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Teacher's Comment :

Kim, Shin - Early Years of the Little Ice Age in Northern Europe, 1300-1500



Kim, Shin chose to write about the impact of the Little Ice Age on Northern Europe (the countries surrounding the North Sea, and the islands in the North Atlantic). He chose this geographic region, because minor changes in the annual average temperature had a significant impact on agriculture and fishery, in a number of ways. His paper, in scope, depth and length exceeds all research papers written previously at KMLA, and therefore deserves a more detailed comment, divided into three paragraphs : scope, review and process.

Scope . Kim, Shin chose his topic because he is mainly interested in natural science and he saw the opportunity to study the impact of climate on history, getting the idea after reading Fagan's The Little Ice Age. Kim, Shin's paper is divided into 4 main chapters, the Great Famine of 1315-1318, the Cod Migration, the Sea Floods of the 13th Century and Land Desertion in Scandinavia. Kim, Shin's research is based on secondary sources in English language; his reference list includes 38 titles. Printed out, it numbers 49 pages single space, with 319 notes. He had about a year to work on the paper. The paper is independent; despite depending on the research of climate historians, historians and archeologists, the choice of the topic, the organization and composition of the paper are Kim, Shin's.
One would expect a paper covering such a topic to be written by a college professor who studied the field for a number of decades (Kim, Shin took on a topic compatible to those dealt with in the books by Fernand Braudel (The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II.), or the books by David Kirby (Northern Europe in the Early Modern Period : The Baltic World 1492-1772; The Baltic World 1772-1993); when Kim, Shin took on the topic, I told him that his choice was ambitious and would involve so much work, that there was a considerable chance for him not being able to complete it.

Review . As Kim, Shin correctly points out, the climate factor has long been neglected in historiography. Historians are accustomed to interpreting written documents, and statements on the climate in medieval records are often unspecific, lack uniform standards. Only recent achievements of paleoclimatology provide us with solid data allowing to describe the history of the regional climate.
Kim, Shin's choice of region is a logical one, from the perspective of a climate historian. A thorough research would require to study the historiography and primary sources of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, northwestern Germany, Denmark, Norway and Iceland, published respectively written in English, Dutch, Frisian, German, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Latin. The restraints on high school students writing history research papers - (1) the lack of regular access to a research library (he occasionally had the opportunity to access research libraries in Seoul; the holdings of these libraries in regard to publications on his topic were both selctive (as they would have mostly publications in English) and accidental), (2) his inability to read Dutch, Frisian, modern German and 15th century Lower German, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Latin, and (3) the time constraint due to other responsibilities of a high school student - affected his studies. To be fair to Kim, Shin, the concentration on English-language literature is not only a flaw in the paper discussed here, but also in the works by Fagan (The Little Ice Age refers exclusively to English language sources) and Grove (Little Ice Ages refers to publications in French, German, Norwegian etc., but exclusively to studies of climatologists, and a few old travelogues), frequently referred to in Shin's papers; climate historians tend to focus on scientific results, rarely go into archives to study 14th century parchment documents. Region historians on the other hand tend to publish in the language spoken in the region today; such books rarely get translated into English.
In an ideal situation, such a study would balance natural science (climate history) and history (history of the respective regions); Kim, Shin's study is strong on the side of climate history. Regional historians may comment that one or the other event is not mentioned in the paper, for example the Trondheim privilege limiting the trade of the Trondheim merchants to the city and her immediate vicinity in 1384 (Frank Noel Stagg, The Heart of Norway, London : George Allen & Unwin 1953 p.70); the Trondheim merchants had been responsible for sending the annual ship to Greenland, which by the late 14th century had become a deficitary undertaking; the privilege freed Trondheim of a burden and deprived the Greenland colony of a vital supply line. Bert's Geschiedenis Site (http://www.bertsgeschiedenissite.nl, in Dutch) contains a number of maps showing the development of the Dutch coastline during the Middle Ages, more detailed than those used by Kim, Shin. To be fair to Kim, Shin, the same criticism applies to most publications written by climate historians taking on a region compatible in size and diversity.

Process . Kim, Shin had about a year to work on his research paper, a year during which numerous other responsibilities had to be taken care of. Kim, Shin represented Korea in the International Youth Physics Tournament, which required him to occasionally be absent from school.
Compared to other students of his age, Kim, Shin is extraordinarily mature, independent, focussed, disciplined and efficient. He has an excellent command of the English language, read quickly, processes information into an analytical essay quickly. Kim, Shin did not have the opportunity to visit in person the region the impact of climate changes on which he researched, and of course had been given only a superficial account of the history of the late middle ages in history class. I did give him a more detailed account in one-to-one talks, and he approached me repeatedly with a chapter, asking for my comment.
Kim, Shin has shown initiative in finding and accessing sources; he was able to compensate for the lack of regular access to a research library by occasionally visiting academic libraries and by registering with Questia. And, in contrast to Braudel and Kirby, Kim Shin of course limited his research to accessible secondary sources in English language.

When we started having students write research papers at KMLA, I did not dream of a paper of this scope and depth being possible in our high school environment. When Kim, Shin took on the topic, I had my doubts. The result is impressive, in terms of length and depth a high school correspondent of a masters' thesis; Kim, Shin has established a new standard for history research papers at KMLA, which his schoolmates will have difficulty to meet.


October 1st 2007

Alexander Ganse



Kim, Shin Early Years of the Little Ice Age in Northern Europe, 1300-1500