EC project "Review of Historical Seismicity in Europe" (RHISE) 1989-1993

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Jean Vogt *
* 1, rue du Docteur Woehrlin, 67000 Strasbourg-Robertsau, France

Historical seismology.
Some notes on sources for seismologists

First, let's run into open doors. Considering shortcomings of classical catalogues, sometimes hastily computerized, it has been emphasized for years that, even with the best will for dealing with essential problems of historical seismicity, seismologists often experience difficulties trying to organize fruitful collaboration with archaeologists, historians and archivists and, moreover, to undertake research on their own (1). Despite fine achievements during a dozen years (2), current experience (meetings, listings, papers) shows that these basic problems are far from being solved in a more general way.
On one hand, problems of states of mind, aims, working language, etc. arise easily. While open-minded historians (in a general sense) are quickly grasping the interest of earthquakes for some facets of their own work, as a tool for problems of chronology or exegesis of sources, for a better knowledge of psychological, religious, political, social, economic and architectural features, others consider them merely as anecdotes, barely worth mentioning. Whatsoever degree of interest is of course linked to the scale of events. While disastrous earthquakes, with their backgrounds and consequences, attract large-minded historians, minor events are often discarded, despite their often outstanding interest for seismological and seismo-tectonic interpretation. Actually some seismologists fond of thresholds themselves neglect minor earthquakes or events considered so at least at first glance. So historians should not be asked to be "plus royalistes que le roi"... Uncontrolled enthusiasm for earthquakes is also dangerous. Too often destructions in Antiquity are explained in a straightforward way by major earthquakes, without proper demonstration, either by reference to known events, whose areas of destruction are enlarged in a haphazard way, as shown by the famous 365 quake, or by postulating earthquakes, without the least genuine testimony, as shown by a case from the beginning of the fourth century, in Tunisia, Sicily, etc. While seismologists desperately need historians' help, they should correct some historian's excesses (3).
On the other hand, seismologists are often frightened by seemingly irrational complex problems of tracing sources in a mosaic of depositories and, moreover, by problems of interpretation of all possible kinds, linked to reliability assessments. While such psychological problems have been dealt with at length, there is clearly a need for some more down-to-earth notes, with some examples. Actually a book could be written on such problems, with hundreds of examples of sources and hundreds of case histories. Actually the author's experience is not only an outcome of his own research in historical seismicity, since a dozen years, in depositories of several countries, but also a result of involvement in economic and social history, a hobby for forty years, with an intimate knowledge of many depositories.
The word "sources" itself may have a very large meaning, including architecture, iconography (4), casual pamphlets, printed chronicles and travellers' records, epigraphy (5), archives in a more or less wide sense. Indeed historical seismology should as much as possible make best use of different sources, for instance combinations of architecture, epigraphy and chronicles (antiquity, early Middle Age) as E. Guidoboni did for the famous 1117 Lombardy event, renewing its interpretation (6); architecture and archives, as E. Wechsler did so masterfully for the famous 1356 Basel earthquake, for the town of Basel (7); pamphlets and archives, as R. Gutdeutsch's team did for the famous 1590 Vienne event (8); early newspapers and archives, at least, for many 17th and 18th century events, etc. Whatsoever, the widest possible confrontation of sources, with an utterly critical mind, considering backgrounds and motivations, is a basic need for genuine historical seismology.

Archives: general considerations
Let's however put emphasis on archives, in a rather wide sense.
Proper archives are more or less structured (at least originally) records of states, provinces, towns, institutions, bodies, individuals, stored either by Public Records Offices (states, ministries, provinces, towns, etc.), or by institutions, bodies and individuals themselves. While distinctions are quite clear in some case, depositories of a given denomination often store records from other origins, somewhat in a surprising way.
Whatsoever the scale, archives' own history should be known. First question: to what extent do they reflect events like dismembering of states, disappearance of institutions, death of individuals? Were they preserved (where?), partitioned (how?), or lost? Second set of questions: did archivists respect the original structures or disturb them? To what extent did they discard part of records and precisely down-to-earth material, long considered "worthless"? Such knowledge is fundamental for decisions and conceptions of research.
Anyway, many archives disappeared, totally or partially, in a deliberate way, by accident or by sorting by archivists. Such late "cultural gaps", besides original ones, should be considered before any haphazard statement on sources, archives and others, is such that "gaps" are sometimes filled by further research elsewhere, instead of cultivating widespread fatalism.
Besides, proper archives depositories, archives in a wider sense are found in Manuscripts departments of many libraries, with even more intricate problems of origin. A long rivalry of archivists and librarians explains the presence in libraries of parts of structured archives which should normally be stored in Records Offices. Whatsoever, research in Manuscripts department is often on the whole as important as work in Records Offices and sometimes more rewarding, at least for systematic research. As an example, Zurich's Zentralbibliothek is outstandingly rich for our purpose. Indexes, if any, should be used with utter caution in many cases.
While fear of working in archives is widespread, it is sometimes forgotten that many important older sources have been printed. It seems that most of them had never been used, either at all, at least in a critical way, before the recent renaissance of historical seismology. To a large extent, P. Alexandre used such published sources for his reappraisal of Middle Ages seismicity of a large part of north-western Europe. However, indexes, if any, are often misleading, once more.
Besides, it should not be forgotten that modest local scholars casually publish, since a century or so, a wealth on earthquake information lost in village monographs and obscure learned periodicals. In some cases a painstaking, but rewarding work has been undertaken to get hold of such fruits of intensive work in often badly known local archives, which would not have been visited for the purpose of some revision, or even in destroyed archives (9).

