Forgotten Extremes: Environmental Historical Reminders on the Path to Resilience

Translation by Ellen Yutzy Glebe of a contribution in German to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (20 July 2021)
by Martin Bauch, Hans-Rudolf Bork, and Adam Izdebski


The statements of those affected by the terrible floods in Germany this summer and the politicians who represent them uphold a long historical tradition: “No one could have ever imagined anything like it. … The water is higher than it has ever been. … It has never risen so suddenly.” Almost word for word, these reports echo accounts of comparable events in medieval and early modern chronicles, except perhaps in that the modern versions refer less frequently to divine retribution. Indeed, fringe commentators have mentioned the flooding along the Ahr in 1804 and 1910—events which might have had similar dimensions—with the aim of casting doubts upon the science of anthropogenic climate change. To accept that argument at face value, however, is turn a blind eye to the correlation between the origins and increasing frequency of such extreme weather events with global warming, a correlation upon which attribution studies are working to shed light. The infrastructural adjustments, on the other hand, will likewise come much later, if they ever prove feasible and adequate at all.

Within the realm of contemporary public consciousness, there is a general lack of long-term environmental historical memory. As a result, communities are unaware of which spaces might be at risk despite their having remained unscathed by natural disasters for decades or even centuries. In modern Germany, for example, there is no significant collective memory of extreme meteorological events before the North Sea flood in Hamburg in 1962, for hardly anyone remembers local or regional natural disasters that predate that event.

Research on past geophysical events was long an academic niche in the historical sciences that was hardly conducive to advancing scholars’ careers. Even now, those who want to study the history of climate, weather, and flooding in central Europe rely to a significant degree on the diligent work of a hobby meteorologist, the bank clerk Curt Weikinn (1888–1966), who spent decades collecting excerpts from historical sources, producing tens of thousands of handwritten cards. Pioneers in the academic field of climate and weather history—scholars in the disciplines of history, meteorology, and geography—have built upon Weikinn’s collection and others like it; on the other hand, it was a singular occurrence that a major power company financed historical research in Italy and France within the context of expanding nuclear power programs. In the case of Italy, the historical study of earthquakes that emerged from that research and spans events stretching over two millennia played a significant role in the decision to reject the use of atomic energy for civilian purposes.

For a long time, extreme hydrological events garnered much less attention than these seismic catastrophes, even in flood-prone central Europe. Instead, risk assessments for flooding were based on data collection using modern scientific instruments, which fatally limited the historical depth of these studies. In 2011, Swiss climate historians impressively demonstrated that flooding along the High Rhine had been much more pronounced before the modern age and that the calculations upon which the safety margins for infrastructure development in the region had been based relied on data from a relative “disaster gap” (Christian Pfister).

An urgently needed expansion of this analysis to include data compiled using historical methods and going back a full thousand years presents a major opportunity for the academic field of history to produce relevant practical knowledge. Academic history programs, which provide scholars with methodological breadth (especially in the auxiliary disciplines like paleography under constant threats of budgetary cuts) and epochal depth even predating 1800, are uniquely suited to produce specialists who can transform premodern records into climate historical data. Despite the progress pioneering studies have made, much remains to be done; climate history is still far from established within university departments and research institutions. By dovetailing expertise from the humanities and the natural sciences, scholars can understand the extremes of the past and assess their meaning for the future much better than when using any single disciplinary approach. Because human societies and their environments are integrated socio-ecological systems, research in this field needs suitable institutional foundations, like, for example, the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Maryland, which fosters fundamental research on these questions and presents results in a form that is accessible to stakeholders and the public to facilitate informed decisions.

