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13.08.02, Aberth, An Environmental History of the Middle Ages:

13.08.02, Aberth, An Environmental History of the Middle Ages:

The field of environmental history has seen substantial growth in recent years, which now extends well beyond its initial American and modern foci. Medieval historians, however, have been quite slow to join in this new direction of scholarship. Therefore both medievalists and environmental historians have reason to thank John Aberth for this survey of medieval European environmental history--as far as I know the only one of its kind. A medievalist and prolific author of a half dozen books on the late Middle Ages, the Black Death, and plagues in world history, [1] Aberth writes in a lively, entertaining style, while assuming little or no prior knowledge of his subject--thus presumably intending to reach a mostly undergraduate or non-specialist audience. At the same time, however, he shapes his text around his own arguments, summarizing the scholarship and frankly, sometimes rather personally, explaining his own views, all with abundant documentation. This book therefore may be characterized as both a popular textbook and a scholarly survey that makes suggestive, if not always persuasive, interventions in ongoing debates.

Besides a brief introduction and a one-page "afterword," the text contains three main parts, devoted respectively to "Air, Water, Earth," "Forest," and "Beast," within which there are many sub- headings, but no subdivision into chapters. As this organization may already suggest, Aberth takes an idiosyncratic approach to his subject. He aims, furthermore, to provide "primarily...a cultural survey of medieval attitudes towards the environment" (10). But in fact he goes well beyond this focus by balancing his many examples of learned teachings and popular beliefs with analysis of economic practices and, to a lesser degree, ecological impacts. This brings the book closer to a broad treatment of environmental history, though as I explain below specialists will still find it wanting in this regard.

The introduction presents Aberths central arguments, which build on four types of attitude towards the environment identified by David Herlihy in 1980 (1-10). Herlihy proposed this typology as a way of moving beyond Lynn White's much-criticized claim that the Judeo- Christian tradition in general, and medieval western Christianity in particular, were characterized by an exceptionally aggressive exploitation of nature. [2] Herlihy's four attitudes span four historical periods, but with some repetitions or overlaps, so that the typology includes five items: 1) an apocalyptic or eschatological view, influential in late Antiquity; 2) an adversarial view, prevalent in the early Middle Ages; 3) an optimistic, collaborative view, dominant in the high Middle Ages; 4) a return of the adversarial view in the late Middle Ages; and 5) a fourth, "recreational" view, most common in high and late medieval literature, which represented verdant spaces as alternatives to ordinary society.

Aberth largely accepts Herlihy's typology, albeit with some reservations. He notes, for example, that in order to assess properly the medieval contribution, one must recognize that classical Greco- Roman cultures provided precedents "for both the exploitative and conservationist attitudes towards nature that have been located in the Middle Ages." Similarly, ancient thinkers such as Hippocrates and Aristotle "pioneered the study of ecology by demonstrating the complex interrelationships that existed between humans and their physical environments," even if the latter "also adopted a hierarchical view of the natural order that placed man at the apex" (8). Aberth also argues that even when scholars adopt such multi-faceted approaches as the above four-part paradigm, "they fail to differentiate among human attitudes towards different facets of nature" (9), which he will do according to the three-part plan of this book. Both of these adjustments to the typology are helpful in that they allow for greater nuance and complexity. In practice, Aberth's arguments concerning changes in attitude over time are more sustained and persuasive in Part I than in Parts II and III.

Most provocatively, Aberth contends that the changes prompted by the late medieval crises have not been sufficiently appreciated. He maintains that these crises, especially the Black Death, brought not simply a return to earlier, adversarial or eschatological views, but rather "forced a radical rethinking of environmental attitudes," leading to "a more nuanced, sophisticated view of the environment than ever before," one that represented "a sort of combination or summation…of the preceding views," and which also became more widely shared among the population, so that in the late Middle Ages "humans understood more completely their own role in provoking this war [waged on man by nature]" (9). Although Aberth reinforces this last point by arguing that "man's interconnected relationship with the environment was...understood on a much more scientific basis than ever before," he hastens to add that, "for medieval people environmental culpability was measured not just directly, in terms of human pollution," but also in "seemingly unrelated spheres, such as morals and ethics," and he notes that paradoxically the late Middle Ages also saw a rise in beliefs in magical and occult abilities to manipulate nature (9).

