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  • The Medieval Discovery of Nature by Steven A. Epstein
  • Richard C. Hoffmann
The Medieval Discovery of Nature. By Steven A. Epstein (New York Cambridge University Press 2012) 250 pp. $95.00

A bland title obscures Epstein’s intriguing contribution to the cultural history of “nature.” In this book, Epstein offers no replay of the familiar (if still valuable) historiographical theme that nature (Latin natura) resurfaced in medieval thought and literature during the so-called Renaissance of the twelfth century but rather an original exploration of what some medieval writers found in nature. What makes the enterprise puzzling is why Epstein raises the very question “What did they discover?’ since his book gives no concerted attention to how medieval people learned to make actual use of the natural world. His is a history neither of natural science, of technology, nor of resource exploitation, though natural science weaves in and out of his story.

Five contingently related case studies spotlight aspects of medieval Europeans’ cultural grasp of the natural. Epstein astutely argues that although dominant medieval cultural traits discouraged human interest in nature as anything other than given by divine creation, some people's experiences led them to recognize change in nature or find human comfort with it. Epstein begins with discovery, exemplified in texts that recognized in the grafting of plants (a much older horticultural technique) the human creation of something new but still somehow natural and fecund. This finding leads him to examine medieval writings about mules, hybrids of human creation, deemed by medieval authors as un natural and therefore sterile. Following the thread of the axiom that in nature “like produces like,” brings Epstein to discussions of how original sin [End Page 255] could be inherited by the descendants of Adam, whence he segues into questions of inheritability connected to property. How people possessed and transferred claims to material possessions necessarily raises the problematical naturalness of money, usury, and human slavery, topics that Epstein has treated elsewhere.

The final chapter investigates medieval views of natural disasters, increasingly seen as manifestations of nature's agency (in service of God's wrath); humans had to answer for their own responses. The recognition of nature's action permitted, among other results, development of insurance against risk. Overall, Epstein detects a pattern of late antique and early medieval Christian (and other monotheistic) cultures blocking certain possible queries or understandings of nature—a tendency that did not end until Europe’s scholastic revival of the twelfth century and the Aristotelian challenge of the thirteenth century opened new possibilities for investigation and interpretation of a no-longer abstract and unchanging entity.

Epstein is a deeply erudite scholar, at home in the main medieval canon of theology, natural philosophy, literature, and law, as well as in obscure but illuminating texts from later medieval Italy, especially Genoa. More sparing are references from Spain, the Empire, Low Countries, British Isles, and nonscholastic France. He takes interpretive guidance from pragmatics, the branch of linguistics relating meaning to context, as articulated in the recent work of Verschueren.1 Although Epstein's narrative may tacitly exploit the diverse ambiguity of “nature” as physical place, everything nonhuman, an innate quality, a source of authority, or simply the opposite of culture, he declines to set his findings into that conceptual frame-an approach unlike that of Peter Coates, Nature: Western Attitudes since Ancient Times (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1998).

The medieval “discoveries” that Epstein reveals concern certain natural phenomena, the effects of human action, the limits of the natural order, natural continuity, and responses to variability. The fact that nearly all of them, according to Epstein, were “discovered” by literate, notably male clerical, elites makes this book, at one level, a congeries of certain learned ideas bearing upon the natural world in diverse ways. Epstein acknowledges that nonelite, nonliterate, medieval people knew much more about the natural world and its manipulation, but he refrains from discussing them. To this reader's disappointment, the concept of “traditional ecological knowledge” does not emerge from Epstein's interdisciplinary tool kit to explicate this conundrum. [End Page 256]

Richard C. Hoffmann
York University


1. See, for example, Jef Verschueren, Ideology in Language Use...


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