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The Humanisation of Nature

in the Middle Ages

Carlos Barros*

This essay argues that unlike the ideology of economic production and accumulation,
which is the driving force of modern secular society and which establishes adversarial
relations between man and nature, medievel society was guided by the ideology of reli-
gion, where nature was perceived as the manifestation of God; hence violence against
nature was tantamount to violence against God. This created an ambience of both

tension and harmony between man and nature, an equilibrium that, on the one hand,
humanised nature, and on the other, prevented man from plundering it.

The negative representation of the Middle Ages, which has spread

from the Renaissance to the present day, equates medieval men and
animals in savagery,’ but does not go as far as accusing medieval men of
damaging nature. It would be out of place to try to look in the Middle
Ages for the current ecological concerns among humanist scholars of
our times. It would likewise be futile to look for attitudes and practices

against the environment which may be said to characterise modern or

contemporary destructive action caused by human progress. Feudalism
is an ecological form of production, a natural economy based upon the

Acknowledgements: This essay was submitted at the conference Mensch und Natur im
Europa, organised by the Friesach Academy (Universidad de Klagenfurt,
Austria) 1-5 September 1997.
’Men are the scum of the world, and their depth is among the beasts, covered in fog.’
Fernán Pérez de Oliva, Dialogo de la dignidad del hombre, Madrid, 1982: 80.
Departmento de Historia Medieval, Facultad de Geographia e Historia, 15703 Santiago
de Compostela, Spain. Email: <>

dependency of people upon nature, rather than the other way round.
In fact, people could not be conceived of outside nature. Thus, for
instance, does not the medieval concept of ’land’ usually include the
men that inhabit it?
This essay is about the humanisation of the land, and thus about the
natural environment at large during the Middle Ages. A case in point
is the Cistercian Order, the ploughing monks who built up ’human
dwellings’ in the Middle Ages where formerly there was a ’bare moor’
or a ’wild forest’.’ Thanks to Christianisation and, above all to the
work of peasants, medieval men transformed the ’hostile nature’ of the
’savages’ into the ’friendly nature’ of civilised men, without destroying
the essential ecological equilibrium, unlike modern, civilised men. There
lies the medieval originality: the desacralisation-another word for
humanisation-of nature does not reach the point of a fatal confronta-
tion between men and their natural environment. Otherwise, the
Middle Ages would not have lasted a thousand years.
To paraphrase the creators of the term ’Middle Ages’, we could place
it, as regards the man-nature relationship, between the ancient, super-
stitious worship of nature and the modern, lay one of technological
advance. Two beliefs which, in the ’middle’ centuries, overlap and
intertwine with a third one, typically medieval: the worship of God as
maker of nature.

Marvellous Nature
Animism is an inheritance which men in the Middle Ages received in
different degrees, depending on their previous level of Romanisation
and the circumstances of transition, both from pre-historic cultures
and Roman paganism. It consists of endowing life to natural objects-
inanimate we would call them-and, in particular, spiritual life start-
ing with the soul of things,’ either organic or inorganic, up to the
powerful deities of the pantheon in Rome.
Martin de Dumio writes in the sixth century, in Swabian Galicia, De
correctione rusticorum, ’for the amendment of peasants who still’ persist
on the ancient superstition of paganity, worshipping demons instead of

Lekai, Los cistercienses. Ideales y realidad, Barcelona, 1987: 385.
Louis J.

is full of souls’, says one of the witnesses at the Fournier Register:
Emmanuel le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou, alde saccitana de 1294a 1324, Madrid, 1981: 427.
The editor points out that some 60 per cent of superstitions quoted in the book have
reached us. Martin de Dumio, Serm&oacute;n contra las supersticiones rurales, Barcelona,

God :5 He bemoans the fact that after forsaking God ’some [men] adored
the sun, some the moon or the stars, others the fire, undergound waters
or watersprings in the belief that all these things had not been created by