High-water marks of the Main on the archway of the southern entrance of the town hall (via the so-called Red Building from the late Renaissance era) in Würzburg. Photograph: Martin Bauch

In fact, however, the premodern era and research in this field can contribute more to the ongoing discussions about rapid, anthropogenic climate change than just data for climate models. Medieval and early modern cities marked flood levels in prominent locations like churches and bridges to remind passers-by of the past water levels. All those born after these events were confronted on a daily basis with the potential danger inherent in the rivers along which they lived. In modern times, flood levels are still marked, but these markers have become much less obvious and are generally less prominently placed. Furthermore, they rarely record levels as far back in time as they should. High-water marks have a counterpart in the so-called Hungersteine (lit., hunger stones) which mark particularly low water levels and are mostly found in the Elbe, where their visibility was striking during the drought of 2018. When the water receded from one such stone in the city of Děčín in northern Bohemia, its inscription became legible: “When you see me, weep.”

Premodern communities, however, had even more striking methods of imparting citizens with collective memories, namely religious processions, like that in Frankfurt to commemorate St. Mary Magdalene’s Flood. Residents there processed every year through those neighborhoods which had been inundated in July 1342. That flood was perhaps the most significant geophysical event of the last millennium in terms of how it changed societies and landscapes in central Europe. Humidity from the Mediterranean moved north over the Alps and returned to the earth as rain for days. The few extant high-water marks from that period record flood levels of a sheer volume far beyond anything that is known for recent decades. The long-term damage was dramatic. Devastating erosion washed the fertile topsoil from entire areas, often exposing barren rock that had been deeply buried before. Many fields could no longer be tilled and new forests grew in their stead. Interdisciplinary studies have confirmed the loss of some thirteen billion metric tons of soil in July 1342, a third of the total soil lost over the last thousand years! The erosion that resulted from the flooding in 2021 will be slight in comparison.

While the processions to commemorate the flooding in Frankfurt continued to keep the memory of this castastrophe vivid for nearly two centuries, similar processions in other cities enjoyed even greater longevity: in 1923 residents in Erfurt were still processing to a mass grave where victims of a famine caused by excessive rainfall were buried in 1316/17. In the premodern era, such performances, contemporary religious mentalities, and public visibility all contributed to an abiding awareness of historical disasters. We would do well to adopt these methods from our forebears. The potential of such performative processions in mobilizing populations even today has been amply demonstrated by the Fridays for Future movement. High-water marks might once again be granted the prominent locations which they once occupied.

A collective awareness of the risks our environment has posed and continues to pose and how our ancestors overcame these is just one element in making our society more “resilient” in the face of anthropogenic climate change. Discussions about how we should adapt deal primarily with changes in infrastructure, and indeed the concept of resilience stems from engineering: it is a property describing how materials can absorb external shocks while retaining their functionality. Drawing on this original meaning, a variety of disciplines have adopted the concept, including ecology, economics, and psychology.

The field of environmental history, too, has reframed long established topics of historical research to analyze the socio-ecological resilience of entire political systems. Significantly, these studies have found that resilience is not an intrinsic social characteristic. It can be lost, but it can also be cultivated, both by making adaptive changes to infrastructure but also by fostering awareness of the historical climate changes and epidemics that afflicted previous generations and how past societies responded to these challenges. Such knowledge could be encouraged through revisions to school curricula and informative exhibitions for public consumption, but also through more locally targeted “climate histories”— objects and inscriptions that might bear witness to local climatic events, to raise awareness both of risks and successful responses. For central Europe, we have a rich body of source material available to illuminate the historical possibilities as well as traditional and yet-to-be-developed methods of cultivating collective memory. Our society—faced with the urgent necessity of adapting to anthropogenic climate change—would do well to look back over our shoulders more intently than recent generations have been accustomed to doing.


About the Authors:

Martin Bauch leads a research group on medieval climate history at the Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe (GWZO) in Leipzig with financial support from a Freigeist Fellowship from the Volkswagen Foundation.

Hans-Rudolf Bork studies changes to the soil, both human-made and natural, at the Institute for Ecosystem Research at Kiel University.

Adam Izdebski investigates European and Mediterranean environmental history at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena.

New article in ‘Nature’: Towards a rigorous understanding of societal responses to climate change

A large scholarship currently holds that before the onset of anthropogenic global warming, natural climatic changes long provoked subsistence crises and, occasionally, civilizational collapses among human societies. This scholarship, which we term the ‘history of climate and society’ (HCS), is pursued by researchers from a wide range of disciplines, including archaeologists, economists, geneticists, geographers, historians, linguists and palaeoclimatologists. We argue that, despite the wide interest in HCS, the field suffers from numerous biases, and often does not account for the local effects and spatiotemporal heterogeneity of past climate changes or the challenges of interpreting historical sources. Here we propose an interdisciplinary framework for uncovering climate–society interactions that emphasizes the mechanics by which climate change has influenced human history, and the uncertainties inherent in discerning that influence across different spatiotemporal scales. Although we acknowledge that climate change has sometimes had destructive effects on past societies, the application of our framework to numerous case studies uncovers five pathways by which populations survived—and often thrived—in the face of climatic pressures.

Read the full article here

Degroot, D., Anchukaitis, K., Bauch, M. et al. Towards a rigorous understanding of societal responses to climate change. Nature 591, 539–550 (2021).

New online exhibition: “Weathered History”

The online exhibition “Weathered History” of the Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe (GWZO) visualises climate history for the first time using objects from 12,000 years of human history. On display are diverse testimonies from a wide range of countries, from cave paintings to sometimes curious technical inventions such as the ‘dandy horse’ and weather reports on cigarette packets from Hong Kong. The exhibition, which is available in German and English, was realised in cooperation with the CRIAS working group of the international research network Past Global Changes (PAGES).

Humans have always been confronted with changing environmental conditions and climate changes. Extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and storms or natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions often brought destruction and death. They imprinted themselves on the memory of the survivors and left more or less visible traces in art, science and everyday life. The exhibition “Weathered History” follows some of these traces. Some objects may be surprising witnesses to the memory of weather catastrophes; but they also show how skilfully historical societies adapted to climate changes. The selection of objects is global, but there are remarkable pieces from the German-speaking countries in particular: The oldest drinkable wine in the world, which owes its creation to a millennial summer; a miniature horn made of clay for protection against thunderstorms from Martin Luther’s childhood home or the bell that inspired Friedrich Schiller to write his famous poem of the same name.

The online exhibition was curated by GWZO staff members Diana Lucia Feitsch and Dr Martin Bauch, who leads the VW Foundation-funded Freigeist Junior Research Group “The Dantean Anomaly (1309-1321)” at the Institute. The team examines rapid climate change at the beginning of the 14th century and its effects on late medieval Europe. “What is unique about the exhibition is that no one ever tried to present a history of climate change with objects. Every researcher knows the one or the other object, but they have never been brought together. We tried to do that in a selection. I think we have successfully assembled the collective knowledge of a large professional community from the humanities and natural sciences“, says Martin Bauch. The greatest difficulty in realizing the exhibition was the current tense global pandemic situation. “It has been a challenge to clarify publication rights from around the world and get images with a decent resolution in these pandemic times,” Diana Lucia Feitsch says, “with archives and libraries closed or hardly available for requests.”

Have a look at the English version:

On the GWZO’s YouTube channel, the two curators provide a more detailed insight into the exhibition “Weathered History”, which can now be visited online. For example, they explain their motives for creating this exhibition and present their personal favourite piece. The interview is the first episode of the new in-house GWZO video series “Ostblick”, which allows insights into the work at the GWZO even under pandemic conditions.


NEW PUBLICATION: Just the Flu in 1323

This contribution investigates the possibilities of identifying Covid-19-like, highly infectious epidemics with low mortality rates in the premodern era. In its discussion of the chances and limits of such an endeavour, the essay focuses on a case study from 1323, when an epidemic that caused high fevers but relatively few deaths affected large parts of Europe, including Italy. The indications available in the historical records are examined in light of criteria that have been developed from modern influenza pandemics research. Finally, the essay examines the possible zoonotic origins of the 1323 epidemic and proposes broader lessons that could be drawn from researching premodern pandemics.

