The Lisbon Disaster viewed from England

The Lisbon earthquake of November 1st, 1755 was by far the most significant natural disaster of the entire 18th century. On that fateful day, an earthquake, followed by a tsunami, razed the Portuguese capital almost entirely to the ground, causing the death of at least 50,000 out of its 275,000 inhabitants, and fatally weakening Portugal as an international power. The moral and intellectual consequences of the event were no less far reaching, whether one thinks of Voltaire (Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, 1755 ; Candide, 1759), or of Immanuel Kant, the author in 1756 of three works exploring the causes of earthquakes. What is less commonly known, at least on this side of the Channel, is that the Lisbon catastrophe had a particular resonance in England, as London had been struck by an earthquake a mere five years before. Even though the London earthquake had resulted in minimal damage, it had nonetheless led to much soul searching and moral introspection (sermons and specially written hymns and poems), as well as to musings on the natural causes of such phenomena. The Lisbon disaster therefore gave renewed urgency to the questions and worries that had been triggered by the 1750 London earthquake. The English responses to the Lisbon tragedy took several forms, ranging from first-hand accounts of the earthquake – a number of English merchants were on the spot –, to poems, sermons and admonitions from clerics of various stripes, including the founders of Methodism, John Wesley and George Whitefield. This presentation will focus on two issues : the way in which the various English writers, who were all Protestants, dealt with the fact that the stricken city was a Catholic one ; the need to combine the explanation of earthquakes by natural causes, with a theological framework in which they were viewed as the expression of divine judgment, a complex intellectual exercise that led at times to some unexpected transactions between these potentially contradictory requirements.

Pierre Lurbe (Faculté des Lettres, Sorbonne Université)

Primary sources : 

  • An Account of the late Dreadful Earthquake and Fire, Which destroyed the City of Lisbon, The Metropolis of Portugal. In a Letter from a Merchant Resident there, to his Friend in England. London, 1755.
  • A farther Account of Memorable Earthquakes To the present year1756. Wherein is inserted a short and faithful Relation of the late Dreadful Calamity at Lisbon, Cambridge, 1756.
  • Alcock, Thomas, A Sermon on the Late Earthquakes, More particularly that at Lisbon, Oxford, 1756.
  • Hunter, Thomas, An Historical Account of Earthquakes, Extracted from the most Authentick Historians, Liverpool, 1756.
  • Wesley, John, Serious Thoughts Occasion’d by the Earthquake at Lisbon, London, 1756.
  • [Whitefield, George], A Letter from a Clergyman at London to the Remaining Disconsolate Inhabitants of Lisbon, London, 1756.

The Plague of Gnats in Early Modern England

As early as 1546, the Italian physician Fracastoro put forward the contagion theory and, in 1578, he was followed by Massari who similarly questioned the traditional aetiology of miasma. Yet, this medical breakthrough was by no means unanimously accepted in early modern Europe. Shakespeare’s contemporaries still blamed the bad air (literally, malaria) rather than the mosquitoes of the Kent and Essex wetlands for the poor health conditions of its inhabitants. No wonder if references to the ague in connection with toxic air permeate sixteenth-century texts: in the foggy and unwholesome atmosphere of Dunsinane, as Macbeth finally prepares to withstand the assaults of Macduff’s troops, he asks his men to ‘let them lie [here] / Till famine and the ague eat them up’ (5.5.3-4).

Intriguingly, while the real cause of malaria continued to be ignored by most Elizabethan and Jacobean subjects, ‘gnats’ were generally considered as pasture pests which had to be eradicated. Seldom understood as the cause of disastrous epidemics, they were nonetheless seen as symptoms of a degraded world. Early modern playwrights like Shakespeare implied that pests generally thrived in wet, unhealthy climates: the ‘breese’ mentioned by Scarus in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (3.10.14) both ties in with the ‘tokened pestilence’ (3.10.9) mentioned a few lines earlier and with the emollient climate of the Nile region. Furthermore, what was often described in Reformation England as ‘vermin’ was traditionally regarded as a harbinger of disasters. As part and parcel of the Egyptian plagues, it provided monitory examples to all those convinced of the sinful state of the English nation, as can be seen on the frontispiece of Wither’s Britain’s Remembrancer (1628), where a ‘dismall Cloude / Exceeding blacke’ hovers over a map of England (Gilman 2009, 46).

To the climatic and biblical interpretive layers related to the representation of early modern pests should be added a third, geopolitical one. The word ‘mosquito’, which derives from the Spanish diminutive of mosca (i.e. fly), and the term ‘musket’ share the same roots, and both appeared in the early 1570s in the English language, a fact which may well bespeak the imperialist aspirations and anxieties of Elizabethan England.

