Facing Floods in the Middle Ages
This is part of our special feature on Water in Europe and the World.
In the summer of 2018, a series of “hunger stones” in the Czech Republic’s Elbe River emerged, bearing warnings of the perils of drought and the vital importance of rivers as conduits of not only water but also traded foodstuffs. The stones, some used since at least the fifteenth century, appear up and down the Elbe River, recording dates of markedly low water. The Děčín stones in particular contain five centuries of low water records, with the years of drought etched into the landscape. As markers of extreme hydrological events, the hunger stones serve a similar purpose to the more familiar flood markers found on buildings, bridges, and monuments along Europe’s rivers.
These stones caught global attention, however, not because of the chronologies of drought, but because they also bear chiseled warnings, such as “If you see me, weep” and “Who once saw me, he cried. Whoever sees me now will cry. We cried — We cry — And you will cry.” Described by various news outlets as “sinister,” “dire,” and “ominous,” the power here lies in the glimpse of long-passed human fears, suddenly brought into sharp relief. For many people, this news story was one of the first times they had encountered so directly a pre-modern voice talking about the fears of climate and weather insecurity.
Perhaps one of the largest failings of modern discussions of climate change is our inability to broadly recognize that as a human experience, climate fears are not unprecedented. People of the past have experienced traumatic, world-changing weather disasters, and regular, seasonal crises. Though arguably not as extreme as the ones facing our future, these were nevertheless real traumas for other people in other times, and recognizing both their fears and their resilience could help us better navigate the coming cultural traumas that we face as rains cease, seas rise, and giant storms sweep down upon us. Recognizing this as a part of a deeper human experience may help us find a shared humanity with those more immediately impacted by our ecological and economic decisions.
Striking as they are, the hunger stones are not alone in giving us the voices of the past; medieval written records are full of hopes and fears about the natural world. As part of a project on the cultural history of medieval rivers, I have encountered poems about the beauty of nature, miracle stories about the ability of nature to yield up both dearth and abundance, stories of social resilience in the face of ecological disruption, and accounts of the ways in which cultural identities of communities became wrapped up in their sense of place. And I’ve also found fear. It is this aspect of the medieval past that I’d like to reflect on in this essay—the ways in which we can reconstruct the aspects of extreme weather that people in the past worried about, and the ways they built communal memory around these events. Focusing on the fear alone, however, will not get us all the way we need to go to fully appreciate how the past can speak to us; we also need to look at the ways that people coped in the face of fear, re-built community, and reclaimed hope. And so, after looking at expressions of medieval fear, I will turn to stories of resilience.
Medieval Floods, Droughts, and Weather Variability
Medieval chronicles, often compiled over generations, were organized chronologically, with sections separated year by year. These accounts highlight remarkable events, and are records of communal memory. Like the hunger stones, chronicles are benchmarks for events that were considered noteworthy and worthy of being actively incorporated into the histories of regions and smaller communities. Like prayer rolls that marked the local dead worthy of commemoration, chronicles were revisited routinely, either by the next generation of compilers or by those working on telling other forms of history. They were shared, rewritten, retold, and remembered, and it is important how many of these chronicles contain extreme environmental events in their pages. Medieval annals record harvest failures, droughts, storms, earthquakes, sea surges, celestial phenomena, and human and livestock diseases. Entries range from a cursory notation of an event to a full storytelling, depending on both the format of the chronicle and the relative importance of the event
A typical entry comes from the Annales breves (or short annals) from Auxerre, composed in the ninth century. In the year 873, “Great stones rained down from the sky, swarms of locusts appeared, and an unheard of pestilence was kindled.” Chronicles from throughout the Carolingian territories report dozens of floods, harsh winters, excessive rains, and intense storms during the ninth century.
