25 October 2013

Review of a paper: A risk society? Environmental hazards, risk and resilience in the later Middle Ages in Europe

Posted by Dave Petley


The management of natural hazards is a major activity in modern society, although often it occurs in a way that is not particularly obvious.  Thus, for example, major road projects in upland areas generally include substantial investment in slope stability measures to prevent landslides and rockfalls from endangering road users – in many cases these can form a large part of the project budget.  Of course there are more obvious approaches too – in the news at the moment is both the apparent failure of local government officials in Japan to make people aware of the hazard posed by landslides as typhoon Wipha bore down on Japan last week, with tragic consequences, and the resulting high-profile evacuations today as Typhoon Francisco threatens to bring rain to the same area.  Recently, an colleague in the Archaeology department here at Durham, Chris Gerrard, and I were mulling over whether people in the past took the same general approaches to managing hazards as we do today.  If they did, how sophisticated were those approaches, and how successful were they?

That conversation led to a research paper that was recently published the in journal Natural Hazards.  The paper has been published in full Open Access form, so you can download the paper as a PDF or view it on the screen.  In the paper we focused on the Middle Ages – which we defined as the period 1000-1500 AD – in Europe.  This was a period of great change in Europe as modern societies started to emerge.  It was also a period of great upheaval, not least because of the effects of repeated epidemics that devastated large swathes of Europe, of which the Black Death in 1348-50 was the worst – it is estimated that over 30% of the population of Europe lost their lives.  In this context, it might be thought that managing environmental hazards was almost insignificant.  That was most definitely not the case.

A risk society?

In the paper we have tried to demonstrate first that Europe was, perhaps unsurprisingly, affected by a wide range of disasters in this period, including major earthquakes, wind storms, floods, volcanic eruptions, landslides, tsunamis and famines.  The illustration below, from the Konstanzer Weltchronik, a fourteenth-century ‘world chronicle’ produced at Konstanzer in Germany, shows the effects of the Basel earthquake in 1356:

Risk Society..

In the paper we tried to estimate the costs of these disasters – this is a topic upon which we are now working, but a reasonable estimate seems to be in the range of 250,000 to half a million people over 500 years.  This might seem low, but remember that the population of Europe at this time was just 39 to 70 million people.

It might be tempting to think that the standard response to such disasters in the Middle Ages was through religion – after all, even now we sometimes term these disasters “Acts of God”.  It is true that that religion played a major role in creating a framework for understanding these events.  Populations prayed that disasters would not occur, and that they would recover quickly when they happened, and religious leaders used events to encourage the population to higher levels of devotion.  However, alongside this was a rapidly developing attempt to provide rational explanations for hazardous events – for example Hegenburg wrote in the 14th Century that:

Earthquakes arise from the fact that in subterranean caverns and especially those within hollow mountains, earthly vapours collect and sometimes these gather in such enormous volumes that the caverns can no longer contain them. They batter the walls of the caven in which they are and force their way into another and still another cavern until they fill every space in the mountain…If they cannot reach the surface they give rise to great earthquakes.

As an aside this is strangely similar to the utterly bizarre, and bogus, explosive gas theory for the generation of the Wenchuan earthquake (see this pdf for example).

Alongside this increasingly rational explanation for hazardous events was a surprisingly sophisticated system for managing risk.  In the European  Middle Ages, hazard mitigation was commonplace, with Italy very much leading way.  For example after Florence flooded in 1333 the city authorities formed a committee to manage the repairs, they provided tax relief to victims (especially on food) and they organised the distribution of food.  In modern soceties we share the costs of disasters through risk sharing – this is essentially the role of the insurance industry for example – and societies in the Middle Ages did likewise, especially in cities, through for example the organisation of fraternities and religious guilds that offered help in-kind, loans and/or stipends.  Charitable giving was also common at all levels of society, and many  societies also tried to spread the costs of disasters over time by storing a proportion of the harvest on a large-scale.

Sitting alongside these societal responses were structural measures to prevent hazard impacts.  The image below, from the paper, shows the interior of the onastic church at Clara-a-Velha in Coimbra (Portugal). To escape the floods from the nearby River Mondego, the nuns initially raised the floor of the church.  When this was unsuccessful they extended the church upwards – the people in the photo are on the partially reconstructed upper storey.  Note the staining from the floods on the supporting columns:

risk society

Picture courtesy of Alejandra Gutiérrez


In the town of Kootwijk in the Netherlands) the villagers fought against drifting sand, which smothered their fields, by erecting screens over 100 m) long.  Eventually they appear to have given up the fight and relocated inland.

In modern society we also use hazard adaptation as a key mechanism for managing risk – thus for example we enforce building codes in seismically-active areas to try to reduce the likelihood that buildings will collapse.  Hazard adaptation was surprisingly prevalent in the Middle Ages too, with the authorities imposing requirements on for example building quality to try to reduce losses.  After parts of the city of Pisa were by fire in 1158, the civic authorities tried to reduce the risk of a repeat by demolishing wooden porches and balconies, whilst elsewhere thatched roofs were replaced with tiles.  Inevitably, some disasters drove the relocation of people, but the archaeological evidence suggests that this was perhaps less common than might be expected – generally people “built back” in the same location.

So, in the paper we concluded that modern rsik management for natural hazards has its origin in historic practices, and indeed that essentially almost all of the techniques we use today were widespread at that time.  There is no doubt that modern approaches are more complex and are based on a better understanding of both the hazard processes and the ways in which their effects can be reduced, but societies in the Middle Ages were also remarkably sophisticated and organised.  As we say in the paper, “faith was no barrier to mitigation, and although medieval society may not have been the best protected against environmental hazards or the best resourced or claim a complete understanding of the risks it faced, it was also perhaps not the most frightened”.  It is not a defining characteristic of modern societies that we manage risk in a sophisticated way, this has been the case for centuries.


Christopher M. Gerrard, & David N. Petley (2013). A risk society? Environmental hazards, risk and resilience in the later Middle Ages in Europe Natural Hazards, 69 (1), 1051-1079 DOI: 10.1007/s11069-013-0750-7