Against this rather dystopian background connecting ‘gnats’ to pestilential diseases as well as to presumably unhealthy lands to (re)conquer, insects were just beginning to emerge as objects of study for naturalists: Aldrovandi’s De animalibus insectis (1602) and Moffet’s Insectorum sive minimorum animalium theatrum (1634) were the first illustrated books on insects to appear in Europe. In such treatises, these animals so far overlooked or despised featured as interestingly complex creatures, a move which allowed artists to display their artistic skills and to propose less anthropocentric visions of the animal world.

Given these conflicting trends concerning the representation of biting midges, what did poets and playwrights of the period make of the ‘gnats imaginary’ and how did they use it to allude to England’s endangered natural world? I will first focus on the missing links between gnats and actual diseases in the early modern popular beliefs before turning to the intuitive associations made by Shakespeare and the like between insects and pestilence. This should allow me to articulate the epistemological shift which, at the turn of the seventeenth century, no longer made vermin a sign of impending disaster, but rather turned it into a case study for entomologists. I finally hope to show how, today, not unlike what happened in Tudor England, the growth of particularly noxious species of insects (associated as it is with global warming) is increasingly used to emphasise the looming threat of climatic calamities to come.

Sophie Chiari (Université Clermont Auvergne)


  • Aldrovandi, Ulisse. De animalibus insectis, Boloniae, 1602.
  • Fracastoro, Girolamo. De contagione, Venice, Junta, 1546.
  • Gilman, Ernest B. Plague Writing in Early Modern England, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
  • Nutton, Vivian. ‘The Reception of Fracastoro’s Theory: The Seed that Fell among the Thorns?’, Osiris, Vol. 6, Renaissance Medical Learning: Evolution of a Tradition (1990), pp. 196-234
  • Markham, Gervase. The Second Booke of the English Husbandman, London, 1614.
  • Moffet, Thomas. Insectorum sive minimorum animalium theatrum, London, 1634.
  • Shakespeare, William. Antony and Cleopatra in The Complete Works, Oxford, OUP, 2005.
  • Shakespeare, William. Macbeth, in The Complete Works, Oxford, OUP, 2005.
  • Wither, George. Britain’s Remembrancer, London, 1628.

Eco-catastrophe in the Late Works of Michael Drayton: The Invention of the Disaster Epic

The late works of Michael Drayton revel in apocalyptic calamity. Irked that the public had turned a deaf ear to the warnings sounded in his Poly-Olbion, Drayton became convinced England was over-depleting its natural resources, and destined to suffer a self-inflicted disaster of Old Testament proportions. In the late 1620s Drayton penned ‘Mother Redcap’s Tale,’ in which tainted rain drives the entire population wetted by it mad, evoking King Lear; An ‘Elegy to my Noble Friend, Master William Browne, of the evil time,’  which invites his friend to ‘be silent and with patience see, / What this mad times Catastrophe will be’ (3:209); ‘The Tenth Nymphal,’ in which a homeless satyr laments a treeless Britain; Noah’s Flood, a poetic re-telling of the biblical deluge, and republished his grisly account of the Plagues of Egypt in Moses His Birth and Miracles. While some seventeenth-century thinkers such as Godfrey Goodman subscribed to Lucretian theories of nature’s senescence or cosmic decay, Drayton stands among the first writers in English literature to foresee an anthropogenic environmental disaster, and to bewail its dire consequences for other species. Sadly, critics have overlooked Drayton’s late work—misled by its ostensible religious content—or simply dismissed it as out of step with its time, in that he persisted in writing bitter satire in the style of the late Elizabethan period well into the Caroline era.

This paper reappraises Drayton’s disaster poetry by situating it in the context of plague outbreaks and recurrent dearth triggered by the meteorological turbulence of the Little Ice Age. More importantly, it reads Drayton’s late work not merely as elegies for the degraded natural world but also as literary critiques of Cavalier poetry and Stuart drama as anthropocentric and thus incapable of depicting environmental crisis or galvanizing reform, akin to Amitav Ghosh’s denigrating the realist novel as unable to tackle the enormity of climate change. Rather than a throwback to Du Bartas, Drayton’s late phase appropriates Judeo-Christian eschatology to pioneer the genre of the disaster epic that still underlies much environmental literature (especially cli-fi) to this day. Admittedly, Drayton’s catastrophilia confirms the misgivings of ecocritics such as Garrard, Goodbody, and Kerridge that apocalyptic imagery incites as much schadenfreude as concern, and, I would add, betrays the aging writer’s anxiety about the posthumous survival of his own literary works. Yet Drayton’s self-portraits of poets as doom-peddling prophets, afflicted with what psychologists now call the Cassandra Complex, bespeak his genuine fear that anthropocentric literature is powerless to avert an eco-catastrophe.

