The Two Faces of Disaster in the Early Modern Period

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@ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

Overturned ship in stormy sea, rescue team with rope, survivors lying on rocky shore.
Claude–Joseph Vernet, The Shipwreck, 1772. National Gallery of Art.

Louis Gerdelan

Solmsen Fellow (2023-2024)

Haas Postdoctoral Fellow, Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry, Science History Institute

The Two Faces of Disaster in the Early Modern Period

For early modern people destructive phenomena such as earthquakes, storms and raging fires contained many layers of meaning. In this talk I want to propose a new way of thinking about how commentators navigated those layers within an intellectual environment characterised by extreme pluralism. People from many walks of life felt compelled to make sense of catastrophic events, including naturalists, physicians, churchmen, astrologers, journalists and politicians. Furthermore, they often did so in ways that showed a remarkable resourcefulness, in linking recent disasters with those of the distant past and with events in distant countries. Above all, they drew on a special set of skills that allowed them to move between types of explanation (including scientific and religious ones) that to modern eyes may seem contradictory. If people of this period knew that disasters always had more than one nature, how does that affect narratives of secularisation and scientific progress? And what light can it shed on our own paradoxical attitudes towards calamity?

Louis Gerdelan is a historian of the early modern world, with interests in Europe, the Americas, and global history.  His work joins the history of science with intellectual and environmental history.  Gerdelan completed his Ph.D. in History at Harvard University in 2021, and has been the recipient of a number of fellowships, including from the Science History Institute, the Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine, the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium, the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, the Omohundro Institute and the North American Conference on British Studies.  He has published work in the journals Studi Storici and (forthcoming) the Massachusetts Historical Review.

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