by Dr Sara Warneke
people lived very close to the land and very close to animals
- in just about every sense of the phrase - but what did they
feel about the natural world about them? While medieval people
existed far closest to both land and to animals than we do now
they felt very differently about them than we might. Medieval
people, for instance, would have been unable to understand our
nature reserves and national parks, or our love for them. Nevertheless,
despite radically different perspectives, medieval attitudes
to the land and to the animal kingdom have resulted in the world
we live in today, particularly regarding problems with the extinction
of species and with the overuse and destruction of the land's
resources. Perhaps much of this we can blame on the medieval
world - or more particularly, their ingrained attitudes to both
nature and the animal kingdom.
Let's examine the history of the landscape in Europe - a very
brief history of land use.
Thousands of years ago, when the society of man was just starting
out, and the ice was retreating from across the great land mass
of Europe, the few family and tribal groups that wandered the
Eurasian land mass were hunters and gatherers. They lived largely
in harmony with their landscape and with the animal kingdom.
As hunters and gatherers they felt no urge to transform or to
conquer the landscape. They simply gathered what they could
from the landscape, gleaned what they could from the animals
that wandered the plains. They prayed to the gods of nature
and the earth and sky to protect them from the elements, and
to send them enough game to feed themselves and their families.
Nature, or whatever gods controlled and directed it, was still
in charge of man, and still controlled man.
But then, at some point lost in the mists of time, human society
learned that they could feed themselves better and far more
efficiently and certainly (the name of the game) if they planted
crops. They could stay in one place, they could till the soil,
they could domesticate certain of the previously wild animals
wandering the plains and forests, and suddenly their future
was a little more assured. Numbers of people living on the Eurasian
landmass began to grow.
This was a critical point not only for the rapid development
of human society, for once people were basically settled in
one place tilling the earth more complex societies could develop,
but it was also a critical point for man's attitude to the landscape
(and to the animals which inhabited the landscape, but we'll
deal with that in more detail in the next article).
people were no longer living in harmony with the landscape -
as a hunters and gatherers, arguably, they were dominated by
the landscape and were forcibly controlled by both the landscape
and by the wandering of the herds. Now that people started to
more or less settle down, the people - the tillers of the soil
- started to transform the landscape.
is what gardening is all about. The transformation of the landscape.
The very nature of the word garden means to transform.
people became workers of the soil, the landscape became, if not
the enemy (and nature often was the enemy), but something
that had to be controlled and subjugated to people's need to till
the soil. No longer did man simply wander over the landscape -
now he started to transform it. A Keith Thomas argues in Man
and the Natural World, at this point human civilization became
synonymous with the conquest of nature.
No one is quite sure where the early European peoples first started
to clear the land for crop growing. Much of Europe and England
in pre-medieval days was either forest, scrub land, mountains
or marsh land. There were relatively few clear plains - they have
mostly been created by man himself. The earliest evidence in many
parts of Europe is that the first clearing of forest or scrub
land took place on hilltops, that the first farming communities
were largely of hill people (not mountain people). This, however,
could simply be that similar early settlements in the valleys
have, through thousands of years of continuous farming activities,
simply lost all evidence of the first settlements.
From the first isolated settlements the still small numbers of
people in early Europe set out to clear the woodlands and the
major forests. Pre-historic England, for example, was almost completely
forest, woodland and marsh. It took some thousands of years, but
England was almost totally cleared of its forests and woodlands
well before the time of Christ - the moors of England are not
natural; they were once great forests.
Man attacked the landscape with axe and spade and plough in order
to make the landscape work for him. Fens, marshes started - very
slowly, to be won away from nature for cultivation purposes. The
movement of human society from hunters and gatherers to settled
cropper marked the point where people started to conquer the landscape.
Forests were not appreciated for their beauty, only for the what
they could provide the people - wood, foraging, meat and, eventually,
land for cropping. All people needed were the tools and the labour
to wield them. The landscape could not fight back.
Mankind did not have an immediate victory. The clearing of Europe,
even though vast forests remained, took thousands of years. The
forests remained dark places that harboured evil spirits and gods
who had to be appeased. Man still could not control or even direct
the seasons - they continued to worship gods and ask those gods
to help man in his efforts to control and dominate the landscape.
Life was still tenuous.
Always, of course, nature and the landscape was ready to strike
back. If early man's clearing and tilling of the forests and woodlands
and marshes of Europe represent the beginning of the subjugation
of nature and of the landscape, then it also represents an immense
and continuous struggle over many thousands of years, often with
pitiful weapons and instruments. The struggle, once begun, had
to be continuous, for nature will always reclaim what is left
untended by a farmer or gardener for a year or more - the woodland,
the water, the forest will always move back.
A good example is the state of Europe after the fall of the
western Roman Empire in the 400s - Europe sank into a decline
that lasted for some two hundred years. Large scale invasion
and war, the bubonic plague, declining weather patterns, famine
- all possibly halved the European population in the 500s. During
this respite, Nature reclaimed much of what was hers (nature
also reclaimed a great deal of land in Europe post the Black
Death of 1348-1350). Farmlands across Europe reverted to their
natural scrub or forest state and were lost for some three to
four hundred years.