Medieval Flooding

NEW RESEARCH: Once again the rivers Danube and Elben has ripped people of their homes. Very timely this is the topic for a special issue of the journal Environment and history

Flooding in Central Europe is a very old phenomenon. As far back as we can tell people have chosen to live along the banks of the rivers or near the sea, profiting from the fertile banks and wetlands as well as the trading possibilities. As is well known waters as opposed to mountains and forests do not divide people but rather unites them.

However, settling there has always been risky business. From time to time rivers swell and storms flood. The history of how to organise one’s life in view of these risks is the topic of a special issue of the journal “Environment and History”  with a series of four articles focusing on medieval and early modern systems of management and politics. Each of the articles tells a somewhat different story.

The first by Christian Rohr examines how river floods of the upper Danube River impacted upon the Urban Economies in Austria 1350 – 1600. More precisely, what the impact was in the small twin towns of Krems and Stein. By analysing accounts of bridge-masters, which survive from 1350 an onwards and from the information on repairs to the bridge, the author has been able to ascertain the date when floods occurred and the beginning and the end of the work, which was needed to repair or maintain the bridge. The study shows that there existed a “culture of flood management” in the pre-modern urban areas with which the inhabitants tried to handle the floods, which were almost a yearly event. People knew that floods were coming and how to tackle them. The author, Christian Rohr, is of the opinion that this “culture” was later lost. However, the current flooding in Krems and Stein, show that people had not forgotten. Although it is rumoured that the the rivers have not reached such heights since 1501 – one which was considered “extremely strong” – people in this locality and elsewhere along the Danube and the Elbe – has banded together once more to secure their homes.

Waiting for the flood in Stein and Krems June 2013

Other articles in the special issue may be less pertinent during summertime. However, that does not make them less interesting. One by James Galloway presents us with a grand overview of the linkage between coastal flooding and socioeconomic change in Eastern England in the later Middle ages, where e.g. a series of harbours and towns werw simply swallowed up . Another by Adriaan de Kraker shows that it is in fact possible to get high quality information about storms between 1390 and 1725 through careful evaluation of the information concerning maintenance of dykes. However, Tim Soens in a final article demonstrates how the expenditure on dykes and bank-walls did not always live up to expectations. He describes a shift from an early medieval practice where the owners of the land carried out the maintenance themselves to a situation where special gangs of dike-workers were employed at daily wages to carry out the work. Often paid by absentee owners, the work required was often not carried out in a satisfactory manner, which caused a widespread suffering among the lesser landholders along the coast. A period of heavy storms and disasters – as was for instance reported for the beginning of the 16th century – might be more about funding for the maintenance of dikes having been withheld than about an increased number of severe storms. Building on Amartya Sen’s original entitlement approach, it is argued “that the right of coastal peasants to flood security often witnessed severe setbacks, caused by adverse economic conditions, but also by an increasing violation of their entitlement to flood protection mainly by non-peasant groups, backed by an expanding state power”. Thus the ups and downs of investment in maintenance of dykes may not always be read as a sign of increased stormy weather.

Whatever the seeming discrepancy between the different arguments, the articles tells a series of stories about medieval storms and their different impacts caused by a variety of socio-economic conditions and cultures of flood-management.  Highly recommended!

Environment and History
Vol.19 No.2, May 2013 – Special Issue on Flooding with an editorial Introduction by James A. Galloway
Published by The White Horse Press


Floods of the Upper Danube River and Its Tributaries and Their Impact on Urban Economies (c. 1350-1600): The Examples of the Towns of Krems/Stein and Wels (Austria). By Christian Rohr, pp. 133-148
The paper examines the impact of disastrous and ‘ordinary’ floods on human societies in what is now Austria. The focus is on urban areas and their neighbourhoods. Examining institutional sources such as accounts of the bridge masters, charters, statutes and official petitions, it can be shown that city communities were well acquainted with this permanent risk: in fact, an office was established for the restoration of bridges and the maintenance of water defences and large depots for timber and water pipes ensured that the reconstruction of bridges and the system of water supply could start immediately after the floods had subsided. Carpenters and similar groups gained 10 to 20 per cent of their income from the repair of bridges and other flood damage. The construction of houses in endangered zones was adapted in order to survive the worst case experiences. Thus, we may describe those communities living along the central European rivers as ‘cultures of flood management’. This special knowledge vanished, however, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, when river regulations gave the people a false feeling of security.(Abstract)

Storminess in the Low Countries, 1390-1725. By Adriaan de Kraker, pp. 149-171
This paper looks into the historic storms of coastal Flanders and the south-western part of the Netherlands between 1390 and 1725. High quality information about these weather extremes has been retrieved from administrative documents concerning the annual maintenance of sea walls. Because the period under study deals with non-instrumental storm data, a method has been applied to assess this information, from which a picture emerges of annual storminess and of changing storminess throughout this long time period. Thus, periods of increasing and declining storm frequency can be distinguished. These fluctuations are compared with the storminess of the present period and some consideration is also given to possible links between historic storm frequency and temperature. Finally, attention is paid to the second decade of the eighteenth century, with its unusually high number of gales, and options for further research are explored.(Abstract)

Coastal Flooding and Socioeconomic Change in Eastern England in the Later Middle Ages. By James A. Galloway, pp. 173-207
The coasts and coastal wetlands of Eastern England, like other lands around the North Sea basin, were subjected to recurrent and sometimes devastating floods in the later middle ages. Some towns and many rural settlements were destroyed or relocated, while others sustained repeated loss of life and property. Agricultural lands reverted to inter-tidal conditions in some areas, while major changes in land use occurred elsewhere. Coastal industries such as milling and peat-digging suffered, while estuarine fisheries expanded onto flooded farm-land. The changes were complex and can only be fully understood in terms of the interaction of environmental and socioeconomic processes. Population decline and economic recession changed the parameters within which risk and opportunity were evaluated after the middle of the fourteenth century.(Abstract)

Flood Security in the Medieval and Early Modern North Sea Area: A Question of Entitlement? By Tim Soens. pp. 209-232

Starting in the later Middle Ages, the coastal wetlands along the southern North Sea were increasingly hit by a series of catastrophic storm surges. Deeply rooted in the collective memory of coastal society, these flood disasters have mostly been discussed as products of meteorological disturbances, environmental vulnerability or technological failure. In this article, an alternative reading is proposed, drawing attention to massive distortions in the social allocation of flood protection in the later Middle Ages, which help to explain the increased frequency of storm disasters. Building on Amartya Sen’s original entitlement approach, it is argued that the right of coastal peasants to flood security often witnessed severe setbacks preceding many flood disasters, caused by adverse economic conditions, but also by an increasing violation of their entitlement to flood protection mainly by non-peasant groups, backed by an expanding state power.(Abstract)

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