Bauch, Martin, Just the Flu in 1323? A Case study of a Highly Contagious Epidemic with Low Mortality and its Possible Origins in Late Medieval Europe, in: Journal for the History of Environment and Society 5 (2020), pp. 53–63 [= Special Issue: COVID-19 & Environmental History, ed. Tim Soens, Raf De Bront & Maïka De Keyzer]

NEW PUBLICATION – A prequel to the Dantean Anomaly: the precipitation seesaw and droughts of 1302 to 1307 in Europe

The cold/wet anomaly of the 1310s (“Dantean Anomaly”) has attracted a lot of attention from scholars, as it is commonly interpreted as a signal of the transition between the Medieval Climate Anomaly (MCA) and the Little Ice Age (LIA). The huge variability that can be observed during this decade, like the high interannual variability observed in the 1340s, has been highlighted as a side effect of this rapid climatic transition. In this paper, we demonstrate that a multi-seasonal drought of almost 2 years occurred in the Mediterranean between 1302 and 1304, followed by a series of hot, dry summers north of the Alps from 1304 to 1306. We suggest that this outstanding dry anomaly, unique in the 13th and 14th centuries, together with cold anomalies of the 1310s and the 1340s, is part of the climatic shift from the MCA to the LIA. Our reconstruction of the predominant weather patterns of the first decade of the 14th century – based on both documentary and proxy data – identifies multiple European precipitation seesaw events between 1302 and 1307, with similarities to the seesaw conditions which prevailed over continental Europe in 2018. It can be debated to what extent the 1302–1307 period can be compared to what is currently discussed regarding the influence of the phenomenon of Arctic amplification on the increasing frequency of persistent stable weather patterns that have occurred since the late 1980s. Additionally, this paper deals with socioeconomic and cultural responses to drought risks in the Middle Ages as outlined in contemporary sources and provides evidence that there is a significant correlation between pronounced dry seasons and fires that devastated cities.

Bauch, M., Labbé, T., Engel, A., and Seifert, P.: A prequel to the Dantean Anomaly: the precipitation seesaw and droughts of 1302 to 1307 in Europe, Clim. Past, 16, 2343–2358, , 2020

Video lecture M. Bauch: Geoengineering and the Middle Ages

The Berlin-based “Zentrum für Historische Forschungen” of the Polish Academy of Sciences organized, under the lead of Dr. Piotr Filipowski and Dr. Adam Izdebski (Paleo-Science and History, MPI for the Science of Human History, Jena) a series of online lectures with the thoughtprovoking title “What sort of past does the future need?”. Martin Bauch gave a presentation on the topic “Geoengineering and the Middle Ages: Lessons from medieval volcanic eruptions for the Anthropocene”:

New PAGES magazine: Climate Reconstruction and Impacts from the Archives of Societies

PAGES Working Group CRIAS (“Climate Reconstruction and Impacts from the Archives of Societies”) has edited the recent issue of Past Global Changes Magazine, with articles on all aspects of Historical Climatology and Climate History, including two contributions by Adrian Jusupovic (Polish Academy of Sciences) and Martin Bauch (GWZO, Freigeist Fellowship) on the potential of climate historical studies for the the High Medieval Rus‘ and by Undine Ott (GWZO, Freigeist Fellowship) on Climate History and the Mamluk Empire.

Have a look at the whole issue here.

CfP for IMC Leeds 2021: Before the Anthropocene – Medieval concepts of interdependent human-nature-relations

Leeds (UK), International Medieval Congress 2021: Climates

Date 5-8 July 2021

Deadline: 20 September 2020

In recent decades, climate history and historical climatology have focused on the economic and social impacts of long-term climatic changes like those which occurred during the Medieval Climate Anomaly or the Little Ice Age. Contemporary worries about global climate patterns have posed new, urgent questions to historians of climate: How did past societies perceive periods of rapid climate change? To what extent were they affected—not only economically, but also in their thinking about the relationship between humans and nature? Traditionally, climate history has focused on reconstruction and impact studies, which implies all too often a one-way relationship: Nature influencing human societies, with humanity merely reacting.

