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"Dealing with Natural Hazards and Disasters in the Renaissance in the Upper Rhine Valley and the Arno Valley." (working title)

Prof. Dr. Gerrit Schenk, JRG Leader 
Prof. Gerrit Schenk prepares a comparative study of the way earthquakes, floods and tempests were dealt with in two comparable regions, namely the Arno valley around Florence (Tuscany) and the Upper Rhine Valley around Strasbourg (Alsace/ Baden) during the transition from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Ages (around 1300-1550). As an important centre of the Renaissance and an important town of the Reformation respectively, time and space here lend themselves exceedingly well to the investigation of changing processes. In this period of time, Europe had received significant impetus from Arabic-transmitted ancient science, and both practical and political methods of dealing with natural risks had been developed which later spread beyond Europe, even worldwide. The way the administrations dealt with risks of floods in the European Late Middle Ages seems to have been different. A comparison of the Tuscany region and the Alsace shows that two significantly different concepts had developed. In  Tuscany, in a 300 year-long process, Florence, as the ruling power, constituted a form of governmental management of resources, but not without resistance by the local people. Not only various political factors but also the reception of antique law and Arabian-mediated science turned out to be particularly decisive. In contrast to that, one can see processes in Alsace which can be described best as “statebuilding from below”. Techniques of dam building which had been developed by experts from the North Sea coast were initially only locally used. As a result of the High Middle Age expansion, the need for supraregional regulation of hydraulic engineering and common pool resources increased. Villages, towns, nobility and the bishop of Strasbourg responded with the establishment of a sort of voluntary corporation. The natural risks were regulated corporately and relatively efficiently for more than 250 years. Then the prerogative was assigned to the French king. But apparently, a supportive mentality has remained. A common product of the JRG represents the publishing of the compendium “Cultures of Disaster” with essays by the JRG and the enlisted experts. There will be workshops and conferences to discuss the progress of the research and to provide the basis for the planning of the compendium (winter 2009 at Heidelberg, spring 2010 at Beirut, and spring 2011 at New Delhi). The common aim is to establish not only a historical disaster research in comparative perspective, but also to analyse the flows between different “cultures of disaster”. A specific intent in this regard will be a project-seminar to plan the organisation of an exhibition called “Disasters. Steps towards a Transcultural Iconography” (probably 2013; see project D17).   

"Natural" Disasters in Mamluk Era (1250-1517): Perceptions, Interpretations and ??Responses

Kristine Chalyan-Daffner, M.A., Ph.D. Candidate

This study examines the socio-cultural history of “natural” disasters such as earthquakes, floods and droughts in Egypt during the Mamluk era (1250-1517). The first part explores what a natural disaster is, and how it is defined in the Arab culture. Here concepts of disaster and interpretation models take centre stage. The main argument in this part is that Mamluk authors reworked interpretations of catastrophes as they knew from pre-Islamic ancient cultures and added new understandings which they gleaned from cross-cultural interactions.


The second part gives a systematic analysis of historical disasters, providing a greater insight into the various ways they affected social, political and economic life on the local level. On the basis of primary sources, it shows how Mamluk society shaped responses to these catastrophic events, and to what extent the perception and interpretation had an impact on the socio-cultural handling of natural disasters.


The answers to all these issues lead to the final and central question of the study: Can Mamluk Egypt be considered a “culture of disaster” in accordance with Greg Bankoff’s theory?

"Participation, governance and social change in relief work and reconstruction after natural disasters in late colonial India (19th-20th centuries)" (working title)

Eleonor Marcussen, M.A., Ph.D. Candidate

The research focuses on relief work during natural disasters in northern India in the period of the 19th-20th centuries. The research traces approaches by state and administration in their dealings with relief measurements, as well as the civil societies’ and relief organisations’ involvement in providing relief and awakening opinion.

In attending to reconstruction and control over relief measurements as well as remaining resources, the interplay between community, organisations and governing bodies play a crucial role in successfully managing the disaster impact. In this light, how were the approaches to relief work and the reconstruction process acted out by civil society and the state in India during this time? For the survivors, a sudden natural disaster often becomes a struggle over remaining resources and the new resources in the form of aid. Hence, how did the authorities, public institutions, and social welfare organisations cope in the aftermath of the disaster?

The study sets out to explore the contestation of relief measurements as stated by the various actors, expressed and formulated into actions of relief. By using data from the administrative accounts, official reports, newspapers and private papers the research aims to contribute to the knowledge of relief work and power contestations after natural disasters in late colonial India.

D17: Images of Disasters

Furthermore, we are not only sharing an office but also cooperating with D17 "Images of Disasters". The main outcome of the project will be an exhibition on images of disaster at the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museum in probably 2013.

Selected Interviews with Prof. Schenk

Interviews in the European television channel "ARTE": Interview 1 - Interview 2

Interview for the weekly newspaper "Die Zeit"

Interview with the online service "Spiegel Online"

Interview for the television channel ”3Sat

Interview for the radiostation “Deutschlandradio Kultur

Interview with the daily newspaper “Handelsblatt