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


5 thoughts on “Hoffmann’s An Environmental History of Medieval Europe

    1. You make it sound extremely interesting–and, wow, only $25! That makes a welcome change from $140 hardcovers!

      I admit I’m still not convinced of the long-term value of ‘etic’ vs ’emic’ systems, though. Even scientific results have to be interpreted, and interpretation can carry a lot of cultural bias. Even when one is testing a hypothesis (‘if X is true then I would expect Y result in Z circumstance’) the results can sometimes be open to more than one interpretation.

      But this book definitely sounds worth seeking out. As you say, I can’t conceive of thinking of the world and how it works–then or now or in times to come–without taking into account nature and its systems. So thanks for this.

      1. They did publish an expensive hardback also. I assume they published it as a hardback, paperback and e-book simultaneously so that its available as a textbook for this fall. Its certainly worth the paperback price and I think lots of details for novelists.

  1. I enjoyed reading your extensive review of the book which encourages me to buy and read the book. Nature as well as people played a major part in Medieval events and we are just beginning to understand this.

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