Aberth’s An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: Crucible of Nature

John Aberth. An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: The Crucible of Nature. Routledge, 2013. 326 pages.

9780415779463

Although the title of John Aberth’s book An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: The Crucible of Nature is almost identical to Richard Hoffman’s book recently reviewed here, they couldn’t be more different. Aberth’s book is a cultural history of human thought and use of the environment, an entirely emic perspective. The focus is on humans, not the environment itself. 

He divides the material into three sections: air, water and earth; forest; and beasts. While this may make some sense for descriptive organizational purposes, it is really antithetical to an environmental history. An environment is the inseparable combination of the three. It reads like a series of anecdotes on topics that are of interest to Aberth, with some nod toward being wide-ranging. It is restricted almost exclusively to Europe and then primarily to the later Middle Ages. The main problem is that there are no research questions posed or arguments made. I come away from the book without a clear sense of something new that I can apply elsewhere. 

This is not to say that a cultural history of human interaction and thought on nature isn’t important. In Gregg Mitman’s 2005 paper on the history of environmental thinking in America,  he shows how these concepts have shaped how we think about human health, our place in nature, and the health of nature itself (and therefore our ability to exploit it for economic gain). These same concepts were present in the Middle Ages and could have been analyzed in a way that contributed to ongoing research topics especially in the 13th and 14th centuries. 

If you are looking for a survey of thought and use of nature without a particular research topic, you may enjoy this book. I prefer at least some data and scientific or medical information in environmental histories. 

 

Reference:

Mitman, G. (2005). In search of health: Landscape and disease in American environmental history. Environmental History, 184–210.

Richard C. Hoffmann. An Environmental History of Medieval Europe. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. Cambridge University Press, April 2014

Sept. 7, 2014

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