Dealing with events beyond human understanding Medial representations of natural disasters in the early modern press


This contribution deals with the discourse around natural disasters in the 18th century Austrian newspaper Wien[n]erisches Diarium (since 1780: Wiener Zeitung) which acted as the most important publicly accessible source of information within the Habsburg monarchy and reached a wide audience. By analyzing concrete patterns of the periodical’s text, the paper reveals both historical human-nature relations and representations of natural disasters as well as cultural mechanisms to deal with them.
On an empirical level, this is enabled by the so-called DIGITARIUM (, Resch & Kampkaspar 2020), a digital corpus that contains 339 full text issues (3 million tokens) of the Diarium from the 18th century which are evenly distributed over time. Starting from here, an efficient ‘distant reading’-process could be taken as natural disasters occupy much textual room in the investigated newspaper but are widely dispersed within it: First, we searched for selected keywords, including both disaster-specific (e.g. Erdbeben, Wolkenbruch, …) and non-specific terms (e.g. Katastrophe, Not, …) as well as their graphematic and grammatical variants (e.g. Catastrophen, Unglüks, …). After excluding irrelevant results, the found text passages were then analyzed further, while simultaneously being used to identify new search terms. This explorative process was repeated until ‘saturation’, meaning that no new relevant text passages could be found any more and the results were considered representative.
In the next step – the quantitative-qualitative analysis or ‘close reading’ – the focus was put on three main aspects: Firstly, we wanted to know how often natural disasters were represented within the Wien[n]erisches Diarium and how they were distributed over time; secondly, we looked for recurrent linguistic patterns as potential hints to central aspects in early modern disaster representation; and thirdly, we analyzed the text passages with regard to their cultural frames. Considering the role of the 18th century as age of enlightenment, we hereby were especially interested in the occurrence of religious versus scientific frames.
The obtained results demonstrate that natural disasters represent a highly popular topic in early modern press as they are mentioned in 304 text passages and almost every second newspaper issue. Herein, they are depicted as singular and extraordinary events beyond human understanding – which goes so far that they are even considered ‘indescribable’. Nevertheless, early modern society still manages to ‘make sense’ of natural disasters: On one hand, the exceptional events are made relatable through comparisons to ordinary aspects of every-day life, and on the other hand, readers are provided with causal interpretations through cultural frames.
Concerning the latter, our investigation shows that especially religious and ritual interpretations played an important role in coming to terms with natural calamities as events like storms, floods or earthquakes were frequently framed as acts of god and interpreted as reminders to improve one’s relationship with God. In the second half of the 18th century, however, also scientific interpretations of catastrophes started to emerge – marking a diachronic change in natural disaster discourse. These and further results of our investigation showcase that corpus-based newspaper studies can provide important input for historical discourse research.