Natural disasters could have a huge impact on the medieval world – they could ruin cities or regions, and leave tens of thousands dead or homeless. These disasters – earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions – were written about by chroniclers of the time, who left vivid accounts of the destruction they caused. Here are ten of the most important natural disasters that took place in the Middle Ages.
Destruction of Antioch in 526
During the period of the Roman Empire, Antioch was one of the great cities of the Eastern Mediterranean – it has been estimated that it had a population of over a million people – and a leading centre for Christianity. However, it was already in decline in Late Antiquity, caused in part by earthquakes. The worst of these took place in late May 526. The chronicler Pseudo-Dionysius describes the scene:
It was a terrible and distressing collapse, impossible for anyone to recount. Such was the violent and harsh disaster, which was sent from heaven, that fire alight and consumed those who had escaped from the terrible vehemence of the cataclysm of the earthquake and the collapse: the sparks flew and set fire to everything on which they settled. The earth itself from below, from within the soil, surged, seethed and burned everything which was there. Thus the foundations as well, together with all the storeys above them, were lifted up, heaved up and down and burst apart, collapsed, fell and burned with fire… In the end no house or church or building of any kind remained, not even the garden fences, which had not been torn asunder or damaged, or had not disintegrated and fallen. The rest burned, crumbled away and became like an extended putrefaction.
Even the Patriarch of the city could not escape the destruction:
When the residence collapsed and fell, he happened to fall into the cauldron. The whole of his body sank down in it, and he was cooked in the pitch. His head was found (hanging, as if he had) fainted, outside the rim of the cauldron. Thus he was recognized from his face, while his bones were found stripped of the flesh in the pitch…And fear and trembling seized all who saw it.
Between 250,000 and 300,000 people died in the earthquake. The Byzantine Emperor sent 500 pounds of gold so that the city could be rebuilt, but Antioch never recovered and throughout the Middle Ages it continued its decline until by the 15th century when it had only a few hundred people remaining.
The Year without Summer
In 2013 scientists announced that they had discovered that a volcano located on Lombok Island in Indonesia exploded sometime between May and October 1257, in it was the largest blast the Earth had seen in 7000 years.
The discovery has helped historians to understand the events of 1258, where cold temperatures ruined crops and brought famine to much of Europe. The English chronicler Matthew Paris wrote that during this year “the north wind blew without intermission, a continued frost prevailed, accompanied by snow and such unendurable cold, that it bound up the face of the earth, sorely afflicted the poor, suspended all cultivation, and killed the young of the cattle to such an extent that it seemed as if a general plague was raging amongst the sheep and lambs.” It is believed that London saw as many as 15,000 deaths that year, and some scientists speculate the volcanic explosion was one of the factors in the Little Ice Age that affected global temperatures from the 14th to 19th centuries.
The Great Drowning of Men
The coastal areas around the North Sea were prone to flooding in the Later Middle Ages – numerous chronicles report various floods between the 11th and 15th centuries. One of the worst was the Saint Marcellus’ flood or Grote Mandrenke (‘Great Drowning of Men’) that took place on January 16, 1362. At least 25,000 people were killed when an Atlantic gale swept in northwestern Europe, affecting the British Isles to Denmark. To learn more see The Great Wind of 1362
The Mongols under Kublai Khan tried to invade Japan twice in the 13th century – the first time in 1274 and the second in 1281. On both occasions the fleets were destroyed by typhoons, which the Japanese believed was heavenly assistance. They called these storms Kamikaze, meaning ‘divine wind’. The massive fleets under the Mongol command – the second was reportedly four thousand ships carrying 140,000 men – were destroyed by the typhoons, leaving the invaders either drowned or captured.
The Sicily Earthquake of 1169
On the morning of February 4, 1169, a powerful earthquake struck the eastern coast of Sicily, which levelled towns, produced a tsunami, and may have even caused Mount Etna to erupt. Sources place the death toll to be between 15,000 and 25,000. One chronicler, Hugo Falcandus, describes the scene:
a terrible earthquake shook Sicily with such force that it was felt in Calabria, around Reggio and nearby cities. The extremely wealthy city of Catania suffered such destruction that not a single house survived within the city. About 15,000 men and women together with the bishop of that city and most of the minks were crushed under collapsing buildings. At Lentini a fine town belonging to the Syracusans, the weight of collapsing buildings shaken by the same earthquake killed most of the townspeople. Many fortresses were also destroyed in the territory of the Catanians and Syracusans.
