Hoffmann’s An Environmental History of Medieval Europe

Richard C. Hoffmann. An Environmental History of Medieval Europe. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. Cambridge University Press, April 2014. $25 paperback, $12.50 e-book.

History roots in time and place — establishing situations, telling stories, comparing stories, linking stories. Environmental history brings the natural world into the story as an agent and object of history. This is medieval history as if nature mattered. (p. 3)

As a biologist, it is almost unimaginable to me for the natural world not to be a factor in history – not in a deterministic way – but as an integral component. This is a reminder to me, and now to you, that I read medieval history through a different lens. This book is very consciously a textbook  intended for historians and history students. As the very first  medieval environmental history textbook, Hoffmann is very carefully laying the theoretical foundation for a new sub-discipline. For non-historians, it provides insight into historians methods, concerns, and in some cases anxieties.

To study history as if nature mattered requires coming to an understanding of how culture and nature interact and the types of evidence available. In the introduction Hoffmann discusses a hybrid model of culture and nature that provides a more complete understanding of the medieval world. An important point here is that unintentional and unconscious human activities have real impacts on the environment, other species, and eventually feeding back on human culture in sometimes unexpected ways. This is especially true of anthropogenic remodeling of the landscape that affects species contemporaries were either completely unconscious of or at least are absent from medieval documents. Hoffmann gives the introduction of malaria to the Rhine delta  by Roman soldiers as an example (p. 9).  He also discusses the human mediated introduction of invasive species, the common carp and rabbit, that altered the biodiversity of Europe. Thus making humans both indirectly and directly responsible for local extinctions of native European fauna. As a biologist, the hybrid culture-nature model feels very instinctive and reminds me of Edmund Russell’s evolutionary history work.

Shifting through the evidence for environmental history is the tricky part. Hoffmann establishes the distinction between emic and etic evidence but doesn’t dwell on the terms. Yet, his framework is basically a division of emic (‘cultural’) and etic (‘culturally neutral’) types of evidence, where culture is largely traditional historical emic evidence and nature is primarily (but not exclusively) etic. Hoffmann wrestles with how to justify and integrate these two types of evidence throughout the book. At times it felt to me like he was being too apologetic for the scientific evidence, but this may reflect my own comfort zone. There are two chapters on cultural topics – attitudes toward God’s creation and on ownership of land, which are out of my comfort zone so I will leave those to others. The remainder are a mixture of etic and emic types of evidence.

Hoffmann opens the historical discussion with a valuable chapter demolishing all ideas of an European wilderness at the dawn of the medieval period.  Europe had been inhabited and sculpted by humans over thousands of years before 500 AD. For example, the great Beech forests of Europe only took hold because of human induced livestock and agricultural practices during the Iron Age.  Literary references to wilderness are at best secondary growth (and therefore anthropomorphic regrowth), and often pure rhetoric.

From here he moves into my period of greatest  interest, the early medieval or late antique period. All across Europe this was a period of unrelated political and ecological instability. Hoffmann rightly warns us against ecological determinism. Rome imploded for its own political reasons; ecological instability was a complication for the recovery. Moreover, Hoffman notes that the three ecological zones of Europe — the Atlantic or maritime zone, the continental zone and the Mediterranean – did not experience the same ecological change during the Roman period or the early medieval period that followed. Overall, it became much more difficult to sustain the Roman favored Mediterranean “agroecosystem” north of the Alps. The climate of the Roman Optimum not only allowed grapes to be grown in Britain, but more importantly allowed extensive expansion of wheat growing areas northward. As the climate cooled cereal production fell to be replaced by a mixed agriculture system that looked much more like pre-Roman northern Europe. All across Europe Roman settlements and building styles were abandoned as people spread out over the land. For the first time nucleated villages with new field systems developed replacing the Roman estate system. Case studies of Frisia and the founding community of Venice serve as examples of cultures that flourished in the cooler, wetter climate. Under the Carolingians, an amalgamation of Roman and barbarian agricultural systems emerges as the bipartite manor system with the family farm as the base unit that will last through the rest of the medieval period. The long 8th century (roughly 680s to 830s) is a turning point in the maturation of new medieval agricultural systems not only within Carolingian lands, but also in frontier areas like Ireland and Scandinavia.