The problems with the book's arguments and approach will be apparent to most scholarly readers. First, Herlihy's typology and its periodization need more critical handling. Environmental attitudes were likely as complex and various in the early and high Middle Ages as those that Aberth finds in the late Middle Ages. [3] Nonetheless, the first part of the book mounts a plausible case that the late Middle Ages saw the development of some new and important ideas in terms of how nature operates and can be manipulated. More problematic is that Aberth, despite his apparent awareness of the complexity of a given topic, seems to have a taste for facile generalizations. Thus after rejecting White's oversimplified teleology about the medieval origins of western environmental problems, he labors to replace it with an equally dubious teleology that finds in the late Middle Ages the origins of, variously, the contemporary "new ecology" with its emphasis on a "mutual, two-way dialogue between humans and nature" (2); an awareness that "Mother Earth was not an inexhaustible and all- forgiving source of bounty" (233); and a new identification and partnership with domestic animals (232-3).

Second, the limitations of the book's coverage concern more than just its focus on attitudes and its three main topics. Geographically, most of the examples of practical human interactions with nature concern the British Isles (especially England), France, or elsewhere in northwestern Europe, with relatively few relating to the Mediterranean or central or eastern Europe. This narrow focus weakens many of the book's claims. Most glaring is the virtually complete lack of any explicit, sustained treatment of Europe's geography or ecology or their impact on human societies. The most notable exceptions to this neglect are two brief but effective discussions of climate change (26- 8 on the Medieval Warm Period, and 49-51 on the Little Ice Age)--which however overlook regional variations. Elsewhere the contrast between Britain's Highland and Lowland zones is obliquely recognized (84-5), and an excellent synopsis of water management describes how many low- lying areas (e.g., Holland) were transformed by widespread drainage and the use of windmills, or how arid regions (in Spain) developed sophisticated irrigation systems (31-8). But for the most part local particularities are noted in passing without analysis of the ecological patterns of which they were a part. Omitted are examinations of such traditional contrasts as between Atlantic and Continental climate zones, or between the Mediterranean and northern Europe, as well as of the many more specific climatic, altitudinal, physiographic, vegetative, or soil-type zones. An untutored reader might be forgiven for emerging from this book with the impression that medieval Europe was ecologically rather homogeneous, made up largely of the kinds of open fields and deciduous woodlands found in lowland England and northwestern continental Europe.

In Part I, which takes its title "Air, Water, Earth" from the work ascribed to Hippocrates called "On Airs, Waters, and Places," Aberth begins with ancient Greek and medieval Muslim ideas about the environment. Most of these are concerned with how the balance of elements, or their corruption, affected human health or the inherited characteristics of people from different regions or countries (11-18). Medieval western thinkers developed these ideas, which because they linked bad air (the theory of miasma) to pestilential disease (via the body's humors), became key to understandings of the plague. Aberth also surveys Celtic, Germanic, and popular ideas about nature, and provides crisp, well-informed reviews of the high medieval agricultural revolution (28-38) and urban pollution (63-9). While he finds that high medieval figures like Vincent of Beauvais and St. Francis of Assisi reflected a rise of optimistic attitudes towards nature, he believes that such positive views by themselves changed little. Instead, real change came only with the "ecological shocks" of the Little Ice Age and the Black Death (49). In response, certain plague doctors developed a new "poison thesis," one that represented a "major advance" over classical humoral and miasmatic theories by tracing the air's corruption not just to imbalance among the elements, but rather to specific but unidentified poisonous substances that were concocted by occult means (69-70). This opened the door to accusations of poisoning against particular people or groups, including Jews, beggars, and, later, witches; the latter were also accused of using weather magic to cause harm (73-6). Late medieval medical, magical, and occult beliefs thus had much in common.

