standard Risk Society in the Middle Ages

1. Building collapsing on knights  c13827-53b.jpg risk

From Estoire del Saint Graal, La Queste del Saint Graal, Morte Artu. (British Library Royal MS 14 E III, dated c.1315–1325.)

About the hour of prime there was a single clap of thunder with lightning, which fell on the tower of the church, and which penetrated into the upper part of it with a horrible crash, twisted the oaken material like a net, and what was marvellous, ground it into fine shreds. The Chronicle of Matthew Paris, 1254

Research in brief
  • Living with risk is not strictly a modern phenomenon as people were managing risk in the Middle Ages. In some cases Medieval society was as much of a ‘risk society’ as the one experienced today, and risk seems inherent to all populations regardless of what period they lived in.
  • In the Middle Ages there were early examples of humanitarian aid and charity along with activities that bear resemblance to modern business models of the reinsurance industry.
  • People would share risk by pooling resources. The modern equivalent of famine relief was also in place.
  • During the aftermath of a disaster there are numerous examples of medieval communities coordinating actions on multiple levels to reconstruct better than before, and mitigate future risks.

Risks and disasters in the Middle Ages may seem far too remote from the concerns of modern society to be relevant today, but in reality some of the ways in which people managed, mitigated and prepared for risk are not so far removed from how society lives with risk in our times.

‘We owe some of our current ideas about managing risk to the Middle Ages, perhaps in a way that most people don’t recognise’, says Durham Professor of Archaeology Chris Gerrard.

Gerrard teamed up with geoscientist Professor David Petley, Wilson Chair in Hazard and Risk, to study evidence from history, archaeology, geology, and architecture covering the period from 1000 to 1550 ad. Their research1 reveals that societies in Europe during the Middle Ages were highly attuned to risk and disaster, and that medieval methods for mitigating geohazard risks were similar to many of those in use today.

‘Medieval societies were as much risk societies as our own’, says Petley, ‘In fact if you look at the techniques we use in modern times to manage risk, they pretty much did it all. They were rather sophisticated, and increasingly so through that period, in terms of how they managed their portfolio of risk’.

The Middle Ages were a time when people needed to live and cope with a multitude of different risks. Environmental hazards, such as the 1315–21 famine driven by low temperatures and heavy summer rainfalls, affected the whole of Europe as did powerful earthquakes, Mediterranean tsunamis, flooding and sea surges. The challenge of living with risk has underlain European societies throughout history; indeed, risk appears to be something inherent to all populations regardless of what period of the past they lived in.

There are differences, of course, between then and now. Medieval explanations of the causes of risk were more generally based on religious beliefs, as is still the case in some parts of the world today, particularly in less-developed countries where large-scale disasters occur regularly (See ‘Viewing Disaster through the Eyes of Religion’, HRR, Spring 2013). Christian saints and their relics delivered the faithful from danger; religious formulae such as Ihs Nazarenus, depicted in jewellery, were an invocation against sudden death.

Widespread beliefs in folk magic extended from the collection of sea urchin fossils, which were believed to ward off thunder and lightning, to gemstones with medicinal and magical effects. Emeralds, for example, were prized for everything from fighting gout to protection during a bad storm.

‘Modern’ risk mitigation and adaptation

Medieval Europe was exposed to a wide variety of risks to hazards, not to mention disease – this was the ‘Golden Age of Bacteria’. In the Middle Ages, although your vulnerability was in part dependent on where you were in the social hierarchy, everyone had to deal with risk to some degree.

While many people living during this time period viewed disasters as acts of divine retribution, this did not prevent preparation and response to large-scale hazards.Tracing how people responded to risk gives a surprising picture of risk mitigation in the Middle Ages that is only now beginning to be revealed.

‘Historical documents and archaeology tell a very interesting story in the Middle Ages and the story that developed is extraordinarily modern’, says Gerrard.

In many cases societies throughout Europe were ‘risk sensitive’ both in how they responded to different kinds of risks, normally to hazards, but also to famine and disease which were persistent at this time. In the case of low-probability, high-impact events such as earthquakes, whether people were prepared or not depended on whether the hazard event had occurred before within living memory.

‘If they didn’t take place during someone’s generation or their father’s generation, there’s not the same learning process.

There isn’t a memory embedded there within the community that gives them the confidence to respond’, says Gerrard. But often there was a lasting memory of hazardous events, and there is archaeological evidence from across Europe showing that people were proactive in managing them. Low-frequency, high-magnitude events were usually the most catastrophic, because preparedness was lower.

Ruin of St Michael’s Church atop the Glastonbury Tor.

When remains of the town wall in Andújar, in southern Spain, were uncovered by archaeologists they told a story of how the people who lived there responded to risk. The wall was destroyed by an earthquake in 1170. When it was rebuilt the foundations of the wall were cemented, and plugged to ensure that it was more resistant to the next earthquake.

