Weather and Natural Catastrophes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Storms, Floods, Fires, Earthquakes, and Pandemics

  • Albrecht Classen The University of Arizona, USA
Keywords: Weather in the Middle Ages, natural catastrophes, flooding, earthquakes, fourteenth century, Medieval Warming Period, lessons from the past, history of natural environment


Ecocriticism and Medieval Natural Catastrophes Literary Evidence?

Ecocriticism in the Humanities has alerted us in the last few years to the considerable potentials of building significant bridges between the Sciences (Meteorology, Atmospheric Sciences, Vulcanism, etc.), on the one hand, and Literary and Historical Studies on the other, and to draw insights from both sides of the equation for an increased understanding of universal phenomena of great importance for all human societies.[1] Climate change, for instance, is not something we can understand today by simply looking at samples or data reflecting current conditions, as if our current situation had emerged only in the last fifty or so years. Major changes in our natural environment are mostly the result of long-term forces impacting our material and cultural world, and weather patterns and significant disruptions have had a huge impact on human society throughout time. Nevertheless, we can probably agree that the current situation of our physical conditions have dramatically deteriorated over the last decades because of human-made factors, if we consider the daunting global warming affecting us all right now in the twenty-first century as a result of the Industrial Revolution and the modern consume society which endangers the survival of our world (Anthropocene).

Long-term and short-term processes and phenomena must be taken into account when we want to pursue cultural-historical ecocriticism, especially within a medieval context. It has thus become mandatory to examine, for instance, the history of the forest or the history of water through a variety of lenses, one of which can be fruitfully provided by chronicles, especially those dating not only from the twentieth or nineteenth centuries, but also those which shed light on medieval and early modern conditions and events. [2] In fact, medieval approaches to ecocriticism prove to be eye-opening for the latest scientific investigations and can lay the foundation for a better understanding of the relationship between humans and their environment, and this already thousand and more years ago. [3] Both weather and natural catastrophes have always been highly impactful on human history and culture, but it continues to be a huge challenge to establish the concrete correlations, such as between the rise of the Gothic age or the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century with the Medieval Warming Period.

A late medieval example, however, might shed some light on this phenomenon, though I will not examine it here at great length. On July 2, 1505, when Martin Luther, the later famous founder of the Protestant Church, returned from his home in Mansfeld to Erfurt, where he was enrolled as a student of law at the university, he was surprised by a major thunderstorm in the hamlet of Stotternheim (a short distance north of Erfurt), which frightened him so deeply that he immediately changed his entire outlook toward life. He begged St. Anne to save him from the lightening, and since that was then the case, he fulfilled his pledge and turned into a monk, joining the Augustinians in Erfurt.  As a monk, however, he began to recognize the evils of the Catholic Church and began with his efforts to reform it from within. This study will attempt to bring to light some parallel cases in the early and the high Middle Ages.


[1] Zapf, H. (Ed.) (2016). Handbook of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology. Handbooks of English and American Studies, 2. Berlin and Boston: Walter de Gruyter; Clark, T. (2019). The Value of Ecocriticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Slovic, S., Swarnalatha Rangarajan, S., and Sarveswaran, V. (Eds.). (2019). Routledge Handbook of Ecocriticism and Environmental Communication. Routledge International Handbooks. London and New York: Routledge; Hiltner, K. (2020). Writing a New Environmental Era: Moving Forward to Nature. Routledge Environmental Humanities. London and New York: Earthscan from Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. The literature on this topic is legion by now.