The Annals of Fulda report that in 874, there was “a particularly harsh winter” with uninterrupted snowfalls from the first of November through the spring equinox. The cold and lack of firewood meant “that not only animals, but truly also many people froze to death. And also the Rhine and the Mosel were clogged up with ice.” Later in the year there was also a comet, which the annals note was feared to be a sign of the people’s sinfulness. This large-scale disaster, affecting two rivers, and innumerable and unspecified communities, was, however, only part of the story. The annalist also wanted to call attention and memory to another event, one that is mentioned in no other chronicle:
For there was a certain villa in the district of Nitense, named Asgabrunno, which was far removed from the rivers and the floods, but which was almost completely destroyed by inundating rains, and 88 people of both sexes were killed. For the people of that place went to bed on the night of July 3 suspecting nothing bad, and then the rain fell out of the sky all at once, and all of the trees and vines that it hit in that villa were ripped out at the roots, the foundations of buildings were overturned, herds and animals and everything that was in the houses were carried off to ruin. And also the church of that villa along with its transepts, was destroyed, so much so that there was no sign any more of any part of the building. There was moreover misery to be seen there; for when a free woman was drawn under, pulled under by the force of the water, and her husband, trying to help, was reaching out his hand to here, they were both killed. And bodies, long-buried, were freed from their graves by the force of their waters, and their coffins were discovered at the borders of another villa.
This moment of concern to record not only the loss of 88 people, but the more specific loss of one married couple who, gripped by fear, acted out of love, provides powerful lessons out of the distant past. Disasters come in all shapes and sizes; some floods struck entire regions, others wiped out single communities.
Fear of Flooding
To see the various ways that the fear of storms could be included in medieval writing, we can turn to Rudolf, a ninth century monk of Fulda, who appears to have written both the Life of St. Leoba and the entries from 839-863 in the Annals of Fulda. In those annals, he describes the year 860 as one when “winter was a time of great scarcity,” trees withered, and, quite remarkably, “a bloody snow was reported to have fallen in many places.” Even the Ionian Sea “was clogged with ice, so that merchants who had never before had to abandon their boats were forced to travel with horse and cart.” Here, the fear of the disastrous effects of such weather was implied through the implications for the economy and future harvests, and the more immediate impact of isolation brought by the loss of river transport.
In the Life of St. Leoba, however, he makes the fear emotional and personal, describing how a particular storm whipped up not only wind and rain, but also terror. “A wild storm,” he wrote, “arose and the whole sky was obscured by such dark clouds that day seemed turned into night, terrible lightning and falling thunderbolts struck terror into the stoutest hearts and everyone was shaking with fear.” The villagers sought refuge in houses and then, as the storm continued to grow, inside the church. “They locked all the doors,” he explains, “and waited there trembling, thinking that the last judgement was at hand.” Though the saint tried to calm everyone, the storm only increased, as “the roofs of the houses were torn off by the violence of the wind, the ground shook with the repeated shocks of the lightning that flashed through the windows, redoubled their terror.”
Rudolph masterfully portrayed collective fear and the risk and danger of extreme weather. Sudden storms were terrifying, both for the immediacy of the risk to crops and livestock and for the delayed risks they posed via flash floods and washed out river infrastructures. Of course, flooding was not the only weather instability that medieval people feared. Seasonal drought could also turn into a long-term problem, and lead to dearth and death.
The Miracles of St. Ursmar (a Belgian missionary from the eighth century) tell the story of a severe drought relieved through the posthumous agency of the saint. “At a certain time the earth had dried up, and having been denied rains, was baking underneath the sun…” whole province affected, prayed to Ursmar for relief. They asked the abbot to bring out the reliquary of the saint and to make a procession—and so they did so, with everyone from the whole area gathering around and participating. There were so many people that they couldn’t fit in a single field and so had to move, and they suggested that it might be better to move to the other side of the Sambre. They carried the saint to the other side of the Sambre, and there many people were able to approach him and pray for relief. “And the lord approved of this devotion, for on that very day, from a calm and cloudless sky, there was a loud boom followed by rains, which flooded down for a long time, until it was enough and more than enough.” The superabundance of the rain matches the frightening severity of the drought, and augments the earlier sense of dread with a deep sense of relief.