God for men to use but had been born out of themselves, and they were
Gods : More precisely, he adds, ’[they adored] devils, angels expelled from
Heaven, who demanded sacrifices in the high woodlands and the thick
forests, some by the names of Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Neptune, Nymphs
[and] Diana’.6 Mixing primitive surperstitions with pagan Roman beliefs
(both animisms come up against Christianisation in the High Middle
Ages) Martin de Dumio insists on claiming that the devil is worshipped
by ’lighting candles by the stones, the trees, the wellheads and at cross-
roads... by adorning tables and putting laurel branches’ or by paying
attention to him, thus renouncing the sign of the cross, ’to other signs of
the devil by the mediation of birds, sneezes and many other things&dquo;
Roman pantheism survived in the medieval West in the names
of the days of the week,’ the exception being precisely the case of
Portugal, the adoptive land of the Bishop of Dumio (Braga, the ancient
bracarense Galicia), and to an even greater extent, survived the ancient
superstitions across the Middle Ages9-despite the medieval rationalism
of the twelfth century elites and even the Renaissance&dquo; elites. 11

1981: 16; see also Carmelo Lis&oacute;n, Brujer&iacute;a, estructura social y simbolismo en Galicia,
Madrid, 1983.
5 Mart&iacute;n de Dumio, Serm&oacute;n.
6 bid. 27-29.
Ibid.: 43.
’[They] are so indecisive that they give the very names of the demons to each day of
the week and thus they call them of Mars, of Mercury, of Jupiter, of Venus and of
Saturn,who made no day but were despicable, infamous men m the nation of Greeks’,
Ibid.: 31; as we know these gods, in fact Roman, correspond to the correspondant Greek:
Ares, Hermes, Zeus, Afrodite and Chronos.
The traditional superstitions linked to concrete places ( woodlands, mountains, well-
heads) lose their meaning as they disappear or because the peasants’ relationship towards
them changes (Franco Cardini, Magia, brujer&iacute;a y superstici&oacute;n en el Occidente medieval,
Barcelona, 1982: 33); a reorganisation of the territory which, in comparison to that
which will follow, has little relevance in the Middle Ages.
Sky phenomena had the same meaning in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance,
which favours a cultivated, humanist paganism open to prodigies and omens; Jacob
Burckhardt, La cultura del Renacimiento en Italia, Madrid, 1985: 407-8; as modern
science explains the causes of natural phenomena, superstition retreats, taking refuge in
popular culture (or esoteric circles).
Vito Fumagalli, Cuando el cielo se oscurece. La vida en la Edad Media, Madrid,
1988: 23.

The Fall of the Roman Empire resulted in the recovery of Germanic

or pre-Roman religions and the upsurge of magic, astrology and
alchemy. Prodigies, premonitions by means of signs in the sky and other
signs of nature are widespread in medieval chronicles from Idaciolz to
Carlos V.13 In some specific instances these signs orient the human
actions of both ’grandees’ and ‘commoners : In ancient animism, nature
was sacred. In medieval animism, the Christianised, synthetic nature

was not to be considered sacred in itself but as creation and

representation of a higher power, the divine power. It remains, however,
marvellous, subject to prodigies, a ’deposit of symbols&dquo;’
Medieval Christianism swung from complete opposition to magic
culture, to an adaptation and compromise, which would finally prevail.
The former was the (official) line held by Martin de Dumio,15 and was
frequently quoted in medieval synods&dquo; and opuscules against all-time
superstitions.&dquo; But the real church had little trouble in subtly but
firmly adjusting to popular religious practices: blessing the sacred
places of pre-Christian religions;&dquo; vying for the control of commonly
admitted natural prodigies;19 and dividing, in short, superstitious rituals
Julio Campos (ed.), Idacio Cronic&oacute;n, Salamanca, 1984: 134; ’Cr&oacute;nica Albedelse’, in
Juan G. Fernandez (ed.), Cr&oacute;nicas asturianas, Oviedo, 1985: 188; ’Cr&oacute;nica de Alfonso
III’, idem, p. 115.
Alonso de Palencia, Cr6nica de Enrique IV, Biblioteca de Autores Espanoles (here-
after BAE), no. 257, vol. 1, Madrid, 1973: 250, 257; Lucio Marineo S&iacute;culo, Vida y hechos
de los Reyes Cat&oacute;licos, Madrid, 1943: 18; ’They believe in omens, made up some demons,
I don’t know what profecies ... and are so many their outlandish ideas that they do not
deserve to be included here but we should show our bewilderment that the men of that
time were so simple [1520, almost a thousand years after Martin de Dumio’s denuncia-
tion], to believe such things’; Prudencio de Sandoval, Historia de la vida y hechos del
emperador Carlos V, BAE no. 80: 259-60.
Jacques le Goff, La Civilizaci&oacute;n del Occidente Medieval, Barcelona, 1969: 443.
Trees, considered hallowed by people, were felled in the High Middle Ages:
Fumagalli, Cuando el cielo: 22; on current people’s struggle against the felling of trees
in Galicia, especially oak trees, which according to tradition, contain healing pedras do
raio (lightning stones), popular culture thus meeting ecologist groups’ concerns, see for
instance La Voz de Galicia, 28 May 1997.
Enrique Bande Rodr&iacute;guez, ’Superstici&oacute;ns, bruxer&iacute;a e maxia na Galiza medieval’,
Acta Sdel II Coloquio Galaico-Minhoto, vol. I, Santiago, 1985: 357-68.
For instance, Pedro Ciruelo, Reprobaci&oacute;n de las supersticiones y hechicer&iacute;as (1538),
Barcelona, 1977.
Cardini, Magia: 23-24.
At the same time that Mart&iacute;n Dumiense wrote a sermon against rural superstitions,
Benito de Nursia made water spring from a rock on top of a forest for the service of one
of the first Benedictine monasteries; Antonio Linage Conde, La regla de San Benito,

