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.
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, 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.
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.