CfP: A History of Sensitivity: Perception and Care of Victims of Disasters (13-18th century) / Une histoire de la sensibilité? Perception et prise en charge des victimes de catastrophe (XIIIe-XVIIIe siècles)

A History of Sensitivity:

Perception and Care of Victims of Disasters

(13-18th Century)

 International Conference, UNESCO World Heritage Lorsch Abbey, 11.-13. December 2014

(Organized by Thomas Labbé/ Gerrit Jasper Schenk, TU Darmstadt; UNESCO-Weltkulturerbe Kloster Lorsch)

deutsche Version diesen Call for Papers (pdf)  |  cet’appel à contribution en français (pdf)

Academic studies concerning the history of disasters have until know especially been developed in connection with the specific fields of anthropologic history, cultural history, or – more recently – environmental history and the history of visual culture. Within these epistemological frameworks, the analyses have largely focused on natural disasters. In fact, disasters have been integrated in historical views as they supply key items to study society-ecosystems or the relationship between society and environment. Furthermore, most historical research on disasters basically deals with the cultural perception of natural phenomena, the management of natural risks, the study of disasters as shaping forces toward human processes and infrastructures, or the variability of associated concepts. In this context, the development of sensitivity and emotions generated by disasters have been studied far less[1].

The meeting focuses on disasters within this particular context, crossing social history and the history of sensitivity in the long term. The backgroud is based on recent socioanthropological research fields. Indeed, in the French context, the new „anthropologie des catastrophes“ trend investigates the ritual dimensions of disasters. It suggests to renounce on a typological classification of disasters (distinction between natural, technological, sanitary ones, etc.) and to focus on the reality of perception supposed by the „catastrophic point of view“. These studies consider disasters to be a sociological process characterized by the fact that the solution of the existing problem is not limited to the handling of sociopolitical issues. In other words: Disasters are not exclusively linked to an event-vulnerability problem. The catastrophic process is above all a question of coping with a drama, according to Gaëlle Clavandier[2] „isolated and irreducible“. Thus, the sociologist defines the disaster process as a particular ritualization of the reality tempting to deal with an event, socially meaningful because it is seen as a „collective death“. This means that imagination and emotions (linked to death and social distress) constitute the main keys to enable a full anthropological comprehension of the catastrophic point of view. This way, it becomes a transversal approach to different categories of events: Natural disasters, technological disasters, attacks, etc. Considered as a drama, the notion of disaster invites then to investigate the sensitivity toward event occurrency and its management by society. Otherwise, the works of Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman have pointed out the historicity of important sensitive notions, like drama, traumatism and compassion[3]. They are of the opinion that these notions have constituted the heart of the occidental moral economy only for few decades. They have been developed as emotional expressions of the modern view of reality, that can be called tragic, in which the „compassionate unanimity“ acts as a social tie and justifies the background of political discourse[4]. If the modern specificity of these notions are taken into account, they can give a theoretical explanation to the forms of governance observed in most disaster situations since the XIXth century, i.e. „compassionate politics“ and more recently „humanitarian politics“. All in all, these researches lead us to consider social distress as an object of perception that can change throughout history and times. Last but not least, they invite historians to investigate the different frameworks in which „tragedies“ have been socially constructed.

A social reflection about one specific type of death appears after the catastrophic event, i.e. the „collective death“, different from the „ordinary death“, and which history, in terms of sensitivity, should consider. Back to an analysis of historical facts for example it can be noticed that the notions of „tragic“ or „tragedy“ developed in the XVIth century through a new literary movement, the histoires tragiques, have until now been studied by the specialists in literature as the emergence of a genre, in a stylistic and functionalist perspective. They are generally explained as a mirror of feelings generated by religion wars[5]. Could it be possible to go further, from the literary criticism to the social fact, and to consider the „tragic“ to be a new social paradigm of the XVIth century? In this case, this movement does not appear only as a mirror anymore but essentially as an emergence of a new form of sensitivity to reality and events. From this perspective, one should propose to consider this emergence as a part of a greater movement, a movement that can be described as the promotion of the „tragic perspective“ in the general field of sensitivity. Actually, the Hundred Years’ war did not lead to something similar, and consequently to an identical perception of reality.

In addition, we wish to discuss the assumption that the Renaissance developed a new form of sensitivity towards social and collective distress. Linked to different concepts like those of humanity, pity, compassion, misfortune, etc., several factors could be put forward to explain it. Such factors are, i.e. practical progress in the field of communication (printing), philosophic perspectives (new reflections of humanists on the nature of mankind), or new religious discussions in the context of the Reformation. In order to investigate this assumption, attention should be drawn to the issue of victims. How do attitudes change with regard to victims? Can a particular development of governmental practices be observed in relation to this issue? In how far was the massive conjunctural poverty generated by catastrophic events taken into account? How were the victims integrated in the discourse? Were they part (or not) of the event meaning scheme? These are the types of questions we would like to pursue in a detailed way, based on the study of different kinds of deadly events (like natural disasters, fires, massacres, accidents, battles, shipwrecks, etc.). In a few words, we state the hypothesis (to be discussed) that the notion of victims, in its modern meaning and as the central point of perception (history of sensitivity) and management (social history) of deadly events, appears somewhere during the XVIth century. The chronology of the conceptual history will obviously have to be discussed as well.

