How do I challenge my calculus professor

Colloquium "Cultures of Risk in Europe in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times" by Professor Benjamin Scheller at the Historical College in Munich

The focus of the colloquium is the question of how risks were perceived and managed in the Middle Ages and early modern times. Special emphasis should be placed on practices of actively managing risks through prevention, calculation, etc. The colloquium thus ties in with questions that are currently highly topical in historical studies and that are approached from different perspectives in various research contexts.

The term “culture of risk” goes back to Herfried Münkler. This refers to arrangements that make future threats and damage predictable and calculable. The question of the calculation and thus the knowledge about risks is one of the central questions of the colloquium. Risks often fall under the type of contingent events that Ulrich Bröckling can describe as known unknowns. So they are future possible events about which expectations can be formed by observing past futures. This raises a number of questions: How did the actors observe these past futures? Which information management techniques did they use? What was the relationship between different forms of knowledge, such as “learned” and practical? What expectations did different actors in different fields ultimately form on the basis of different forms of knowledge?

Another central aspect of premodern cultures of risk is attribution. In the future, actors will be able to attribute possible threats and damage differently: Either they attribute them to decisions they have made themselves or to events in their social or natural environment. According to Niklas Luhmann, observation of a possible damaging event can only be considered a risk in the first case, whereas in the second case it is observed as a danger. Regardless of whether you want to limit the concept of risk in this way, it is true that the attribution to decisions extends the actors' options for action in a controlled manner. This is because it gives them the opportunity to allow damage that could in principle be avoided, provided that the calculation of the probability of damage and / or the possible amount of damage makes this appear justifiable. As the downside of the risk, the opportunity then increasingly comes into focus. In this sense, Bernardino von Siena (1380–1444) already emphasized that the late medieval insurance system increased the volume of trade in the respective communities, since the merchants carried out business that they would not dare if they could not find an insurer for them.

Nevertheless, up to the present day the view dominates in historical studies that possible future damage in the Middle Ages and partly also in the early modern period was not perceived as risks, but above all as dangers. In the end, humans felt helpless towards them and behaved passively because they were perceived and accepted as God-given. It was only in the modern age or the modern era that contingent damage was then increasingly traced back to decisions and dangers were thus transformed into risks.

An abundance of individual research from very different areas of historical science, especially legal and economic history, but also the environmental history of the Middle Ages and the early modern period has repeatedly shown that this view is very shortened, if not grossly wrong. However, the question of the observation, attribution, assessment and management of risks and dangers in the Middle Ages and early modern times in the field of tension or interplay between the worldly and the worldly has seldom been raised in a fundamental and comparative way.

At the colloquium “Cultures of Risk in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times”, different social fields are to be dealt with, in which risks represented a particular challenge for historical actors, and what forms of knowledge about risks and which risk management practices in them are to be asked Fields emerged.

First of all, the economic field, with its specific risks of loss and chances of profit, which was the first to develop a concept of risk in Mediterranean sea trade since the High Middle Ages, as well as war and military expansion, in which the risk of defeat has an almost existential dimension and production, appears to be important knowledge of the unknown was therefore of particular urgency, and the "natural environment", the extreme events of which challenged societies exposed to them to develop practices of prevention and adaptation. But the field of politics can also be understood as a specific culture of risk. Because the decisions that must be made and enforced in it should at least develop effects that are binding on political communities as a whole, so that the question of the calculability of these effects is particularly explosive here. In addition, fields such as gambling or the social formation of chivalry also played a role, which since the Middle Ages brought alternative concepts to risk: risk and adventure.

Of course, it should be noted that the fields mentioned were not always clearly delimited from each other in practice, for example when bets on the outcome of horse races in late medieval Italy were accepted by the same merchants who insured shiploads and who insured these bets together with the insurances in the same Accounted for their account books. But it is precisely this that raises the question of the interrelationships between the various social fields and their perception and practices of managing risks.


Thursday March 30, 2017
3:45 p.m. Welcome by Prof. Dr. Susanne Lepsius (Historical College)

4:00 p.m. Benjamin Scheller (Duisburg-Essen / Munich): Introduction

4:30 p.m. Steffen Patzold (Tübingen): Known Unknowns. Knowledge of the risks and imputability of decisions in the early Middle Ages

6:00 p.m. Susanne Reichlin (Munich): Sexual and economic risk fantasies in late medieval tales

Friday March 31, 2017
9:00 a.m. Arndt Brendecke (Munich): On the semantics and economy of risk in the Spanish Conquista

10:00 am Marina Münkler (Dresden): Figurations and narratives of risk in the early modern period

11:00 a.m. coffee break

11:30 am Wolfgang Wagner (Münster): “A bit of a coincidence”? Lottery at the medieval university

12:30 p.m. lunch break

2.30 p.m. Gabriela Signori (Constance): “Risk minimization” in the urban credit system of the 15th century

3:30 p.m. Martin Clauss (Chemnitz): Between security, calculation and heroism: War and risk in the late Middle Ages

4:30 p.m. coffee break

5:00 p.m. Albrecht Cordes (Frankfurt am Main): Adventure: Fate or Calculation?

6:00 p.m. Hiram Kümper (Mannheim): Was the early modern era a time without adventure? Stages of the conceptual history of adventure and risk

Saturday 1st April 2017
9:00 a.m. Gerrit Schenk (Darmstadt): Taming the future? Interpretation and action patterns when dealing with natural risks in the Renaissance from a conceptual historical and lifeworld perspective

10:00 am Cornel Zwierlein (Bochum): Insurance fraud through early death. The Reich Chamber of Commerce and Life Insurance (1755 to 1770)

11:00 a.m. coffee break

11:30 a.m. Christian Jaser (Berlin): Merkur, Fortuna and San Giovanni - horse racing, betting and mercantile calculation in Renaissance Florence

12:30 p.m. Gerhard Fouquet (Kiel): Final comment
subsequent final discussion

1.30 p.m. end of the conference

Registration by March 16, 2017 at the latest to:
Elisabeth Hüls
Historical college
Kaulbachstrasse 15th
80539 Munich
[email protected]