The core of the book are the three chapters on medieval land use and management of living and non-living ecosystems. Although all of these chapters are rooted in the early medieval period, they really focus on 900-1500. I will not try to summarize the material in these intricate chapters. I particularly liked the material on land use, and milling technology. Focus is clearly on ‘agroecosystems’ and on rural life. The urban environment is restricted to a short section of the non-living ecosystem management chapter. Its placement in this chapter strikes me as odd.  As he just explained in the previous chapters on land use and agriculture, these are all man made environments.  I would have liked to see an entire chapter on urban environments, and some discussion of the built environment and its ecosystem.

I am thrilled that Hoffmann included chapters on infectious disease and natural disasters. The infectious disease chapter begins with a basic introduction to infectious disease in pre-industrial Europe and then examines ‘five’ diseases in particular – malaria, leprosy, Justinian plague, the Black Death and English sweating sickness. There are some substantial problems with the plague case studies. First, he leaves the etiology still open when there is now scientific consensus that the Yersinia pestis aDNA from both the plague of Justinian and the Black Death are both ancient, accurate, and the cause of death of these individuals. He uses a plague wave map which is no longer considered representative of the spread of disease (see Mengal 2011). It is also well known now that the black rat is only one of many hosts of the plague and that historical accounts can no longer rise or fall based on rat demographics. Yersinia pestis has not attenuated for any host: rodent, flea or mammalian host; it doesn’t need to. The old paradigm that successful infectious agents eventually attenuate to their hosts quietly fell some time ago. Human ectoparasites including the human flea and (experimentally) human louse can transmit Y. pestis to humans.  The genetics is muddled – for example, Y. pestis doesn’t have mitochondrial DNA!  Like many histories of the plague there are some significant misunderstandings of how immunity works and how long it lasts in a population. Acquired immunity (gained by surviving an infection) is not hereditary. Therefore there is no reason to believe that communities would have immunity stretching between the first and second plague pandemic.  Much of the modern thinking on the Black Death will be summarized and further developed in the upcoming inaugural issue of the Medieval Globe, edited by Monica Green and entitled Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death due to be released in November 2014. Past plague discoveries have been discussed on my other blog Contagions. I also suggest Barrett and Armelagos’ The Unnatural History of Emerging Infections (2013) for a general discussion of infectious disease in anthropomorphic environments.

Moving on to the ‘inconstant planet’, I really enjoyed this chapter. Earthquakes, floods, climate change, and volcanoes all impacted medieval Europe. A little more on flooding and river systems would have been appreciated. Despite not having an active volcano, analysis of ice cores indicates that some of Europe’s most significant climate crises were fallout from volcanic activity outside of Europe. These volcanic induced climate crises highlight how difficult it is to use climate data for historical purposes. Extreme weather had a sharper impact on historical accounts than slow climate change trends. I won’t say that one was more important than the other because it depends on the question being asked. Hoffmann offers some important perspectives on wrestling with climate and extreme weather events, that do increase during times of climate change (warming and cooling).

Hoffmann has crafted a fine text to lay the foundation for the hopefully growing sub-discipline of environmental history in the Middle Ages. With the exception of the plague material, he has done a remarkable job covering such a vast amount of material. With books of this type, there can always be more material to wish for and other options for organizing the material. This does not distract from the value of this book. I expect that this book will be reprinted and perhaps updated for many years to come. I would be remiss if I did not point out to the publisher, that this book really needs a new index before it is reprinted. Why they chose to index only one specific organism (the beaver?!) is beyond me. This book is rightly full of material on all types of livestock, wildlife, plants and even microbes, but this index is of little help to find them! The trend toward e-books with search features does not replace the need for a good index.

