This summer, the news pages were full of reports of wildfires, floods and landslides. During the course of her PhD research, historian Marieke van Egeraat delved into the coverage of similar disasters that occurred in the 16th century. She examined pamphlets and handwritten chronicles from this period, which contained written details about natural disasters.
This way she tried to gain a better understanding of the explanations that the media at that time had given for disasters and a better idea of how communities were formed in the process. Many disasters were attributed to God’s omnipotence, but occasionally, natural explanations were also given, or human explanations, blaming individuals or entire groups of people for a disaster. Van Egeraat has been researching the goals that were pursued by the people who wrote about such events.
The ‘Chinese virus’
In the 16th century, pamphlets were like newspapers. “It wasn’t so clear who the authors of these journals were,” the researcher explains. “But it was fairly obvious that they must have been wealthy citizens, like the town clerk, or specifically people who could actually write and who had access to a printing press.”
Van Egeraat tried to find out whether the news from the pamphlets could also be found in chronicles, which were more inclined to provide background information on the news. “Chroniclers often quoted pamphlets, but they occasionally omitted information.” For example, a Dutch-language pamphlet reported on a Huguenot church that had been destroyed by a storm in France. A chronicle from that period contained the same text, but omitted the reference to the Huguenot church. “The person who wrote the pamphlet portrayed the storm as being God’s punishment for the Huguenots. But the chronicler was reluctant to accept this interpretation. He may have chosen to side with the Huguenots.”
“This shows that an explanation for a disaster often served a purpose,” she continues. “The person who wrote this pamphlet may have wanted to teach the Huguenots a lesson. You can actually see similar behaviour in this day and age. People were also searching for explanations during the coronavirus crisis. Trump was always talking about the ‘Chinese virus’, because sidelining China served his own political agenda. And according to the Party for the Animals, it was a zoonotic disease, which was in line with their political message. Regardless of whether such an explanation is true or not, it does say something about the goals of the person who is relaying the information.”
‘Mother Earth strikes back’
The researcher claims that nowadays, we sometimes seem to think that we are living in the end times, much as we did in the 16th century. “In those days, this feeling was reinforced by the Eighty Years’ War, while it’s now being reinforced by climate change. As a result, we are more sensitive to news of disasters. The number of news stories about disasters is increasing, which is obviously partly due to the fact that they are more prevalent, but perhaps also because they contribute to the whole end-time feeling.”
Van Egeraat found that the disasters that occurred during the 16th century were primarily attributed to God. In the centuries that followed, people spoke less frequently about ‘penalties for sins’. “But,” she insists, “testimonies about penalties for sins never entirely disappeared. They just took a different form. These sorts of statements can even be heard today: during the floods in Slovenia this summer, people claimed that Mother Earth was striking back. The message in this type of statement is just as providential.”
Marieke van Egeraat is one of the PhD candidates from Lotte Jensen’s ‘Dealing with Disasters’ Research Group; Lotte Jensen is a Professor of Dutch Literary and Cultural History. Van Egeraat is currently working as a Project Coordinator at the Research Office at Radboud University’s Faculty of Arts. She will defend her PhD thesis on Wednesday 13 September.
Image: Meertens Institute