Catastrophe: The Cultural History of Natural Disasters

Tutor: Miles Taylor

Module type: Comparative Histories

Module Code: HIS00073H

Extreme weather may be the work of nature, but it is men and women who have to deal with its consequences. From the supposed eruption of Santorini and the submergence of Atlantis in c. 1700BC through to New Jersey’s Hurricane ‘Sandy’ in 2012, human societies have responded to natural disasters in a variety of ways and with a range of results. Volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, fires, avalanches, cyclones and heat-waves have all shaped and reshaped history but in remarkably different ways at different times. This course examines through primary and secondary sources how humankind has imagined and feared, anticipated and ignored, and extinguished and mopped up natural disasters across two millennia.

Seminar topics are likely to include the following:

  • Introduction: is there such a thing as a natural disaster ?
  • After the flood: legendary weather in the ancient world
  • Atlantis, Alexandria and Pompeii: submerged civilisations and their legacy
  • Enlightenment and environment
  • Colonialism and the control of nature
  • Resilient cities under fire: Rome, London and Chicago
  • The modern deluge: floods and citizens 
  • Humanitarianism and relief
  • The day after: natural disaster as cultural spectacle