It really is critical to understand the medieval environment to provide context to modern environmental history, as well as medieval history in general.  I look forward to more historians becoming involved in interdisciplinary work with archaeologist, climatologists, and others working with past environments.

See also:

Edmund Russell. Evolutionary History: Uniting history and biology to understand life on Earth. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Mengel, D C. “A Plague on Bohemia? Mapping the Black Death.” Past & Present 211, no. 1 (May 27, 2011): 3–34. doi:10.1093/pastj/gtq069.

Ron Barrett and George Armelagos, The Unnatural History of Emerging Infections. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death , edited by Monica Green, due to be released in November 2014

Bishop Wilfrid and the Sussex Famine

When I was working on my Kalamazoo presentation last spring, I was looking for references to famines or malnutrition. Bede’s History is pretty pitiful in this regard. He only records two famines, one before the arrival of the English and the second when Bishop Wilfrid first came to Sussex. As we will see below, this famine is more than suspect.

“For three years before his coming to the kingdom no rain had fallen in those parts, so that a most terrible famine assailed the populace and pitilessly destroyed them. For example it was said that forty or fifty men, wasted with hunger, would go together to some precipice or to the sea shore where in their misery they would join hands and leap into the sea, perishing wretchedly either by the fall or drowning. But on the very day on which the people received the baptism of the faith, a gentle but ample rain fell; the earth revived, the fields once more became green, and happy and fruitful season followed. So, casting off their ancient superstitions and renouncing idolatry, ‘the heart and flesh of all rejoiced in the living God'; for they realized the He who was the true God had, by His heavenly grace, endowed them with both outward and inward blessings.

The hagiographical tools are hard to miss. A drought induced famine that is only relieved by a gentle ample rain that began on the day of the first baptisms. A three-year drought without a single drop of rain, in coastal Sussex? I find a three-year drought hard to believe anywhere in England. Then there are the very strange ‘suicides’. According to Bede its desperation that drove 40-50 men who hold hands and jump off a cliff into the sea. A single person might be driven to suicide but a whole group of only men? I have to wonder if these were not pagan sacrifices to the sea, perhaps of slaves or prisoners of war who were tied together. The suicide story could have come up when Bishop Wilfrid’s party inquired about bones scattered on the shore.

Wilfrid, Apostle to South Saxons , holding a net of fish.

When the bishop first came to the kingdom and saw the suffering and famine there, he taught them how to get their food by fishing: for both the sea and rivers abounded in fish but the people had no knowledge of fishing except for eels alone. So the bishop’s men collected eel-nets from every quarter and cast them into the sea, with the help of divine grace, they quickly captured 300 fish of all kinds. There were divided into three parts: a hundred were given to the poor, a hundred to those who supplied the nets, while they kept a hundred for their own use. By this good turn the bishop won the hearts of all and they had the greater hope of heavenly blessings from the preaching of one by whose aid they gained temporal blessings.” (Bede IV.13, McClure and Collins, p. 193-194)

More fishiness in Wilfrid’s net casting. Apparently people in Sussex are happy to believe that Wilfrid taught them to fish (as seen in this church window).  So let me get this straight, the rivers are full of fish but all they can catch in nets are these slippery, snake-like eels?

Wilfrid doesn’t bring any new technology or reported techniques. He teaches them how to catch fish with their own eel nets?

Wilfrid’s party may have brought more modern administrative skills and organizing the community into a church owned collective would have improved production. Yet, Wilfrid’s fishing skills appear to be as hagiographic as the drought. It mimics the large fish catches of Jesus in the gospels.

There is good reason why the people of the South Saxons venerated Bishop Wilfrid. For all his abrasive actions with other parts of England, it is very likely that Bishop Wilfrid made lives better in Sussex. At least for some Wilfrid may have been a protector during the worst ravages of King Caedwalla of Wessex in both Sussex and the Isle of Wight. After Wilfrid returned to Northumbria, the West Saxon overlords of Sussex annexed Sussex to the territory of the Bishop of Wessex. After he was gone, the South Saxons could romanticize Wilfrid for bringing them the faith under their last independent kings.