With the emergence of the concept of the Anthropocene, humanity has been recognized as a geological force responsible for fundamental and lasting changes of nature, not least concerning weather conditions via anthropogenic climate change. This raises questions about the degree of reciprocity and interdependence in the relationship between humans and nature. The human ability to reflect about its own agency regarding the course of nature, or the idea that humanity and nature share a common history, have been acknowledged as a postmodern disruption of established explanations of socio-natural relationships (D. Chakrabarty).

However, the distinction between the course of nature and the course of history has been established only since the eighteenth century and recent research made it clear that past societies were already able to think reflexively on their impact on the global environment. Indeed, premodern societies in general and medieval contemporaries in particular, had a very different view: they often assumed that human behavior influenced natural conditions, particularly weather. These assumptions were mediated in religious concepts that crossed into the spheres of politics and economy. Both European and non-European societies accepted the notion that “bad” human actions would backlash in inclement weather while “good” behavior would lead to benevolent conditions. Not only in a Christian context has this relationship often been interpreted by historians rather simplistically as a “retributive theology”. Nevertheless, this cosmological background held much greater social implications, as medieval populations assumed they had a causal influence on weather conditions, and vice versa. A recent example of such an approach has been a new study by Jean-Pierre Devroey on the “righteousness” (droiture) of the Carolingian emperors as a major feature of rulership at that time. Devroey convincingly demonstrates that eighth- and ninth-century thinkers shared a common theory of the “cosmic” dimension of the king that clearly connected good government with the fortune of weather and, consequently, harvests. In the end, he proposes that Carolingian legal-administrative reforms were chronologically connected to bad harvests caused by climate stress and hence constituted a direct political implication of this theoretical background.

The medieval interdependency of humans and nature plays out on at least two different levels: On the one hand, scholars’ written discourses—e.g. treatises, chronicles, letters, and homilies, etc.—give insight into the underlying theories, at least from the point of view of the elites, of the relationship between humanity and nature from Late Antiquity to the end of the Middle Ages in Europe and other parts of the world. On the other hand, sources on economic, infrastructural, and social/institutional history provide information, albeit indirectly, on periods of short-term climate change, as these periods eventually called for specific social adaptation processes. This documentation not only sheds light on the practical reactions of past societies facing abrupt phases of climate change but also enables us to identify underlying theoretical assumptions. Subsequently, this would allow to reconstruct societal adaptions and to examine, at the same time, how specific perceptions of nature shaped these reactions.

To address these issues, we welcome papers dealing with all areas of the globe and from scholars from diverse disciplinary backgrounds. The following questions might serve as possible starting points for paper proposals:

  • To what extent was the interaction between humans and nature—for example, in phases of rapid climate change in the medieval period—truly seen as reciprocal?
  • If the courses of history and nature are not separated in medieval mentalities, to what degree do contemporary witnesses credit natural events with influencing the course of human history?
  • To what extent were natural extreme events used to argue for specific social, economic, religious, and political goals?
  • Was this influence of humans on nature always limited to the context of simple retributive theology, or are other established cultural patterns decisive?
  • Were pragmatic, seemingly modern, i.e. “technocratic” reactions (like institutional reform and infrastructural responses) to natural extreme events in accordance or at odds with religious and cultural discourses?

Thanks to a generous support by our Leipzig-based home institution, the Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe (GWZO), we will be able to provide limited funds to reimburse the conference fees and other costs for early career researchers from Eastern and Eastern Central Europe.

