Department of History



Professor: Dr. Florin Curta

Office: 202 Keene-Flint Hall

Office hours: Thursday 12:45-2:45, or by appointment

Phone: 392-0271, ext. 240


Class will meet in Flint 113 on Tuesdays, 12:50-3:50 

Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, 12th c. manuscript



Spring 2018

Course description

    The popular perception of the Middle Ages is that of a world of violence and filth, when life, as Thomas Hobbes put it, was “nasty, brutish, and short.” Imagine the chaos in that world when a natural disaster like an earthquake, a flood or famine struck. How did people react to natural abnormalities such as earthquakes and floods in the Middle Ages? Why did they experience them as disasters? How did they explain them? In recent years, a growing concern with climate change and epidemics have drawn the attention of historians to catastrophic events in history, the ways in which societies coped with such events, and the long-term consequences they had on social and religious life. This course is an exploration of such topics related to disasters, catastrophes, and calamities. The course is meant to be an interdisciplinary tour of the medieval world--both East and West. The goal is to examine a series of natural and man-made disasters and the various reactions to them, in order to open up the discussion for comparison and analysis. Primary sources will be the main focus of this seminar. You will be reading a variety of sources, from chronicles to eye-witness accounts. Those readings will offer not only a basis for class discussions, but also the research material onto which the secondary literature is to be grafted. The latter is meant to help you develop the research skill necessary for your own projects. At the beginning of the course, you are expected to identify a topic from the list below around which you will then build your project. You will then go through various stages of writing a research paper, and at the end of the course you will have the opportunity to present its results to your peers in a formal colloquium.


All readings are available in pdf format on Canvas ( Students are required to check the course page on Canvas regularly for updates.


Students must conform to the University of Florida honesty policy regarding plagiarism and other forms of cheating. In your assignments, make sure to give proper credit whenever you use words, phrases, ideas, arguments, and conclusions from someone else's work. Please review the university's honesty policy.

All students found to have cheated, plagiarized, or otherwise violated the Honor Code in any assignment for this course will be prosecuted to the full extent of the university honor policy, including judicial action and the sanctions listed in the section 6C1-4.047 of the Student Conduct Code. For serious violations, you will fail this course.


Please do not hesitate to ask for accommodation for a documented disability. Students requesting classroom accommodation must first register with the Dean of Students Office. The Dean of Students Office will provide documentation to the student, who must then provide this documentation to the instructor when requesting accommodation. Please ask the instructor if you would like any assistance in the process.


There is no attendance policy, but you are responsible for attending all lectures and reading the required texts. Class participation and preparation constitutes 35 percent of your final grade. Participation refers not only to regular attendance (despite the absence of a specific attendance policy), but also to your contribution to class discussions, to short response papers, and a variety of other assignments over the course of the semester (e.g., quizzes). Be aware that thorough preparation for, and active participation in weekly discussions is crucial for the success of this seminar. Plan in advance at least two blocks of time (minimally 5 hours a week outside of class) when you can do the required reading and weekly writing assignments. This is definitely not a class for which you can prepare in an hour or two on Sunday night!

The final research paper (due Monday, April 25, before 12:00) represents another 35 percent. Although you will be working on this project since Week 3 of the seminar, your research project will be your primary focus especially during the final five weeks of class. Your grade on this 15-20-page long paper will not be based only on the actual paper, but also on your timely completion of several "lead-up assignments" listed in the course weekly topics. Failure to meet the deadlines will result in a grade penalty.

The remaining 30 percent is divided equally between the shorter writing assignments, 15 percent for the primary source analysis, and 15 percent for the book review. The primary source analysis is a "warm-up" exercise for the longer paper you will complete at the end of the course. More specific directions for that paper will be given in due time. Later in the semester you will be selecting a secondary source related to your research topic. You will review critically a book in your field of interest following the guidelines provided.  

Grades. The following scale will be used in determining your final grade

93-100 A
92-90 A-
87-89 B+
82-86 B
80-82 B-
77-79 C+
72-76 C
70-72 C-
under 60F


WEEK 1 (January 9): Introduction to the course. Problematic concepts: catastrophe, disaster, calamity. Theoretical approaches: "overshoot and collapse" theory (Jared Diamond) vs. "resilience" theory (Norman Yoffee)

See: Jared Diamond on why societies collapse, and Joseph A. Tainter on the collapse of complex societies

WEEK 2 (January 16): Personal disasters. Job in the Middle Ages


Written assignments

  1. In a two-page essay (due in class, on January 16), compare and contrast John Chrysostom and Gregory the Great's reading of Job
  2. As an initial quiz grade, come to class with notes (they can be electronic) on all of the readings for this week

WEEK 3 (January 23): Collective disasters. Invasions and genocide in the Middle Ages.

Written assignment: in a one-page essay (due in class on January 23), reflect on two of the secondary literature items pertaining to one of the primary sources for this week (either Roger's Carmen Miserabile, or the sources concerning the killing of Jews during the First Crusade). How did the analysis in these items either support or undermine your interpretation of that source? How are those two items different from each other in their interpretation of that source?  Be specific and include at least one footnote (using the Chicago Manual of Style) in your response.

