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Earthquakes in Europe 1300 to1800

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Yang, Eun Sung
Term Paper, AP European History Class, July 2008

Table of Contents
I. Introduction
II. Basel Earthquake of 1356
II.1 The Great Basel Earthquake
II.2 Documented Damage
III. Central and Southern Italy Earthquake of 1456
IV. Sicily Earthquake of 1693
IV.1 Documented Damage
IV.2 Influence
V. Lisbon Earthquake of 1755
V.1 The Great Lisbon Earthquake
V.2 Documented Damage
V.3 Influence on Society
VI. Conclusion

I. Introduction
            Natural disasters, whether they be expected or unexpected, play a significant role in history. They can directly result in massive casualties and destruction of cities; they can even cause major movements of civilizations.
Earthquakes, being one of such natural disasters, have much influence on people. This paper deals with some of the major earthquakes that influenced Europe from the 16th century to the 18th century and their impacts on the European society.

II. Basel Earthquake of 1356

II.1 The Great Basel Earthquake
            The Basel earthquake, which took place on the evening of October 18, 1356, was the most damaging intra-plate earthquake recorded in the history of central Europe - hence its second name, the Great Basel Earthquake. It also has a third name, the "S?isme de la Saint-Luc," after the feast day of Saint Luke the Evangelist which happened to be on the same day (1).
            The earthquake struck northwest Switzerland, centering round the town of Basel. It completely destroyed the city; all major structures, including churches, castles and fortresses, within a 30 kilometer radius of Basel were destroyed. It is recorded that a precursor existed around 7 to 8 p.m., with the main earthquake striking at around 10 p.m. (2). The earthquake was felt widely across Europe, even in areas as far as ?le-de-France, Zürich and Konstanz. The maximum seismic intensity registered on the MSK scale was of IX?X. With the historic records, seismologists estimate the Mw magnitude of the earthquake at around 6.2 (3).

II.2 Documented Damage
            Damages of buildings were observed in the Basel, Baluen, and Hauenstein regions of Switzerland, the Sundgau region of the Alsace (presenntly France), and what is presently the Baden-Württemberg region of Germany. Historical records report that in the city of Basel, no building in the suburbs or the town endured the earthquake. The above illustration is documentation by chroniclers in the 14th to 16th centuries on the impression of the damage to area surrounding Basel.
            An exact number of the casualties from this event remain uncertain, with a range from hundreds to even thousands. It is most commonly suggested that around 300 casualties took place in Basel alone. However, the number of casualties is considered relatively small considering the size of the earthquake (4).

III. Central and Southern Italy Earthquake of 1456
            The 1456 earthquake took place in December 5, 1456, affecting a large area of central and southern Italy
(5). It is recorded to be the largest earthquake - in fact, a sequence of multiple, sub-contemporary earthquakes (6) - to have ever occurred in Italy. Because this earthquake occurred so long ago with a serious sparseness of historical records, the assessment of the specific damages and the cause has been comparatively difficult.
            Despite the scarcity of information, the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia subdivided the damage patterns of the earthquake into three independent mesoseismal areas for a further assessment into the situation - each areas falling onto east?west tectonic trends previously identified and marked by deep right-lateral slip earthquakes. According to their findings, the 1456 earthquake was caused by individual segments of regional east?west structures, becoming an evidence of a seismogenic style that involves oblique dextral reactivation of east?west lower crustal faults. It is possible that each successive earthquakes took place in a cascade fashion. The institution also suggests a tectonic deformation and seismic release in southern Italy as a possible cause (7).

IV. The Sicily Earthquake of 1693
            The 1693 earthquake was a forceful disaster which occurred on January 11, 1693. Coming along with a volcanic eruption of Mount Etna, the earthquake struck southern Italy, especially in the regions of Sicily and Malta (8).

IV.1 Documented Damage
            The 1693 earthquake caused the destruction of at least 45 towns and cities - thereby affecting a large area of 5600 square kilometers. The fatalities were over 60,000. As a direct result of this earthquake, two-thirds of the entire population in Catania was killed (9) In Modica, 3,400 died out of 18,203; in Ragusa, 5,000 out of 99,446; in Vittoria, 200 out of 3,950; in Sicily 2,000 out of 9,382. in Spaccaforno, the present Ispica, 2,000 out of 7,987; in Giarratana, 541 out of 2,981; and in Monterosso, 232 out of 2.340 (10).

IV.2 Influence
            As a result of the earthquake, many buildings were destroyed, calling for a rebuilding of the structures. This destruction ironically brought about a Baroque revival in architecture in the 17th and 18th century (11) - sometimes known as the Earthquake Baroque in the towns of Sicily and Malta. Towns that were hit by the earthquake, and therefore had to rebuild many of its buildings include Syracuse, Sicily, Ragusa, Italy, Caltagirone, Palazzolo Acreide, Modica, Comiso and Mdina on Malta. Many existing cathedrals and buildings such as St. Paul's Cathedral in Mdina were built after the earthquake (12).

