One of the worst natural disasters of the last millennium, even worse than the floods of 2013, was without question the Magdalene Flood of 1342.
It got its name from the fact that the day of the great flood, July 22, 1342, was St. Magdalene’s Day according to the Catholic calendar of saints.
The deeper cause of this disaster was a massive change in the weather that swept over Europe at that time.
Researchers today speak of the Little Ice Age, which began between 1275 and 1300 and during which, among other things, summers cooled off abruptly.
This resulted in dramatic crop failures, economic slumps and famines for the continent. Particularly noteworthy are the Great Famine of 1315-17 (“The Great Hunger”) and the locust incursions, especially those of 1338.
The winter of 1341/42 was freezing cold and brought lots of snow. When the thaw suddenly set in and the snow masses began to melt, the first floods followed, which in Prague, for example, swept away the Judith Bridge, the forerunner of the Charles Bridge.
After the spring and early summer had also been very humid, a heat wave finally occurred, which dried out and encrusted the ground, so that it could hardly absorb any water.
When rain finally announced itself, the people hoped to save at least parts of the harvest.
But in the days from July 19 to 22, such masses of rain poured down from the sky that the soil could no longer absorb the water and the rivers became torrential streams.
Innumerable houses and other buildings were swept away, almost all bridges along the big rivers like the Danube, Rhine and Main were destroyed and in the Danube region alone more than 6000 people died.
But the consequences for agriculture were even more devastating.
The water carried away the soil and within a few hours about 13 billion tons of fertile farmland were lost – a quantity that would take 2000 years under normal weather conditions.
As a direct result, massive famines occurred and the already weakened people became even more susceptible to disease. So it is likely that the flood also favored the plague epidemics in the years 1346 to 1353, which swept away about one third of the population on the territory of present-day Germany.
A witness from that time describes the flood in this way:
“In that summer there was such a great flood of waters through the whole globe of our zone, which was not caused by downpours, but it seemed as if the water was gushing out from everywhere, even from the peaks of the mountains […], and over the walls of the city of Cologne one sailed with barges […], the Danube, Rhine and Main carried away towers, very strong city walls, bridges, houses and the bastions of the cities, and the floodgates of heaven were open, and rain fell on the earth as in the 600th century. Years of Noah’s life […], it happened in Würzburg that the Main River there violently smashed the bridge and forced many people to leave their homes.”
(Source: Curt Weikinn, Source texts on the weather history of Europe from the turn of time to the year 1850, Akademie Verlag, Berlin 1958; translation by the author)