An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: The Crucible of Nature

By Squatriti, Paolo | The Historian, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: The Crucible of Nature


Squatriti, Paolo, The Historian


An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: The Crucible of Nature. By John Aberth. (Abingdon, England: Routledge, 2013. Pp. xvi, 326. $39.95.)

Anyone interested in medieval Europe's environmental history must cheer the publication of John Aberth's newest book. Until Richard Hoffmann's survey appears, Aberth's is the only attempt in any language to "adequately sum up the environmental history" of Europe in the Middle Ages or at least to "chart the course of the most important shifts in attitudes toward the environment" in that period (233). To achieve this, Aberth discusses many texts, mostly literary ones from 1100 to 1400, and although he acknowledges that the "more scientifically minded" may find his work "anecdotal and impressionistic," he thinks it will be "a more entertaining, as well as informative read" through its avoidance of "hard" data (10).

Curiously, the main argument of An Environmental History of the Middle Ages rests on the "hard numbers" of famine and plague: Aberth sees a real ecological crisis in the 1300s, centering on the Great Famine plus the Black Death (though a "Great Wind of 1362" apparently also mattered), that radically reconfigured how Europeans, literate and not, conceived of their place in nature. The huge mortalities of 1315-1322 and 1348-1349 evidently produced a new awareness of how economic activity caused ecological harm and sparked natural disasters. As a result, people saw themselves as part of the community of nature, not lords over it. As usual in environmental historiography, the past (here the cultural shift of the 1300s) is claimed to be directly pertinent (and teleologically related) to the present. Aberth, a Vermont forest restorer, animal rescuer, and college professor, thinks contemporary ecological events are changing popular culture by forcing choices on modern Westerners like those that late medieval Europeans confronted. Barbara Tuchman's "distant mirror" shines again.

There are three sections to this survey. Part 1, ostensibly about the medieval elements air, water, and earth, actually skims over ancient and medieval cosmology, the reception of Arabic scientific works in Europe, medieval popular weather belief and modern climate history, energy-harnessing technologies of the high Middle Ages, and the intellectual history of purity and contagion in the 1300s. …

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