A risk society? Environmental hazards, risk and resilience in the later Middle Ages in Europe

A risk society? Environmental hazards, risk and resilience in the later Middle Ages in Europe

By Christopher M. Gerrard and David N. Petley

Natural Hazards, Volume 69, Issue 1 (2013)

A near-contemporary painting depicting the St. Elizabeth's flood

Abstract: Modern society is said to have restructured in reaction to contemporary hazards with the aim of improving its management of risk. This implies that pre-industrial societies were somehow fundamentally different. In this paper, we challenge that hypothesis by examining the ways in which risks associated with environmental hazards were managed and mitigated during the Middle Ages (defined here as the period from 1000 to 1550 AD). Beginning with a review of the many case studies of rapid onset disasters across Europe, we draw upon both historical and archaeological evidence and architectural assessments of structural damage for what is a pre-instrumental period. Building upon this, the second part of the paper explores individual outlooks on risk, emphasising the diversity of popular belief and the central importance of Christianity in framing attitudes. Despite their religious perspectives, we find that medieval communities were not helpless in the face of serious environmental hazards. We argue instead that the response of society to these threats was frequently complex, considered and, at times, surprisingly modern.

Introduction: The notion of a ‘risk society’ is underpinned by the proposal that contemporary organisational structures are generated by responses to ‘hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernization itself’. Risks specifically associated with modernity, such as those rooted in chemical, nuclear and information technologies, are considered to be especially powerful and, while the ‘risk society’ concept recognises that communities have also been subject to hazards in the past, these are judged to have been imposed by external forces. In this paper, we challenge that analysis through a review of the nature of, and responses to, natural hazards across Christian Europe during the Middle Ages (loosely defined here as 1000–1550 AD).

The roll-call of disasters during the later medieval period was a lengthy one. Not only did communities respond continually to environmental hazards, their effects were also felt sometimes across the whole of Europe in a way that has not been observed in modern times. In 1258 the largest volcanic eruption of the last 7,000 years affected the entire continent, while in 1315–1321 the most serious famine in recorded European history was driven by a prolonged period of low temperatures and heavy summer rainfalls associated with abnormally warm North Atlantic sea temperatures. Other events such as the most powerful earthquake in central Europe in 1356, river floods, tsunamis in the Mediterranean and sea surges along north-western coastlines all affected specific regions so that responses by different communities can be usefully compared over roughly half a millennia. Here, our focus is primarily upon rapid onset disasters such as geophysical and hydrometeorological hazards (including some droughts), rather than chronic pollution from medieval tanneries or the cooling climate after 1250. Losses associated with disease outbreaks are also excluded, as are astronomical phenomena such as comets and meteors whose impacts remain controversial in this period.

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