Looking Back at Kalamazoo 2012

This was a really good Congress. It was pretty laid back and things seem to go pretty smoothly. I met lots of new history of medicine folks that I hope to keep in touch with (and barely got to chat with a certain geek I saw a lot of, sniff). I had great luck in picking sessions. Just about every session I went to either had interesting info for my research or gave me ideas for blog posts (even the ones I picked just for general information). I’ll highlight only some of the presentations here.

The tone was set just right with the first session Thursday morning on “Medieval Environments I: Food Shortage and Subsistence Crises in Medieval Europe” sponsored by ENFORMA (Environmental History Network for the Middle Ages). All three of these papers were really good. Kathy Pearson’s “After the ‘Fall': Feeding Rome in the Early Middle Ages” discussed the changes in Rome over the 5-7th century or so. She reminded us how drastically Rome shrank over the late antique/early medieval period. Their food demands shrank likewise and could usually be met by the hinterland until or unless pilgrims swelled the population of the city. Pearson reminded us that the Roman estate system had broken down  before the seventh century; its trade network and food shipments even from Sicily much less the wider Mediterranean were lost by or before the seventh century. Tim Newfield’s “Shortages and Population Trends in Carolingian Europe, ca. 750-950″ was very interesting and closest to my own work. He presented a lot of hard data that I didn’t try to write down but will eagerly wait for publication (and I’ve already looked up his PhD thesis – maybe a future full post). For now I’ll only say that there were fairly regular food shortages throughout this period. Philip Slavin’s Alternative Consumption: Fodder and Fodder Resources in Late Medieval English Economy, ca. 1250-1450 reminded us how livestock compete with humans for food sources and what allocations of fodder can tell us about animal use. I think ENFORMA will be a group that I may want to follow-up on.

For my second session I hoped to learn more about the Goths but two of the presenters didn’t show up. Deanna Forsman’s Becoming Barbarian: An Examination of Stilicho in Fifth-Century Latin was an interesting exercise in ethnic identity and Roman citizenship delivered with a lot of energy!

The last session of Thursday was Medieval Environments III: Exploiting and Managing Animal Resources”. The two papers that really stuck with me are Cristina Arrigoni-Martelli’s The Prince, the Park, and the Prey: Hunting in and around Milan in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century and Kevin Ian Malloy’s Forgotten Landscape: An Environmental History Examination of Medieval Parks in Scotland. What really struck me was the degree of management of the landscape into virtual open range deer parks to the point in Milan of rearranging the agricultural landscape to create range tracks for hunting. While I accept that it happened and that it explains the animal diversity (or lack of it) in Europe, it’s still hard for me to imagine. Driving back from Kalamazoo to southern Illinois I passed five deer road kills in one day!

Thursday evening I went to the “Burn after Reading: Miniature Manifestos for a Post/medieval studies” that I guess was supposed to talk about adjusting to some of the realities facing ‘medieval studies’ and the humanities as a whole in the current funding and reshaping of the university landscapes. A few of the 13 speakers had constructive (if not entirely popular) suggestions.  Several of the mini-manifestos have appeared on blogs since linked by the Medieval History Geek. It was interesting to watch as an outsider to the field. I loved it when another independent scholar asked the panel what they do for fun and not one of them said anything medieval related. I think she asked it because they were all being so dismal. Angst is the word I would use to describe the session. Of course they all backtracked and eventually said they loved their field, couldn’t imagine doing anything else etc. I believe she said she asked it because she wanted to know where/how they got their enthusiasm refreshed. They said ‘coming to Kzoo’! :-) Perhaps part of the problem they had being put on the spot was perhaps that I find it can be hard for a researcher to separate what is work and what is fun. Field trips are fun, even if work related. I imagine going to London or Paris to look at manuscripts could be fun! It also makes me think of the growth in Tolkien related studies at Kzoo, which for a medievalist is a fun modern text. The same for discussions of medievalisms in modern film, tv, books etc.  Likewise, lots of science folks read science fiction or watch science fiction tv/movies for fun. Alas, no one said they blog for fun.