into good and bad, legitimate and illegimitate,2° white and black
magic, depending on who the intermediary was-either the Church or
pagan sorcerers and astrologists.
The victory of the church over magic and superstition demanded
that it should take over their functions. ’Everything that can be natur-
ally done is done by God’ writes a legislator in the twelfth century,
and by the same token ’God can make the dead alive’ a phenomenon
known as a ’miracle, because when it occurs it is something astonish-
ing for men and people’ for it is not natural ’as people see every day
the deeds of nature and thus when something is done that goes against
it, they are astonished : ’[A] miracle is something we behold but
whose origin we ignore. That is what the common people under-
stand.’ But it is different for the elites: ’Wise and learned men, how-
ever, know very well that whatever nature or the intelligence of man
cannot perfom can only come from God and not from other.’21 To
summarise, the church appropriated the extraordinary, miraculous
phenomena of nature, competing with wizards and devils, when it
considered it suitable as evidence of the power of God. It accepted there-
fore, a marvellous nature of divine origin but never a self-sufficient,
God-like nature.
Medieval religiosity was, therefore, a consequence of the syncretism
between the Catholic Church and a culture of ancient surperstitions,
which existed among popular classes, but not among them alone. It was
not to be until the Ancien Régime when elitist culture and popular

Zamora, 1989: 177-78. In the middle of the thirteenth century, the master of the
Santiago Order invoked the Virgin: ’Sancta Maria stop your day-successfully-so that
she stopped the sun, thus having more time to defeat the Arabs in battle’: Francisco de
Rades, ’Chronica de Sanctiago’,? Chronica de las tres ordenes y cauallerias de Sanctiago,
Calatraua y Alcantara, Valencia, 1994, (Toledo, 1572): fol. 32, col. 3; In 1446, an anonym-
ous German traveller went on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and told of the

miracle of the Virgin of the Boat ( the procession to this sanctuary in Muxia is still cele-
brated every Sunday after 8 September): a huge stone that moves on the touching of a
finger if you are free from sin, Fernando D&iacute;az-Plaja, Historia de Espa&ntilde;a en sus
documentos. Siglo XV, Madrid, 1984: 100.
Alfonso de la Torre wrote in 1480-83 that, except for evil purposes, stars are, or may
be, tools of God, thus making astrology and magic licit if it is for a good purpose:
Francisco Garrote, Naturaleza y pensamiento en Espa&ntilde;a en los siglos XVI y XVII,
Salamanca, 1981: 91-92. Even representative is title XXIII of the seventh Partida

on soothsayers and other sorcerers, which sentences wizards to death but praises those

who performed witchery or other things with good purposes ( Partidas, vol. VII, 23, 3).
Ibid., vol. I: 4, 67.

