It happened literally overnight in the first few days of 1709. On January 5, temperatures plummeted—not, perhaps, a surprise in European winter. But 1709 was no ordinary cold snap. Dawn broke the next morning on a continent that had frozen over from Italy to Scandinavia and from England to Russia, and would not warm up again for the next three months. During the worst winter in 500 years, extreme cold followed by food shortages caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in France alone, froze lagoons in the Mediterranean, and changed the course of a war. Shivering in England, the scholar William Derham wrote: “I believe the Frost was greater ... than any other within the Memory of Man.”
The country most affected by the terrible cold was undoubtedly France. The year 1709 had already started badly. French peasants had been hit by poor harvests, taxes, and conscription for the War of the Spanish Succession. The cold snaps of late 1708 were as nothing to the crash in temperatures that took place over the night of January 5 to 6. In the following two weeks, snow would fall and thermometers in France would drop to a low of -5°F.
In the absence of weather forecasting, the authorities had no time to prepare for what became known as “Le Grand Hiver,” and thousands succumbed to hypothermia before measures could be taken to help them. Animals were not spared either: Numerous livestock froze in their pens, barns, and coops.