Risk and Uncertainty

Risk and Uncertainty

“The only certainty is that nothing is certain.”

So mused the Roman author and natural philosopher Pliny the Elder (23/24-79 A.D.) in his Naturalis Historia (Natural History). It is unfortunate but perhaps fitting that Pliny would perish in Stabiae while attempting the rescue of a friend and his family by ship from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which had already destroyed the city of Pompeii. Two thousand years later, it seems that the passage of time has done little to diminish the power of Pliny’s observation.

We live in an uncertain world. Every day, people take – or, at the very least, consider taking – risks while facing a multitude of unknowns. At this very moment, a mother-of-three is on a hospital waiting list for an operation, wondering if it is worth the risk to take out a loan and instead go private. At the same time, a teenager worries about his future, undecided on whether he should pursue his dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer or instead opt for a career in cyber security. Given the ongoing redundancies in the humanities across the UK, I’m currently weighing up my own career options, wondering if it is worth the risk to remain on the academic job market, possibly waiting years for that elusive permanent position, or else attempt to forge a career outside of academia. Like many in my position, I’m uncertain.

Medieval European pilgrims faced enormous challenges while travelling to pilgrimage sites, risking disease, exhaustion, robbery and even murder. Source: ‘Hans Tucher and his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.’ Le livre des merveilles, early 15th century. Wikimedia Commons.

Dealing with risk and uncertainty is a fact of life, despite making many of us feel deeply uncomfortable. Whether struggling to make life-changing decisions, experiencing difficult personal matters, or simply trying to cope with unfolding events or world-wide disasters, people regularly face and experience moments of risk and uncertainty; a reality not limited to a particular time, place or space.

As concepts, risk and uncertainty are traditionally applied to moments of environmental and economic crisis, both real and imagined. Terrorism, mass unemployment, inflation, public health emergencies and environmental catastrophes remain high on the agenda for governments and corporations around the world. Crippling concern about the devastating effects of climate change and our planet’s uncertain future has even recently gained a new name: eco-anxiety.

News anchors and journalists duly warn the public of such risks and uncertainties on a daily basis: ‘stay alert, control the virus and save lives’ is seared into the consciousness of most sentient beings in Britain by this point. Amidst the doom and gloom, it is no wonder that some warnings go viral, with RTE weather reporter Teresa Mannion declaring live on TV during the calamitous Storm Desmond in 2016: “Don’t make unnecessary journeys, don’t take risks on treacherous roads…and don’t swim in the sea!”

In recent years, historians have used the concepts of risk and uncertainty to uncover how natural and man-made hazards have threatened human endeavours and existence in the past. Much of this research focuses on how institutions and societies responded to various life-altering events throughout history – from mapping regional attempts to control the spread of bubonic plague during the fourteenth century to questioning how global responses to nuclear accidents shaped risk management strategies during the twentieth century.

This new series for HWO instead seeks to understand how ordinary people calculated risks and faced uncertainties in everyday life in the early modern world. Stretching from sixteenth-century Britain to eighteenth-century Mexico, its articles use the concepts of risk and uncertainty to show how ordinary people made – and often struggled to make – decisions that changed the entire course of their lives, and in turn, how they understood and viewed their position within their respective worlds. Risk and uncertainty became an increasingly familiar condition to ordinary people during the early modern period. The dissolution of traditional political and religious orders, the rise of new faiths and confessions, and the sudden acquaintance with other cultures through organic and forced means, transformed how ordinary men, women and children thought about and experienced risk and uncertainty in everyday life.

The early modern world also shares some features with our present reality: the displacement of people due to intolerance and persecution, the widespread belief in ‘alternative’ facts and the political use of doubt, and the persistent rollback on gender equality and women’s reproductive rights, foster complex questions regarding the meaning of risk and uncertainty in everyday life in both the early modern past and today. From the young woman risking a romantic relationship while weighing up the dangers of pregnancy and consequences of unwed motherhood, to the enslaved boy escaping captivity in an attempt to achieve a kind of liberty that had been stolen from him as a child, the historical record is full of hidden stories of personal risks and uncertainties that irrevocably shaped the lives of ordinary people.

Rogier van der Weyden, Portrait of an Unknown Woman with a Winged Bonnet, 1440. Wikimedia Commons.

From a purely academic perspective, risk and uncertainty are separate. The distinction proposed by the economist Frank H. Knight over a century ago has become classic. In the case of risk, the outcome is unknown, but the probability distribution governing that outcome is known. Uncertainty, on the other hand, is characterized by both an unknown outcome and an unknown probability distribution. In other words, risk is something that can be calculated but uncertainty defies calculation. According to sociologist Ulrich Beck, a risk society is a society increasingly preoccupied with the future (and also with safety) which generates the notion of risk. The concept of uncertainty, on the other hand, often refers to what is not known, and (for some) what cannot ever be known or quantified.