[2] Scarborough, C. (2013). Inscribing the Environment: Ecocritical Approaches to Medieval Spanish Literature. Fundamentals of Medieval and Early Modern Culture, 13. Berlin and Boston: Walter de Gruyter; Classen, A. (2015). The Forest in Medieval German Literature: Ecocritical Readings from a Historical Perspective. Ecocritical Theory and Practice. Lanham, Boulder, et al.: Lexington Books; Smith, J. L. (2017). Water in Medieval Intellectual Culture: Case-Studies from Twelfth-Century Monasticism. Cursor Mundi, 30. Turnhout: Brepols); Classen, A. (2018). Water in Medieval Literature: An Ecocritical Reading. Ecocritical Theory and Practice. Lanham, MD, Boulder, CO, et al.: Lexington Books; Nardizzi, V. and Werth, T. J. (Eds.). (2019). Premodern Ecologies in the Modern Literary Imagination, ed. (Toronto, Buffalo, and London: University of Toronto Press; Johns-Putra, A. (Ed.). (2019). Climate and Literature. Cambridge Critical Concepts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
[3] Siewers, A. K. (2000). Strange Beauty: Ecocritical Approaches to Early Medieval Landscape. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan; Nardizzi, V. (2013). Medieval Ecocriticism. Postmedieval 4.1: 112‒23; Liedl, G. (2017). Ökologiegeschichte: ein Reader zum interdisziplinären Gebrauch. 4 vols. Vienna and Berlin: Verlag Turia + Kant.
[4] Aberth, J. (2013). An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: The Crucible of Nature. London and New York: Routledge; Camenisch, Ch. (2015). Witterung, Getreidepreise und Subsistenzkrisen in den Burgundischen Niederlanden im ausgehenden Mittelalter. Wirtschafts-, Sozial- und Umweltgeschichte, 5 (Basel: Schwabe, 2015); eadem. (2020). Droughts in Bern and Rouen from the 14th to the Beginning of the 18th Century Derived from Documentary Evidence. Climate of the Past 16.6: 2173‒82.
[5] Bauch, M., & Schenk, G. J. (Eds.). (2020). The Crisis of the 14th Century: Teleconnections between Environmental and Societal Change? Das Mittelalter: Perspektiven mediävistischer Forschung, 13. Berlin and Boston: Walter de Gruyter; see my review in Mediaevistik 33 (forthcoming).
[6] Bauch & Schenk. (2020). Teleconnections, Correlations, Causalities Between Nature and Society? An Introductory Comment on the ‘Crisis of the Fourteenth Century. The Crisis of the 14th Century (see note 5), 1‒23, at 5.
[7] See, for instance, Campbell, B. M. S. (2010). Nature as Historical Protagonist: Environment and Society in Pre-Industrial England. The Economic History Review 63.2: 281‒314; Campbell, B. M. S. (2016). The Great Transition: Climate, Disease and Society in the Late-Medieval World. The 2013 Ellen McArthur Lectures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
[8] Classen, A. (Ed.). (2019). Paradigm Shifts during the Global Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Arizona Studies in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, 44 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2019); see also Albrecht Classen, A. (2019). “The Crisis of Spirituality in the Late Middle Ages: From the Twelfth Century to the Protestant Reformation; with an Emphasis on the Reformatio Sigismundi (1439),” Global Journal of Human-Social Science 19.2: 7‒16, online at:
[9] Lieberman, V. (2003-2009). Strange Parallels: Southest Asia in Global Context, c. 800‒1830. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 83‒84.
[10] Preiser-Kapeller, J., & Mitsiou, E. (2020). The Little Ice Age and Byzantium within the Eastern Mediterranean, ca. 1200-1350: An Essay on Old Debates and New Scenarios. The Crisis of the 14th Century (see note 5), 190-220.
[11] Bennassar, B. (Ed.) (1996). Les catastrophes naturelles dans l’Europe médiévale et moderne: actes des XVes Journées Internationales d’Histoire de l’Abbaye de Flaran, 10, 11 et 12 septembre 1993. Flaran, 15.Toulouse: Presses Université du Mirail; Jankrift, K. P. (2003). Brände, Stürme, Hungersnöte: Katastrophen in der mittelalterlichen Lebenswelt. Ostfildern: Thorbecke; Fouquet, G. and Zeilinger, G. (2011). Katastrophen im Spätmittelalter (Darmstadt and Mainz: Philipp von Zabern. They focus in separate chapters on a variety of catastrophes, such as floods in Basel in 1529 and 1530; various floods along the northern seashores; earthquakes in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; burning cities; and epidemics. See also the contributions to Rohr, Ch., Bieber, U., and Zeppezauer-Wachauer, K. (Eds.). (2018). Krisen, Kriege, Katastrophen: zum Umgang mit Angst und Bedrohung im Mittelalter. Interdisziplinäre Beiträge zu Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit, 3, Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter. As to the history of famines, see the contributions to Holzem, A. (Ed.). (2017). Wenn Hunger droht: Bewältigung und religiöse Deutung (1400‒1980). Bedrohte Ordnungen, 6. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.
