CritCom | Homepage

Ecologies and Economies in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

0 Comments 🕔13.Nov 2013
Ecologies and Economies

The edited volume, Ecologies and Economies in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, is a collection of research articles from leaders in the field of medieval environmental history. It was designed as a Festschrift for Richard Hoffmann, with the goal of showing “the integrity and vibrancy of the field of pre-modern environmental history” (xvii). Though we have an increasingly cohesive community of pre-modern environmental historians, connected to each other through conferences and joint projects (like this volume), we are not cohesive, and have many different scholarly interests and backgrounds. This topical and methodological diversity is, I would suggest, a hallmark of the field, and this collection of essays highlights the many perspectives that are brought into play. One of the good things about this variety is that it is bound to introduce medieval environmental history to a wider range of readers, who might pick up the book for any number of interests: ancient agriculture, the history of the Rhone, past species diversity, and modern fisheries restoration, to name but a few. And the essays, individually, are of high quality, detailed in their discussion of methodology, and representative of the work of the scholars, all leaders in their respective fields.[1]

To help readers new to these topics or this sub-discipline, the volume opens with a thoughtful and critical essay by Richard W. Unger on the work and interests of Richard Hoffmann within the broader contours of the field. Unger assesses where things stand at a crucial point – the first forays are past, and the research agendas set by early leaders like Hoffmann (and many of the authors represented in this volume) have, as Unger points out, been developed and expanded. These have led to new collaborations and new questions, and those of us trained by these leaders are now ourselves both deepening these probes and launching off in new directions. Unger’s piece reflects both the victories won and the challenges just now opening up, and this essay will be a stepping stone into the field for graduate students and senior scholars for years to come.

The multidisciplinarity of this volume stands out – both in the topics and methodologies represented in the articles and in the academic backgrounds and research fields of the contributors. These include, quite naturally, economic history, medieval history, and the history of technology, but also bio-archaeology, water history, religious history, and history and human ecology. These different backgrounds allow the tapping of an incredible range of sources – written and non-written. In her essay on rabbits and environmental change in early modern Holland, for example, Petra J.E.M. van Dam draws on ‘traditional’ historical documents and on plant ecology, ecological theory, geology, and historical and modern maps, and Verena Winiwarter explores ancient agronomy treatises and how they were transmitted over time. The topics are equally varied: Paolo Squatriti investigates chestnut agriculture, van Dam rabbits, Constance Berman eels, and Marianne Kowaleski fish – but this varied collection is held together by several themes, including an attention to knowledge systems, economic systems, and the ways that the past can be useful in informing our decisions about current environmental actions.

Of course, these authors were chosen in no small part because of their ties to Richard Hoffmann, itself a sign of how increasingly connected the leaders in this field are to the methods and ideas stemming from many different disciplines. As Unger points out, “pre-modern environmental history has taken on a more consistent shape in the time since Richard Hoffmann became a practicing historian…[and he] has used the amorphous and highly fluid nature of a nascent discipline to leave his extremely positive stamp on what should be done to advance the field.” (1) These essays show the strengths of the partnerships between historians and scientists, the essential role of economic historians in drawing out the environmental possibilities of medieval records, and the many different ecologies that have been included in the work of pre-modern environmental history – from Mediterranean chestnut groves and North Sea fisheries to Dutch sand dunes and the Rhone delta.

But what I would encourage readers to do is to think about the windows that the volume opens not only to the past and current state of our field, but also to the potential direction of future research, and the potential value of the field for scholars in other disciplines interested in the past and present of the European environment. There are ever-expanding opportunities for interdisciplinary research in Europe, and even modern policy and scientific grants often require the participation of humanities scholars. I think that these essays are an encouraging sign that pre-modern environmental historians can continue to contribute to regional and interregional European Union (EU) projects on ecological health, ecological heritage, and agricultural sustainability. River systems, eco-zones, and protected areas stretch not only across national borders but also across centuries, and as public policy increasingly strives to include the human heritage in landscape protection and to look to the past for models of ecological restoration, it is important that environmental historians continue to widen some of the dialogues that are visible in this set of essays.

Many of the scholars in this volume provide examples of how complicated it is to establish past human uses of resources, to understand the degree of environmental transformation that took place over time, and to understand the role of people in those transformations. Yet these very issues are drawn in to modern science and policy (for example, as ‘reference points’ for ecological targets). This volume suggests the value for non-historians of a richer and fuller engagement not only with the past, but also with the practitioners of history who can point out the economic, social, cultural, and (lacking in this volume) religious factors that contributed to the ‘state of nature’. In fact, it is those reference standards (in accordance with the Water Framework Directive (WFD)) that Wim Van Neer and Anton Ervynck  wrestle with in their article, showing the ways that historical work and evidence can (and cannot) contribute to present environmental management discussions. They use historical data on fishing alongside archaeozoological evidence such as bone assemblages to extrapolate ways to deal with and think about modern EU mandates and scientific goals of restoring ‘natural’ fish communities in EU waterways that have, in fact, been influenced by the impact of human communities for millennia.

This essay, the last in the volume, serves as a fitting capping piece, as it effectively reflects the conclusions of the other pieces – that pre-modern people affected the natural world, that they adapted to its constraints, altered their economies in response, and even reshaped and re-configured nature in ways that supported human goals and needs. There was, Van Neer and Ervynck clearly show, no idealized pre-industrial Europe that lived in an “undisturbed, ‘natural’ condition” (195) (sought by the WFD fish index). Instead of searching the medieval and pre-modern past for a wilderness or a tranquil set of relations with the natural world, medieval historians, modern ecologists, and present-day activists will build a fuller understanding of both past and present by acknowledging that the medieval past can be seen to “represent a less disturbed past situation that is not too distant from the present-day conditions” and motivations (195). If we treat the past as relevant, we might also find what Winiwarter sees in her sources and subjects: “examples of societies and their techniques well-adapted to local circumstances, and thereby potentially more sustainable than ‘modern,’ non-adaptive concepts and practices” (113).

Ultimately, the reason for non-specialists to turn to this book is the deft way that it demonstrates that the pre-modern past is not only interesting in its own right, but can also be connected to the concerns of the present. Learning to understand pre-modern Europe, these essays show, is as useful as other, contemporary approaches to “traditional ecological/environmental knowledge,” or TEK. Winiwarter points this out directly, noting that “with renewed interest in such collective wisdom as part of the search for a sustainable future…looking back into the knowledge base of pre-industrial, solar-based, and hence potentially more sustainable societies is deemed useful” (97–98). Pre-modern European history has the added benefit of the fact that many Western approaches to nature themselves spring from this very set of practices, policies, and inherited knowledge and traditions. If we follow the model of these essays and look more closely at the distant, pre-modern past, we will be able to see more clearly how our own environmental actions, decisions, and knowledge both reflect and build upon those of our predecessors, and that the study of their decisions, actions, and knowledge can help us continue to reframe and reshape our own.

Reviewed by Ellen Arnold of Ohio Wesleyan University


Ecologies and Economies in Medieval and Early Modern Europe
Edited by Scott G. Bruce
Hardcover / 256 pages / February 2010
ISBN: 9789004180079


[1] In his review of this collection, available through H-net (<>), Rick Keyser treats the essays individually and focuses on how each contributes to pre-modern environmental history.

No Comments

No Comments Yet!

No one has left a comment for this post yet!

Write a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *