Realizing Consilience in Studies of Pre-Instrumental Climate and Pre-Laboratory Disease
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Realizing Consilience in Studies of Pre-Instrumental Climate and Pre-Laboratory Disease

A special issue of the journal Quaternary Science Reviews—entitled “Mediterranean Holocene Climate, Environment and Human Societies”—demonstrates why and how historians interested in premodern environmental history should work collaboratively across disciplinary boundaries to draw conclusions. A series of mini–case studies and a survey of recent scholarship, as prompted by this collection, explores the advantages and challenges of attempting to realize such consilience. Although the special issue focuses on Mediterranean Europe during the late antique–medieval periods, all historians interested in the complex relationship between climate and societal change will find that it yields deeper reflections and issues.

“Mediterranean Holocene Climate, Environment and Human Societies,” Special Issue: Quaternary Science Reviews, CXXXVI (2016) 252pp. Edited by Alexandra Gogou, Adam Izdebski, and Karin Holmgren, available at

Is it unusual to be an interdisciplinary pre-modernist? To some degree, historians of the Middle Ages and early modernity have always flirted with sources and methods not emblematic of their own training. Scholars of medieval economies, for instance, have interweaved archaeological data of all sorts with their written sources for decades. Others have engaged with gender studies, literary theory, musicology, and psychology. Yet, interdisciplinarity has rarely been integral to pre-modernists’ work. Such is also the case for most environmental historians, although some of them claim otherwise. To be sure, interdisciplinarity and environmental history, not premodern history, go hand-in-hand. But historians of the natural world and human–environment relationships tend only to dabble in other fields of study, partially because most [End Page 211] environmental historians are modernists; they have too many written sources at their disposal to bother with nonwritten material.

Like malaria’s premodern geography, this situation is gradually changing. Pre-modernists are becoming environmental historians. Consequently, the study of the medieval and early modern periods is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, and the reach of environmental history is becoming ever more profound. Nonetheless, depending on their chosen regions and topics, many environmental historians of premodern Europe and the Mediterranean still show limited concern for research carried out in other departments. Not every environmental historian, however, needs to be interdisciplinary. Even classicists can study perceptions and ideas about the natural world, though they struggle with material climate and landscape if they do not consider the outputs of different disciplines.

The special issue of Quaternary Science Reviews (qsr) about Mediterranean societal and climatic change that is under review herein demonstrates why and how historians interested in environmental history should work collaboratively across disciplinary boundaries. It represents the next phase in the evolution of premodern environmental history—interdisciplinary historians working in multidisciplinary teams. This collection does not feature lone scholars juggling the methods and evidence of their own discipline, as well as those of other disciplines with which they are faintly acquainted, but historians, archaeologists, and natural scientists exercising full control over their own data, cooperating, and coproducing. It provides an opportunity to discuss the advantages and challenges of attempting to realize consilience—that is, to create a framework that both the humanities and the sciences can use to promote a better understanding of the past. It proceeds, first, through a series of mini–case studies and reviews of recent scholarship and, second, through a survey of the qsr collection’s most widely appealing contributions. The focus is late antique–medieval and Mediterranean–European, but historians of other regions and periods should also find what follows to be useful.

consilience, why bother?

With the possible exceptions of agriculture and landscape, climate and disease have received the lion’s share of pre-modernists’ attention regarding anything remotely environmental. Attempts to understand either subject benefit immensely from a cross-disciplinary approach. To be sure, historians [End Page 212] of pre-modernity no longer possess a monopoly on either the history of climate or of disease. Scholars interested in eras prior to the early modern would be ill-advised to approach the study of climate exclusively through written sources. Indeed, historical climatology picks up in the fifteenth century for a reason: Written evidence from earlier periods is often too...