[12] I have endeavored in a recent article to correlate the emergence of the phenomenon of courtly love and the ‘discovery’ of woman as an erotically attractive partner since the twelfth century (‘the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century’) with the setting-in of the Medieval Warming Period in Classen, A. (2015). Globalerwärmung im Mittelalter als Grundlage für die Entstehung der höfischen Liebe? Dinzelbacher, P. and Harrer, F. (Eds.). (2015). Wandlungsprozesse der Mentalitätsgeschichte. Baden-Baden: Deutscher Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 121‒46. See now Dinzelbacher, P. (2017). Structures and Origins of the Twelfth-Century ‘Renaissance’. Monographien zur Geschichte des Mittelalters, 63. Stuttgart: Alfred Hiersemann, 161‒76, et passim.
[13] Rohr, Ch. (2007). Extreme Naturereignisse im Ostalpenraum. Naturerfahrung im Spätmittelalter und am Beginn der Neuzeit. Umwelthistorische Forschungen, 4. Cologne, Weimar, and Vienna: Böhlau; Rohr, Ch. (Ed.). (2008). Naturkatastrophen in der Geschichte. Wahrnehmung, Deutung und Bewältigung von extremen Naturereignissen in Risikokulturen. Historische Sozialkunde, Themenheft 2008/2. Vienna: VGS c/o Institut für Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte der Universität. For an excellent survey, see the listing in (last accessed on Aug. 17, 2021).
[14] Kuß, Ch. (1825). Jahrbuch denkwürdiger Naturereignisse in den Herzogthümern Schleswig und Holstein vom 11. bis 19. Jahrhundert. Vol. 1. Altona: Busch; Itzehoe: Schönfeldt, 9. Online now at: He also reports about a solar eclipse on Sept. 4, 1186, about a tornado on March 12, 1186, and of a major windstorm that flattened entire forests on Oct. 10, 1195. He also mentions a significant earthquake in Denmark in 1198. The list of other natural catastrophes continues for the subsequent years.
[15] Buisman, J. (2006). Duizend jaar weer, wind en water in de Lage Landen. 5 Vols. Franeker: Van Wijnen, 1996–2006; here vol. 5; Elisabeth Gottschalk, M. K. E. (1971‒1977). Stormvloeden en rivieroverstromingen in Nederland. 3 Vols. (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1971–1977); Weikinn, C. (Ed.) (1958‒2002). Quellentexte zur Witterungsgeschichte Europas von der Zeitwende bis zum Jahre 1850. 6 Vols. Quellensammlung zur Hydrographie und Meteorologie, 1‒6 (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1958–2002). For a comprehensive listing of all major floods, see (last accessed on Aug. 17, 2021).
[16] I have drawn the basic information from (last accessed on Aug. 17, 2021). But see also Marche, C. (2008). Barrages: crues de rupture et protection civile. Montréal: Presses internationales polytechnique.
[17] Dwars, F. W. (1958). Der angebliche Landzusammenhang zwischen Rügen und dem Ruden in historischer Zeit und die Entstehung der Einfahrten am Ostrand des Greifswalder Boddens. Baltische Studien. Neue Folge, 45: 9-26; Petzholdt, N. (2014). Der Mönchgraben bei Baabe und die Landverbindung zwischen Rügen und dem Ruden. Pommern: Zeitschrift für Kultur und Geschichte 1: 4–8.
[18] Hammerl, Ch. (1992). Das Erdbeben vom 25. Jänner 1348: Rekonstruktion des Naturereignisses. Ph.D. diss. Vienna, then published in 1994 as Neues aus Alt-Villach: Jahrbuch des Museums der Stadt Villach 31 (1994): 55–94; Rohr, Ch. (2007). Extreme Naturereignisse im Ostalpenraum (see note 13), 131–66. See also the scientific report about this earthquake at: (last accessed on Aug. 17, 2021).
