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Paul Vallely: Earthquakes raise age-old questions

17 February 2023

But the modern response to them differs from medieval times, says Paul Vallely


A house in a village in Syria in ruins after an earthquake

A house in a village in Syria in ruins after an earthquake

I HAD never been to Lincoln until this weekend, when we took a winter break to see the extraordinarily magnificent cathedral there. One of the first things that the tour guide told us was that only the central part of the west front survives from the Norman cathedral completed in 1092. The rest of the building was “split from top to bottom” by an earthquake, “the like of which was never experienced before”, according to a medieval chronicler.

The seismic event, on 15 April 1185, was one of the largest earthquakes that the British Isles has ever seen. Apart from the west front, the cathedral totally collapsed. You might have thought that the word “earthquake” would have given pause in the light of the terrible events in Turkey and Syria, where the number of the dead mounts dreadfully, day by day. But the guide carried on with his fascinating account of the medieval mindset.

Hugh of Avalon, later St Hugh of Lincoln, rebuilt the cathedral in what was then the new Gothic style, and the result is awe-inspiring. But a subsequent bishop, Robert Grosseteste, was not welcomed by the Dean and Chapter, who denied him access to the cathedral for six years. One of the canons preached a sermon in the cathedral against him, exclaiming: “If we should hold our peace, the very stones will cry out.” Immediately thereupon, “a large portion of the church broke away and fell down.” God, in those days, did not work in mysterious ways.

It was another earthquake that changed the thinking of the post-Enlightenment West on God’s interaction with the world. In 1755, an earthquake in Portugal destroyed the city of Lisbon, killing thousands. It brought singularly into focus the question: How can a good God allow the innocent to suffer?

In the self-styled Age of Reason, the old explanations of theological theodicy no longer sufficed. Natural disasters called into question the intelligibility of a world shaped by a good and omnipotent creator. Voltaire mocked the old explanations. Nietzsche declared that God was dead.

The intellectual shockwaves generated by the Lisbon earthquake brought the world to a place where theology ceased to offer certainties beyond the apophatic. The event crystallised change that had been long creeping in modern minds.

That is the world in which we still live. Earthquakes are now just a matter of plate tectonics rather than divine wrath at the millions of poor Indians whom the Portuguese had butchered for the sake of gold. Human wrath is directed at those who build shoddy buildings along tectonic fault-lines. The task in Syria and Turkey is to save citizens from famine, not to save souls from hell.

Back in Lincoln in 1250, Bishop Grosseteste, pre-modern though he was, had all of this covered. The duty of the Church, he told his parish priests, lay “not only in the administration of sacraments, the saying of canonical hours, and the celebration of masses. . . It consists in the feeding of the hungry, in giving drink to the thirsty, including the naked, in receiving guests, in visitation of the sick and prisoners . . . to whom the temporal goods of the churches belong.”

The medieval were more modern than we might imagine.

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