In Middle Ages, Societies Surprisingly Responsive To Natural Disasters

ancient life, Scotish castle
Medieval Scottish castle, near the Isle of Skye. (Image credit: Moyan_Brenn via flickr |

(ISNS) -- Our vision of medieval times is a world of violence and filth, when life, as Thomas Hobbes wrote, was “nasty, brutish, and short.” Imagine the chaos in that world when a natural disaster like an earthquake, a flood or famine struck.

But, according to two British scientists, the societies between 1,000 and 1,500 A.D. were better organized than most people think, and actually employed some of the same techniques used today to survive or mitigate disasters, even if they didn’t always understand the causes.

Where we have the Red Cross and the United Nations to swoop into disaster zones, as some international organizations are doing now in the Philippines, societies of the Middle Ages relied on local governments, organizations, and charities to do much of the same, according to David Petley, a geographer, and Chris Gerrard, an archaeologist at Durham University in England.  

In a paper published in the journal Natural Hazards, the researchers point out that the 500-year period of the Middle Ages was the time when modern societies began to emerge. The period also had to endure one calamity after another.

They estimate 250,000 to 500,000 people died during the Middle Ages due to natural disasters, not including epidemics like the Black Death, or wars. This is a surprisingly low number, but the population of Europe then was probably fewer than 70 million people, about one-tenth of Europe's population today.

There were earthquakes like the massive one in 1348 centered in Northern Italy; a famine produced by a volcanic eruption in 1258 in Indonesia, droughts, and the perpetual floods in Europe's Low Countries of the Netherlands and modern Belgium.

Archaeologists can uncover many of them by reading the journals and chronicles of the times and by digging. In 1356, a huge earthquake struck Basel, Switzerland.  In 1991, archaeologists found layers of burned rubble, weapons, and a bronze caldron, clearly abandoned in a hurry. They could also trace where the Swiss rebuilt the city after the quake.

Archaeologists can see where repairs were made on buildings or when there was extensive structural damage over a wide area, sometimes dating the events by counting the rings on the wooden beams, said Gerrard. They sometimes can tell whether the area was organized enough to bury the dead methodically, or whether the death toll exceeded capability.

They can sometimes find artifacts, but in the case of floods, people usually rescued their possessions before leaving. Not so for sudden events like earthquakes, he said.

“The country very much in the vanguard of this sort of work was Italy. ... by far the most organized country in dealing with natural disasters,” said Petley partly because it was prone to disasters and partly because it was divided into city-states which could operate more efficiently at a local level.

The Low Countries also were particularly adept because of the constant threat of flooding from the sea, according to Kelly DeVries, a historian at Loyola University of Maryland in Baltimore who was not part of this study.

"Usually [relief] wasn’t done at a national level. It was not organized by the king.” Petley said.

In an agrarian-based society, the king was more interested in the countryside, so the urban areas were left to fend for themselves, according to DeVries.

“It was more of a local issue; it would be local landowners, as they accumulated assets and had more potential losses in disasters, they started to develop structures that would effectively insure them against the risk,” Petley said. In big cities it was the city authorities that organized disaster mitigation and relief.

To some extent, the people also appealed to the supernatural, the researchers wrote, praying disasters wouldn’t happen and praying again after the event for survival.

However, their reliance on religion also took a practical bent. There were acts of charity, especially from guilds and religious organization to victims of disasters. Some, like Italy’s Archiconfraternity of Misericordia, founded in 1244, are still operating.

When Florence flooded in 1333, the local authorities essentially took on the role of today's Federal Emergency Management Agency. They formed a committee to make repairs, gave tax relief to victims, and organized a system to get food to those stranded by the water. They built a temporary bridge over the River Arno.

There were organized search and rescue operations in some places, as is happening now, following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Dikes and barriers were built to prevent flood damage. If the barriers didn’t work, people were relocated, just as Alaska native villages are being relocated now as climate change alters the floodplain of rivers.

Grain was stored in case of famine and insurance organizations were created to share the risk just as risk is shared now.

Inside Science News Service is supported by the American Institute of Physics. Joel Shurkin is a freelance writer based in Baltimore. He is the author of nine books on science and the history of science, and has taught science journalism at Stanford University, UC Santa Cruz and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He tweets at @shurkin.

Inside Science News Service