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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Science, society and environmental change in the first millennium CE


Bringing together scholars in sciences, social sciences and humanities, this project explores scientific and social responses to natural phenomena in the context of what is now known about environmental and climate change in the first millennium CE. Previous studies, especially in humanities, have tended to focus on rural agricultural societies, landscape-management and effects of changing technologies. This project instead explores how people thought about and responded to natural phenomena and environmental change in the first millennium CE. It will investigate intellectual and social responses to the natural world, contextualised within research into past environmental/climate change and major events (e.g. volcanic eruptions, flooding,warming/cooling periods). Using case-studies, participants will explore how different societies, communities and individuals responded to phenomena such as floods, comets, volcanic eruptions and epidemics. The project aims to explore similarities and differences in responses, and to contextualise them within known, scientifically-documented largescale climate change along with smaller-scale (often local or regional) environmental fluctuation. These discussions will lay the ground for more intensive future research combining approaches from multiple disciplines. By bringing together scholars of sciences, social sciences and humanities, the project aims to suggest new questions and approaches for future research, utilising the expertise of multiple disciplines together.

Term: Epiphany 2020

Principal Investigator: Dr Helen Foxhall Forbes, Associate Professor of Early Medieval History,
Principal Investigator:
Dr Karen Milek, Associate Professor in Geoarchaeology, Archaeology,

Project Description

This project investigates scientific and social responses to natural phenomena in the context of environmental and climate change in the first millennium CE. Over the last 20-30 years, research into historical climate fluctuations has produced enough data to make possible the reasonably accurate identification of global and regional changes in climate and weather conditions in this period. In addition, more regionally or locally focused research (such as a growing number of palynological studies (pollen analyses)), makes it possible to see how these changes affected the landscapes and the natural environments which people exploited and in which they lived. While climate scientists have focused on establishing changes in global climate in the past, and have then sometimes linked this to specific social responses or other natural events (e.g. Sigl et al, 2015, Nature 523, 543-9), studies linking together of historical environment and climate have tended to focus on rural agricultural societies, particularly landscape-management and the effects of changing technologies (e.g. Sinha Kapur (ed), 2011, Environmental History of Early India; Hoffman, 2014, An environmental history of medieval Europe).

This project seeks to explore new questions by examining in parallel both intellectual responses (e.g. through scientific, philosophical or theological inquiry) and social responses (e.g. through settlement and social organisation, material culture, technology) to the natural world, contextualised within what is known about changing environments and climate. In addition, the project aims to open up dialogue between experts in humanities, social sciences and sciences, in order to pose new questions for future research which utilises the expertise of multiple disciplines in tandem. Key research questions to be considered might include: how far is it possible to see similar responses in different societies to certain kinds of weather events or natural environmental change by bringing together multiple types of evidence? how do we approach the problem of scale, since most individuals in the first millennium CE would not be able to identify long-term climate change but would be aware of (for example) wetter or warmer periods within their own lifetimes? How far is it possible to see evidence for changing scientific discussion across a chronological period in relation to changing climate? Can we see different kinds of scientific interests in areas with different kinds of climates and local environments? How varied are social responses to environmental changes or major natural events in different geographical areas?

The programme will focus on a series of case-studies (chosen by individual participants) to explore how different societies, communities and individuals responded to phenomena such as storms and floods, rising sea levels, comets, volcanic eruptions, epidemics, and how these events, as well as responses to them, related to and were affected by contemporary environmental and climatic conditions. Importantly, the project’s focus extends beyond Europe and the Near East to include areas such as South and East Asia, and North Africa, enabling a comparative approach to the material. This will allow the participants to explore points of similarity and difference in ways of thinking about these phenomena, and then to contextualise these responses within what is now known about large-scale climate fluctuation as well as the smaller-scale – often local or regional – changes in the natural environments in which people lived. This period is particularly interesting because it saw many developments across the world: in the west, the transformation from the classical world to the Middle Ages; in some societies further east, such as Southeast Asia, it saw the introduction of writing and the early establishment of states which would become significant in due course. The traditional narrative of the early middle ages in Europe has been that there was limited scientific thought but recent research (including by the PI) has challenged this, demonstrating instead that there is a wealth of material available which deserves study. The evidence-base will comprise textual sources (narratives, documentary accounts, poems, saints’ lives, scientific writing, theological texts), material and visual culture (objects, osteology, plant remains, settlements/buildings, landscape evidence, paintings, manuscripts) and natural physical evidence (ice cores, sediments, volcanic facies, dendrological data, geomorphological evidence), and participants will be asked to engage with material from within and beyond their areas of expertise. These discussions will be essential in laying the ground for more intensive future research which combines approaches from multiple disciplines.

The project has three major intended outcomes.

1. The creation of a research network which will extend beyond the timeframe of the project.

2. The submission of two major grant applications, currently intended to be for a Wellcome Collaborative Award and for a Leverhulme Research Centre. The deadlines for both of these programmes are currently in early January and it is anticipated that applications would be submitted in January 2021.

3. Publications of various forms to be determined by the project participants, including a special issue of a journal (probably First Millennium) in which contributors will examine different problems and questions raised during the programme of research, and suggest future directions for research into the linked areas of science, society and environment in the past. By the end of May 2020, drafts of essays for a special issue of a journal will be produced by project fellows, the PI and two other participants from Durham. Revised articles will be sent for peer-review by the end of June, with the aim of publication by the end of the year. Additional publications in venues which are appropriate for individual project members’ disciplines (to ensure maximum circulation and audience) are also anticipated, but these will vary according to the individual.

The major framework for the project is a series of seminars and workshops based around the project’s case-studies which will bring together the participants from within and beyond Durham in order to work towards the achievement of the intended outcomes.

The programme will begin with a one-day symposium at the beginning of Epiphany Term 2020, which will bring together the three project fellows and four external participants as well as the project members from Durham. This will enable the team to meet and to begin to consider the key research questions, how best to approach the issues which the project team will tackle, and to finalise the proposed case-studies. During Epiphany Term, the three project fellows and two of the external participants will each offer a research seminar based on her/his research relevant to the project: these research seminars will be open to all members of the university. In addition, each participant will lead a workshop based on his/her case-study, for which participants will have been given reading material in advance in order to ensure full and informed discussion. At the end of Epiphany Term, a final meeting of the project fellows and Durham University project members will allow all project participants to bring together ideas and proposals for the two grant applications.

In Easter Term 2020, two more external participants will come to Durham to offer seminars which will be recorded and put online as podcasts, so that the project fellows can continue to engage with these even when away from Durham. All project members will be able to keep in touch and to share material through a cloud service (e.g. Box, which is supported by CIS), so that those who are not in Durham can still engage as fully as possible with the project. First drafts of the two grant applications would be completed by the PI, with input from other project participants, by early August 2020, to allow time for internal peer-review and redrafting, before final submission at the end of December 2020 or early January 2021.