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Engaging with Nature

Essays on the Natural World in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

Edited by Barbara A. Hanawalt and Lisa J. Kiser

Publication Year: 2008

Historians and cultural critics face special challenges when treating the nonhuman natural world in the medieval and early modern periods. Their most daunting problem is that in both the visual and written records of the time, nature seems to be both everywhere and nowhere. In the broadest sense, nature was everywhere, for it was vital to human survival. Agriculture, animal husbandry, medicine, and the patterns of human settlement all have their basis in natural settings. Humans also marked personal, community, and seasonal events by natural occurrences and built their cultural explanations around the workings of nature, which formed the unspoken backdrop for every historical event and document of the time. Yet in spite of the ubiquity of nature’s continual presence in the physical surroundings and the artistic and literary cultures of these periods, overt discussion of nature is often hard to find. Until the sixteenth century, responses to nature were quite often recorded only in the course of investigating other subjects. In a very real sense, nature went without saying. As a result, modern scholars analyzing the concept of nature in the history of medieval and early modern Europe must often work in deeply interdisciplinary ways. This challenge is deftly handled by the contributors to Engaging with Nature, whose essays provide insights into such topics as concepts of animal/human relationships; environmental and ecological history; medieval hunting; early modern collections of natural objects; the relationship of religion and nature; the rise of science; and the artistic representations of exotic plants and animals produced by Europeans encountering the New World.

Published by: University of Notre Dame Press


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii

We express our gratitude to Ohio State University’s Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and to its College of Humanities for supporting the series of lectures and colloquia in 2004–2005 that ultimately resulted in this volume. In connection with that series, we thank Pat Swinehart for helping to make it run smoothly. We are...

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pp. 1-10

The seven essays in this collection address the subject of the natural world in a number of medieval and early modern contexts, each giving special attention to human interactions with the natural environments that surrounded and supported both life and culture. These essays, representing several disciplines, and sometimes combining traditional...

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Chapter 1: Homo et Natura, Homo in Natura: Ecological Perspectives on the European Middle Ages

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pp. 11-38

On the relationship between nature and humankind, most literate medieval Europeans shared certain basic ideological assumptions. Homo, “Mankind,” was separate and distinct from Natura, “Nature.” Homo in fact had been created to rule over Nature, the earth, Creation. Both Natura and Homo exist temporally in the world of change...

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Chapter 2: Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages

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pp. 39-62

The last few years have seen an outpouring of scholarship engaged in rethinking the interrelation of humans and animals. This boundary-challenging work mainly explores the precariousness of that divide we imagine separating us from other mammals.1 My preoccupation with the animals of the Middle Ages is spurred in part by this critical...

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Chapter 3: Ritual Aspects of the Hunt

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pp. 63-84

From the thirteenth into the fifteenth century, hunting treatises in English and French describe a kind of hunt so elaborated and formalized that scholars invoke the term “ritual” to account for it. This essay explores “ritual” as a descriptor for the kind of hunt the treatises value most, à force (with strength), concentrating on treatises by three...

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Chapter 4: The (Re)Balance of Nature, ca. 1250-1350

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pp. 85-113

My purpose in this essay is to provide evidence for a series of claims: that balance has a history; that between approximately 1250 and 1350 a markedly new sense of what constituted balance emerged within the discipline of scholastic natural philosophy; and that by the end of this period this new sense of the form and potentialities of...

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Chapter 5: Collecting Nature and Art, Artisans and Knowledge in the Kunstkammer

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pp. 115-135

In his 1565 treatise on how a collection should be formed, Samuel Quiccheberg (1529–67) extolled collecting as “a first philosophy”: I must explain that the invention of the first philosophy [of collecting], as it calls itself, is a novelty in the whole of Europe; it has brought about the certainty of all scientific areas as well as the most complete methods; like the opening of the doors of wisdom...

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Chapter 6: “Procreate Like Trees”, Generation and Society in Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici

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pp. 137-154

At one point in his meditative prose work Religio Medici, the Norfolk physician Thomas Browne takes on the role of sexologist— with deeply angst-ridden results. “I could be content,” Browne says ruefully, “that we might procreate like trees, without conjunction, or that there were any way to perpetuate the world without this triviall and vulgar way of...

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Chapter 7: Human Nature, Observing Dutch Brazil

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pp. 155-199

This essay is not so much about nature itself, as it is about the observation of nature, or more precisely, about certain depictions of observation of nature—and in the end, it will also be about what we learn of human nature from these remarkable depictions. We begin with a picture—a curious one indeed. The journal of a German soldier employed...


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pp. 201-224


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pp. 225-226


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pp. 227-236

E-ISBN-13: 9780268081638
E-ISBN-10: 0268081638
Print-ISBN-13: 9780268030834
Print-ISBN-10: 0268030839

Page Count: 248
Illustrations: Images removed; no digital rights.
Publication Year: 2008