Death in Cumbria

Alan Macfarlane

  • Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800 by Keith Thomas
    Allen Lane, 426 pp, £14.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 7139 1227 8

England in the 19th century presented the enquiring foreigner with a series of strange paradoxes. It was the most urbanised country in the world, yet the one where the yearning for the countryside was the most developed. Its anti-urban bias was shown in the prevalence of parks, the ubiquity of flower gardens, the country holiday industry, the dreams of retirement to a honeysuckle cottage, and the emphasis on rural values in the Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite movements. England was the most industrialised country in the world, the one where animal power was least used and where animals were consequently no longer central to production. Yet it was the country where the concern for animals was most developed, expressed in creative literature and art, in concern for animal welfare and in the widespread prevalence of pets. England was still almost the most carnivorous of all societies: yet it was the most concerned with arguments for vegetarianism. England was a country in which man and animal had become separated, nature had been subdued and distanced. Yet it was in England that Darwin finally linked man and nature through the theory of the evolution of species. In sum, England was the most developed capitalistic society, where man lived in a largely artificial landscape, yet it was in England that respect and love for the wild, the wet and the non-artificial was most developed. Part of the achievement of Keith Thomas’s delightful new book is to explain these paradoxes. His central argument is that these are not real oppositions, but are linked as cause and effect. It was because of the urbanism, the industrialism and the general distancing and control of nature that many of the peculiarities of the English came about.

If we compare the start and end of the period, 1500 and 1800, a series of complete changes in perception and feeling can be seen to have occurred. We are in such a changed world that it is not inappropriate to talk of a series of revolutions, to be placed alongside the industrial, agricultural and political revolutions charted by historians. In essence, we have moved from a pre-modern, pre-capitalistic, magical cosmology, into a modern, capitalistic, scientific one. Weber’s ‘Disenchantment of the World’ had occurred. We are seeing in attitudes to nature an extension of the themes so brilliantly worked out in Thomas’s earlier work on Religion and the Decline of Magic. In 1500 we are in the anthropocentric world of the Bible. All creatures are ordained for man’s use; ‘nature’ is made for man alone and has no rights apart from man. ‘Man stood to animal as did heaven to earth, soul to body, culture to nature.’ This assumption of a man-ordained world was gradually eroded during the period. For example, species no longer came to be classified by their utility to humans, but rather by their inherent characteristics. This ‘revolution in perception – for it was no less’ – at the upper intellectual and social levels had a ‘traumatic effect upon the outlook of ordinary people’. Basically, what happened was the separation of man from nature. ‘Crucial’ to the older beliefs was the interblending of man and nature, ‘the ancient assumption that man and nature were locked into one interacting world.’ There then occurred the split between man and nature, between thought and emotion, which is part of the dissociation of sensibility. The natural world was no longer full of human significance. No longer was every natural event studied for its meaning for humans, ‘for the 17th and 18th centuries had seen a fundamental departure from the assumptions of the past.’ That loss of innocence, and of meaning in nature, which is referred to in Wordsworth’s poetry had occurred at a national level.

As the link between man and nature was broken, paradoxically people became more emotionally involved with particular animals, and more concerned with the rights of animals in general. Thus ‘a combination of religious piety and bourgeois sensibility ... led to a new and effective campaign’ in suppression of cruel sports. This was part of the general ‘Dethronement of Man’. Thus ‘the explicit acceptance of the view that the world does not exist for man alone can fairly be regarded as one of the great revolutions in modern Western thought.’ This major revolution was the result of many factors. There were scientific and intellectual discoveries: the telescope expanded the heavens and diminished man in space, geological discoveries diminished man in time, the microscope brought out the complexity of nature, exploration and empire brought unimagined species to light. There were economic and social causes. ‘The triumph of the new attitude was closely linked to the growth of towns and the emergence of an industrial order in which animals became increasingly marginal to the process of production. This industrial order first emerged in England; as a result, it was there that concern for animals was most widely expressed.’ Kindness to animals depended on the newly created wealth: it was a ‘luxury which not everyone had learnt to afford’.

Just as these pressures led to a revolution in the perception and treatment of animals, so they did in relation to trees and flowers. Once the forests had been wild and magical. As the trees were eliminated and became less important economically, people became fonder of them, emotionally involved in a new way. Similarly with flowers: as the wild world shrunk, the domesticated version expanded. Here was another revolution. The expansion of flower-gardening in the 18th and 19th centuries was so great ‘as to justify our adding to all the other revolutions of the early modern period another one: the Gardening Revolution’. There emerged that delight in nature for its own sake which is the theme of the book.

At the start of the period, the English had looked to the city. ‘In Renaissance times,’ we are told, ‘the city had been synonymous with civility, the country with rusticity and boorishness.’ By the end of the period this had all been reversed. At the start of the period and right up to the end of the 17th century there was a dislike of wildness: as late as the second half of the 17th century many travellers through mountain districts had been disgusted or terrified by the countryside. But in the second half of the 18th century the passion for mountains was under way. Security and control were prerequisites for this new appreciation. As agriculture became more rational, orderly and intensive, so people yearned for the opposite. A new security, man’s increasing control over the natural world, ‘was the essential precondition for greater tolerance’. Only when species defined as ‘vermin’ had been almost totally eliminated did they start to be protected. The irony was that the ‘educated tastes of the aesthetes had themselves been paid for by the developments which they affected to deplore’.

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