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

Rapid urbanisation, the replacement of animal by artificial power, growing affluence and security, a widening intellectual horizon, had led to a new dilemma. Previously the problem had been to conquer, to domesticate, the natural world. Yet as that problem was solved, a new one had emerged: namely, ‘how to reconcile the physical requirements of civilisation with the new feelings and values which that same civilisation had generated’. Thus ‘by 1800 the confident anthropocentrism of Tudor England had given way to an altogether more confused state of mind.’

Thomas has searched hundreds of works between the 14th and 19th centuries. He uses a rich array of poetry, plays, pamphlets, sermons, works of philosophy, science and theology, diaries, autobiographies, letters, travellers’ accounts. With his usual accuracy, erudition and energy he has laid out for us a mosaic of quotations on almost every conceivable topic related to animals and plants in the English past. I know of no one else who could have done this half so well. The effect is almost overpowering. It is difficult to single out passages for praise, for many are exquisite. Yet I found the sections on dogs and horses, and on flowers and flower names, particularly attractive. The use of dialect glossaries has indeed allowed Thomas to ‘reconstruct an earlier mental world in its own right’. For those brought up in the English countryside, the book will bring back half-remembered scenes of chilhood. For the virtuoso performance which has captured the dew on the spider’s web, all readers will be grateful. Despite the intellectualism, the irony and the scepticism, this is a very tender book. There is no condescension towards the past and no arrogance about the present. It is an eloquent, unsentimental lament for a lost world.

The argument is elegant and largely convincing, the illustrative and supporting evidence apt and enlightening. Most authors would have stopped at this point. Yet such is Thomas’s rigour and scholarship that he has noted his doubts and difficulties. This enables us to see below the surface of the main argument a sub-plot which partly contradicts it.

Concerning the disenchantment of the world, it is not clear that this occurred after the Reformation, for Thomas tells us that ‘since Anglo-Saxon times the Christian Church in England had stood out against the worship of wells and rivers. The pagan divinities of grove, stream and mountain had been expelled, leaving behind them a disenchanted world to be shaped, moulded and dominated.’ Although Thomas is right to point out that it is too simple to see this disenchantment as simply equated with Christianity, there is certainly as ascetic stress in Christianity, and particularly in the Northern variety, which was hostile to the interfusion of man and nature, to ‘magic’ and ‘symbolic thinking’. Closely related was the supposed shift from the anthropocentric classification of the world – the growing tendency to recognise the separateness and autonomy of the natural world. Having argued that this change was a central feature of the revolution in perception, Thomas continues: ‘There was, of course, nothing new about the realisation that the natural world had a life of its own ... ’ The view was fully propounded in Aristotle. Furthermore, although attempts were made to classify things in a non-anthropocentric way, Thomas shows that Linnaeus himself classified dogs by their human uses, and even today lawyers impose human criteria on animals. Likewise, though there was a growing interest in the natural world for its own sake, in the exact observations which would lead to new discoveries in botany and zoology, we are reminded that ‘there were plenty of people in medieval England who observed the natural world very carefully.’

In the fascinating chapter on ‘vulgar errors’, we find further curious features. It begins to appear that instead of an ancient ‘folk tradition’, an alternative way of thinking and feeling welling up from an oral culture, a cosmology appropriate to a pre-modern, peasant society, what we really have is a jumble of out-of-fashion pieces of the ‘scientific’ high culture. The beliefs were in fact ‘learned errors, rather than vulgar ones’, many of them based on Pliny, Aristotle and others. ‘Sir Thomas Browne in the 17th century and William Cobbett in the early 19th, both of them acute observers, held the Classical writers responsible for the bulk of English rural superstitions.’ Nor was the attack on ‘vulgar errors’ a new one, a new battle of world views in the 16th and 17th centuries, but rather the perennial attack on out-of-date ideas. ‘Vehement Protestants’ might attack the popular superstitions, but, as Thomas states, they were doing so ‘like some of their medieval predecessors’. To give one example of the ebb and flow of opinion, the belief that the barnacle goose was hatched from shells on trees was rejected in 1633. This was not a new argument. The belief had been attacked by the Emperor Frederick II in the 12th century and by the philosopher Albert the Great in the 13th. John Gerard had resurrected the belief in his Herball in 1597.

