Friars, Nobles and Burghers--Sermons, Images and Prints: Studies of Culture and Society in Early-Modern Europe, in Memoriam Istvaan Gyeorgy Taoth

By Jaroslav Miller; László Kontler | Go to book overview

Burning Germany:
Cities on Fire, Fire Fighting and Fire
Insurance in Early Modern Germany

CORNEL ZWIERLEIN

In his outstanding work on literacy in early modern Hungary, the late István György Tóth combined a sensitive quantitative analysis of serial sources with qualitative cultural history, comparing different European regions with an eye for detail as well as for the “big picture” and always searching for insight into the plurality of Europe's history in the wake of the beginning of the end of the clear-cut dichotomy between East and West that 1989/1990 ushered in.1 The present essay addresses the issue of the destruction of German towns (or parts of towns) by fire in the early modern period and the ways the inhabitants sought to cope with this major risk. To my knowledge this is a subject that Tóth never expanded on. However, in its combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches, comparative methodology, and concern with the phenomenon of “modernization,” as reflecting the difference between modernity and early modern states, this article follows the approach which Tóth pioneered.

This essay uses historical statistics in discussing the difficulties of presenting a survey of the frequency of big fires in German towns (part I). In addition, I will comment upon the precautions taken by city magistrates and territorial governments to prevent and to fight fires and how the problem of fire destruction was seen on different levels of early modern city culture (part II). Finally, the essay will discuss some proto-modern inventions in the realm of compensation for damages after destructions, in other words, fire insurance (part III).

1 István György Tóth, Literacy and Written Culture in Early Modern Central Europe
(Budapest–New York: Central European University Press, 2000).

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