Back to regular sessions, the intriguing mix of science and medieval studies continued all day Friday. I started the morning with The Health and Lifestyle of Medieval Populations: A Bio-anthropological Perspective. Another case where people dropped out of the session but they scheduled four so it was still good. The two presenters came from the Global History of Health Project at Ohio State. This is a massive bioanthropology study of people around the world from prehistory to the 19th century.  (They are still looking for collaborators for Europe, especially south of the Alps for all time periods.) Richard Steckel’s Medieval Stature: The Human Skeletal Record of Life and Living, AD 800-1500  had some really interesting data on the long-term shifts of human height (related to nutrition and life stress) for about a thousand years. (If I recall correctly his data extended beyond 800-1500). I wish I had a print out of some of the charts showing the rolling changes in height across the medieval period and the differences in gender. For example in some periods, men got shorter and women got taller or the opposite. Other periods, there was  a general decline in height and the shortest of all was the industrial period (about 17-19th century). Our medieval ancestors were taller on average than the first factory workers. Kimberly Williams’ Growing Old in Medieval Europe: Osteoarthritic Ankles, Knees, and Toes (and Other Joints) covered arthritic changes observed and how they also changed over time and place. She also discussed the osteological paradox which states that bones that show signs of arthritis (or malnutrition) are the healthier individuals because they survived the stress. People of weaker constitutions would die before these signs of adaption appeared in the skeleton.

Next up where the two sessions I organized. I really couldn’t have been happier with how they turned out. The first session on Health and Healing in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland was packed; we had people sitting on the floor. I was up first and I think my talk went ok (and I’ve tried out parts of it on you all over the last year here at Heavenfield and on Contagions, so no rehashing that!). Mara Tesorieri’s Regional Patterns of Health in Early Ireland: Distributions of Non-specific Stress Indicators covered some of the same malnutrition topics I did but from a bioarchaeological perspective.  She had some interesting data contrasting Ireland with Britain and areas within Ireland. In general, there were more signs of stress in Ireland and it was not distributed evenly. She briefly discussed some early observations of stress indicators vs. political stability. I’ll be looking forward to hearing more about her project as it progresses. Julia Baolotina’s The Experience and Practice of Medicine by the Laity in Anglo-Saxon England discussed what evidence there is for lay medicine and how much medical care monasteries provided for their surrounding territory, which seems to have varied quite a bit based on excavated cemeteries. Silas Mallery’s By France, or By Spain? Possible Mediterranean Origins of Irish Holy Well Veneration covered a wide-ranging comparison between early holy wells in the Mediterranean, Roman Britain and their later appearance in Ireland, their use in medicine, and he also discussed the antiquity of general water offerings.

In the second session Medical Texts of the Early Medieval Mediterranean our second speaker withdrew the week of the Congress, but the remaining two more than made up for the space. Jayna Brett’s Animal-Derived Medicines in the Early Medieval Pharmacy discussed a 4-5th century Italian text and its influence. She gave us lots of examples of the types of animal parts used and what they were used for. The early medieval pharmacist must have been quite the odd fellow picking around butchered and exotic animals for their medicinal bits.  I mean really, who collects condor eyes for a future salve? As I commented then, it seemed more dangerous to acquire some of these medicinal bits from some wild and aggressive animals than the condition the medicine was used to treat. Glenn Cooper’s Book-Learning and Medicine in Medieval Byzantium: Theory and Practice of the Alexiad of Anna Comnena brought us the fascinating story of a woman author who wrote her father’s biography using a metaphorical system based on the human body and used her own book-learned medical knowledge to describe his condition and criticize his medical care. Confined to a monastery for a rebellion against her brother she gathered a “salon” of learned men around her that became her intellectual legacy. I want to thank everyone who came to both sessions and the lively discussion that followed both sessions was great! After such a busy day speaking and presiding, this introvert needed to recharge with a quiet night, a nice dinner and returning to the hotel early.

