Science and Nature in the Medieval Ecological Imagination
By Jessica Rezunyk
PhD Dissertation, Washington University in St. Louis, 2015
Abstract: This dissertation explores the intersections between nature and culture in medieval literature and art with particular focus on Geoffrey Chaucer’s House of Fame, the thirteenth-century French Bible Moralisée (Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Codex Vindobonensis 2554), and William Langland’s Piers Plowman. Current academic paradigms tend to place the study of nature firmly within the sciences and the study of culture firmly within the humanities, creating a gap between the fields that effectively isolates their respective methodologies and vocabularies from one another. This dissertation seeks to bridge that gap between the sciences and the humanities by approaching medieval literature through the lens of studies in science, technology, and society (STS). Examination of medieval literature reveals just some of the ways that the sciences and humanities overlap to create permeable intellectual spaces for the study of nature and culture. Framed within the ecological analyses of G. Evelyn Hutchinson, this dissertation demonstrates how scientific topics can be approached from a literary perspective and how, in turn, literature can be read scientifically.
This project uses a highly interdisciplinary approach that relies heavily on the theories in STS developed by Bruno Latour. Latour’s theories, typically applied to writing and procedures found in modern science, provide the initial groundwork for establishing the connections between nature and culture in medieval literary sources. Because much of the previous work on science in the Middle Ages has primarily focused on the history of science through the study of educational texts and treatises, there is relatively little material available that takes on scientific observation of the natural world in medieval literature, poetry, and art. As such, the modern divide between the sciences and the humanities anachronistically separates nature and culture in ways that often unnecessarily isolate the two fields in medieval studies.
By first problematizing and historicizing the academic development of science and its perceived animosity with the humanities, I strive to break down modern paradigms of knowledge to demonstrate how a medieval understanding of human culture was inextricably connected to perceptions of the natural world. The study of Chaucer’s House of Fame takes on special attention to the roles of language and translation in literature. My subsequent examination of the Bible Moralisée moves beyond the constraints of language to explore visual representations of science and nature in an explicitly Christian context. Building on the religious influences of medieval portrayals of ecology and science, I investigate Langland’s use of natural imagery in his portrayal of religious enlightenment in Piers Plowman. Each of these works demonstrates how the medieval imagination established a versatile permeability between science and the humanities that is far less common in the studies of modern science and literature.