A publication of the conference papers is planned. We encourage interested colleagues to submit 300 words abstracts for 20-minute papers by 20 September 2020. Please submit them by e-mail to:

Download this CfP

NEW! T. Labbé: Aux origines des politiques compassionnelles: Émergence de la sensibilité envers les victimes de catastrophes à la fin du Moyen Âge

Read the latest publication of Thomas Labbé on the politics of compassion in the prestigious “Annales”, or enjoy at least the English abstract below before you take a deep dive in your remaining French:

Adopting a socio-anthropological perspective that considers accounts of and reactions to extreme events as social constructs largely determined by sentiments shared and valorized within a given society, this article focuses on the emotions produced by natural disasters between the thirteenth and the sixteenth century. When it comes to the study of catastrophes, historiography has generally privileged the analysis of rational discourse, identifying the secularization of interpretative patterns following the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 as a decisive historical rupture. The emotion-based approach, however, reveals another discontinuity in Western attitudes, which has attracted less attention. Fifteenth- and especially sixteenth-century sources emphasize a new kind of sensitivity toward the “humanitarian” aspect of disasters. Though the interpretive framework remains that of sin and retribution, this shift nevertheless demonstrates an important change in the perception of social distress. First, the language used to describe catastrophes follows a new emotional pattern: over the sixteenth century, notions of terror and pity replace the fear and wonder that characterized medieval narratives. Désastres, a term that also emerged at this time, progressively come to be perceived as tragedies. Second, this new emotional construction is reflected in political theory and practice, as local authorities integrate urgent care for disaster victims into their sphere of responsibility. On a more general level, the article demonstrates the construction of a moral economy that progressively valorized the figure of the victim in perceptions of reality over the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, planting the seeds of modern compassionate policies.

Labbé, T. (2019). Aux origines des politiques compassionnelles: Émergence de la sensibilité envers les victimes de catastrophes à la fin du Moyen Âge. Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, 74(1), 45-71. doi:10.1017/ahss.2019.139

What to learn from past climate change and epidemics

An interview (in German) with Martin Bauch is dedicated to the topic of what we can learn today from researching past climate change and past epidemic events. The long form is online at (thanks to Sandra Kirchner), a shortened version appeared in the Frankfurter Rundschau on 18 April 2020

That climate history and the history of past pandemics is closely related is also an assumption shared by two colleagues from the US and Israel that have started recently their interesting podcast “Infectious Historians“. Despite the slightly scary name it’s well worth your time.

Medieval weather and diseases in the times of COVID-19

Please have a look at a collateral result from climate historical research published on the Mittelalterblog: You start looking for bad weather 700 years ago, and you end up with indications of a flu pandemic…

Martin Bauch, Under the weather: Medieval diseases with low mortality and high contagion, in: Mittelalter. Interdisziplinäre Forschung und Rezeptionsgeschichte, 9. März 2020,

New Articles from Martin Bauch and Thomas Labbé

Martin Bauch, Gerrit Jasper Schenk (2019). Teleconnections, Correlations, Causalities between Nature and Society? An Introductory Comment on the “Crisis of the Fourteenth Century”

The introductory comment revisits older discussions in medieval studies about the “Crisis of the Fourteenth Century,” connecting it – as recent studies suggest – to a general increase in the intensity and frequency of natural extreme events between the turn of the century and the ravages of the Black Death in mid-century. New approaches to this period of transition examine how societal phenomena coincided with rapid or gradual environmental changes and attempt to establish the relationship between causality and correlation; these methods challenge – albeit without reverting to climatic or environmental determinism – established historiographical paradigms that have tended to explain social facts via other social facts (Durkheim). Hence, the introduction discusses new theoretical tools in environmental history like consilience, resilience, vulnerability, and man-nature-interaction models, such as, for example, those developed by the Vienna School (Winiwarter), but also approaches which have received less attention, like Luhmann’s ecological communication, the Panarchy model (Gunderson/Holling), and Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. In the interest of promoting a pragmatic heuristic perspective, the editors expand on the idea of societal teleconnections of meteorological extreme events (Moser/Finzi Hart), as this concept integrates delayed effects and feedback loops, acknowledges spatial crosslinks, and avoids hierarchical impact-levels. Applying the meteorological term “teleconnection” in social historical studies allows for the discovery of “strange parallels” (Lieberman) in the socio-economic development of otherwise unconnected areas of the world, and these synchronicities, in turn, open avenues for the further development of a global pre-modern environmental history.