[19] Meyer, W. (1990). Das Basler Erdbeben von 1356 und die angerichteten Schäden. Unsere Kunstdenkmäler 41: 162-168; Fouquet, G. (2003). Das Erdbeben in Basel 1356 – für eine Kulturgeschichte der Katastrophen. Basler Zeitschrift für Geschichte und Altertumskunde, 103, 31-49; Meyer, W. (2006). Da verfiele Basel überall: Das Basler Erdbeben von 1356. Mit einem geologischen Beitrag von Hans Peter Laubscher. Neujahrsblatt: Gesellschaft für das Gute und Gemeinnützige, 184. Basel: Schwabe.
[20] Schlütter, A. (2015). Die Wassermühle von Vinnbrück und das Magdalenenhochwasser von 1342. Tönisberger Heimatblätter 17: 29‒38; Zbinden, E. (2011). Das Magdalenen-Hochwasser von 1342: der ‘hydrologische Gau’ in Mitteleuropa. Wasser, Energie, Luft / Schweizerischer Wasserwirtschaftsverband: Schweizerische Vereinigung für Gewässerschutz und Lufthygiene, 103(3), 193-203; (last accessed on Aug. 17, 2021). Further information about the subsequent floods can be found by using the relevant links in that article. The bibliographical information is extensive.
[21] For the early modern age, see Anonymous. 1509-2009: 500 Jahre Cosmas- und Damianflut: Die Entstehung des Dollarts. (last accessed on Aug. 17, 2021). Despite the focus on the modern age, this article also covers the previous floods from 1164 to 1477.
[22] Banda, E., & Correig, A. M. (1984). The Catalan Earthquake of February 2, 1428. Engineering Geology 20.1–2 (1984): 89–97. For a helpful overview of the various earthquakes in that region, see (last accessed on Aug. 17, 2021).
[23] Galadini, F. P., Molin, D., & Ciurletti, G. (2001). “Searching for the Source of the 1117 Earthquake in Northern Italy: A Multidisciplinary Approach,” Glade, Th., Albini, P. and Frances, F. (Eds.). (2001). The Use of Historical Data in Natural Hazard Assessments. Advances in Natural and Technological Hazards Research, 17. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 3–27.
[24] (last accessed on Aug. 17, 2021).
[25] For a broad overview, see Hammerl, Ch. and Lenhardt, W. (1997). Erdbeben in Österreich. Graz: Leykam.
[26] Leydecker, G. (2011). Erdbebenkatalog für Deutschland mit Randgebieten für die Jahre 800 bis 2008. Geologisches Jahrbuch E 59: 1‒198. He lists ca. 12,700 earthquakes from ca. 800 to 2008.
[27] Dubler, A. D. (2013). Feuersbrünste. Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz (last updated on Dec. 9, 2013), online at:; for a representative list with a global perspective, see (both last accessed on Aug. 17, 2021).
[28] Byrne, J. P. (2004). The Black Death. Greenwood Guides to Historic Events of the Medieval World. Westport, CT, and London: Greenwood Press, xxvii‒xxx. See also the contributions to Meier, M. (2005). Pest: Die Geschichte eines Menschheitstraumas, ed. (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2005), such as the studies by Mauelshagen, F. Pest, Pestangst und Pestbekämpfung in der Neuzeit (237‒265) and Kessel, M. Gebannte Gefahr? Die Pest im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (266‒282). See now also the contributions to Green, M. H. (Ed.). (2015). Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death,The Medieval Globe. Kalamazoo, MI, and Bradford: ARC Medieval Press.
[29] For a solid, though rather traditional approach, see Pearsall, D. and Salter, E. (1973). Landscapes and Seasons of the Medieval World. London: Paul Elek.
[30] For lexicological analysis, see now Oberlin, A. (forthcoming). Weather, Metaphor, and the Lexicon: A Corpus Study of Medieval German. Mediaevistik 33.
[31] Classen, A. (2011). Winter as a Phenomenon in Medieval Literature: A Transgression of the Traditional Chronotopos? Mediaevistik 24: 125‒150. While Arthur celebrates Christmas, Gawan later suffers through a miserable time while traveling in a wintry landscape of Wales. For William Dunbar’s poem, see Douglas Gray, D. (Ed.). (1985). The Oxford Book of Late Medieval Verse and Prose. With a Note on Grammar and Spelling in the Fifteenth Century by Norman Davis. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 306-307.