The notion of victim is quite new in historiographic perspectives[6], even though victims are regarded as a very relevant social reality by sociologists nowadays[7]. The promotion of the social role of victims in contemporary society invites historians to explore the history of this question. The modern meaning of the notion implies actually a passive understanding of people involved in an event (to be victim of something). Medieval lexicographers, however, delivered a totally different definition. They took the concept as an active form of involvement, defined as a sacrifice (to be victim for something), the best example being for them the sacrifice of Christ. This shift from an active to a passive pattern of victims should be analyzed more precisely.[8]

As possible points of departure for propositions we indicate different research directions:

1) Intellectual reflections on the concept of victims and accidental death

– patristic, scholastic, humanistic, philosophical sources (good/bad discussions, justification of drama occurency, reflections on notions like compassion, pity, charity, etc.)

– rhetoric, vocabulary and lexicography (semantic field) of death, misfortune, victim and related notions

2) Discourse on victims in narratives (chronicles, memories, leaflets, diaries, etc.)

– analysis of massive death imagination: form  and evolution (balance, mathematization, metaphorization, etc.)

– analysis of explicit sensitivity to drama in narratives of deadly events

– analysis of the importance given to the victims in the meaning scheme of the narration; narratives which do not mention the victims and their motivation should also be studied

– analysis of religious, philosophical, political, etc. interpretations related to victims

– analysis of the use and the place of victims in the memorization of events

3) Integration of the victims as social and political issue

– type and development of governance (actors, means, funding, etc.)

– type and development of charity (presence/absence, actors, geographic scale of charity movements, development of private or institutionalized movements, etc.)

– position of victims in the political discourse (integration and use in the development of notions like „bonne police“ (France), „buon governo“ (Italy), „policey“ (Germany), etc. (care, prevention, safety)

4) The „materiality“ of victims

– behavior and conditions of subsistence of the surviving victims (primary and secondary reactions, resilience capacity, etc.)

– migrations linked to disasters

– treatment of death bodies

– iconography of victims

We believe that the questionnaire is comprehensive enough to allow for a first opening view on the historiography of victims. Every paper that is able to investigate the history of the notion and the phenomenon in a long term perspective (from the Middle Ages to modern times) will be welcome. Although we assume that the notion of victims occurred during the XVIth century, the chronology is one of the main points to discuss. Thus, the comparative method looking at different periods seems essential.

The conference will take place in the UNESCO World heritage Lorsch abbey (http://www.lorsch.de/de/kultur/weltkulturerbe.php)  (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kloster_Lorsch) and in connection with the exposition „Von Atlantis bis heute. Mensch.Natur.Katastrophe“ (http://www.rem-mannheim.de/ausstellungen/vorschau/atlantis.html).

Information about the proposals:

We ask the applicants to provide an abstract of her/his paper of no more than 15 to 20 lines, the title of the paper they propose to give, a list of 5 keywords about the paper and contact details concerning the author and her/his institutional affiliation. The paper should be scheduled for 20 minutes.

The proposals shall to be submitted until April 30, 2014 (Deadline) to Thomas Labbé: labbe@pg.tu-darmstadt.de.

The authors of the submissions will receive answer in May 2014.


[1]L’invention de la catastrophe au XVIIIe siècle. Du châtiment divin au désastre naturel, A.-M. Mercier-Faivre et C. Thomas (éds.), Genève, Droz, 2008. Voir aussi Vers une anthropologie des catastrophes, L. Buchet, C. Rigeade, I. Seguy et M. Signoli (éds.), Antibes, 2009.

[2] G. Clavandier, La mort collective. Pour une sociologie des catastrophes, Paris, Éd. du CNRS, 2004, p. 233.

[3] D. Fassin and R. Rechtman, L’empire du traumatisme. Enquête sur la condition de victimes, Paris, Flammarion, 2007; D. Fassin, La raison humanitaire. Une histoire sociale du temps présent, Paris, Gallimard, 2010.

[4]They state that the development of this movement occurs in the XIXth century and is linked to psychatric researches.

[5] On the link between tragic and litterature, see the classical study of Jean-Marie Domenach, Le retour du tragique, Paris, Seuil, 1967 ; Vincent Biet (dir.), Théâtre de la cruauté et récits sanglants en France (XVIe-XVIIe siècle), Paris, 2006.

[6] They have been studied in a judiciary point of view in Les victimes, des oubliées de l’histoire ?, B. Garnot (dir.), PUR, Rennes, 2001 or in the perspective of a history of the memory in Commémorer les victimes en Europe (XVIe-XXIe siècles), David El kenz, F.-X. Nérard (dir.), Paris, Champs Vallon, 2011 ; see also, but controversial, J.-M. Apostolidès, Héroïsme et victimisation. Une histoire de la sensibilité, Paris, Exils, 2003.

[7] Besides the works of Didier Fassin et Richard Rechtmann, several books appeared recently in the french context : G. Erner, La société des victimes, Paris, La Découverte, 2006 ; D. Soulez-Larivière, C. Eliacheff, Le temps des victimes, Paris, Albin Michel, 2007.

[8] See Studies on Medieval Empathies (Disputatio 25), ed. Karl F. Morrison, Robert Bell, Turnhout, Brill, 2013; history of handicapped and ill persons: Cordula Nolte (Ed.): Homo debilis. Behinderte – Kranke – Versehrte in der Gesellschaft des Mittelalters, Korb 2009; Wendy J. Turner, Care and Custody of the mentally ill, incompetent, and  disabled in medieval England, Turnhout, Brill, 2013.


Björn Gebert

Mitgründer und -herausgeber des Wissenschaftsblogs „Mittelalter. Interdisziplinäre Forschung und Rezeptionsgeschichte“. Mediävist mit Forschungsinteressen in der Geschichte des Religiosentums und des Kardinalats. Laufendes Promotionsvorhaben bei Gerrit Jasper Schenk (TU Darmstadt) zu den „Ordenskardinälen“ im 13. Jahrhundert. Zzt. wissenschaftlicher Bibliothekar an der ULB Darmstadt.

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