 was very mild and vegetation started to grow again. The cold weather that followed caused heavy damage; once again, the trunks of the olive trees burst and had to be cut off at the base so that they could grow back.

The winter of 1985 was atypical because the minimum temperatures measured in the southwest broke records. For example, it was -21.7°C in Aire-sur-l”Adour on January 8, surpassing the records of February 1956. However, the damage to the olive trees was very limited. This is probably due to the fact that the weather was dry and very cool before the big frosts. Indeed, an anticyclone had settled over the Atlantic Ocean from January 1 to 5, 1985, generating a north-west to north wind (according to Buys-Ballot”s law) and producing weak disturbances that brought a little snow. The trees were not saturated with moisture when the cold weather began.

Elisabeth-Charlotte of Bavaria, Duchess of Orleans, wrote in her Correspondences that between January 8 and February 2, 1709, 24,000 people had died in Paris because of this cold snap.

Approximately 600,000 people died in France as a result of these bad weather conditions, either directly from the cold, from hunger or because of epidemics that were particularly deadly for an undernourished population.mortality was aggravated by the precarious economic situation caused by the War of Spanish Succession.

External links


  1. Grand hiver de 1709
  2. Great Frost of 1709