V The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755

V.1 The Great Lisbon Earthquake
            The 1755 Lisbon earthquake took place on November 1, 1755, the Catholic holiday of All Saintsí» Day. This earthquake did not end as a natural disaster in itself, but was followed by a tsunami and fire, which almost caused a complete wipeout of Lisbon, Portugal and the surrounding areas. This is where it gets its other name, the Great Lisbon Earthquake. The Lisbon earthquake is estimated to have approached a magnitude 9 on the Richter scale.
            Historical records by contemporaries report that the event lasted between three-and-a-half and six minutes. In this short period of time, the earthquake caused gigantic fissures 5 meters wide in the city center. Survivors of this first event rushed to the docks for safety. Unfortunately, about forty minutes later, an enormous tsunami swallowed up the harbor as well as downtown, and rushed up the Tagus River. This tsunami was followed by two more waves. The lucky survivors of the tsunami burnt in flames which quickly broke out and raged for five days.
            The situation was not better in other regions. A tsunami also engulfed Algarve, which was located in the southern Portugal, heavily damaging all coastal towns and villages except Faro; in Lagos, the waves even went as high as the top of the city walls; and the town of Vila Real de Santo Ant?nio was completely destroyed. Even regions located near the Serra da Estrela mountain range in central inland Portugal were affected. The earthquake was felt even as far as Finland and North Africa (13)

. V.2 Documented Damage
            The total death toll is estimated between 60,000 to 100,000. In Lisbon, 90,000 out of the entire population of 275,000 were killed; in Morocco, another 10,000 lost their lives. In Lisbon, 85% of Lisbon's buildings were destroyed, including most examples of Portugal's distinctive 16th-century Manueline architecture. Buildings that remained undamaged from the earthquake were destroyed by the subsequent fire. One notable building that was destroyed was the Royal Ribeira Palace. Along with the palace, the 70,000-volume royal library and hundreds of works of art, including paintings by Titian, Rubens, and Correggio, were lost. Detailed historical records of Vasco da Gama and other early navigatorsí» findings were lost along with the other artifacts.
            Major churches such as the Lisbon Cathedral, the Basilicas of S?o Paulo, Santa Catarina, S?o Vicente de Fora, and the Misericordia Church were destroyed. The Royal Hospital of All Saints, which happened to be the largest public hospital at the time, in the Rossio square was burnt down with hundreds of patients still inside, unable to escape. The tomb of national hero Nuno ?lvares Pereira was lost as well (14).

V.3 Influence on Society
            As the event took place on a Catholic holiday and destroyed nearly all Catholic churches, it caused much anxiety and confusion among the citizens. The earthquake was interpreted as a manifestation of the anger of God; theologians focused on spreading the religious cause and message of the event.
            The event along with its devastating consequences also influenced the European Age of Enlightenment. Voltaire, the renown philosopher, used the event in Candide and in his Poeme sur le desastre de Lisbonne. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was also influenced by the event. He developed the incident as an argument against cities by setting it as an example why too many people living within the close surroundings of the city would be a bad strategy.
            Immanuel Kant developed and elevated the concept of sublime after the earthquake. Kant was fascinated with the event and used all the information he could gather to create the theory on the cause of earthquakes. This theory involved the shifting of huge subterranean caverns filled with hot gases. Being the primitive form, the theory was proven to be false by the posterity, but it was the first systematic attempt to explain earthquakes in a scientific manner. Therefore, Kant's theory is regarded to be the birth of modern seismology.
            Being so great in its impact, the event created great political tensions. Before November 1, 1755 there was a constant struggle for power and royal favor, but the Marquis of Pombal, the prime minister, was usually the more predominant one. However, after the earthquake, a silent opposition and resentment of King Joseph I began to form, leading to continual attempts of assassination of the king (15).

VI Conclusion
            Seismological activities in Europe caused devastating destructions of cities as well as massive loss of lives. This paper dealt with such activities from the 16th to the 19th century, focusing on the events themselves, along with the damages they caused and influences on European society. There is no doubt that many people lost their lives and many of the glorious symbols of the past were destroyed during these activities. However, often times, these destructions led to positive consequences such as a revival of arts and the development of new ideas.


(1)      Article: 1356 Basel earthquake, from Wikipedia
(2)      Risk Management Solutions
(3)      Article: 1356 Basel earthquake, from Wikipedia
(4)      Risk Management Solutions
(5)      Teramo, A.; Stillitani, E.; Bottari, A.; Termini, D. 1999.
(6)      Camassi, 2004
(7)      Fracassi and Valensise, 2007
(8)      Article: 1693 earthquake, from Wikipedia
(9)      ibid
(10)      "History and legends - The earthquake of 1693 [English]."
(11)      ibid
(12)      Article: 1693 earthquake, from Wikipedia
(13)      Article: 1755 Lisbon earthquake, from Wikipedia
(14)      ibid
(15)      ibid


Note : websites quoted below were visited in July 2008.
1.      Article: 1356 Basel earthquake, from Wikipedia. .
2.      Article: 1693 earthquake, from Wikipedia. .
3.      Article: 1755 Lisbon earthquake, from Wikipedia. .
4.      Risk Management Solutions, Inc. "1356 Basel Earthquake 650-Year Retrospective." Risk Assessment Models (2006).
5.      Camassi, Romano. "Catalogues of historical earthquakes in Italy." Annals of Geophysics, Vol. 47(2004).
6.      Teramo, A.; Stillitani, E.; Bottari, A.; Termini, D. "The December 5th, 1456 central Italy earthquake : A discussion of a possible reshaping of intensity distribution by vectorial modelling." Pure and Applied Geophysics (1999).
7.      Fracassi, Umberto; Valensise, Gianluca, "Unveiling the Sources of the Catastrophic 1456 Multiple Earthquake: Hints to an Unexplored Tectonic Mechanism in Southern Italy." Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America. 2007. Seismological Society of America. .
8.      "History and legends - The earthquake of 1693 [English]." Storia, leggende. Ragusa e provincia. .

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