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22.04.08 Bushnell (ed.), The Marvels of the World

22.04.08 Bushnell (ed.), The Marvels of the World

Reading the diverse and comprehensive extracts collected within Marvels of the World was accompanied by a pang of regret that it did not exist when I started my university education, or at the start of my PhD. It is a conscientiously useful and clearly executed book that showcases an admirable readerly focus and pedagogical concern for its own lasting value. Rebecca Bushnell, the editor and curator of the collection, has scrupulously glossed and introduced all sections and texts, carefully consulted colleagues and benefitted from their advice, and paid meticulous attention to preserving the legacy of Classical reception through and beyond the premodern period, the complex interplays, tensions and contradictions of ideas about the natural world, and the slow accretion of ideas over time. It is a feat of research-led teaching over a prolonged period. Bushnell has jumped an often-problematic hurdle for longue durée collections of themes: the book does not contract or gloss over any time or intellectual milieu of pre-modernity and gives equal audition and space to the entire span from Antiquity to 1700. Accompanied by well-placed supporting images, the entries span Classical treatises and philosophical tracts to Scripture, poetry to natural philosophy and geography to herblore. They are vibrantly encyclopaedic, like the natural philosophies that they capture: pluralistic and conflicting along intersecting cultural, geographic, and religious axes but always striving to apprehend the nature of things.

The Marvels of the World reminds me of a more temporally focused and similarly reader-style volume that I was and remain fond of: The Medieval Record by Alfred J. Andrea, originally published in 1997. Both books are affordable paperbacks, and yet open the reader to a whole world of short, edited, and curated source extracts. Andrea’s book has recently entered its second edition after over twenty years, a testament to its longevity. It was assigned to me for my first medieval studies survey unit and remains with me to this day. Bushnell, likewise, has edited a book that I believe will have similar longevity and remain popular for many years to come. It has the same winning formula: accessibility, breadth, careful editing, evocative supporting illustrations, and a reasonable price.

The collection is gathered into sections surveying themes of relevance not only to pre-modern life and literature, but also to the Anthropocene and climate crisis of the twenty-first century. These include Natural Philosophy and Natural Knowledge (1-72); Plants (73-116); Animals (117-170); Weather, Climate, and Seasons (171-210); Inhabiting the Land (211-258); Gardens and Gardening (259-310); and Outlandish Natural Worlds (311-346). Each section is preceded by a short introductory essay by the editor that introduces the theme to come without assuming any background knowledge or course of study. The essays unfold sequentially, making it clear that Bushnell sees her structure as a progression of themes that unfold from each other, leading the reader through the material from the fundamentals of knowledge and epistemology to discoveries and encounters that challenged them. The volume ends with a helpful reading list of subjects beyond its scope and a bibliography (347-354).

I am very impressed by The Marvels of the World and recommend it wholeheartedly. My only critique of the gathering is that there are no truly surprising choices in it. There are diverse choices, essential choices, lesser-known choices, but little that truly stretches the limit of imagination about what sources count as nature writing or what counts as a source; little that makes the reader rethink the very concept of nature writing or indeed if the term has value for future environmental humanists, despite demonstrating that the term “nature” is enormously plastic. This is something of an unfair charge since the book ends with a section of “Outlandish Natural Worlds” that clearly seeks to stretch the imagination, and yet the choices are still within genres that one would expect to focus on strangeness, unfamiliarity, and alterity. Any anthology of this nature is establishing a canon of a sort whether it wishes to or not and this collection goes far in shifting the imagination of its readership, but there is room to stretch a little more. We have reached a point in the scholarly discourse where this is increasingly essential.