But for most people, risk and uncertainty are more or less synonymous: things that are uncertain are risky and vice versa. Whether that involves giving an unfaithful partner a second chance, or investing in cryptocurrencies in pursuit of profit, most of us have calculated risks and faced uncertainties at some point in our lives. They are, however, words that have gained heightened relevance in the past few years. As we slowly emerge from a devastating pandemic that affected people across the globe (though to varying degrees) we are now facing the uncertainties of Brexit, war in Europe and the threat of yet another public health crisis.

Studies also reveal that the uncertainty of the cost-of-living crisis is causing lasting damage to the mental and physical well-being of many people. A recent poll by Aldermore Bank found that a third of British people have not made any plans to mitigate the rise in living costs, while that more than a quarter believe their current financial situation is not sustainable. Many of us currently exist in a state of suspended uncertainty, aware of the risks that lie ahead yet unable to adequately plan for a rainy day. And torrential showers are forecast for the foreseeable future.

But while we are all aware of risks and uncertainties in our own worlds, we still know very little about how ordinary people calculated risks and dealt with uncertainties, on both a personal and shared level, in the past. Understanding how Viking warriors calculated risks when embarking on their first journey across unfamiliar waters in 793, or how seafaring merchants experienced uncertainties when boarding a ship to cross the Atlantic on a well-trodden route in 1793, is difficult to recover. What we do know for certain, however, is that personal experiences of risk and uncertainty shaped – and continue to shape – the lives of ordinary people in profound ways.

It is believed that Vikings navigated the open seas by using a sun compass or sundial – a risk that ultimately carried their ships to the shores of England in the late eighth century.
Source: Viking Voyages in the North Atlantic – Bearing Compass. Stamps FO 406 from the Faroe Islands, 11 February 2002. Artist: Martin Mörck.

More than sixty years ago E. H. Carr wrote that ‘History consists of a corpus of ascertained facts.’ In school, we were taught to learn important dates and memorise the names of ‘important’ (predominately white, male) people. It wasn’t until I studied History at university that an eccentric lecturer told me that ‘nothing in History is certain’, and that ‘as historians it is our duty to question everything, even dates.’ (In a bid to impress I subsequently argued in a class presentation that the Irish abbot Columba travelled to Scotland in 568, not 563, and that this discovery changed the very course of Scottish history – incorrect, but at least I tried.)

While there is, of course, such a thing as ‘historical certainty’, historians are, to borrow the words of Elisabeth Engel, ‘uncertain narrators‘, faced with myriad silences, gaps, and inconsistencies in the historical record. How can historians possibly represent forgotten or overlooked lives? In many respects, the history of uncertainty is the history of the unknown – how ordinary people experienced and perceived uncertainties in their own lives is, of course, difficult to uncover, especially the further you look back in time.

It is much easier, however, to investigate how ordinary people calculated risks in their personal lives. In my own work, I research how ordinary women negotiated their legal status and property relationships in early modern Scotland. The restriction of women’s property rights within marriage meant that many calculated risks and planned ahead for future uncertain scenarios, including their husband’s untimely death. The certainty of mortality and the uncertainty of its timing meant that when a bride was drawing up her marriage contract with a notary, she was already anticipating the death of her future husband and her access to property as a widow. Without the security of a marriage contract, married women risked financial destitution on widowhood. In early modern Scotland, a bride knew that the death of a debt-ridden husband was potentially disastrous, so she mitigated against such a risk by securing ownership of her inheritance and use of her marital property in her marriage contract, before she had even walked down the aisle. During the early modern period, recourse to law for ordinary women was therefore essential in successfully managing perceived and real risks and uncertainties in daily life, and upon life-altering events.

Massysm Quentin, The Moneylender and his Wife, 1514. Wikimedia Commons.

According to Scott Gabriel Knowles, the ‘certainty’ of the historical record is an ‘artefact of a time when women, minority groups, workers, and nonhuman life/the environment were not part of the enquiry.’ Accepting a wide range of historical fields and methodologies – including gender, social, family, labour, queer, race and ethnicity, and many more – challenges the ‘certainty’ of history by adding complex and often marginalised perspectives, collapsing the idea that the course of history follows a definable progressive direction. Just like our modern world, history is complicated – we should embrace the uncertainty, fuzziness and speechlessness of the past in all its splendour.

A varied history of risk and uncertainty can provide alternative stories that foreground the rich diversity of human experience in the past. It also might help us think about our own position in the world today – as people with our own experiences of risk and struggles with uncertainty, though living in a different time and place. From the married woman fleeing her abusive husband in sixteenth-century London, to the enslaved woman petitioning for her freedom in eighteenth-century Mexico, this new series explores how ordinary men, women and children in the past understood and coped with risk and uncertainty during times of personal crisis and in everyday life. In doing so, it seeks to illuminate our own experiences of navigating an increasingly uncertain world.

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