The influence of Quarternary glacial cycles on the extant diversity of Holarctic species has been intensively studied. It has been hypothesized that palaeoclimatic changes are responsible for divergence events in lineages. A constant improvement in DNA sequencing and modeling methods, as well as palaeoclimatic reconstruction, permit a deeper exploration of general causes of speciation in geological time. In the present study, we sampled, as exhaustively as possible, the butterflies belonging to the genus Melitaea (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae), which are widely spread in the Palaearctic region. We conducted analyses to assess the phylogeny of the genus and estimated the timing of divergence and the most likely distribution of ancestral populations. The results obtained indicate that the systematics of the genus is in need of revision and that the diversity of the genus has been profoundly shaped by palaeoenvironmental changes during its evolutionary history. The present study also emphasizes that, when employed with caveats, major palaeoenvironmental events could represent very powerful tools for the calibration of the dating of divergences using molecular data. © 2009 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2009, 97, 346–361.