Central archives
Let's consider more closely the mosaic of archives, however limiting ourselves to some rather simple features.
Structures and holdings of central archives of states reflect of course often complex histories, administrative organizations and specific archivistic doctrine and practice. While nobody would expect information on older events from genuine central archives of Italy, the German Federal Republic and Switzerland, young institutions, the central Ottoman archives, however badly known, covering a huge area, nourish hopes of many countries' scholars. While France's "Archives Nationales" give some information for France itself (so a fine architect's report on a church damaged by 1711 Poitou-Touraine earthquake), their foremost interest is for other countries, thanks to a fine collection of "Ancien Regime" consular reports which provides, among others, a rich harvest of 18th century Greek quakes, even with a copy of a report by a Venetian proveditor. The British "Public Records Office's" collection of consular report is a treasure for several countries' historical seismicity.
However, archives of states are not always "centralized". Often ministries keep all or part of their records, as in the case of foreign offices of several countries. While French "Archives Nationales" keep older consular reports, Foreign Office stores younger consular reports, among other archives, old and young, of interest, at Paris, as well as repatriated, archives also young and old, from embassies and consulates, at Nantes branch office. The whole forms a wonderful source, with duplications, needing however switching not only from one Paris depository to the other, but also between Paris and Nantes. Anyway, a fine knowledge could be gathered for 17th and 18th century quakes in the region of Smyrna, with, of course, further criss-crossing with other sources, in France and elsewhere. Thanks to guides (see below) whereabouts of foreign office records, more or less centralized, of all European countries are fairly known. It should be added that reports are not limited to disastrous events, but that information is sometimes sent on smaller earthquakes. So French consuls at Saloniki mention several minor 18th events, while French representatives at Geneve and Brussels report respectively on December 1755 quake, as felt at Geneve, and February 1756 quake, as felt at Brussels and Mons.
Former central archives should also be considered apart. So Venice's archives are a well-known source for events of nowadays Greece, thanks to a wealth of administrative routine reports, partly published. Genova's archives keep a collection of consular reports. Actually, most German archives store records of former territories, with sometimes outstanding information on events at some distance. So Marburg's "Staatsarchiv" has one of the best reports on 1572 Northern Tyrol sequence (Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel papers).

