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13.06.12, Epstein, The Medieval Discovery of Nature

13.06.12, Epstein, The Medieval Discovery of Nature

When I accepted the invitation to review Steven A. Epstein, The Medieval Discovery of Nature, I fully expected that it would be an example of the kind of environmental history with which I have been most familiar for the past forty years: an examination of the complex interactions between humans and their natural environments during the Middle Ages. Instead, I read a book that fits more closely into the category of the history of ideas, with occasional nods in the direction that I expected. Epstein himself described it as "a book about medieval ideas concerning nature and what cultural tools enabled premodern people to understand, manipulate, and even own it" (4). In producing such a book, the author examined what medieval writers thought about nature: where they got their ideas and what changes if any they made to their inherited knowledge. The bulk of their knowledge about nature, according to Epstein, came from pre-medieval times, from ancient Greek scientists as well as from Jewish and early Christian writers--ranging from Pliny the Elder to St. Augustine and beyond--though he does mention from time to time that some medieval writers, such as Albertus Magnus, also learned about nature from their own observations and from the practical abilities of their contemporaries: peasants, artisans, merchants, and more.

In a preface and short introduction, Epstein established some definitions and laid out the framework for his study. What he means by "Nature with a capital N" is "the living ecology of this world, what we call today the biosphere" (xi). Essentially this included plants and animals (including humans), but not such things as non-living components of the ecosphere. Epstein remarked that even though medieval people had few reasons to contemplate Nature--it was, after all, "fallen," "depraved," "impenetrable to human reason," and largely "a distraction to the real purpose for which a moral person existed" (1)--there were some who believed that more could be gained from Nature than what was necessary for basic existence.

Epstein laid out his examination in five chapters, each of which focused on an issue or set of circumstances through which medieval people might have discovered something new in Nature or found ways to change it or to survive the worst that Nature could throw at them. In Chapter One, "The Discovery of Nature," he offered the practice of grafting to produce better trees and vines as a means by which medieval writers became increasingly more knowledgeable about certain natural processes and even learned how to manipulate and perhaps even improve on Nature. He carried a strand of this forward in Chapter Two, "The Invention of Mules," by examining how the development of mules, a hybrid between a horse and donkey, challenged many peoples' ideas of what was normal or allowable in Nature. In Chapter Three, "Like Produces Like," Epstein took up the matter of inheritability in Nature, already a sub-theme in the previous two chapters. The central question here was how one thing could produce another without exhausting itself and how children could resemble one or both or neither of their parents while still possessing a mixture of their parent's qualities--"'Like produces like' did not mean identical" (83). The examination of inheritability in Nature encouraged some medieval thinkers to consider the thorny question of how original sin was passed down to all generations. In Chapter Four, "The Nature of Property," Epstein brought the themes of the previous chapters together by considering the problems associated with taking possession of Nature and its inheritability in the form of land and movable property and even fellow humans as slaves. In "The Nature of Disaster," Chapter Five, he discussed how medieval people experienced natural disasters and learned at times how to minimize risk from future disasters by taking various kinds of actions, including the invention of insurance. In a short "Conclusion," Epstein summarized the findings of the preceding five substantive chapters by noting that he had "investigated from different perspectives some lessons or tools Nature offered to people needing to make a place for themselves in it" (185).

In several respects, The Medieval Discovery of Nature is a modest book. First of all, it is modest in size, comprising less than 200 pages of text. Still, Epstein managed to compress a considerable amount of information within its covers, gleaned by consulting and analyzing a substantial set of primary sources. In addition, this study is modest in its goals. In the Preface and Introduction, Epstein was very careful to spell out what was not the subject of his study so that he could focus on the five very narrowly-focused themes referred to above. In the end, Epstein himself characterized it as "simply a necessary preliminary...undertaking" to a "master narrative about the medieval discovery of Nature [that] will appear some day" (189). However, it is fair to say that just such a master narrative was written nearly a half-century ago by Clarence Glacken. [1] It is interesting that Epstein referred to Glacken's work a couple of times by mentioning that it had "deeply influenced" him before going on to suggest that the author failed to see much "curiosity about the natural environment" during medieval times (12, 16). In contrast to Epstein, Glacken adopted a much broader approach in his classic study by tracing three parallel notions about nature from ancient times through the 18th century: the idea of the earth as a planned abode, the influence of nature (broadly conceived) on humans, and the influence of humans on nature. As a result, Epstein's little book can be seen as a subset of Glacken's master narrative, and in fact most of the authors considered by Epstein were often more extensively treated by Glacken, and, of course, Glacken considered many more besides. And, as for the suggestion that Glacken may not have appreciated the full degree to which medieval people were curious about nature, one need only reread his Chapter Seven, "Interpreting Piety and Activity and Their Effects on Nature" [2]. Still, there is no harm in revisiting ideas first broached so long ago. Finally, Epstein's book is modest in its accomplishments. By cataloging some of the things that medieval writers gained from nature in the form of lessons, analogies, and guidance, Epstein did dispel the notion that medieval people were not interested in nature, but then we, as medievalists, already knew that. He was able, however, to incorporate 45 years'-worth of new research and to point us to a number of new additions of old texts unavailable to Glacken. But even in this regard, I cannot help but think that Epstein's work would have been strengthened, especially in the fourth and fifth chapters, if he had consulted additional recent studies: the work of both Joel Kaye [3] and George Ovitt [4] spring immediately to mind.

In general, this is a compact, well structured book that is quite easy to read, primarily because Epstein so carefully limited his examination to his five closely-defined themes or perspectives. There are however some problems. In particular, the index appears not to be entirely trustworthy. For example in my quick review of it I found at least four mentions of Albertus Magnus, who figured prominently in the text, that were not included in the index (30, 115, 186, 188), and only the second mention of Clarence Glacken (12, 16) made it into the index. Who can say how much else may have been left out? These quibbles aside, I recommend this book to all who study medieval environmental history, if only because it will remind some of us that, as we immerse ourselves in the study of nature-human interactions, it might be a good idea to consider the history of ideas about nature as well from time to time. It will also be of value to anyone who needs a quick review of the ideas discussed by Epstein.



[1] Clarence Glacken, Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).

[2] Ibid., 287–351.

[3] Joel Kaye, Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century: Money, Market Exchange and the Emergence of Scientific Thought (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, 4th Series, 35; Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998). It should be noted that Epstein did refer to a later article by Kaye (137, note 56), though it was not taken up in his bibliography.

[4] George Ovitt, Jr., The Restoration of Perfection: Labor and Technology in Medieval Culture (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987).