A risk society? Environmental hazards, risk and resilience in the later Middle Ages in Europe

Christopher M. Gerrard, David N. Petley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Citations (Scopus)


Modern society is said to have restructured in reaction to contemporary hazards with the aim of improving its management of risk. This implies that pre-industrial societies were somehow fundamentally different. In this paper, we challenge that hypothesis by examining the ways in which risks associated with environmental hazards were managed and mitigated during the Middle Ages (defined here as the period from 1000 to 1550 AD). Beginning with a review of the many case studies of rapid onset disasters across Europe, we draw upon both historical and archaeological evidence and architectural assessments of structural damage for what is a pre-instrumental period. Building upon this, the second part of the paper explores individual outlooks on risk, emphasising the diversity of popular belief and the central importance of Christianity in framing attitudes. Despite their religious perspectives, we find that medieval communities were not helpless in the face of serious environmental hazards. We argue instead that the response of society to these threats was frequently complex, considered and, at times, surprisingly modern.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1051-1079
JournalNatural Hazards
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2013


  • Hazard
  • Risk
  • Medieval
  • Europe
  • Archaeology

Cite this