Other archives
Provincial archives, with sometimes both former central and sui generis records, are of outstanding importance in most countries for instance in Switzerland (Canton's Records Offices) and, above all, in Italy with a wealth of precise information reflected by a bunch of publications produced by the recent renaissance of the country 's historical seismology. It should be added that several of France's Archives departementales store unpartitioned records of former provinces (Provence, Auvergne, etc.).
Archives of town, large and small, often give rich information not only for local events, but also in some cases on far-off earthquakes. So Remiremont's records keep an inventory, house by house, of damage by the famous 1682 quake. A wonderful harvest has been made in Stein am Rhein's (Switzerland) records. Besides information on locally felt events (1669, 1728 etc.). Strasbourg's archives keep, thanks to a flow of news, letters on the famous 1584 Vaud quake. Essential information on local major events is also provided in some cases by records from villages. So an inventory of damage, house by house, from 1812 Middle Durance sequence was found in Beaumont-de-Pertuis.
It must be emphasized that state, province and town archives keep not only their own records, but also other ones. So records of religious institutions are found in many public archives, thanks to secularizations, for instance at the time of Reformation and, later, at the beginning of the 19th century, when territories were remodelled by France, thanks to the Revolution, etc. Most important are chronicles and diaries from Jesuit collages, abbeys, etc., kept now either in records offices or in Manuscripts departments of libraries. They often provide the best knowledge of even minor quakes, with information on processions, prayers, etc. So records of Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune Chapter, Strasbourg, mention a hitherto unknown event from the beginning of the 17th century.
Of course, bodies of all kinds keep their own records, first of all transfrontier religious bodies. The huge complex of Vatican archives should be explored in a more systematic way for reports on major events. Besides, central records of religious congregations, Capucines, etc., should be used. Locally parish records are invaluable. Priests often note events of interest and of course earthquakes, at least where they rarely occur. As an example, the Rhenish 1733 sequence has been reinterpreted to a large extent thanks to a set of such dispersed mentions. The London Huguenot parish records keep a report on 1750 London quake, etc. Actually search in such sources is often painstaking. In Germany they are dispersed to a wide extent in parishes themselves, but sometimes centralized, more or less, in specific depositories (Landeskirchenarchiv Koblentz, Pfälzisches Landeskirchenarchiv, etc.). In France pre-Revolution registers became part of public "état-civil" records, now more and more centralized by "Archives départementales". In lower Alsace for instance, all registers from villages, as well as parishes' own records, have been gathered at "Archives du Bas-Rhin", with easy access.
Let's also mention learned bodies, with their own archives or archives from elsewhere (deposits, gifts, etc.). Actually genuine records of some bodies are kept by public records offices and library. So records of learned societies from Dijon and Bourg-en-Bresse, with important information on quakes, are found respectively at "Archives de la Côte d'Or" and Bourg-en-Bresse library. Among bodies still keeping their own archives, with information, transfrontier or national, on earthquakes, French "Académie des Sciences" and "Académie de Médecine" are outstanding. Let's comment the latter's resources: 18th century enlightened minds, keen of meteorological knowledge, organize systematic enquires, some of which are also giving, as a by-product, worthy information on earthquakes. Among bodies gathering archives from various origins (such as Manuscripts departments of libraries) and of interest for research on historical seismicity, Société d'Histoire du Protestantisme (Paris) and Real Academia de la Historia (Madrid) may be mentioned, while such bodies are numerous in Italy.
Archives of individuals and families are sometimes worth exploring. While some found their way in public records offices, libraries and archives of learned bodies, other are still the property of families. In most cases properties of families are badly known and not easily accessible. However in some peculiar cases, knowledge of current research on historical seismicity leads enlightened individuals to make spontaneously available outstanding information. Such an initiative allowed a fine knowledge of a badly known event occurring in 1839 in the Central French Alps.

Investigation tools
Although these notes are very oversimplified, they doubtless convey an impression of a discouragingly complex puzzle, with a lot of overlappings, with a need of utterly specialized scholarship, with a risk of missing fundamental information hidden in a labyrinth and, above all, of huge loss of time. Such an impression is not easily corrected by the distinction, made here and there, of archives themselves and depositories.
Actually things are less frightful thanks to an arsenal of working tools at all scales, with useful overlappings. Besides more general publications on archives, either for the general public or from an archivists' point of view (10), guides are devoted to groups of countries, so the German speaking ones (11), to all or part of archives of most country (12), to depositories of states (12), provinces (13), districts (14), towns or bodies. Some guides cover as well archives as holdings of Manuscript departments of libraries (15). It should not be forgotten that guides for a given countries often forward knowledge of archives of interest to others. Moreover, archivists of most countries have a long-standing tradition of preparing special guides for sources kept in other countries' depositories (16). Specific guides are also prepared on fields like foreign office records, either for one (17) or for several countries (18). The word "general" should however be emphasized. In most guides, straightforward information on earthquakes should not be expected, neither in texts, nor in indexes, although some haphazard exceptions are known (19). Of course, absence of the word "earthquake" should not discourage research, at all. More or less detailed, giving a first approach of holdings, such guides are indispensable for decisions on the opportunity of research and for the preparation of costly trips. Besides, their information should be mastered before sending enquiries to archivists.
Inventories are a second step (or first when guides are not available). More or less detailed, they give a deeper view of all or parts of records depositories. While printed inventories are available, partly since a long time, for public research of several countries (e.g. France) (20), as well as for several bodies , even for small towns (e.g. Stein am Rhein, Switzerland ), and family archives they remain often handwritten (with extreme cases of 18th century ones still in use) or typed. Once more archivists produced fine inventories of sources abroad, for instance from Simancas for nowadays Belgium. So we are at crossroads. While printed inventories allow deeper-digging preparation, their absence means in situ and sometimes useless work. Once more it should be emphasized that the word "earthquake" itself does not appear in many inventories, although a wealth of information may be found in records, however in an often accessory way, hidden by other subjects retained by inventories. In one word, inventories give a better knowledge of kinds of sources, with a better appraisal of chances to find earthquake information.
It should be added that some depositories have neither guides nor proper inventories. However in such cases information are often given in pioneering scholars' papers, forwarding their experience either for proper archivistic knowledge or "à propos" some research theme. For a long time such papers have been the main source of knowledge of Ottoman archives (21) and Malta's archives. Some are still of interest.
Specific problems arise with manuscripts of libraries. In most cases, inventories are available, often with indexes. While some are rather complex, considering origins, and also detailed (British Library), others align items of every possible origin, often analyzed in a rather summary way. In many cases, one must read the whole inventory, picking items likely to bring information on earthquakes. Once more, inventories are either printed (e.g. to a large extent in France and Britain) or manuscript (as for a number of German libraries, at least partly). While preparation is often possible, on the spot first exploration is sometimes needed, a problem already dealt with for archives.

