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Medieval Attitudes to Landscape


Article by Dr Sara Warneke


Medieval 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).

Suddenly 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.

This is what gardening is all about. The transformation of the landscape. The very nature of the word garden means to transform.

Once 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.

Please also visit Old London Maps on the web as many of the maps
and views available there have plans and depictions of gardens from
the medieval period through to the late nineteenth century.

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