12.11.10, Bruce, ed., Ecologies and Economies in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

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Philip Slavin

The Medieval Review 12.11.10

Bruce, Scott G.. Ecologies and Economies in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Studies in Environmental History for Richard C. Hoffmann. Brill's Series in the History of the Environment. Leiden: Brill, 2010. Pp. xxii, 233. ISBN: 978-90-04-18007-9.

Reviewed by:
Philip Slavin
McGill University

The volume consists of ten contributions, written by leading authorities on pre-industrial environmental and economic history, to celebrate the career of an eminent pioneer of environmental history, Richard Hoffmann. It also represents the first volume of the newly launched Brill's Series in the History of the Environment. As such, it is indeed a very nice beginning to a new series, which, with the exception of its high price, will undoubtedly appear most appealing to the community of environmental historians, as well as those in various related disciplines.

The volume is divided into three parts. The first part consists of two introductory chapters. Scott Bruce offers an appreciation of Hoffmann's scholarship and personality, while Richard Unger surveys the place and contributions of Hoffmann to the historiography of environmental history, especially since the 1970s.

The second part of the volume ("Part One," since the introductory part is not assigned its proper number), entitled "Premodern People and the Natural World," Paolo Squatriti's contribution discusses chestnut (Castanea sativa) cultivation around Amalfi (in Campania) towards the end of the first millennium CE, as a response to demographic decline and labour scarcity in the early Middle Ages. On the basis of a single charter from a local Benedictine cartulary, Squatriti establishes the degree of sophistication and "improvement" of early medieval arboriculture and woodland landscape in southern Italy. Most importantly, Squatriti challenges the traditional view that chestnuts were the staple of the poor in the early medieval Mediterranean and suggests that this crop, because of its economic profitability, was consumed by all social strata. The second paper in the same section is offered by William Chester Jordan, author of the now-classic The Great Famine: Northern Europe in the Fourteenth Century (1996). Jordan offers a glimpse into the recent historiography of the Great European Famine (published since the appearance of his monograph) and discusses the outstanding issues yet to be studied in a detail in conjunction with this major environmental catastrophe. The northern European population recovered from the disaster fairly quickly, only to succumb once more to another major exogenous shock: the Black Death. As Jordan rightfully notes, the connection between the two catastrophes is yet to be studied. Petra van Dam's article deals with rabbit husbandry in the context of macro- environmental changes in early modern coastal Holland. As van Dam shows, a piecemeal process of land reclamation and the intensification of dune exploitation, starting around 1400, forced local communities to enclose their rabbit warrens with fences. This stood in sharp contrast with the earlier period, when rabbits co-existed with cattle in a wider open space and when the same dune plains were exploited more extensively. In the final paper of this section, Verena Winiwarter surveys the reception of scientific knowledge regarding various techniques of soil fertility improvements from the ninth- century Abbasid caliphate through tenth-century Byzantium to early modern Europe. This reception, with its alterations and advances, is to be seen in a wider context of agricultural sustainability. Despite its obvious importance, the topic of pre-Industrial agronomy has not attracted scholarly attention and Winiwarter makes an important step in rescuing the issue from obscurity.

The third part of the volume ("Part Two"), entitled "Aquatic Ecosystems and Human Economies," consists of four further essays by Hoffmann's colleagues. Maryanne Kowaleski's essay studies seasonality of late-medieval fishing in England, distinguishing between eastern and western fisheries. East-coast fishing became commercialized at a much earlier stage (by the eleventh century), while western fisheries did not become fully commercialized until the fourteenth century. Because of their bio-aquatic diversity and versatile spawning seasons, west-coast fishermen were able to expand their activities into much wider areas of the North Atlantic, all the way to Newfoundland. Constance Berman's paper deals with the wetland environment of the lower Rhône, in the Arles region in Southern France. On the basis of two entries in a Hospitaller cartulary concerning rent-payments in eel, Berman concludes that the area practiced eel farming and harvesting. It is unclear, however, if the two entries reflect the general situation. The third essay, by Pierre Claude Reynard, discusses the urban planning and expansion of eighteenth-century Lyon, in southern France. In particular, he touches upon a debate between conservative and innovative planners in a wider socio-cultural context of local discourses. Reynard's review reminds us that environmental history should by no means be limited to rural historians. The last essay of the volume, written by Wim van Neer and Anton Ervynck, is dedicated to the history of fish and fisheries in the Scheldt river in Belgium. Using a wide array of sources, both written and archaeological, the authors show that there are widespread signs of the historical pollution of the river. In most cases, this was an anthropogenic phenomenon, which destroyed certain fish species native to that region. In the concluding part of the essay, van Neer and Ervynck survey other similar interdisciplinary projects on fisheries, launched in recent years, and call for more work to be carried out in this field.

The volume concludes with a scholarly bibliography of Richard Hoffmann's works (1971-2008). This is a highly valuable addition, since some of Hoffmann's articles have appeared in lesser-known journals and volumes.

As stated above, this volume makes a scholarly contribution to both economic and environmental history. In effect, it shows that the two sub-disciplines are largely inseparable and well integrated. Most essays offer an innovative and unique insight and it is hard to pinpoint visible shortcomings. One may take issue with the internal division of the volume into the sections of "Premodern People and the Natural World" and "Aquatic Ecosystems and Human Economies." The very nomenclature "premodern" should, perhaps, be replaced with "pre- industrial," all the more since van Dam's article deals with the early modern period, while Winiwarter's paper is concerned with both the medieval and early modern eras. For the environmental historian it is much more appropriate to think in terms of "pre-industrial" and "industrial" rather than "premodern" and "modern." This is, however, a purely cosmetic and nomenclatural issue that hardly detracts from the overall quality of the volume--which, despite its discouraging price, is recommended for those interested in environmental and economic history of pre-industrial Europe in particular, and the world in general.

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Author Biography

Philip Slavin

McGill University