Another story of drought (date unknown) in medieval Belgium comes from the miracles of St. Evermarus. This was a bad one. According to the account’s anonymous author, “the land, having been drained of all liquid, was completely dried out; so much so that it all dissolved into a tiny powder and, stirred up by a meager gust of wind the clear and pure air darkened.” This is a remarkably detailed and vibrant story, suggesting that the author lived through the events, or knew people who had. It is compelling, descriptive, and (especially for a miracle story with an uncomplicated narrative) remarkably long. It is a truly emotive source that shows us more of the experience, memory, and emotional impact of these kinds of extreme weather events.
As a result of this drought, “No grass, no fruits, and no seeds germinated: because the clouds were held in check by the drought, [the land] was neither flooded by rains nor irrigated by showers; for that reason, it was left exhausted and uncultivated, and idle. The drought soon extended to the whole region, and “hunger ate up human bodies, until they were covered only with skin, all the way the bones; [at the peak of the dryness] whatever was able to be torn down was used up…”
This account becomes even more remarkable as we recognize how long the drought lasted and sense the depth of despair felt by those who lived through it. Scared and worried, priests tried additional fasting, prayer, and imprecations. Locals prayed for relief, and the bodies of regional saints were brought in to help. However, even this great assemblage of saints did no good, and “God did not hear them, even though he hears everything.” The drought did not break, and the horrible, disastrous weather continued. Disappointed, “they saw how the sun was boiling away the whole land through its burning, no clouds watered the air with drops, the burning wind dried everything out, nothing grew in the earth, and nothing sprang from the ground; neither grasses, nor fruits, nor trees were able to live: instead, the disaster brought death from the sky and from the earth.”
Finally, in a last-ditch effort, they decided to bring the humble Evermarus to their aid. They took out his relics, and decided to take him on a tour of the region. They “walked around Rousson with Evermarus, showed to him the dangers of those who worked the land, pointed out how it was scorched by the burning sun, how the clouds were dried out, how it endured the destruction of the burning wind.” But God protected Evermarus, and decided to make the saint’s trip a more peaceful one, and as the procession continued, “to him God granted that the trip would not be arduous, and the sun checked its vigor, the burning wind blew out, the clouds filled with rain waters and sent them out on the land.”
Recovery and Resilience
Sometimes, instead of tragedy, there were narrow escapes recognized as such by contemporaries, who understood the normal patterns of their ecosystems. The Miracles of Fulda tell the story of a rainstorm remarkable not for its intensity, but for the fact that the impact of the storm failed to strike. For a “whole night it had rained without interruption.” Yet instead of the expected short-term hindrances, “the clouds dispersed, peace came to the sky, and the mud that was already found on the road,” dried up. Furthermore, the river, “which should have risen and swollen overnight because of the rain, was found to have grown not at all.” But of greater interest to me (and, I suggest, all of us) are not the stories of tragedy averted, but the stories that explain how communities dealt with ecological catastrophe.
Medieval people approached disaster with a blend of pragmatism and faith. They explained disaster as both a routine aspect of the natural world and as a manifestation of divine will. As Christian Pfister has noted, there were many forms of “institutionalized prevention” of disaster, including preventive maintenance of river infrastructures, storage of resource stockpiles, etc..  And when prevention failed and disaster struck, there was also communal storytelling. Medieval authors used disaster narratives to applaud collective community responses, promoting the idea that entire communities were responsible for collective survival and resilience. They told morality tales that helped people understand the responsibilities that community leaders bore to respond proactively to risk, and that those in power had to restore the economic and religious health of stricken communities.