In a number of places the earth gaped open and produced new watercourses while closing up some old ones, and that part of the summit of Etna which faces Taormina seemed to sink down a little. At Syracuse the very famous spring called Arethusa, which according to legend brings water to Sicily by secret channels from the city of Elis in Greece, changed from a trickle to a great flow, and it water turned salty because of the amount of sea water mixed up in it.
The Tauredunum event
The Swiss city of Geneva was devastated in 563 when a landslide on one end of Lake Geneva caused a tsunami throughout the narrow. A couple of historical accounts explain what happened, including Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks:
A great prodigy appeared in Gaul at the fortress of Tauredunum, which was situated on high ground above the River Rhône. Here a curious bellowing sound was heard for more than sixty days: then the whole hillside was split open and separated from the mountain nearest to it, and it fell into the river, carrying with it men, churches, property and houses. The banks of the river were blocked and the water flowed backwards. This place was shut in by mountains on both sides, for the stream flows there through narrow defiles. The water then flooded the higher reaches and submerged and carried everything which was on its banks.
A second time the inhabitants were taken unawares, and as the accumulated water forced its way through again it drowned those who lived there, just as it had done higher up, destroying their houses, killing their cattle, and carrying away and overwhelming with its violent and unexpected inundation everything which stood on its banks as far as the city of Geneva. It is told by many that the mass of water was so great that it went over the walls into the city mentioned. And there is no doubt of this tale because as we have said the Rhone flows in that region between mountains that hem it in closely, and being so closely shut in, it has no place to turn aside. It carried away the fragments of the mountain that had fallen and thus caused it to disappear wholly.
In 2012 researchers at the University of Geneva examined what had happened in the Tauredunum event, and concluded that a similar landslide could cause another tsunami on the lake.
The Syrian Earthquake of 1202
On May 20, 1202, an earthquake struck southwest Syria. It is believed to have been about a magnitude of 7.6 on the Richter scale and was felt as far away as Sicily. The earthquake caused extensive damage to both Crusader and Muslim communities throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, levelling cities and castles. While one contemporary source places the number of dead at 1.1 million, modern historians believe that the figure was more likely in the tens of thousands. The devastation was seen as an important factor in the extension of a truce between Crusaders and Muslim states. Read more in the article Crusader castle torn apart by earthquake at dawn, 20 May 1202
St. Lucia’s Flood
On December 14, 1287, a massive storm tide swept into the Netherlands and Northern Germany, breaking dikes and leaving between 50,000 to 80,000 people dead. It is considered the sixth worst flooding incident in recorded history and left permanent changes to the landscape of the Netherlands – for example, the Zuiderzee was partially created by the storm, making it an inland sea. The same storm also killed hundreds of people in southern England.
The Sanriku Earthquake of 869
Japan lies along one of the most active fault lines in the world and is often struck by earthquakes. One of the earliest ever to be recorded took place off the northeast coast on July 9, 869. Scientists believe it was very similar in size and scale to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit the same region. A contemporary source reveals the destruction it caused:
a large earthquake occurred in Mutsu province with some strange light in the sky. People shouted and cried, lay down and could not stand up. Some were killed by the collapsed houses, others by the landslides. Horses and cattle got surprised, madly rushed around and injured the others. Enormous buildings, warehouses, gates and walls were destroyed. Then the sea began roaring like a big thunderstorm. The sea surface suddenly rose up and the huge waves attacked the land. They raged like nightmares, and immediately reached the city center. The waves spread thousands of yards from the beach, and we could not see how large the devastated area was. The fields and roads completely sank into the sea. About one thousand people drowned in the waves, because they failed to escape either offshore or uphill from the waves. The properties and crop seedlings were almost completely washed away.
Tornado strikes London in 1091
The Chronicon ex Chronicis of John of Worcester relates that on October 16, 1091, “a violent whirlwind from the south-west shook and demolished more than six hundred houses and a great number of churches in London. Rushing through the church of St. Mary, called ‘le Bow,’ it killed two men, and tearing up the roof and timbers, and whirling them for a long time to and fro in the air, at last drove six of the rafters, in the same order in which they were before fixed in the roofs, so deep into the earth that only the seventh or eighth part of them was visible, although they were twenty-seven or twenty-eight feet long.”
While rare, tornadoes have been recorded in many medieval sources. One scholar has found at least 21 instances where a tornado was seen in Britain during the Middle Ages.
Top Image: Medieval image of an earthquake, with ruins and fallen stars, and the dead in holes. British Library MS Royal 19 B XV f. 11v