The builders in Andújar changed their construction practices in response to seismic risk, an early example of a ‘build back better’ strategy. An excavation in Glastonbury, in the UK, revealed a similar story.

When St Michael’s Church at the top of Glastonbury Tor was excavated by archaeologists in the 1970s they discovered that it had fallen down due to an earthquake in 1275. During the excavation they found that people had removed the demolished building, identified the areas affected by the quake under the ground and the foundation, filled them with mortar and material then rebuilt the church on top. In both of these cases ‘there was an understanding to build something that was more robust’, says Gerrard.

There are numerous other examples where people in medieval Europe had what would be viewed today as a ‘modern’ response to risk, including examples of mitigation and adaptation:

  • In the hamlet of Kootwijk in the Netherlands villagers responded to coastal erosion by erecting 100-metre-long screens to prevent their agricultural fields and settlements from being buried by wind-blown sand (see Hazardous winds a’blowin’ in Features, this issue). These episodes of drifting sand were driven not only by changes in water distribution and dry weather which destabilised the vegetation, but also overgrazing, turf cutting, and deforestation to make charcoal for iron production.
  • In medieval Europe gifts were routinely given by the wealthy and by unaffected communities to help with the local reconstruction effort after a disaster. Royalty, the Church and manorial courts all saw charity as their Christian duty. Today, humanitarian aid from governments, NGOs and private donors remain vital in the case of sudden emergencies.
  • Insurance was available in Italian ports from before the 12th century and merchants in the north of Europe trading around the Baltic quickly developed detailed regulations. To spread risk, traders entered into partnerships and allowed third parties to buy shares in their ships.
  • When poor weather threatened harvests, demand for grain, flour and bread could be hard to meet locally and the costs of importation were high. This was the case in 1258–61 when there were global-scale changes to weather patterns after a ‘climate-forcing’ volcanic eruption somewhere in the tropics. In London, grain was shipped from Germany and Holland but to prevent exploitation by merchants during times of famine they were prohibited from buying and reselling it. Carefully targeted food aid with safeguards for corruption is still a feature of government relief after disasters today.
  • In medieval Europe there was a primitive kind of social security. Particularly in Italy and in Spain, financial loans and food were provided to members in need by religious confraternities. Lost assets were not replaced in full, but individuals could claim some relief aid to be repaid in part later. This has some similarities to the modern business models of the reinsurance industry, which tries to ensure that premiums will balance insurance payouts over long periods of time, with profit being generated primarily through investment return between disasters.
  • The value of routine maintenance of flood defences is not a new lesson. Before 1250 in the Netherlands, sophisticated dike systems were constructed to protect farmlands from flooding. But negligence in dike maintenance, not least the mining of peat close by, led to breaches by storm surges and river flooding, and the eventual inundation of reclaimed land in 1421–24 south of Dordrecht. Two thirds of the area remains a freshwater intertidal basin to this day.
  • Today’s disasters lead to questioning by politicians and agencies, just as it did in the past. Between 1280 and 1449 there were 153 royal commissions made up oflocal landowners and court officials to investigate flooding along the Thames estuary. Estimates of the overall loss of reclaimed marshland ran into thousands of hectares.At the end of the 16th century, after a series of earthquakes in Ferrara (Italy) during the period 1570–74, architect Pirro Ligorio argued that earthquake damage wasdue to inferior building materials and poor construction techniques. He therefore designed a project for earthquake resistant housing.

These are only some of many cases where medieval responses to risks were rational and intelligent, but they also show how people were in many ways building resilience by reducing their vulnerability to disaster risk. Nowhere is this more apparent in medieval Europe than in the Mediterranean.

Map of Medieval Europe. risk
Map of Medieval Europe.

Managing risk in the medieval Mediterranean

Throughout history, Italy has been exposed to many different hazards including floods, fires, and earthquakes. During the Middle Ages it also developed some of the most sophisticated responses to mitigating, adapting and recovering from disasters. In examining the historical and archaeological evidence available, Gerrard and Petley concluded that those countries experiencing the most hazards, such as Italy, were the ones more likely to demonstrate resilience.

Italy is also a unique case study because it developed large urban areas relatively early and with sophisticated civic infrastructures and support systems ‘you have the mechanisms in place where you can mitigate risk’, says Petley.

Scene of agricultural life in the Middle Ages from the 15th centuryilluminated manuscript ‘Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry’.

Flooding in Florence in 1333 cost around 300 lives and left collapsed bridges and houses, mud-choked streets, dead cattle, and ruined provisions, but the city authorities responded quickly. Not only did they construct a temporary bridge over the River Arno and organise food supplies and emergency transport into the city, they also lowered taxes on imported foodstuffs and provided tax relief for those in need. ‘Most of the basic measures for disaster relief were already in place in Italy by 1300’, says Gerrard.

