The Renaissance commonplace of the storm at sea: Rabelais, Camoes and Shakespeare

This paper will attempt to reconsider the topos of the tempest as portrayed in the writings of the 16th and early 17th centuries as an archetypal figure of the unexpected event which befalls mere mortals and about which they can do very little. Such a chance event can be neither anticipated nor mastered : by subjecting its victims to the possibility of imminent death, it exposes the very core of human nature. What then is the right attitude to adopt in the face of such overwhelming natural and (perhaps) supernatural power ? Action or prayer? And to whom should the prayers be addressed? The onus is placed on the response of the suffering subject. Rabelais (in the Quart Livre), Camoes (in Os Lusiadas) and Shakespeare (in The Tempest) all expoit the topos as a means of delineating character. However the religious dimension – and especially the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism – is never far from the surface: the virtues of a true Christian are never more apparent than during a storm at sea.

Jonathan Pollock (Université de Perpignan Via Domitia)

Phytophthora Infestans , European Famines and heritage.

In the middle of the 19thC, a fungal pathogen, phytophthora Infestans, commonly known as potato blight, wreaked havoc in Europe, recurrently decimating potato crops between 1845 and 1850. It caused untold misery on those populations that had come to rely on few food crops other than the potato, such as, in the British Isles, the Irish and the inhabitants of the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

In Ireland, its effects were frighteningly devastating, resulting in severe population decline due to a heavy death toll and emigration. The very wording of this sentence, however, implies a direct causal link between this fungal disease and the human misery that ensued. If the emergence of the blight in Europe led to scientific debates as to the cause of the disease[1], even more intense were the subsequent debates that surrounded the British government’s decisions regarding the management of the crisis. In such arguments, the responsibility of the British government during the crisis dovetailed with issues concerning the causes of the socio-economic vulnerability of peasant communities who had become so highly dependent on the potato as a staple food, the consumption of which had sustained their demographic growth.

To the Malthusian interpretation of the crisis, was added a long-standing moralist vision of ecological disasters as ‘God’s visitation’ for human sins. God’s hands rapidly served political discourses that justified the complete restructuring of Ireland’s and, to some extent, Highland Scotland’s peasant economies, not simply as regards crop diversification, but above all in order to drive forth a reform in land use and holding in line with Liberal economics – a new social system. In 1846, on the second ‘visitation’ of the blight in the British Isles, Charles Trevelyan, the Assistant Secretary to the Treasury and keen advocate of free trade and limited government intervention in famine administration, described it as the ‘direct stroke of an all wise Providence [2]’. This Providentialist interpretation was also used in indictments levelled against the British Government and their management of the food crisis, as illustrated by the nationalist activist John Mitchel who, in typically polemical style, lashed out: ‘the Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine[3]’.

Since then historians, political scientists and plant biologists, along with specialists of development economics have dissected and used the role of the Irish calamity in, for instance, histories of the potato, the birth of plant pathology, the dangers of genetic uniformity in crops, the spread of plant diseases through trade and travel. The Irish crisis has most notably informed scholarly discussions of the socio-economic and cultural forces producing vulnerability to environmental challenges, an approach, largely comparative and transnational, spearheaded by A. Sen’s entitlement theory[4].

Heritage, as a cultural process responsive to present ends and needs, is not only constitutive of meaning, values and shared memories, but also an economic and political resource. How has heritage been deployed to address the issues surrounding the representation of such an environmental disaster as the blight and its resultant famines? In the course of the discussion, the following issues may be unpicked:

  • The role of the past in the display of scientific knowledge (educating and warning): staple food crops, their genetics and adaptability to changing climatic conditions; their susceptibility to diseases and the dangers of globalisation in the spread of plant diseases.
  • The socio-political uses of the past by heritage practitioners: the use of a transnational perspective bringing awareness to contemporary issues such as refugee crises or climate change; heritage as future-making, in particular the endorsement of a programmatic approach engaging with the great concerns of decades to come.
  • Heritage-makers (professional and lay) and their choice of medium to translate information and / or alert the public to present and future issues: science museums, social history museums, monuments, commemorations…
  • Heritage, famine and the memory of catastrophe – identity, cultural transmission, trauma.

Laurence Gouriévidis (Université Clermont Auvergne)

[1] Some of the most penetrating were published in the horticultural periodical The Gardeners’ Chronicles.

[2] Quoted in Gray Peter, Famine, Land and Politics : British Government and Irish Society 1843-50, Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1999, p. 232.

[3] John Mitchel, The Last Conquest of Ireland (perhaps), London, [1861], ed. Patrick Maume, Dublin: UCD Press, 2005, p. 219.

[4] Sen A., ‘Famines’, World Development, 8, 1980, 613-21; Fraser E.D.G, ‘Social Vulnerability and Ecological Fragility: Building Bridges between Social and Natural Sciences Using the Irish Potato Famine as a Case Study’, Conservation Ecology, 7(2): 9, 2003 [online:] (Accessed 4/02/2020).


Frankenstein’s Creature, a Natural ‘Catastrophe’?

Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein refers to the long-awaited awakening of his creature as a ‘catastrophe[1]’, a term which echoes his famous description of an oak tree completely destroyed by lighting only a few pages before (‘the catastrophe of this tree[2]’). The word recurs a third and last time at the end of the novel as Walton is about to relate his encounter with the creature over Victor’s body: ‘the tale which I have recorded would be incomplete without this final and wonderful catastrophe[3].’ The meaning of the word evolves and circulates among these three quotations, from the natural (but not only) connotations in the first occurrence to the literary sense of the last, which crowns the ‘tale’ that the narrative of Frankenstein constitutes. How are we then to understand the second occurrence of ‘catastrophe’? Focusing on Shelley’s three uses of this term, this paper aims at exploring the interplay between the natural and the artificial in Frankenstein, wondering what sort of a ‘catastrophe” its creature might be.

Anne Rouhette (Université Clermont Auvergne)

[1] Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus, ed. J. Paul Hunter, New York: Norton, p. 35.

[2] Ibid., p. 24.

[3] Ibid., p. 158.

Storms, Tempests, and ‘visions of romance’: Jane Austen and the weather

In the late spring and early summer of 1816, Jane Austen was at work revising the manuscript of ‘Susan’ (which would become Northanger Abbey). She was also writing her final completed novel Persuasion, completed on 6 August of that year.  In that extraordinary year without a summer (so-called because of the peculiar climactic conditions that caused heavy rains and average global temperatures to plummet, resulting in failed harvests across Europe and severe famine in parts of Ireland), Jane Austen was therefore working on two novels in which weather plays a central and key part. While this historical correspondence may be no more than coincidental, in this paper I would like to consider the ways in which Austen uses key scenes of stormy weather to structure both novels. Beginning with the storm scenes in Northanger Abbey, which Austen deploys to illuminate her heroine’s metaphorical coming of age, as she moves from viewing the world through the prism of Gothic melodrama to a more sober and empirically-determined understanding of human beings, I will then turn to the topic of rain in Persuasion in order to demonstrate the extent to which rainy weather regularly dictates crucial plot developments in that novel.

Katie Halsey, University of Stirling

Between the earth and a hard place : John Ray’s inquiry into the dissolution of the world in Miscellaneous Discourses (1692)

As a fellow of the Royal Society and the author of several botanical treatises, including the Methodus plantarum nova (1682) and the three volumes of the Historia generalis plantarum (1686, 1688, 1704), John Ray (1627-1705) is sometimes presented as « the father of natural history » (as his blue plaque in Black Notley, Essex, proudly proclaims). But he is also the author of the Miscellaneous Discourses, a curious book in which he combines biblical scholarship and natural philosophical reasoning to inquire into the future dissolution of the world. That the world will come to an end, no man can deny. It is a belief shared by both the ancient philosophers and the doctors of the Church. Yet, Ray also argues that this should not necessarily concern us since the world will not be « annihilated or destroyed » but « only renewed and purified ». In this presentation I will aim at showing how Ray distances himself from Baconian philosophy by using the book of God’s word (i.e. divinity) to study the book of God’s works (i.e. philosophy). But I also propose to analyse Ray’s thorough inquiry into the dissolution of the world from a more phenomenological perspective by focusing on his remarkably comprehensive catalogue of possible natural disasters – a catalogue ranging from landslides and flooding to the « extinction of the sun », and from « the eruption of the central fire » to « the dryness of the earth in the torrid zone ».

Mickaël Popelard (Université de Caen Normandie)

The Fate of the Bees

As the climate-change clock ticks down one asks: why are we so blasé? Why are we not galvanised in the way of societies in wartime? How have we come to normalise the apocalypse? I approach this question via a genealogy that takes modern society to derive from the secular political thinking of the later 17th and early 18th centuries, rather than early modern notions of providence, patience and moral rigor. In Hobbes, Shaftesbury, Adam Smith and Bernard Mandeville, the state is seen to run on unimproved human nature. In his Fable of the Bees (1714; 1705), Mandeville states this in its baldest terms: “publicke benefits” are fuelled by “private vices”. Replace vice by virtue and the state dries up. The genius of this thinking is that we are saved even – especially – by our vices. What could go wrong? Climate change: suddenly we are returned to an uncannily early modern world of Old Testament absolutes, where the Flood is coming and God owes us nothing. More – much more – is required of us than the “private vice” machine is capable of supplying. I conclude by bringing my genealogy to an early modern reading of Paul Schrader’s 2017 film, First Reformed: a Calvinistic take on climate change.

John Gillies (University of Essex)

« Hecla, whose sulfurious fire Doth melt the frozen clime and thaw the sky »: Musical Representations of Extreme Natural Phenomena in Early Modern English Madrigals and Lute-songs

Climate-based metaphors are far from being unusual in Renaissance love poetry and lyrics, but just like the Petrarchan similes that took Europe by storm, they soon became relatively stale and lost their unexpectedness: the flames of love and volcanic passions, the storms of unrequited affections and the bolts of lightning struck by lovers’ eyes often come over as sterile or artificial. Musical figuralism and word-painting however often have the ability to give them life, as in the case of the famous madrigal by Thomas Weelkes, « Thule, the Period of Cosmography », in which  the musical lines match the extremes of hot and cold spewed forth by the Icelandic volcano Hekla, at the time often referred to as the « Gate of Hell ». This paper will examine the musical realizations of natural disasters both in the intimate settings favoured by the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, and in some court Masques where the violent contrasts suggested by such extreme phenomena could be used to great dramatic effect.

Chantal Schütz (École Polytechnique)