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The Sadness of the woods is bright: Deforestation and conservation in the Middle Ages

The Sadness of the woods is bright: Deforestation and conservation in the Middle Ages

By Teresa Kwiatkowska

Medievalia, Vol. 39 (2007)

Introduction: Classical literature pictures landscapes in the lights of the tradition of the open panorama mainly in gar­dening practices. Natural world is portrayed as formal, well designed gardens, cultivated fields, and as a symbol or art of its own, as it occurs in Old English poetry, notably in Beowulf. Medieval writers view the landscape as “paradise earthly and heavenly”, “the enclosed garden” and the stage of season changes. The natural and allegorical gardens of medieval literature, fair and pure in an everlasting spring and their rep­ resentation in art, existed through Renaissance and Baroque periods. Beauty only resided in the ordered and tamed scenery. Umberto Eco writes that “even at its most dreadful, nature appeared to the symbolical imagination to be a kind of alphabet through which God spoke to man…”. Likewise, French historian of medieval Europe Marc Bloch remarked that people of that period were necessarily “close to nature” in a Europe that was largely untamed for­ est and wilderness. Medieval natural world has been regarded as God’s fait accompli, as part of the Divine bequest.

Nonetheless, all the poetic descriptions of sea­ sons and landscapes were far cry from the realness. Factual deforestation of Europe was well underway during medieval time. Middle Age and Renaissance poets and dramatists pictured the deserts and moun­tains as ugly, treacherous and inhospitable areas; for­ests as shadowy, wild places often inhabited by evil spirits, demons and witches, bestial creatures, wild men and beasts. Dante in Divine Comedy referes to an essencial Christian fear of the woodlands, mo­ tivated mainly by the superstitions spread by the Church about witches and sorcerers that lived there­ in. Robert Pogue Harrison, in Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, writes: “[...] we may remark that the opening of the Divine Comedy may well be the first occurrence in literature of a motif that will later become archetypal: fear of the forest”. They were not appreciated for their grandeur, only for what they could provide the people; they gave grazing to animals, they preserved game for hunting, supply wood and, last but not least, land for crop­ping. Folks attacked the woods with axe and spade and plough in order to make the landscape work for them. Fens, marshes very slowly, have been sized away from nature for husbandry.

Click here to read this article from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

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