[32] Marguerite de Navarre (1984). The Heptameron. Trans with an intro. by P. A. Chilton. London: Penguin, 60.
[33] Giovanni Boccaccio (1972/1997). The Decameron. Trans. with an Intro. and Notes by G. H. McWilliam. Sec. ed. London: Penguin.
[34] Chrétien de Troyes (1990). The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. Trans. with an intro. by David Staines. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 262. Basically, the same story is told by Hartmann von Aue in his Middle High German ‘translation,’ Iwein (ca. 1190), but the dramatic effects of the storm are even more accentuated: “The storm grew so violent that it leveled the forest. If there was anywhere a tree so big that it remained standing, it was bare, as stripped of foliage as if it had gone up in flames. Whatever dwelt in the forest perished immediately if it did not make a quick escape.” Hartmann von Aue (2001). The Complete Works of Hartmann von Aue, trans. with commentary by Frank Tobin, Kim Vivian, and Richard H. Lawson. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 144.
[35] Classen, A. (2020). Sea Voyages in Medieval Romances as Symbolic Trails Through Life: Existential Experiences and Female Suffering on the Water. Critical Literary Studies: Academic Journal (University of Kurdistan) 2.2. Series 4: 27-46.; or: DOI 10.34785/J014.2020.367.
[36] Gottfried von Strassburg (2020). Tristan and Isolde, with Ulrich von Türheim’s Continuation. Ed. and trans. with an intro. by William T. Whobrey. Indianapolis, IN, and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 37-38.
[37] Francesco Petrarca (1978). Rerum senilium 9 (10,2), in Francesco Petrarca, F. (1978). Opere, vol. 2: Epistole, ed. Ugo Dotti. Turin: Unione Tipografico-Editrice Torinese, 613-889; here quoted from Rohr, Ch. (2003). Man[-Made] and Natural Disaster in the Late Middle Ages: The Earthquake in Carinthia and Northern Italy on 25 January 1348 and its Perception. Environment and History: Coping with the Unexpected – Natural Disasters and their Perception 9.2: 127-149; here 134.
[38] Berlioz, J. (1998). Catastrophes naturelles et calamités au Moyen Age. Micrologus’ Library, 1. Florence: Sismel – Edizioni del Galluzzo.
[39] For a valuable different perspective, see George, M. W. (2014). Adversarial Relationships between Humans and Weather in Medieval English Literature. Essays in Medieval Studies 30: 67‒81; See online: (last accessed on Dec. 1, 2020). He cites my own previous article: Winter as a Phenomenon in Medieval Literature (see note 31), 74, in support of his argument. He points out that in Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale,” the critical plot development is predicated on the fear of a new flood, as a repeat of the biblical flood. I would distinguish more between such topical imagery and real reactions to inclement weather, such as in the Wakefield Second Shepherds’ Pageant from ca. 1500. See George:, Adversarial, 76‒77. George also suggests that most of Chaucer’s works with their glorification of marvelous Spring weather were influenced by the long period of above the norm weather conditions in late fourteenth-century England (78).
[40] Quoted from Classen, A. (Ed.). (2009). Erotic Tales of Medieval Germany. Selected and trans. by Albrecht Classen. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 328. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, no. 14, 91‒94.
[41] Bonerius, U. (2020). The Fables of Ulrich Bonerius (ca. 1350): Masterwork of Late Medieval Didactic Literature, trans. Albrecht Classen. Newcastle-Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
[42] See, for instance, Schmidt, J. M. (2018). Water and the Anthropocene: Abundance, Scarcity and Security in the Age of Humanity (New Delhi: Sage, 2018); Harrison, R. and Sterling, C. (Eds.). (2020). Deterritorializing the Future: Heritage in, of and after the Anthropocene (London: Open Humanities Press, 2020). The literature on this critical topic is legion, of course.
[43] Huhtamaa, H. (2020). Climate and the Crisis of the Early Fourteenth Century in Northeastern Europe. The Crisis of the 14th Century (see note 5), 80-99.