In sum, then, the separation of man and the natural world was not a new phenomenon, invented as mankind for the first time gained complete mastery over nature. For though we are told that in the 17th and 18th centuries we see ‘a fundamental departure from the assumptions of the past’, since nature was being studied in its own right, we are also told that ‘this was a return to that separation of human society from nature which had been pioneered by the ancient Greek atomists Leucippus and Democritus.’ Nor did the temporary return to a separatist philosophy last for long, for ‘even as the older view was driven out by the scientists, it began to creep back in the form of the pathetic fallacy of the Romantic poets and travellers.’ The very rocks and trees became filled with life and feeling. The same impression that rather than dealing with a change from ‘traditional’ to ‘modern’, we are dealing with constant ebb and flow emerges from further consideration of the break with the anthropocentric view. Having stated that this was ‘one of the great revolutions in modern Western thought’, Thomas continues in the next sentence: ‘Of course, there had been many ancient thinkers, Cynics, sceptics and Epicureans, who denied that men were the centre of the Universe or that mankind was an object of special concern to the gods. In the Christian era a periodic challenge to anthropocentric complacency had been presented by sceptical thinkers.’ Nor was it all-conquering: ‘as the 19th-century debate on evolution would show, anthropocentrism was still the prevailing outlook.’

We may now consider more specific side-effects of these shifts. First, pet-keeping. We are told that this ‘had been fashionable among the well-to-do in the Middle Ages’. About the rest of the population we have no evidence, but as soon as they become visible, pets are widespread: ‘it was in the 16th and 17th centuries that pets seemed to have really established themselves as a normal feature of the middle-class household.’ It is clear that ‘by 1700 all the symptoms of obsessive pet-keeping were in evidence.’ The fascinating account of the functions and characteristics of the English pet shows that the phenomenon developed long before urbanisation and industrialisation could have had much effect.

If we turn to the intriguing account of the growing attack on cruelty to animals, the picture is also blurred. At first, we are told that the English were once notorious for their cruelty to animals – eating bloody meat, engaging in animal fighting and bloody sports. Later, England became the home of the League Against Cruel Sports and the RSPCA. The transformation was sudden and revolutionary, or so it seems. Thus a section is headed ‘New Arguments’, but we are immediately told that ‘there was, of course, nothing new about the idea that unnecessary cruelty to animals was a bad thing.’ Thomas very properly avoids the Whiggish view that men gradually became intrinsically more humane: ‘what had changed was not the sentiment of humanity as such, but the definition of the area within which it was allowed to operate.’ But even this watered-down view is challenged, for Classical and Medieval authors are cited who had used a classification which allowed humanity and kindness to be shown to animals. A striking example is the poem ‘Dives et Pauper’, written in England not later than 1410. The poem is quoted at length and Thomas concludes of one passage that it is ‘very embarrassing to anybody trying to trace some development in English thinking about animal cruelty.’

Thomas then makes the remarkable statement that ‘the truth is that one single, coherent and remarkably constant attitude underlay the great bulk of the preaching and pamphleteering against animal cruelty between the 15th and 19th centuries.’ He proceeds to summarise this attitude and to conclude that ‘so far as their main arguments were concerned there was a notable lack of historical development’: the ‘position was constant’. So much for ‘New Arguments’: what of the next section, headed ‘New Sensibilities’? Again we are soon told that ‘of course, spontaneous tenderheartedness, as such, was not new.’ A considerable amount of literature is cited to show the ‘New Sensibility’ at work before 1700. What happened in the 18th century was not a radical novelty, but a spreading of the feelings: they ‘seem to have been much more widely dispersed’ and were ‘much more explicitly backed up by the religious and philosophical teaching’.

If we turn from animals to plants, we may consider first the ‘Gardening Revolution’. It is indeed true that the English are unusually enthusiastic domestic gardeners. It is also true that the content of their gardens altered dramatically over the centuries. We are told that ‘in 1500 there were perhaps 200 kinds of cultivated plant in England. Yet in 1839 the figure was put at 18,000.’ But although there were few cultivated species to choose from before 1500, this does not mean that flower-gardening was uncommon. There were commercial plant-sellers from at least the 13th century, and we are assured that ‘more flower-gardening had gone on in the Middle Ages than is sometimes appreciated,’ even though the ‘repertoire seems to have been fairly limited’. Certainly, by the middle of the 17th century, small flower gardens were very widespread. An observer in 1677 stated that there was ‘scarce a cottage in most parts of the southern parts of England but hath its proportionable garden’. It is a development that occurred too early to be explained by urbanisation or industrialisation, even taking into account the growth of London.