Part II, "Forest," surveys ancient pagan woodland cults and the "dendroclasm" of early medieval missionaries who sought to eradicate them (76-84), as well as the often ambivalent representations of forests in high and late medieval natural histories, romances, and the tales of Robin Hood (127-36). Aberth ably synthesizes the recent archeological and landscape research of Oliver Rackham and many others, which suggests that much of western Europe had been cleared well before the medieval period and that its proportion of wooded land did not alter dramatically thereafter. Thus the high medieval "great clearances" were probably much less extensive than previously thought (84-97). As Europe grew demographically and economically it supplied its needs in woody resources less by clearing than by intensively managing woods through such techniques as coppicing and pollarding, i.e., the harvesting of small wood from stumps or trunks on short rotations of four to twenty years (111-19). Notwithstanding his apparent acceptance of the insights of what might be called the "new woodland history," in much of Part I Aberth inconsistently retains a traditional focus on conflict between the demand for timber and the protection provided by central administrations, chiefly that of the English Royal Forest (86, 97-107, 119-23). Woodlands outside of England are in fact better documented than his survey suggests, just not necessarily by royal administrations. [4] He ends by discussing the regrowth of woodlands in the late Middle Ages (137-39), but there is no careful argument to substantiate the introduction's claim that this period saw "a renewed appreciation for the greenwood" (10).

Part III, "Beast," the longest of the book, traces how changes in human-animal interactions culminated by the end of the Middle Ages in a greater emphasis on livestock and pastoralism. Bones and texts reveal increasing use of the horse, especially by small farmers who appreciated its versatility, growth of wool production and trade, and the displacement of pigs from forests to sties (151-58). By the late Middle Ages herds were larger and people ate more meat, in a context of greater commercialization and regional specialization (162-63). Aberth makes good use of English poaching records to show that, while hunting became legally restricted to aristocrats and royalty, commoners continued to hunt in significant numbers (176-95). Late medieval hunting manuals and literary texts portray elaborate rituals that may look back to a mythical past, but they had little connection to pragmatic contemporary methods (195-200). Similar pragmatism helped meet the demand for wildfowl and fish through commercialized farms for swans, herons, and other birds, large-scale trade in salt cod and herring, and sophisticated fishponds for raising carp and other freshwater species (201-4).

In several cultural spheres Aberth finds evidence--often quite colorful--that by the end of the Middle Ages boundaries between animal and human became blurred and their relationships became closer. While medical writers struggled to explain contrasting animal and human susceptibility to some diseases, the plague drove home their shared vulnerabilities (206-17). Conversely, human medical remedies made wide use of animal parts and excreta, including urine and feces, and sometimes even of live animals, as with the contraction of a chicken's anus to draw out a plague bubo's poison (158, 165). Notwithstanding such evidence of cruelty to animals, Aberth argues that bestiaries, natural histories, and animal fables all suggest that medieval people empathized with animals and assumed they had feelings (164-9). He also finds "an important shift" in the late Middle Ages as dogs came to be appreciated primarily for their companionship (169-76), but it seems more likely that such affection simply becomes more visible in the sources. Some beliefs in cross-species similarity are familiar to medievalists, such as those assumed in animal trials (217-24), or the role of animals in magic as either ingredients of potions, victims of attacks, or witches' familiars (228-32). Other claims go too far, such as that Godric of Finchale and others resembled modern animal rights activists, but they "had to cloak their protests" against hunting (205-6), or go wildly wrong, for example in stating that the history of approaches to bestiality is "a story of progression from complete acceptance of it" by ancient pagan cultures (!) "to complete intolerance in Christian Europe" (225).

Adding to this volume's utility are almost 800 endnotes, a bibliography of twenty-eight pages, and an index. Although the book's sources reflect the limitations of its contents (including a few surprising omissions [5]), this ample documentation will serve well both beginning and advanced researchers. Even though its particular approach and sometimes dubious arguments must be borne in mind, this is a provocative and reader-friendly survey of a large subject, one that hopefully will help to attract attention to this emerging field. --------


1. Among medievalists he is perhaps best known for From the Brink of the Apocalypse: Confronting Famine, War, Plague, and Death in the Later Middle Ages, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2010).

2. David Herlihy, "Attitudes Towards the Environment in Medieval Society," in Historical Ecology: Essays on Environment and Social Change, ed. Lester J. Bilsky (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1980), 100-16. Lynn White Jr., "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," Science 155 (1967): 1203-7.

3. On the early Middle Ages, see now Ellen Arnold, Negotiating the Landscape: Environment and Monastic Identity in the Medieval Ardennes (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

4. For example, see Richard Keyser, "The Transformation of Traditional Woodland Management: Commercial Sylviculture in Medieval Champagne," French Historical Studies 32 (2009): 353-84.

5. Given Aberth's focus on attitudes, a notable omission is: 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).