After long preliminaries how should proper research work be undertaken? Let's stress once more that straightforward work is often impossible. Indexes in most cases don't lead very far and often this "easy way" only gives already well-known information. Actually most of new knowledge comes from casual mentions, often limited to some words, nevertheless important, in accounts, reports, letters, etc. So a fundamental information for the knowledge of macroseismic area and characteristics of a major Auvergne earthquake from the end of 15th century is given by Nevers' accounts, thanks to the mention of cost of candles used during the procession performed after the event. Some details on the earthquake occurring in 1769 in the region of Darmstadt are known from a letter sent by a priest to Baden's "Markgraefin" (22). Information on Smyrna's quakes are given incidentally by registers of the former Dutch parish.
It should not be forgotten that one information leads to another. So a report on the quake experienced in 1581 at Darmstadt reminds another one, from 1567, at Eppstein. A major 19th century event encourages the French consul at Smyrna to dig into the consulate's records and to write a report on former quakes. Criss-crossing is most important, from one source and depository to another. From consular reports we got a wealth of information on the 1759 sequence in the Near-East. Later, browsing casually through documents on the expulsion of Jesuits from France, we found mentions of damage suffered by their country-house near Tripoli from an earthquake, clearly the main shock of 1759.
A mosaic of depositories and of sources, a mosaic of information... While specific research on a given event is possible and even rewarding in some cases, it is often deceiving. In many archives and manuscripts collections, more systematic work seems preferable, with the hope of large harvests, including information more specifically sought for. Such a way of working leads to a spiral of revision, with reinterpretation of epicenters, intensities, macroseismic areas, etc., a better knowledge of sequences and even (re)discovery of forgotten events.
Of course intensity of research depends on local conditions. Regulations of most depositories are of course unadapted to "dépouillements de masse" needed by what often seems like looking for a needle in a haystack. It is often impossible to escape stringent regulations, especially in large depositories with numerous readers, so that intensive preparation (requiring possibly as much time as proper research) is essential. In Paris, you should switch from one depository to another to make best use of your day, considering working hours and delays of each one and even strikes. Higher staff would often be helpful with working conditions adapted to an unusual subject as well as with precious scholarly advice. Of course, you should explain your aims at length, possibly in the course of preparation and convince of your ability to work in a proper way respecting standards of archives and manuscripts departments. Actually staff is often eager to help with new, more scientific and also interdisciplinary subjects. Whatsoever, here and there you may find upsetting conditions and be considered no more than a troubleshooter.
Now things seem more clear, even more rational, thanks to a wealth of tools. Nevertheless tracing successfully information on subjects like earthquakes in sources and depositories of all descriptions is an art by itself. One fails or succeeds, thanks to a combination of rational work, instinct and, above all, cultural background. Actually experienced searchers with a knowledge of both earthquakes and sources are able to do quick and fruitful work, while others would need tenfold time for a meager result.
Of course, all these problems are mastered daily by genuine historians.