Discussion of general themes for the research papers

WEEK 4 (January 30):  Group disaster. Sacking a city in the Middle Ages


Writing assignment

  1. This week you will be writing a primary source analysis based on two accounts of the capture of the city of Thessaloniki at two historically different moments--904 and 1185--and by two very different attackers. The authors of both texts, John Kaminiates and Eustathios of Thessalonica, were men of the Church, and therefore with sufficient education to display a thorough grasp of the rudiments of rhetorical composition. Although both accounts were cast in the traditional genre of lamentations (for the destruction of a city), their authors had in mind specific audiences and therefore made a careful selection and arrangement of events to include in the narrative. In your 2-3 page essay, you will discuss how they persuaded their audiences by means of comparison and contrast.  Look at the two works entitled Capture of Thessaloniki as pieces of rhetoric (and literature). Each of you will have one aspect to examine (see list below). How does the description of that particular aspect function as a piece of rhetoric? What is its role in the general economy of the text? How do the authors use the story to appeal to their audiences? Who may have been the members of those audiences (in other words, for whom were those texts written)? What details of the sack of the city are particularly effective in each case? In addition, I would like you to scan the texts for specific religious references (e.g., citations from the Bible) and their use in explaining the events narrated. Your secondary readings this week will give you some background on John Kaminiates and Eustathios of Thessalonica.
  1. Primary source analysis due in class on January 30
  2. Initial project statement due on Thursday, February 1

WEEK 5 (February 6): Disaster in the making? Climate change and mutant seasons.


Writing assignment: One of the great issues of modern politics is global warming (climate change). Some of the most heated arguments between political personalities and scholarly figures evolve around the question of whether the current climate changes are in any way comparable to those of the past, and if so, whether humans may be blamed for that. Did any climate changes take place during the "medieval millennium" (500-1500), and how were those changes perceived by people living at that time? Ronnie Ellenblum offers an overview of the evidence of climate change in the East Mediterranean region, but you will also be reading two articles pertaining to climate changes in the steppe lands north of the Black and Caspian Seas. Finally, we will discuss the account of Theophanes the Confessor regarding a particularly remarkable bout of cold weather in Constantinople and the Black Sea region. In a two- to three-page essay (due in class on February 6) highlight what you believe to be the three most important characteristics of the climate changes taking place in all those regions between ca. 700 and ca. 1300.  You must select one trait from each of the three secondary literature items. In the second part of the essay consider Theophanes' account as a literary text, along the lines of our previous discussion of the two accounts of the sacking of Thessaloniki. Does Theophanes' account complement or contradict the conclusions of the secondary literature?  Explain.  Do these texts approach the question of climate change in different and perhaps conflicting ways, or do they really agree in perspective and outlook?  Make sure you support your answer with examples from the texts.  Also consider the ways in which these texts illustrate some of the basic principles and dynamics of the "overshoot and collapse" and "resilience" theories. How do they reflect the notion of catastrophe or catastrophic event, which is central to both theories?

WEEK 6 (February 13): Unmitigated disasters. Drought, locusts, famine.


Writing assignments:

  1. Using all the readings for this week (including the primary sources), bring a list of 7-10 discussion questions that highlight the major themes of this week's topic--short-term or sudden, "natural disasters" produced by factors completely outside human control. Bring the list to class as a hard copy.
  2. Developing a topic that is effective and appropriate for an undergraduate research paper requires significant thought and work. This week you will describe and justify your topic in class by means of a brief presentation to your peers. So come to class with notes that address three major issues.

                            a.    What is the broad theme or issue you will be addressing?
                            b.    How you are going to examine that theme?  What is the specific gateway to your topic?  It needs to be discrete, concrete and worthy of study.
                            c.    What are the primary sources that you will use to examine that specific focus of your paper? Also briefly mention the types of secondary sources you will use.   

WEEK 7 (February 20): Disaster by collapse and overfill. Landslides and floods.


Writing assignments:
  1. Analyzing secondary material. Read Paolo Squatriti’s essay, “The floods of 589...”. Your writing assignment consists of no more than two paragraphs (due in class on February 20). In one paragraph, summarize his arguments and answer the following questions: what is the main point?  what are his major claims? In the other paragraph, analyze his use of evidence through his footnotes. What are the sources he uses?  How many can you identify?  How does he deploy them to support his claims?  Does he ever make a claim that he does not seem able to substantiate?
  2. Identify a book for your book review. Come to class (on February 20) with a secondary source (a book) related to your topic that you plan to review.  It must be a scholarly text and have notes and/or a bibliography.  Bring a physical copy to class.
  3. Quiz on the primary source accounts of landslides and floods for this week. You will be allowed to use written notes (not electronic) for this exercise.
  4. Discussion Groups 1-3 only: when analyzing the primary sources for this week, what can we learn from them about geology and/or physics? List five observations (due in class on February 20).  Feel free to work with a partner for this exercise. 
  5. Discussion Groups 4-6 only: complete a revised project statement (1-2 paragraphs) with a bibliography of at least 4 secondary sources and 2 primary sources. This assignment will be due at the end of the day on Friday, February 16.

