Environmental Scarcity and Abundance in Medieval Icelandic Literature
By Reinhard Hennig
The Imagination of Limits: Exploring Scarcity and Abundance, edited by Frederike Felcht and Katie Ritson (RCC Perspectives, 2015)
Introduction: Can medieval literary texts tell us anything about the environmental conditions and the availability of natural resources in premodern times? In the case of archaeological finds or written laws and charters, it is quite clear that these deliver insights into past societies’ relationships to their natural environments, their strategies for using and conserving natural resources, and how they dealt with environmental risks and sudden or longer-term environmental change. Yet medieval literature is not an obvious source material when it comes to environmental questions. Literary texts from medieval Europe are not usually interested in describing the natural environment as such. Also, they normally follow genre conventions that heavily influence the narratives presented and tend to make overabundant use of literary devices such as symbolism, metaphor, and allegory.
It may therefore not be surprising that the most copied book about nature during the Middle Ages was the Physiologus. This work, dating back to the second century CE and translated into many vernacular languages, describes a huge variety of animals, plants, stones, and mythical creatures such as sirens and centaurs. The typically rather short descriptions all follow the same model: they first report on each creature’s characteristics and behavior, and then give an allegorical, Christian interpretation.
The description of the whale can serve as an example. According to the Physiologus, the whale’s back rising of the water looks like an island. When seamen discover it, they disembark onto it and light a fire in order to prepare food. Yet the whale feels the heat, submerges into the sea, and thus drowns all the seamen. As the Physiologus explains, this demonstrates how all men who build their hopes on the devil and take pleasure in his doings are betrayed: they are drowned in the eternal torments of Hell.