Review of Engaging with Nature: Essays on the Natural World in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2009

Department 1



The seven essays comprising this collection grew out of a 2004–05 lecture series at Ohio State's Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. In their introduction, Hanawalt and Kiser make the case that medieval views of nature typically are not available to modern scholars as direct written expression, and that this requires an interdisciplinary interpretation of a broad range of sources on medieval life. In keeping with their opening argument the editors include essays by three scholars who explore medieval views of nature through study of accessible documents of the period, including hunting treatises, philosophical writings, and bestiaries. Susan Crane explores how the ritual form of an aristocratic hunt, detailed in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts, was used to reinforce both social hierarchy and man's place in nature. She also addresses the attitudes of hunters toward both prey and hunting dogs. This essay reminds us that historians often must rely on material left by a narrow segment of the population (e.g., the very wealthy), therefore, we are privy to a limited range of views. A fourteenth-century philosopher, Jean Buridan, is the intriguing protagonist of an essay by Joel Kaye in which he proposes that Buridan was exploring the concept of “balance” in nature long before the term was used in this sense. Kaye argues convincingly that Buridan's model of a dynamic equilibrium in the composition of the earth opened the door to conceptualizations of abstract ideas on nature. The remaining essay to use medieval sources as a window into the period is by Jeffrey Cohen. In “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages” he draws examples from bestiaries and literature to present the idea that anthropomorphized animals served a variety of purposes such as showing human limitations or representing some races as less than human. Missing from the essay is any evidence that this was a distinctly medieval attitude toward animals.


Original version is available from the publisher at: http://www.rsa.org/?page=RQ



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