(Urbanization): Session at the European Association for Urban History Conference: Cities in Motion 2020

With the expansion of early modern Asian and European cities into areas of seismic and volcanic activity, their inhabitants – already jostling in over-crowded spaces – were increasingly exposed to a range of natural disasters. Taking an interdisciplinary and trans-national approach, this panel examines varying interpretations of natural disasters within geographically and culturally distinct urban contexts.


The early modern period saw unprecedented urban growth – both in Asia and Europe. Important cities and towns became trading and economic centres that witnessed mass migration and population explosion. In order to accommodate people and communities, some cities created new quarters which were often crammed and unsafe. Hence, congested urban areas became increasingly exposed to fires or even epidemics. Moreover, urban areas located by rivers and the sea were exposed to flooding, seaquakes and, in some cases, earthquakes. Furthermore, some important urban areas such as Naples or Shimabara (Japan) were hit by volcanic eruptions that caused urban and environmental catastrophes. Additionally, natural disasters forced communities and their authorities to deal with fear, casualties, states of emergency, refugees, and food provisioning.

Through a comparative approach between the western world and Asia in the early modern period, this panel intends to explore the variety of responses that disasters generated across different communities and social groups: from ordinary people to state and religious authorities. Hence, natural disasters should be located within contemporary civic, religious, political and scholarly dimensions. Indeed, the ways in which the populace viewed life, death and nature shaped their perception of natural disasters.

In light of its interdisciplinary and transnational dimension, this panel looks at the different forms through which the idea of natural disasters took shape in geographically distant and culturally different societies throughout the early modern period. In the Western Christian world, for example, catastrophes were believed to be a manifestation of divine anger against human sins. Conversely, in Japan disasters were interpreted as the celestial punishment on incapable administrators. Such contrasting and yet overlooked differences constitute one of the central themes that this panel seeks to explore. Moreover, this panel welcomes contributions that focus on perceptions of disasters in other geographical areas including, but not limited to, China, east Asia and the Islamic world.
Abstracts should be emailed to Professor Koichi Watanabe ([email protected]) and Dr Lorenza Gianfrancesco ([email protected] chi.ac.uk). In the body of your email, please include your name, institution if applicable, and the title of your abstract.


  • Spokesperson: Koichi Watanabe, National Institute of Japanese Literature
  • Co-organizer(s): Rorenza Gianfrancesco, University of Chichester | Davis Matthew, University of London | Mina Ishizu, London School of Economics
  • Keywords: Natural disaster | Divine anger | Celestical punishment
  • Time period: Early modern period
  • Topic(s): Intellectual | Social
  • Study area: More than one continent