Martin Bauch, Gerrit Jasper Schenk (2019). Teleconnections, Correlations, Causalities between Nature and Society? An Introductory Comment on the “Crisis of the Fourteenth Century”. In: Martin Bauch, Gerrit Jasper Schenk (Eds.), The Crisis of the 14th Century: Teleconnections between Environmental and Societal Change? (pp. 1–23). Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter.

Thomas Labbé: The Crisis of 1315–1322 in Bresse as Depicted in Manorial Rolls

This paper assesses the severity of the crisis of 1315-1322 in the Bresse region of France. The economic documentation for this region is exceptionally good during the period in which it was under the control of the Duchy of Savoy. The accounts of many castellanies are continuously preserved from the end of the thirteenth century to the fifteenth century, which makes it possible to analyze the potential impact of the Dantean anomaly on the rural economy of this region in full detail. To date, scholars have never studied the impact of the depression of 1315-1322 in this region. This paper presents a classical analysis of four series of manorial rolls (Jasseron, Treffort, Pont d’Ain, and Pont-de-Vaux) for the period of 1300-1330. Particular attention is given to variations in crop yields and vineyard production, as well as to price fluctuations and the indirect demographic evidence that the rolls provide.

Thomas Labbé (2019). The Crisis of 1315–1322 in Bresse as Depicted in Manorial Rolls. In Martin Bauch, Gerrit Jasper Schenk (Eds.), The Crisis of the 14th Century: Teleconnections between Environmental and Societal Change? (pp. 130–152). Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter.

NEW: The Crisis of the 14th Century. Teleconnections between Environmental and Societal Change?

Finally out:

Bauch, Martin; Schenk, Gerrit J. (eds.), The Crisis of the 14th Century. Teleconnections between Environmental and Societal Change?, Berlin; Boston 2019 (Das Mittelalter. Perspektiven mediävistischer Forschung. Beihefte, 13). Open Access here:

Pre-modern critical interactions of nature and society can best be studied during the so-called “Crisis of the 14th Century”. While historiography has long ignored the environmental framing of historcial processes and scientists have over-emphasized nature’s impact on the course of human history, this volume tries to describe the at times complex modes of the late-medieval relationship of man and nature. The idea of ‘teleconnection’, borrowed from the geosciences, describes the influence of atmospheric circulation patterns often over long distances. It seems that there were ‘teleconnections’ in society, too. So this volumes aims to examine man-environment interactions mainly in the 14th century from all over Europe and beyond. It integrates contributions from different disciplines on impact, perception and reaction of environmental change and natural extreme events on late Medieval societies. For humanists from all historical disciplines it offers an approach how to integrate written and even scientific evidence on environmental change in established and new fields of historical research. For scientists it demonstrates the contributions scholars from the humanities can provide for discussion on past environmental changes


St. Mary Magdalene’s Flood (1342) at the Intersection of Environmental History and the History of Infrastructures: A Compound Event as a Catalyst of Medieval Infrastructure Development and Public Welfare

Reconstruction of the flood wave in July 1342 for the Main basin. Destroyed bridges in red. Map: Martin Bauch Quelle: Wikimedia Commons: CC BY-SA 3.0)