I had intended Saturday to be a mainly Anglo-Saxon day but I made some last-minute changes and it worked out really well. The first session was Bede: Friends and Enemies I that I got to late, so I missed most of the first speaker. Patrick McBrine’s Old Acquaintances: The Poetry of Bede’s Vita Cuthberti brought a welcome look at the influences of antique poets on Bede’s verse Life of Cuthbert. It is always nice to see even snippets of that life, which still lacks an English translation!! The third speaker was a no-show, sigh. The session wrapped up with Peter Darby’s Bede and the Image Question: Enemies and Friends in Constantinople. Darby argued that Bede was kept up to date on the latest Iconoclast controversy in Rome by his researcher Nothhelm and that Bede took part in the debate by producing his De Templo as a rebuttal to the Iconoclasts using the decoration of Soloman’s temple. Within De Templo, Bede comments that the commandment not to make craven images of things in heaven or earth did not apply to icons and church decorations because Soloman’s temple had many carved images of things both from heaven (cherebim) and on earth. It’s interesting that Bede sends De Templo to Albinus of Canterbury to be copied for distribution. Darby argued that Bede felt so strongly about this issue because of how important the icons/paintings that Benedict Biscop brought to Wearmouth and Jarrow from Rome were to the community. Recall that Bede spends a lot of time in the History of the Abbots describing the art work acquired by Benedict.

I switched from my planned Bede sessions to Early Medieval Europe II and it really paid off. It opened with Louis Schwartz’s What Rome Owes to the Lombards: Devotion to Saint Michael in Early Medieval Italy and the Riddle of Castel Sant’ Angelo. This is one of those plague legends that I think I will devote a separate post to, so hang on for more on this one.  Erica Buchberger’s Gothic Identity in Spain before and after the Arab Conquest brought more examples of the fluidity of ethnic identity, both self-identity and reported identity both others. Helen Foxhall Forbes’ Suicides and the Damned in Anglo-Saxon England discussed what limited information and attitudes toward suicide. Acknowlegment of a suicide is rare in the records because it meant burial in unconsecrated ground. As Forbes said, a lot of people die ‘falling’ off buildings. The suicides implied in the record are also all from falling from great heights. She was also representing The Impact of Diasporas on the Making of England project at the University of Leicester, a multidisciplinary project involving history, archeology, genetics, linguistics, etc. Check it out!

For my last regular session, I thought I would try to learn something about Herbals so I went to the Herbs and Healing, from the Ancient Medieterranean through the Medieval West: Papers in Honor of John Riddle II. I’m afraid I didn’t get too much out of the first two papers because I’m really not a manuscript person. Unfortunately they were more interested in reconstructing textual transmission than with the content of the manuscript. However, the last talk was Wendy Turner’s Mental Incompetency as a Foundation for Suit in Medieval English Land Disputes had some good data that covered up through late medieval England. I’ll have to keep an eye  out for her work for post-Black Death guardianships etc. Handling issues like care for children and the disabled is part of disaster response (even if it’s not called that) that can go on for years after the event.

My Congress ended with a pretty typical routine: one last stroll through the book exhibits, pick up dinner, and then go to the Pseudo-Society Saturday evening. The book exhibits were disappointing this year. Fewer publishers and book sellers came, and those that came brought fewer books to exhibit and fewer copies of what they did exhibit. I rarely go to Sunday morning sessions with such a long drive home. So after a quick run through the big book sale Sunday morning, I hit the road early and got home in time watch Sherlock Sunday evening. Overall, a very good Congress with lots to think about and a rejuvenated feeling that are exciting things going on that I might be able to contribute to!