Document Type

Honors Project


This thesis conducts a comparative study of historical responses to natural disasters by examining the Black Death of the fourteenth century, the 1666 Great Fire of London, and the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. In doing so, I employ an interdisciplinary framework by adapting the theory of path dependence to my analysis of prominent historical disasters. With this theoretical structure, I suggest that natural disasters cause moments of uncertainty that often produce critical junctures at key moments of development in the societies they affect. In the first and third chapters, I explore how the Black Death and the Lisbon earthquake served as interruptions of existing path dependencies allowing for departures, of varying magnitude, from patterns of the past. Chapter One argues that the Black Death highlighted institutional shortcomings within the Catholic Church as a public health institution, opening the doors for new expressions of religious criticism. Chapter Three similarly contends that the Lisbon Earthquake devastated the city and the Portuguese economy, allowing students of the Enlightenment to reform both through modernization-minded rationalism, and reshaping intellectual dialogues of disaster across Europe. Contrasting slightly, Chapter Two asserts that the paranoia and confusion that followed the London Fire helped to cultivate burgeoning path dependencies by removing obstacles to and exacerbating imperial and anti-Catholic tensions. In concert, these case studies seek to offer historians an interdisciplinary framework through which to create and contribute to broader scholarly dialogues surrounding natural disasters in human history.

Included in

History Commons



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