top of page

What makes a disaster: the event itself or the way humans respond? This panel addresses that pressing question through case studies of disasters and the methodologies that historians use to study them.


What makes something a disaster? The trigger itself...or the way that people respond? This panel flips our understanding of pandemics and other disasters upside down by emphasizing the importance of human reactions above the science--especially any lessons we might learn from the sometimes-horrific results of human encounter with cataclysm.

Moderated by Stephanie Carlson. Stephanie earned an MLitt in Mediaeval Studies from the University of St. Andrews in 2017, and is now an independent scholar known as u/CoeurdeLionne on Reddit. Stephanie specializes in warfare and political history in the Angevin Empire, but is also interested in literature and languages from twelfth-century Western Europe. She lives in Illinois and is working in the insurance industry while applying to PhD programs.




The Importance of Epidemics for Social History

What is the difference between an epidemic and very successful virus? This paper will examine the epidemic as a social event--demonstrating that a key part of the experience of an epidemic is how societies react to the presence of disease and the fear of death, and how they channel their anxieties and fears. In the present moment, Black Lives Matter has taken on a new life in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown; while the mass protest in a time of quarantine has struck some observers as unusual if not illogical—in fact, such social upheaval in the time of epidemic is relatively common.


The historian Roger McGrew observed that "an epidemic intensifies certain behavior patterns [that] ... betray deeply rooted and continuing social imbalances." From protests over cholera in Europe in the 19th century, to the anti-Chinese ordinances of the San Francisco plague in 1907-08, and the revolutions and uprisings that followed the "Spanish" flu of 1918-1920, I’ll show how epidemics provide moments of social tension and abnormality that allow historians to gain insight into the everyday lives and worries of normal people—the poor, immigrants, and minorities—who might not otherwise have left written records.

Christopher S Rose (Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin, 2019) is a social historian of medicine focusing on Egypt and the Middle East in the 19th and 20th century. He is currently an adjunct instructor in Global Studies at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Texas in 2019-20. He is the author of a forthcoming article about the "Spanish" influenza in Egypt that will appear in the Journal of World History in early 2021. An active public historian, he is also a founder and former co-host of the 15-Minute History podcast, and is past-president of the Middle East Outreach Council.


DARIA BERMAN (/u/dariabermanama)

The Anti-Jewish Riots in the First Castilian Civil War

This presentation will highlight the key aspects of economic, social, and demographic change that influenced the start of the anti-Jewish riots in the first Castilian Civil War (1355-1369) between Pedro I and his half-brother, Enrique de Trastámara. I will address the effects of the Black Death on the social hierarchy in Iberia, mainly focusing on Castile, as well as Pedro I’s price controls that sought to resist inflation and his struggle to balance monarchical power with factions in the nobility. Underlying these social and economic changes, I will highlight the increasing vulnerability of the Jews and the anti-Jewish riots that occurred throughout the civil war. I will argue that in combination, the Black Death, the taxation system, and the monarchical tradition to exploit Jewish moneylenders, create a more cohesive understanding of the causes of the anti-Jewish riots and the civil war, a blame shared not only between Pedro I and Enrique de Trastámara’s armies, but the whole of the Castilian populace.

Daria Berman earned her M.A .from the University of Chicago and her B.A. from New York University. Researching Jewish-Christian relations in medieval and early modern Iberia, she completed her M.A. thesis on the First Castilian Civil War. Her research interests include the Trastamaran dynasty, the anti-Jewish riots of 1391, and the Spanish Inquisition.


CHRIS DAY (/u/cl0winus)

Computing Cholera: Topic Modelling Catalogue Entries for the Correspondence of the General Board of Health (1848-1871)

The correspondence of the General Board of Health (1848-1871) documents the work of a body set up to deal with cholera epidemics in a period where some English homes were so filthy as to be described as ‘mere pigholes not fit for human beings’. Individual descriptions for each of these over 89,000 letters are available on Discovery, The National Archives (UK)’s catalogue. Now, some 170 years later, access to the letters themselves has been disrupted by another epidemic, COVID-19.


This paper will examine how data science can be used repurpose archival catalogue descriptions, initially created to enhance the ‘human findability’ of records (and favoured by many UK archives due to high digitisation costs), for large scale computational analysis. The records of the General Board will be used as a case study: their catalogue descriptions topic modelled using a latent Dirichlet allocation model, visualised, and analysed – giving an insight into how new sanitary regulations were negotiated with a divided public during an epidemic. The paper will then explore the validity of using the descriptions of historical sources as a source in their own right; and ask how, during a time of restricted archival access, metadata can be used to continue research.

Chris Day's presentation includes several images and data visualizations.


Chris Day is Head of Modern Domestic Records at The National Archives, the official archive of the UK Government. Chris specialises in the records of 19th and 20th century public health and social security bodies, the records of the Home Office, and of cats on the British government’s payroll. He is also interested in digital research, particularly how archival metadata created for one purpose can be reused for computational analysis.


ADAM BIERSTEDT (/u/sagathian)

Galt margr óverðr þessa ófriðar: The Samalas Eruption, Unusual Weather, and the end of the Icelandic Commonwealth

In the mid-1250s, the Samalas volcano in Indonesia erupted in the single largest eruption of the Common Era. The resultant sulfate aerosol cloud expanded worldwide, causing global climatic disruption, apparently culminating in 1258. Ongoing projects detail multiple years of poor weather, crop failures, and related disease outbreaks. This project, representing a part of my MA research, takes that research and brings it to the borders of the inhabited world in medieval Iceland. The Samalas eruption’s long-term effects coincide with the end of the so-called “Icelandic Commonwealth” and the submission of the Icelandic elite to Norway in 1264. It therefore is justifiable to explore the social impacts of this eruption, and whether they contributed to the decision-making process of the Icelandic elite.


Using comparisons with the Tambora eruption, this project records significant environmental disruption, including a disease outbreak and ice surrounding Iceland, and contextualizes it in European climatic impacts generally. It explores how the literate elite interpreted the disruptive weather effects, and the ways in it was and was not incorporated into understandings of the elite feuding of the end of the Icelandic Commonwealth.

Adam Bierstedt's presentation includes several images.

Adam Bierstedt graduated with his MA in Viking and Medieval Norse Studies from the University of Iceland in 2019. The research project on historical volcanism and the end of the Icelandic Commonwealth period was the topic of his MA thesis, which combined literary and scientific analysis. He is currently applying to a Ph.D. with a project looking at videogame adaptations of Norse literature and mythology. He also currently streams historical and fantasy games about the Middle Ages and other time periods on Twitch on the channel Ludohistory.

bottom of page