Todd Andrew Borlik, University of Huddersfield

Extreme Weather: Shakespeare, Natural Disaster, and Atmospheric Phenomena

The word “disaster,” borrowed from the French, implies “an event or occurrence of a ruinous or very distressing nature,” a calamity, “a sudden accident or natural catastrophe that causes great damage and loss of life” (OED).  From an early modern perspective, the definition of “natural disaster” poses  additional challenges, because what we may consider “natural,” without supernatural or providential agency, was often perceived as “unnatural,” an aberration from the customary order of things. In this paper, I will use the phrase “natural disaster” in a general sense, but I will also tease out the tension between natural and unnatural in a coincidence of opposites.  Whether viewed as natural or unnatural, disasters do evoke fear, expose human vulnerability, and raise questions about survival and our exposure to forces unknown or beyond human control. Gaston Bachelard suggests that a dialectics of inside and outside hinges on such moments. Our bodies, our homes, our properties, and our daily habits of life are thrust into uncertainty or disarray.

Climatologists and historians have documented a hemispheric, perhaps global cooling of the Earth, a period known as the Little Ice Age, extending from 1300 to around 1850. The Earth’s cooling has been attributed to various causes such as volcanic activity, cyclical lows in solar radiation, variations of the Earth’s orbit and axial tilt. Major volcanic activities—the eruptions of the Taal Volcano on the Island of Luzon, Philippines in 1572 and from 1605 to 1611, the Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia in 1595, the Huaynaputina, Peru, in 1600—affected the Earth’s climate globally, as documented regionally by contemporary accounts, studies of tree rings, sediment strata, and volcanic particle deposits in layers of polar ice.

Glaciers advanced, the Arctic ice caps became thicker, snowfall intensified, summers cooled down, rainfall increased, and crops failed. Earthquakes, believed in Shakespeare’s time to be caused by winds trapped in the bowels of the Earth, caused considerable damage in the Straits of Dover in 1580 and in Frankfurt, Germany in 1600. Not all weather anomalies led to disaster, of course. The River Thames froze over, for example in 1565, 1595 and 1608. In 1608, the frozen river served as the site for the first so-called Frost Fair, a festive occasion for bowling, dancing, playing football on ice, and of course shopping at the improvised shops set on the frozen surface of the river.

In this paper, I propose to survey regional disasters and weather anomalies and their effects on life and property in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and Shakespeare’s references to and representation of these phenomena in various plays. These disasters include coastal flooding, severe thunderstorms and cloudbursts, tornadoes and destructive winds, lightning strikes, and monstrous extra-tropical cyclonic activity in the North Atlantic. A rich record of responses to these events has survived, including the All Saints’ Flood on the Dutch Coast of 1570, the violent storms that hit Bungay and Norwich in 1577, London’s great snowstorm of 1597 when 24 inches of snow fell on a single day, and destructive coastal flooding in Somerset, Southwest England, and Norfolk in East Anglia in 1607. Some years were notoriously without summer, such as 1601 and, of course 1816, when Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and others took residence on the shores of Lake Geneva.  During this unusual summer, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Shakespeare’s references to weather anomalies in such plays as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, and The Tempest suggest that, when disasters happen, intensely psychological and cultural states of fear emerge. Shakespeare represents meteorological phenomena as “natural,” explainable according to the meteorological theories of his time; but, also weather anomalies, for Shakespeare, function as portals, passageways to something unpredictable and wild, parallel realms of darkness and shadows.  For him, extreme weather represents forces that disturb and destabilize the natural, empirical boundaries of reality, and suggests supernatural possibility, coincidence of opposites, and mystery. Momentarily, we peek into the dark corners of the natural world, the recesses of nature, and nature’s hiding places.

Geraldo U. de Sousa (The University of Kansas, USA)

An Ecocritical Approach to Manuals of Navigation: The Art of Navigation by Martín Cortés, a Case Study

In 1558, Steven Borough visited the navigational school in Seville and brought back to England a copy of Martín Cortés de Albacar’s Arte de Navegar (1551). The English navigator had his copy translated by Richard Eden and published by Richard Jugge as the Art of Navigation in 1561. This paper will aim at offering new perspectives on this work, the first English manual of navigation, as critical consensus generally presents it. The preliminary investigations focus on the last two chapters of the second part of the text “intreating of the motions of the Sun, and the Moon, and of the effects caused thereby”: they are entitled “Of certain signs which prognosticate tempests, or fair weather” and “Of the bright & shining exhalations that appear in tempests which the Mariners call Santelmo, or Corpus sancti.”

At first sight, they seem to question the idea that “[b]efore the nineteenth century, attitudes toward the oceans were more utilitarian than aesthetic.”[1] This case study explores the topic of natural disasters from the angle of the prevention of maritime risks and hazards. It examines to what extent the third part of this manual that “entreateth of the composition and use of Instruments, and Rules for the Art of Navigation” offers tools to anticipate and avoid tempests and how these technical pages full of maps and diagrams fit in the wider conception of “the composition of the world and universal principles necessary for the art of navigation” described in the first part. As Eden’s text circulated widely, some analyses ultimately concentrate on the impact of the translation process on the rhetoric of this aesthetic-scientific approach to navigation.

