© The Art Archive / Querini Stampalia Foundation Venice / Gianni Dagli OrtiPart of a lagoon which froze over in 1708, Venice, Italy, by Gabriele Bella (1733-99)
People across Europe awoke on 6 January 1709 to find the temperature had plummeted. A three-week freeze was followed by a brief thaw - and then the mercury plunged again and stayed there. From Scandinavia in the north to Italy in the south, and from Czechoslovakia in the east to the west coast of France, everything turned to ice. The sea froze. Lakes and rivers froze, and the soil froze to a depth of a metre or more. Livestock died from cold in their barns, chicken's combs froze and fell off, trees exploded and travellers froze to death on the roads. It was the coldest winter in 500 years.
In England, they called the winter of 1709 the Great Frost. In France it entered legend as Le Grand Hiver, three months of deadly cold that ushered in a year of famine and food riots. In Scandinavia the Baltic froze so thoroughly that people could walk across the ice as late as April. In Switzerland hungry wolves crept into villages. Venetians skidded across their frozen lagoon, while off Italy's west coast, sailors aboard English men-of-war died from the cold. "I believe the Frost was greater (if not more universal also) than any other within the Memory of Man," wrote William Derham, one of England's most meticulous meteorological observers. He was right. Three hundred years on, it holds the record as the coldest European winter of the past half-millennium.