What may strike us as unusual today is the depth to which civic, communal, and religious leadership were interwoven in times of danger. Monastic communities, bishops, and urban priests often filled the role of community managers, meaning that many of our stories of environmental risk and resilience are found in religious narratives. For example, a story of a flooded Paris comes to us not from a chronicle, but from a miracle story about St. Genovefa. One winter the rains were so heavy in the areas around Paris that the city “was filled by continual rain and the waters of a multitude of clouds, so much so that it spilled over its own banks at an unaccustomed and unheard of level, so that the city of Paris was completely flooded, and the citizens as well as the clerics were driven out of their homes and the churches.” The bishop then sent out squads of priests armed with Bibles and vestments to go out in boats to each of the basilicas to find out if it was at least possible to celebrate the offices in any of them.” Doubtless these emissaries also checked on the other, more pragmatic concerns of local priests, and helped the bishop develop an overview of the extent of flood damages.
Other community leaders were expected to step up in the face of environmental crisis as well. This expectation can be seen in an account of a harsh winter that froze up the rivers (a vital source of trade throughout the medieval world) and contributed to a severe famine in a small Danubian town. The bishop, St. Severin, found out that a rich widow had held back grain stores, hoping to profit financially from the disaster. He called her out publicly, condemning her greed, shaming her into distributing the grain. Not long thereafter, the famine was lifted by the miraculous arrival of a fleet of grain boats that had been “hindered for many days by the thick ice of the river.” Luckily, the author of this story notes, God was on the side of his servant Severin, as “manifestly the boats had come out of due season, loosed from the ice and frost by the prayers of the servant of God.”
Religious leaders also acted as the orchestrators of collective ritual and prayer. For example, when “a great drought desolated the countryside of the Auvergne, and the grass dried up so there was no pasture for the animals. Then the saint of God piously celebrated the Rogations, which are done before Ascension.” On the third day, crowds urged bishop to lead the singing a prayer about rain “and when they devoutly began to sing, the humble prayer of the confessor penetrated to the ear of Almighty God, and behold, the sky darkened and covered itself with clouds. And before they arrived at the gate of the town, a heavy rain fell upon the whole land, so that they were lost in admiration, and said that it was due to the prayers of his holy man.”
Gregory of Tours connected this successful community prayer with the Rogation Days, a European-wide annual ritual rooted in the memory of environmental tragedy. In the fifth century, bishop Mamertus of Vienne staged a set of communal prayers in response to fires, environmental rupture, and disorder. This was so effective that it entered local lore, eventually being told and retold as a story of effective response to crisis. Within no more than a generation or two, Mamertus’ successes were common lore, and other communities enacted collective prayers, marches, and days of penance on the Rogations Days as a way of warding off disaster. This gave shared cultural responses to disaster, and opened up ways for people to talk about past events, present fears, and future hopes.
Noah and the Flood
In many ways, medieval cultures (especially around the year 1000) were tuned to the coming apocalypse in a way that we, in a world that is conditioned to expect improvement, advancement, and growth, are not. Medieval people never anticipated bounty, only dearth. They understood the power of natural forces to thwart human desires and economies and technologies, and that people (though not God) were generally powerless in the face of those forces. Perhaps this is why Noah and his ark were such compelling story elements for medieval people. One flood in the year 1003 was so great that the river “wiped out firm bridges and fences, submerging cows with their calves, sheep and lambs and kids, to the degree that it was thought to be The Flood.”
Noah’s flood and the ark that bore him to safety was never far from the mind’s eye of medieval monastic authors, attuned as they were to finding biblical resonances in their own experiences, and to thinking of their current age as one awaiting a similar fate. They could imagine the end of the world; they routinely talked about it. They surrounded themselves with images of Noah’s Flood, the disaster to end all disasters. The Cathedral of Bourges has a full version of the story of Noah, complete with drowning people, carved into its front portals. The flood image in the original stained glass at Chartres shows men and animals drowning, stretching out towards a lost chance of salvation.
