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Environment and History

Flood Security in the Medieval and Early Modern North Sea Area: A Question of Entitlement?

Tim Soens

Environment and History 19 (2013): 209-232. doi: 10.3197/096734013X13642082568651

Starting in the later Middle Ages, the coastal wetlands along the southern North Sea area were increasingly hit by a series of catastrophic storm surges. Deeply rooted in the collective memory of coastal society, these flood disasters are mostly discussed as products of meteorological disturbances, environmental vulnerability or technological failure. In this article, an alternative reading is proposed, drawing attention to massive distortions in the social allocation of flood protection in the later Middle Ages, which help to explain the increased frequency of storm disasters. Building on Amartya Sen's original entitlement approach, it is argued that the right of coastal peasants to flood security often witnessed severe setbacks preceding many flood disasters, caused by adverse economic conditions, but also by an increasing violation of their entitlement to flood protection mainly by non-peasant groups, backed by an expanding state power.

KEYWORDS: Environmental disaster, water management, flood risk, entitlement


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