From flowers, we may turn to wilds and particularly mountains. At first sight, we are faced by a revolutionary perceptual change in the period between 1660 and 1760, whereby mountains and wilds became attractive instead of intolerable. But a closer examination shows that many of those who wrote in the earlier periods, particularly travellers like Celia Fiennes or the antiquary Thomas Machell, both of whom visited the moorlands of the upland North in the later 17th century, showed little revulsion. Thomas quotes George Hakewill, who defended mountains in 1635 on the grounds of their ‘pleasing variety’, and he was only one of many who appreciated their qualities. It may be that the feelings of horror and revulsion were as much a fashion as the later passions of the Wordsworth era.

Keith Thomas gives an excellent account of the changing attitudes to trees and forests and again shows an older pattern. Wide-scale admiration of trees and planting of trees occurred from the Middle Ages onwards. At the upper level, this was not spurred on by urbanisation or industrialisation, but by ‘social assertiveness, aesthetic sense, patriotism and long-term profit’. It is true that, as with flowers, many new varieties were brought in from the expanding empire. But there was ‘no dramatic shift from tree-destruction to tree-preservation’. The earlier liking for trees is shown in the way the English tried to make their cities as much like the country as possible by filling them with parks and trees. This occurred very early, and Thomas gives much evidence to show that other cities were, like Norwich in the 16th century, ‘either a city in an orchard or an orchard in a city’. The idea of the Garden City was not invented by Ebenezer Howard, but by John Evelyn in 1661.

The desire from an early date to make the towns into countryside is curious, for it shows an early anti-urbanism. The more conventional argument is the one pursued elsewhere by Thomas: namely, of a great change some time in the 17th or 18th century. We have quoted him as saying that at the Renaissance ‘the city had been synonymous with civility, the country with rusticity and boorishness,’ a view that still prevails in much of Europe. Why did the English come to change from this view? He says it was in revulsion from a too rapid growth. Smoke, dirt, noise, overcrowding drove the earlier city-lovers into becoming country-lovers. As the amount of urban growth and industrial growth increased, so, in direct proportion, did the amount of criticism and complaint: ‘there was no real precedent for the volume of late 18th-century complaint about the disfiguring effects of new buildings, roads, canals, tourism and industry.’ The volume of complaint increased, but Thomas is also aware that the arguments themselves were not new. The strange attitude that what was useful and productive was ‘most likely to be ugly and distasteful’, he remarks, ‘had a long pre-history’, stretching back at least to the 16th century.

This criticism of town vices is part of a larger curiosity which, like the tree-filled cities, pre-dates the rapid urbanisation of the 18th century. For the curious desire of the English town-dweller, and particularly the nobility, to spend as little time as possible in towns was, from a very early period, a feature which singled out the English. We are told that ‘even in the 12th century it had been customary for the rich citizens of large towns to hold rural property nearby’ – country houses where they could retreat. It was a feature noted by Fortescue in the 15th century, when comparing England and France. In the reign of Henry VIII, Thomas Starkey ‘lamented that it was impossible to persuade’ the nobility to ‘make their chief residence in town and deplored the “great rudeness and barbarous custom” of dwelling continuously in the country’. An author in 1579 observed that ‘whereas in some foreign countries gentlemen inhabited “the cities and chief towns”, “our English manner” was for them “to make most abode in their country houses”.’ The irony is great, for the most deeply anti-urban of societies became the first urban nation.

If it is the case that much of what occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries was merely an accentuation, an increase in volume and pace, rather than a complete break, how are we to explain the patterns that had been established before 1600? Following Keith Thomas’s suggestions concerning the importance of security and control over the world, we may briefly sketch out a few of the ways in which the English had tamed their world very early. The landscape, the physical world of forests, marshes, moors and meadows had been early conquered. As Thomas shows, following the work of H.C. Darby and historical geographers, the physical landscape had been tamed and ordered by the 11th century, if not earlier. The shape of the fields and hedges, of the roads and paths, of many of the human settlements, had been laid out and were to change little over the next hundred years. Most of the wild animals had been controlled or eliminated by the same time.