1) The author's more general papers deal more or less with such problems. See J. Vogt, 1988, Sismicité historique: ambiguités sismologiques. In: J. Bonnin et al. (Editor), 1986, Seismic Hazard in Mediterranean Regions, Kluwer Academic Publishers (an outcome of Strasbourg Seismological Summer School, 1986). For more specific discussions see his chronicles of Historical Seismology in "European Earthquake Engineering", and, of course, a lot of methodological discussions is found in Professor Ambraseys' well-known papers.
2) Besides Professor Ambraseys', C.P. Melville's, E. Guidoboni's, R. Gutdeutsch's specific publications, among others, pioneering work has been undertaken in a more general way for Middle Ages by G. Dagron, 1981, Quand la terre tremble..., Centre de Recherche d'Histoire et Civilisation de Byzance, Travaux et Mémoires, t. 8, and by P. Alexandre, 1984, Les tremblements de terre en Belgique, en Rhénanie et dans le Nord de la France de 700 à 1400: catalogue critique, Annales de la Société Géologique de Belgique, t. 107.
3) Of course, seismologists should beware of the more journalistic brand of historians suddenly attracted by the whole popular set of earthquakes, rock-falls, landslides, etc., with sudden concern for "history of environment" and a rather catastrophist state of mind, far, for example, from standards of the long-established Realia school of historians of Antiquity. Further an incompetent second-hand use of seismologist's work by such historians would be a disaster.
4) J. Kozak and M.C. Thompson, 1991, Historische Erdbeben in Europa. Zürich.
5) Ambraseys' map of earthquake inscriptions of the eastern Mediterranean area was displayed at the XXI General Assembly of the European Seismological Commission (Sofia, 1988).
6) E. Guidoboni, 1984, 3 janvier 1117: le tremblement de terre du moyen age roman, aspects des source. In: B. Helly and A. Pollino (Editors), Tremblements de terre, histoire et archéologie, Actes du colloque, Antibes, 2-4 Novembre 1983, pp. 119-139.
7) E. Wechsler , 1987, Das Erdbeben von Basel 1356. Teil I: Historische und kunsthistorische Aspekte, Publikationsreihe des Schweizerischen Erdbebendienstes, ETH, Zürich.
8) R. Gutdeutsch, Ch. Hammerl, I. Mayer, K. Vocelka, 1987, Erdbeben als historisches Ereignis. Die Rekonstruktion des Bebens von 1590 in Niederösterreich, Berlin-Heidelberg.
9) One example among hundreds: "Als einst in Lippe die Erde bebte", Lippische Blaetter für Heimatkunde, 1968. While papers with such clear titles are found in course of regional bibliographical research, most titles of papers of this category don't reflect short mentions of earthquakes hidden among a lot of other informations. Collaboration with local scholars aware of such hidden informations as well as of the potential of local records should be sought to avoid running into open doors and failing to find often essential informations.
10) Among a lot of references, let's quote one of the most recent by F. Hildesheimer, 1984, Les archives, pourquoi, comment?, Paris.
11) Minerva-Handbuch: Archive im deutschsprachigen Raum, 2nd edition, 1974, an outstanding work covering all scales of depositories, including many family archives.
12) P. D'Angiolini e C. Pavone (Editors), 1981-83, Guida generale degli archivi di Stato Italiani, Roma. See also guides for Spain, Portugal, Belgium, etc
13) See guides of Badisches Landesarchiv, Staatsarchiv Wiesbaden, Staatsarchiv Dusseldorf, etc.
14) Many of France's "Archives départementales" prepared guidebooks covering in some cases former provinces (Bourgogne, Languedoc, etc.).
15) P.K. Grimsted, 1972, Archives and Manuscript Depositories in the USSR, Princeton.
16) I. Carini, 1884, Gli archivi e le biblioteche di Spagna in rapporto alla storia d'Italia in generale, t. II, Palermo.
17) "The records of the Foreign Office 1782-1939", Public Record Office, 1969. Such a guide has been recently published for the french office records, dispersed in three depositories.
18) D.H. Thomas et al., 1975, The new guide to the Diplomatic Archives of Western Europe, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2nd ed., a scholar's "Baedeker".
19) So the word appears once in Dusseldorf's Staatsarchiv Guide, for a most interesting event, but the document itself could not be retrieved yet, and also once in Badisches Landesarchiv's Guide, but the document deals with a modern organization problem, while this depository is outstandingly rich in informations on former quakes. A fine exception is Carini (see note 16), with most helpful informations.
20) While most consular reports are quickly listed by guides and manuscript inventories are available for some of them; a first one has recently been printed (Archives Nationales, Consulats de France en Grèce et en Turquie, Correspondance des Consuls d'Athènes et du Nègrepont, Paris 1985).
21) See for instance S.J. Shaw, 1977, The archives of Turkey: an evaluation, Wiener Zeitschrift fur die Kunde des Morgenlandes, t. 69. It should be pointed out that Ottoman Archives could not been used in the course of Unesco's Balkan Project.
22) G. Mayer, Naturkundliche Mitteilungen des Pfarrers J. P. Job ... in Dornheim an die Markgraefin Caroline Louise von Baden ..., Aufschluss, t. 29.

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