Despite all of their effort and successes, medieval writers knew that the works of man were fragile, that striving did not guarantee success, and that a flood could come crashing down on them, whether sent by a vengeful God or a river swollen with unseasonal rains. But they also knew, in no small part due to the diligence of historians, that people had survived worse, and that society could repent, rebuild, and recover. Perhaps we, too, should look to the floods of former days. As I finish this essay, the Rhine is at its lowest level in generations; but it is not the only severe drought the river has faced. Recognizing the environmental precarity of the past doesn’t diminish our current looming crisis, but could help us see that we modern people are not alone in facing such fears.
We are facing ecological calamities on an unprecedented global scale. Yet our tragedies will play out on a local level, and will happen to individual people all over the world. History (and culture) is made up of the composite of untold numbers of individual lives and stories. We will hear about earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes bringing ruin on entire islands (as was the case in October of 2018 at Sulawesi) but behind every large scale catastrophe will be the stories of frightened couples, clinging to each other as their fate rushes in. Perhaps if we took greater care to recognize ourselves in such stories, to activate our imaginations and recognize the full humanity of every person lost to climate change, the mounting toll of looming global disaster would force us to act more quickly.
Ellen Arnold teaches medieval history at Ohio Wesleyan University, where she is preparing a travel course on European Rivers. Her research is about the cultural history of the medieval environment, and her current book project is on medieval riverscapes. She spent part of her childhood in Germany, where she once fell into the Neckar River while feeding ducks.
“Annales Fuldenses.” 1826. In MGH SS 1, 343–425. Hannover: Monumenta Germaniae Historica.
Arnold, Ellen F. 2012. Negotiating the Landscape: Environment and Monastic Identity in the Medieval Ardennes. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
———. 2016. “Rivers of Risk and Redemption in Gregory of Tours’ Writings.” Speculum 92 (1): 117–43.
Auxerre, Heiric of. 1881. “Annales Breves.” In , edited by G Waitz, 80. MGH SS 13. Hannover: Monumenta Germaniae Historica.
Folcuin of Lobbes. 1866. “Miracula Ursmari.” AASS Apr. II., 3rd ed., 561–70. Antwerp: Bernardum Albertum.
James, Edward, trans. 1991. Gregory of Tours: Life of the Fathers. 2nd ed. Translated Texts for Historians, v. 1. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
“Miracula Genovefa.” 1643. AASS Jan. 1:147–51.
Noble, Thomas F. X., and Thomas Head, eds. 1995. Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Pertz, Georg Heinrich. 1829. “Annales Floriacenses.” In , 254–55. MGH SS 2. Hannover: Monumenta Germaniae Historica.
Pfister, Christian. 2011. “‘The Monster Swallows You’: Disaster Memory and Risk Culture in Western Europe, 1500-2000.” RCC Perspectives, no. 1: 1–23.
Robinson, George W., trans. 1914. The Life of Saint Severinus by Eugippius. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rudolfus of Fulda. 1887. “Miracula Sanctorum in Fuldenses Ecclesias Translatorum.” Edited by G Waitz, 328–41. MGH SS, 15.1. Hannover: Monumenta Germaniae Historica.
“Vita Evermarus.” AA SS, Mai I, 121–39.
 I have written about the unique voices of chronicles here: http://www.efarnold.com/adventureshoes/2016/11/26/medieval2016. See also >>>>>>
 (Auxerre 1881)
 (“Annales Fuldenses” 1826)
 (“Annales Fuldenses” 1826)
 ( Trans. in Noble and Head 1995, 270)
 (Folcuin of Lobbes 1866, pt. 2.2)
 (“Vita Evermarus,” n.d., pt. 3.3)
 (Rudolfus of Fulda 1887, pt. 5)
 (Pfister 2011)
 (Arnold 2016)
 (“Miracula Genovefa” 1643, pt. 8)
 (Robinson 1914, chap. 3)
 (James 1991, 26–27)
 (Arnold 2012)
 (Pertz 1829)
Photo: Dream-scape with small coastal village | Shutterstock
Published on December 11, 2018.