Anna Demoux (Université Clermont Auvergne)

[1] John R. Gillis, “The Blue Humanities; In studying the sea, we are returning to our beginnings”, Humanities, May/June 2013, Volume 34, Number 3,

Romantic Disasters: Byron, Keats and John Martin

In her essay on catastrophe dated 2011, Annie Le Brun rethinks poetry in terms of what she calls a « vital tension » – a concept which, according to Le Brun, is tied to the questions of temporality and meaning, itself at the heart of any (sane) reader’s understanding of disaster poetics. Le Brun’s notion of a « depraved » aesthetics therefore allows her to broaden the scale of the lyrical, the erotic and the chaotic by possibly embracing catastrophism as a genre.

Le Brun could very well have chosen to quote the Romantics, alongside Sade and his strange passion for volcanoes, to illustrate her epistemology of chaos as a founding principle of any form of creation or, better yet, self-knowledge. If the Romantics have taught us anything about disaster, beyond the vestiges of a malevolent astral influence – Spenser’s “evil starr” – which intimately links folly to astronomy, is that most of their procreative drive comes from a reversed eschatology more often than not inspired by the figures of the past (Dante, Milton). Keats’s “melancholy storm” comes to mind, in his sonnet, After Reading Dante’s Episode of Paulo and Francesca (1819) or the even more famous “Miltonian storms” which Keats beautifully stages in To Charles Cowden Clarke (1816).

Aside from this genealogy of disasters for the most part internalized as a sublime inheritance, Romantic disaster transforms into a signature mark the moment the world, thus caught in the act of a dramatic shift, becomes pathologically rooted in the poet’s consciousness and modes of expression. If some symptoms are organic or celestial, others are simply chromatic. To quote just a few examples: Keats’s “deep volcanian yellow” in Lamia (1820) echoing John “Mad” Martin’s feast of yellow in Eruption of the Vesuvius (1821) or Byron’s “blackening” visions of “Darkness” in his eponymous poem (1816) feeding into the painter’s projections of the apocalypse as a black hole in his art. The palette is infinite.

Needless to say that, in this chain of disasters, the Romantics would not have known what pool of catastrophes (climate change, geology, social upheaval) to choose from: the summer of 1816 was non-existent after a series of volcanic eruptions had occurred between the 5 and 15 April 1815; two new planets had been discovered between 1781 and 1846, upsetting the solar system as we knew it; and, of course, other types of revolutions which simultaneously affected the industry, politics and science were raging throughout Europe and beyond.

In such a context, John Martin’s disastrous profile stands out. Born the same year as the French revolution, his brother lost his mind, and yet he was haunted, throughout his life, with suspicions of madness. In 1822, Martin painted the Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which in turn was submerged and almost completely destroyed by the 1928 flood. Case in point: John Martin forces us to admit that Romantic disaster is not without its share of meta-historical irony!

Caroline Bertonèche (Université Grenoble Alpes)

Man in stormy weathers: tempestuous skies and outbursts in Shakespeare’s times and works.

The opening dialogue between Damville and Borachio in Cyril Tourneur’s Atheist’s Tragedy renders men’s antithetic philosophical and ethical creeds and attitudes when confronted to hostile natural phenomena and catastrophes. Damville’s pseudo scientific arguments and reasoning suit his atheism whereas Borachio’s blind faith in determinism and superstition cannot help him control his fright when thunder rolls and lightning flashes.

Historical records and chronicles show that natural catastrophes have always existed. Yet, at the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th centuries, the European continent was severely affected by floods and tempestuous climates. Inundations, higher tides, ‘furious’ tempests, heavy rainfalls and storms caused thousands of casualties in many countries and made sailing perilous.

From general stormy contexts to edifying texts, my study will first focus on men’s behaviours in stormy weathers in Desiderius Erasmus’s Colloquy on The Shipwreck (1523) as well as in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, King Lear and Twelfth Night in order to analyse how the characters face the ‘Holy’ mysteries of Nature and Life, and how they respond to them, from veneration to the saints to fear and superstition, from praying and begging, to bartering and bargaining. Emphasis will be laid on how they position themselves in the micro world they inhabit within a macro universe they ignore and believe overpowered by anthropomorphic divine skies.

From mirroring texts to mirrored interior political contexts, the second part of my paper will focus on how the Scottish witch-hunt launched by James VI-I was triggered off and amplified by his allegedly superstitious reactions to the several storms he and Anne of Denmark were submitted to, and how it became a political strategy to overcome his fear of being overthrown.

Danièle Berton-Charrière (Université Clermont Auvergne)