This recently published  article (in German) sheds new light on the disastrous event of St Mary Magdalene’s Flood in Central Europe in 1342, which scholars have thus far largely neglected, by examining administrative documents like charters and accounts for the first time, while also considering scientific proxy data like precipitation reconstructions based on tree rings. The result is a much more nuanced reconstruction of these two years that included extreme flooding (in February and July 1342 and July 1343), but also pronounced dryness in spring 1342, which might explain the extreme erosion events geomorphologists attribute to the strong precipitation of these years. The events of 1342/43 are a good example of how a pre-modern, multi-factorial compound event could have disastrous consequences when natural extreme events and disadvantageous socio-economic conditions coincided. Examining a wider variety of written sources reveals that the supra-regional dearth and famine in Central Europe was linked to the fact that the flood occured before grain could be harvested in 1342. Furthermore, the article focuses on infrastructural adaptions like changes in bridge design or large water-infrastructures, as well as on normative reactions at a regional or local level that can be understood, at least partially, to have been caused by the flood disaster. These processes of technological and normative adaption can be understood, on the one hand, as second-order-perceptions of nature in Luhmann’s sense; on the other hand, they illustrate the importance of natural extreme events as a catalyst for pre-modern development of infrastruture. In the aftermath of 1342/43, areas to the north of the Alps implemented flood-protection measures to protect the public welfare for the first time, at least such initiatives that went beyond local responses to involve regional and supra-regional powers up to and including the Holy Roman Emperor.

Balduin Bridge over the river Mosel in Koblenz, built in 1341 to 1358 – and most possibly hit (and influenced in its design) by the flood events of 1342/43. Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Full article (in German) – read only version here.

Bauch, Martin, Die Magdalenenflut 1342 am Schnittpunkt von Umwelt- und Infrastrukturgeschichte: Ein compound event als Taktgeber für mittelalterliche Infrastrukturentwicklung und Daseinsvorsorge, in: NTM. Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Wissenschaften, Technik und Medizin 27/3 (2019), S. 273-309.

Grape Harvest Dates from Burgundy demonstrate (once more) Global Warming since the End of the 20th Century


Organisation of the harvest in 1487; page from the accounting book of the Church of Notre-Dame of Beaune (Archives départementales de la Côte d’Or, B 2918/109)

Records of grape harvest dates (GHD) are the oldest and the longest continuous phenological data in Europe. They have been repeatedly used since the end of the 19th century to reconstruct past climate variations, and in the two last decades to reconstruct spring-summer temperature beyond the instrumental period. Newly, the GHD from the famous vine region of Beaune (Burgundy) between 1354 and 2018 have been entirely drawn from the archives and published in the European Geoscience Union journal Climate of the Past. It constitutes the worldwide longest GHD series in the literature and one of the longest phenological records ever. The 664-year-long Beaune series has been cross-checked with the April-to-August Paris temperature series comprising the 360 years from 1659 to 2018 (R = -0,76), as well as with tree-ring series, with documentary proxy evidence and with the Central European temperature series (from 1500). Statistical models show that the series is very reliable to reconstruct April-to-August temperature in the long run. Of major interest, the series is clearly subdivided into two parts. From 1354 to 1987 grapes were on average picked from 28 September on, whereby during the last 31-year long period of rapid warming from 1988 to 2018 harvests began 13 days earlier. The 33 earlier harvest dates of series are unevenly distributed over time. 26 of them occurred between 1393 and 2002, whereby since the hot summer 2003, 8 out of 16 spring-summer periods were outstanding according to the statistic of the last 664 years. In the Paris temperature measurements since 1659, April-to-July temperature reached the highest value ever in 2018. In sum, the 664-year-long Beaune GHD series demonstrates that outstanding hot and dry years in the past were outliers, whereby they became the norm since the transition to rapid warming in 1988.

Beaune GHD time-series, with indication of the 33 earlier dates (Labbe et al. 2019, p. 1496).

To know more: Labbé, T., Pfister, C., Brönnimann, S., Rousseau, D., Franke, J., Bois, B.: The longest homogeneous series of grape harvest dates, Beaune 1354-2018, and its significance for the understanding of past and present climate, Climate of the Past, 15, 1485-1501,, 2019.

Find here a podcast interview with Thomas Labbé (in German) by