Resilient Societies, Vulnerable People: Coping with North Sea Floods Before 1800
By Tim Soens
Past & Present, Volume 241:1 (2018)
Abstract: On Christmas Day 1717 the North Sea area was hit by the most deadly flood disaster in its entire history, which took the life of more than 10,000 people. Present-day concerns over climate change and the recurrence of extreme weather conditions might tempt historians to discuss floods like 1717 in terms of the overall vulnerability and resilience of societies or ‘socio-environmental systems’.
However, in medieval and early modern Europe it is hard to find examples of societies which did not prove resilient in the face of flooding: through absorption or adaptation, coastal society as a whole was perfectly able to overcome periodic episodes of flooding even when such episodes were sometimes perceived as real catastrophes.
At the same time, however, coastal societies differed greatly in the number of people exposed to harm and suffering. Processes of political and economic marginalization, as well as unsustainable forms of land-use, turned some people into victims of flood disasters, while others escaped. Hence only by moving discussions of vulnerability and resilience from the level of societies to the level of people, can a better understanding of natural hazards and disasters in the past and at present be achieved.
Top Image: Detail from the Tabula hydrographica (1610)