The political world had also been tamed early. England was a unified nation state in Anglo-Saxon times and continuing uncertainties, regional oppositions and over-mighty subjects were largely eliminated by the strong governments of the 12th and 13th centuries. Internal warfare and external rampaging armies, which made much of Europe dangerous and fortified until the middle of the 19th century, had largely been eliminated in the early Medieval period. This general integration and political security was an essential background to an economic world which was also unusually secure. The wealth of late Medieval England is still impressive today in its surviving churches and houses. This was not a desperate world ceaselessly poised on the edge of starvation. It was already, in Thomas’s terms, a society which could afford the wealth and leisure to treat animals and flowers and trees as ends and not as means, as things to joy and delight in, as well as to use.

The economic security was built on a particular mode of production, now known as capitalism, which, as Marx, Weber and others have observed, produces a curiously paradoxical attitude to the environment, a combination of alienation and attachment. Land and labour are treated as commodities, everything has its price. Yet as the majority of relations become contractual and commercialised, with farming pursued for profit and the business ethic intruding widely, a stronger and stronger boundary is built up between this utilitarian approach and particular areas which are kept outside the market. Flowers and pets and favourite trees and mountains have no price. They are treasured because they are totally useless. Thus pets must not be eaten, mountains must not be exploited. Thus the very early development of money, markets and capitalistic relations in England helped to provide, besides wealth and security, the ambivalences which shaped the attitudes of all who lived within the system.

The dominance of money and contractual relations was partly made possible by the use of writing and paper. One of the messages of this book is the way in which the growth of printing, and of a public which devoured the literature devoted to ‘nature’, powerfully influenced the development of an interest in the countryside. At another level, it seems likely that the widespread use of writing to record and transmit information from at least the 13th century in England had a deep influence on concepts of the natural world. It had penetrated so deeply that it helped to undermine any opposition between urban, literate high culture and a rural, illiterate oral culture. Hence the widespread ‘learned errors’, the rapid spread of new fashions, the relative lack, as compared to much of Europe, of regional diversities as well as the later development of a huge chapbook literature and of a newspaper industry built on these traditions. Just as the political and economic worlds had become tamed, so the world of information and thought had been reduced to orderliness on parchment and paper.

Keith Thomas links the psychological function of pets to the modern, atomistic kinship system of the Western world. This intriguing suggestion could be broadened. It many societies early marriage, constant child-bearing, the close presence of numerous kin, provide the satisfactions which many now find with animals. Now that we know that this atomistic kinship pattern is very old in England, probably dating in its central features at least to the 13th century if not before, we will not be surprised that pets are an early feature. By careful classification of the world into tame and wild, edible and inedible, it was possible for our ancestors, as it is for us, to be great meat-eaters and yet greatly devoted to particular animals and concerned with cruelty to animals in general.

Finally, it would seem that the English brand of Christianity, both before and after the Reformation, had a decided anti-magical streak which had eliminated many of the uncertainties and mysteries from the spiritual world. The attack on popular errors which indicated a fear and awe of nature and a desire to propitiate its forces through magic was an old onslaught, initiated by Anglo-Saxon clerics and merely carried to its logical limits by the Protestants.

We thus have a two-level theory to account for the paradoxes with which we commenced. By 1500, and even more obviously by 1650, the preconditions for the peculiarities which have long astonished travellers were already established. The main shape of the tree could be discerned. This was a result of the factors outlined above and of others too complex to suggest here. At this point a secondary set of explanations is needed to explain to us why it was that the gales which blew in with a period of immense and rapid expansion failed to uproot the tree. Unprecedented population growth, exploration and rule over half the world, the mastery of a new and artificial way of production, the first rapid urbanisation – these seem to have led it to grow apace and in an unexpectedly continuous manner. For while some shoots were stunted, others flourished, often in apparent contradiction, growing straight into the wind. The extraordinary increase in the volume of interest in the natural world, and the way this fitted with an apparently hostile environment – this is the true theme of the book.

The attitudes are very ancient and the paradoxes and conflicts continue. The importance of understanding the deep roots of the dilemmas has never been greater than now, for on the resolution of these contradictions, one way or the other, there how hangs a very great deal. In the middle of the 19th century Wordsworth opposed the building of the Kendal to Windermere railway: despite his desire that all should be uplifted by the spirituality of the hills, he feared the depradations of the urban tourists from the Northern towns. What was then at stake was a few miles of railway track, and a large number of bodies cluttering the dales and fells. Now we read of deaths from radioactive waste in Cumbria, the very epicentre of the Englishman’s reverence for nature, the home of Adam Sedgwick, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Ruskin, Beatrix Potter. There can be no more poignant illustration of where we have reached. We are reminded that in completely conquering nature we have now been given the opportunity to allow it to survive. This is a timely book

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