In the case of earthquakes, for which archaeology and buildings left standing provide many examples of seismic damage in the form of collapse and rebuilding, a key concern was to prevent large-scale movements of people away from the affected area such that, in the immediate aftermath, survivors were moved to a local place of greater safety.

Today’s relief coordinators would find much that is familiar. According to Gerrard, ‘after a large earthquake at Vera in Almeria (Spain) in 1518, not one of the 200 houses in the region was left standing. Vera was hit by two shocks at night while people were inside their houses. There was no warning and many people were killed and wounded.

Yet there was coordinated action including an immediate assessment of the structural damage to housing and the potential for rebuilding by the civic authorities. Great emphasis was placed on finding new sources of fresh water, survivors stressed the loss of their stored oil, wheat, and animals, financial aid was requested for reconstruction and the military were deployed to keep order. Within a few years, an entire new town was built nearby’.

Fire too was recognised as one of the greatest risks, not surprisingly given the use of flammable materials in construction and the close proximity of houses in medieval towns and cities. In 1158 many houses in Pisa (Italy) were destroyed. In the aftermath the city authorities ordered wooden porches and balconies to be demolished because they had contributed to the fire spreading.

Across Europe, different precautionary measures were developed to reduce the risks: building chimneys in brick, replacing thatched roofs with tiles, and forbidding the stockpiling of wood. ‘What you see through this period is civic authorities evolving to try to reduce fire risk, implementing the same things we’re trying to do with earthquakes now, such as planning regulations to try to reduce the spread of fire, or prevent it’, says Petley.

In the case of earthquake recovery in Italy, Petley was surprised to find that in archaeological excavations of areas affected by seismic hazards ‘very rarely did they find bodies’. Witnesses talk of pulling bodies from the rubble and he thinks it likely that they were well organised in locating people killed by collapsed buildings, which is actually in contrast to many countries that have had large-scale earthquakes in the recent past.

In the absence of a Christian confession before death, every effort was made to recover the medieval dead and to provide an appropriate burial. The repercussions of disaster could be long lasting but European economies were surprisingly resilient; there are very few cases across Europe in which settlements were permanently abandoned as a consequence. While it is true the port of Syracuse, Sicily was left uninhabited for 20 years after an earthquake in 1542, there were other economic reasons for this.

Unless the landscape was dramatically altered, as it might be after a landslide, subsistence agriculture was usually able to continue, and people stayed where they were. Even when medieval Sicilians living on the flanks of Mount Etna were repeatedly threatened by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, their ruined settlements were invariably rebuilt on the same site or close by.

The Leadenhall in London had a dual purpose as a market and for storing grain that was provisioned to Londoners in times of crisis.

Sharing risk

A ‘modern’ way of handling risk is to distribute it across society. Rather than having one group or area extremely exposed to a certain risk it is spread throughout an entire organisation or network, so it is more likely to absorb the impact if in the event the worst happens. The sharing of risk is a cornerstone of the insurance and reinsurance industries today which provide a mechanism for society to pool resources to hedge. But this kind of risk sharing is not a modern invention. ‘What the prudent peasant tried to do in the later Middle Ages was to share risk as much as possible within their communities’, says Gerrard.

To confront the risk of poor harvests and famine, common field systems around villages in north west Europe shared the poorer and waterlogged soils between neighbours, each member of the community taking their share of the good and the bad. While farmers were less likely to profit individually from large harvests and to some extent their opportunity for improvement was restricted, the community as a whole was more likely to be resilient during hard times.

Another example of reducing the severity of loss by sharing was to store grain reserves to ride out a crisis. Monastic estates, which had the facilities to store supplies, could distribute them during times of famine and London’s Leadenhall granary, built in the 1440s, was designed to hold permanent stockpiles of grain precisely to make the capital less sensitive to famine. Gerrard and Petley find this to be little different from famine relief activities today, where grain is shifted from one area to another.

In hindsight it should come as no surprise that the means and methods by which European medieval societies handled risk, while absent of any sophisticated scientific understanding of hazard and risk, are in many cases historical parallels with how people manage risk and disaster today. Their understanding of risk is surely deserving of further attention and perhaps there are even lessons to be learned from Europe’s medieval ancestors, especially in the case of floods, landslides, earthquakes, and other environmental hazards.

‘I think we’ve become very single priority focused in the management of the landscape. We need to think about how we work with the environment to manage the hazard. I suspect people in medieval times may have been much better at that than we are today’, says Petley.

Further reading

Gerrard, C.M. & Petley, D.N. (2013) A risk society? Environmental hazards, risk and resilience in the later Middle Ages in Europe. Natural Hazards, 69, pp. 1051–1079. Open Access:

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