WEEK 8 (February 27): Disasters from above and from underneath. Meteorite impact and cataclysmic mountains


Written assignments: 

  1. Take notes on all the readings and bring a hard or electronic to class (due on February 27)
  2. In no more than two paragraphs (due in class on February 27), answer the following questions.What is Adnan Husain's argument concerning Friar Salimbene? In what way is he changing your own interpretation of Salimbene de Adam's text about King Pero III of Aragon? What is the unique perspective that he brings onto Fra Salimbene, and how do his ideas contrast with the work of other scholars mentioned in the article?
  3. Discussion Groups 1-3 only: complete a revised project statement (1-2 paragraphs) with a bibliography of at least 4 secondary sources and 2 primary sources. This assignment will be due on Friday, March 2, at 12:00
  4. Discussion Groups 4-6 only: What is the significance of King Pero III's story?  Highlight one or two aspects associated with this story (due in class on February 27). Why was the meteorite impact of the 5th century remembered in Abruzzo?  Highlight at least one passage that is relevant to our ongoing discussion of catastrophic events in medieval history (due in class on February 27).
WEEK 9: Spring break (no classes)

WEEK 10 (March 13): Natural hazards. Earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis.


Writing assignments:

  1. Using resources at your disposal (scientific literature in the library or on the internet) localize the possible epicenters of the earthquakes mentioned in the accounts of Agathias, Michael Attaleiates, and Caesarius of Heisterbach, and identify the main fault lines and areas of seismic activity in those respective regions. Put them all on a map of the Mediterranean region. Now try to explain what happened based on the information provided by the sources.This is a group assignment (due in class on March 13) and will be evaluated as such.
  2. In a substantial paragraph (due in class on March 13), compare the explanations provided by Agathias and Michael Attaleiates. What are the most important similarities? In what respects are they different? Be specific and use examples from those accounts.
  3. Why did historians in the past mention earthquakes? Their explanations of those phenomena are very different from ours. What can we learn about how the explanatory structures operated, how evidence was understood, presented and evaluated, how such events were integrated into history?  Highlight 5-10 observations (due in class on March 13) along such lines of thinking.  You can simply list these points but again refer to the text in support of your observations.
  4. What were the beliefs of medieval people about the natural and supernatural world?  What does Procopius' account of a tsunami and Caesarius of Heisterbach's account of an earthquake tell us about their contemporaries' views on these matters. Again highlight 5-10 observations (due in class on March 13) that are supported by references to the text.
  5. What do these documents tell us about the educated audience, such as that that Procopius, Agathias, Michael Attaleiates, and Caesarius of Heisterbach had in mind? What did they expect from an account of an earthquake or a tsunami? How is that different from the expectations of a modern audience? Once more highlight 5-10 observations (due in class on March 13) and include references to the texts
  6. Book reviews are due on Friday, March 16

WEEK 11 (March 20): Disaster by pestilence. Pandemics


  1. Writing assignments: This week you will read two accounts of the plague, one from the mid-sixth, the other from the mid-fourteenth century. Neither is a simple report from the field, and both are carefully crafted literary texts. For this week’s exercise you will have to adopt the “voice” of a specific individual who is investigating those accounts.  Your response should be 1-2 pages in length (due in class on March 20).  For extra credit you can do both.  Be creative in the instance and tone that you adopt in your report.
  2. Project outline and annotated bibliography (at least 5 items) due on Friday, March 23
WEEK 12 (March 27): Writing workshop I

The purpose of the writing workshops is to give you an opportunity to receive constructive feedback on your writing from your peers. This is one of the most efficient ways to check whether or not your writing says what you intended it to say, and whether its meaning is clear.  You will also have the opportunity to comment on your peers' project by looking indetail as such things as vocabulary, sentence structure, paragraphs, and arguments. The writing sample for this week  is a draft of a section (or the introduction) of your research paper.  Your draft should be at least 3 pages long including footnotes. You should have at least two footnotes, properly cited according to the Chicago Manual of Style. The draft should present an argument and some supporting evidence you have been able to find in your research up to this point. Post the writing sample to class members on the Canvas course page (discussion tab) by 6.00 pm the evening before class. On March 27, come with at least one extra copy of your writing sample. You will read the sample in class and explain briefly the context, if necessary, after which all your peers will have the opportunity to comment on the draft. You will have the opportunity to respond, and a discussion may ensue on the writing sample and the broader project.

See more recommendations about how to write a good paper.

When evaluating your peers' drafts, use the following guidelines:

WEEK 13 (April 3): Writing workshop II

Follow the instructions for the previous week (due date is April 3).

WEEK 14 (April 10):  Conference presentations I:

Print out the oral presentation rubric and fill in the corresponding score.

WEEK 15 (April 17): Conference presentations II.

  1. Print out the oral presentation rubric and fill in the corresponding score.
  2. Rough draft of research paper (at least 10 pages) due on Friday, April 13

WEEK 16 (April 24): Conference presentations III.

Print out the oral presentation rubric and fill in the corresponding score.

April 25, by 12:00 pm: Research paper (together with the writing sample and marked-up rough draft) due in hard copy in my office.

2017 © Florin Curta