Basel, Switzerland was once Completely Destroyed by an Earthquake!

A Brief History

On October 18, 1356, Basel, Switzerland was destroyed by what may have been the most significant historic earthquake ever to occur north of the Alps.

Digging Deeper

Basel, Switzerland is currently a city of nearly 200,000 people.  Its origins date back to at least Roman times and possibly even pre-Roman Celtic times.  During its perhaps 2000 odd years history, the town and then city has risen and fallen a number of times due to both man made and natural catastrophes.  For example, in 917 A.D., Magyars (the ancestors of Hungarians) destroyed Basel, eventually burning down notable monasteries in the area.

Nevertheless, the worst disasters to befall Medieval Basel occurred in the mid-1300s.  For much of Europe, in fact, the mid-1300s was probably about the closest moment in their history to ever seem like the Apocalypse outside of World War II.  This century was, after all, the era of the Black Death.  In June 1349, when the plague reached Basel, the town’s guilds scapegoated Jews as being responsible, torturing and executing several by January, even forbidding Jews from returning to the town for some 200 years, although Jewish money would be used to help rebuild after the next disaster struck.

That next disaster struck just a few years later when an earthquake with a magnitude thought to be over 7.0 (a major earthquake) struck the region.  The human casualties numbered perhaps a thousand with 300 dead in Basel, but the physical destruction was massive.  As many as thirty to forty castles sustained damages in and even outside of Basel, as the earthquake was also felt in France.  As has happened in other major earthquakes (such as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake), what ultimately destroyed the town was not necessarily the damage from shaking, but rather an inferno that came afterwards.  A fire started when candles fell in Basel’s wooden houses.  As the fire spread, the town became engulfed in the uncontrollable blaze.  When all was said and done, every notable castle and church within several miles of Basel were destroyed.  The seismic event was the second time in Medieval history that Basel had been essentially wiped out.

Historical Evidence

For more information, our German-speaking readers might want to turn to this website.  For our English-speaking readers, your best bet is this link.  For an emotionally engaging depiction of the horror, see Swiss painter Karl Jauslin’s magnificent artistic rendition of the chaos that occurred in Basel in October 1356.

Dr. Zar

Dr. Zar graduated with a B.A. in French and history, a Master’s in History, and a Ph.D. in History. He currently teaches history at multiple universities.

  • Matt Chojnacki

    It seems to me that when an earthquake strikes it is often other factors that lead to destruction like fire that leads to greater tradjedy.

  • Sammi DiGeronimo

    It’s so unfortunate that so many terrible things happened to one city at once!

  • John Liber

    I can’t imagine how a city would deal with a natural disaster back in this time period. We had hurricane Katrina which was completely devastating and we have all the technology we could ever need to help aid the situation. They had basically nothing to help.

  • Alex Guthrie

    Being from Perry, this makes me think about what would happen to Cleveland if something happened to the Nuclear Power Plant.

  • KR

    I never expected to wonder how many times a city would need to be destroyed before people just don’t move back there.

  • Anthony Jones

    “The world is ending!” “The Jews did it!” – History in a nutshell

  • Madison Ertle

    Jews have always been the scapegoat yet it is interesting to see their money was used to rebuild the city!

  • rhammel

    What an awful disaster.

  • Thomas Robinson

    If this happened in today’s world it would be horrible, but at least we have the technology to make it a little less horrible. Back then a simple scrap could be a death sentence.

  • Salih Saritoprak

    Such a terrible disaster

  • Nate haller

    Yes it definitely would feel like the end of the world to me. Especially right after the black death

  • Alexa V

    I can’t even imagine watching the entire city be engulfed in flames…

  • Wadi

    Insane how many things happened here at one time!

  • N Sword

    Natural disasters are really one of the scariest things about our earthly existence. They are so unpredictable and ruin so many lives when they strike.

  • SK

    Thank goodness earthquakes aren’t common in Ohio.

  • Dan Hennessey

    I had no idea earthquakes are so common in Sweden. The fact that the fire was also more destructive than actual earthquake.

  • N Beauchemin

    Between the Black Death and the continuous natural disasters, it must have seen like the end of times. It’s amazing how even without electricity, such an event can still cause so many deaths from after effects like fires.

  • MMA

    We struggle in the world today with natural disaster, constantly asking why and trying to understand how. It takes a lot people, technology and hard work to fix the damages done by the natural disasters. I could not imagine how these people felt or even how they dealt with it. It is quite sad and I am sue that is hwy they tried to blame those around them, because they did not understand what was going on.

  • Meg Arrendale

    Natural disasters are definitely devastating! It would be extremely hard to essentially re-build the life you already had because you lost everything. I am grateful that earthquakes are not common in Ohio.

  • Sarah Shaheen

    I have the biggest fear of tornadoes, earthquakes and any natural disaster, the damage they can cause is insane.

  • Erin R

    This is yet another example of a natural disaster in this time period that is more or less forgotten to the people of the US today. This earthquake changed the lives and landscape of this place forever, and it is forgotten.

  • APG

    Basel must’ve been one of the most unlucky places ever in medieval times to nearly be wiped out twice.

  • Tevin Knerr

    I couldn’t imagine all of these natural disasters happening today, yeah i see it some places but not in Ohio .