culture came apart, the latter becoming the only refuge for animism
and other superstitions.22
The Middle Ages shared with pre-Christian cultures the understand-
ing of man as inseparable from his natural environment, 23 or in other
words, the failure to distinguish between subject-man and object-
nature, considering nature as a subject. It will not be until modernity
that we will come across the view of nature from the outside, as a land-
scape which delights our senses. Since humans belong in this landscape,
like the rivers and the rocks, it is not strange that we endow natural ele-
ments with characteristics of living beings, and even with supernatural
characteristics. This makes any action against nature a sin.24 The reason
why nature is protected in civilisations based on harvesting or sub-
sistence husbandry is to be found in the deeply rooted, automatic and
conservative drives implicit in a mentality which considers as kin
(mother, father, brother) all the beings that share nature 21 with men.
The mystic of spiritualist poverty of the Franciscans in the Middle
Ages provided continuity and new muscle among the elites towards
that Christian animism which, at the same time, was fought by
scholastic rationalism, the hallmark of the new social system and
feudal culture, the crisis of which corresponds with the heyday of
mendicant orders and their ’heretic’ conception of nature in the
fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
In the Cántico de las criaturas, Francis of Assisi calls the sun, the
moon, the stars, the wind, the water and the fire bothers and mother
to the earth ’which breeds and holds and governs us and yields us fruits
such as colourful flowers and herbs&dquo;’ His biographer, Tomas de
Celano, affirms that Saint Francis ’also blamed himself for the negli-
gence of having until then ignored the fowls in his preaching’, and,
proving himself a conservationist of the creatures of the Lord, ’to the
brothers who collected wood he forbids to cut the whole tree, so that
it might sprout again I.21

Michel Mullet, La cultura popular en la Baja Edad Media, Barcelona, 1990: 22.
Aaron J. Gourevitch, Les Cat&eacute;gories de la Culture M&eacute;di&eacute;vale, Paris, 1983: 50, 59.
Manuel Gonz&aacute;lez de Molina, Historia y medio ambiente, Madrid, 1993: 24.
R. Guha and M. Gadgil, ’Los h&aacute;bitats en la historia de la humanidad’, Ayer, no. 11,
1993: 58.
J.A. Guerra (ed.), San Francisco de Asis. Escritos. Biografias. Documentos de la &Eacute;poca,
Madrid, 1980: 49-50.
Ibid.: 177, 325.

Franciscan animism went from the medieval view of nature as a

’deposit symbols’ acknowledging it as a set of natural realities

of to
alive to such an extent that they needed preaching to be saved, like
their brother-men (thus going further than the Old and the New
Testament).28 Unlike primitive religions, Franciscanism (radical nomi-
nalism) did not make the Pantheist mistake of confusing God and the
world.29 Natural beings as living subjects, gifted with knowledge, are
also present in lay literature&dquo; and, of course, in popular culture-the
main target of the Franciscan message of return to evangelical poverty.

Dominated Nature
The medieval heyday was also the zenith of the social and cultural
influence of the church, which played a decisive role in the shaping of
feudal mentalities. The three-order system (those who fight, those
who pray and those who labour) regulated the relationships among
classes and social groups, together with a new man-nature relationship
which replaced the worship of nature with the worship of God, thus
favouring the development of agriculture and, consequently, uphold-
ing the three-functional system in an attempt-incidentally not very
successful-to push animism to the margins of the traditional mental-
ity, oblivious of the appearance of Christianism and Feudalism.
Thomas Aquinas gave validity and diffusion to the philosophical
mutation innate in Christianism when he perceived God not as organ-
iser or regulator of the world but as its creator.&dquo; God became, conse-
quently, an absolute value, whereas nature became a relative value,32
and an anthromorphic value for that matter. God created man in his own
image: He explicitly placed man at the centre of the natural universe,

to this we have found in the Bible is the beasts of burden subject, like
The closest
the they serve, to the mosaic law of keeping the Sabbath (Exodus 23, 12;

Deuteronomy 5, 14); anyway, Jesus Christ did not include animals in the Sermon on the
Gonzague de Reynold, ’Cristianismo y Edad Media’, La formaci&oacute;n de Europa,
vol. VI, Madrid, 1975: 122, 159.
’Oh flowers, oh flowers of pious green,/have you heard of my beloved?/oh, God,
where is he?’ J.J. Nunes (ed.), Cantigas de amigo dos trovadores galego-portugueses, vol. II,
Lisbon, 1973: 19.
Raimundo Panikkar, El concepto de naturaleza. An&aacute;lisis hist&oacute;rico y metaf&iacute;sico de un
concepto, Madrid, 1972: 103.
Gourevitch, Les Cat&eacute;gories: 69.

created dominate animals.33 Thus, without separating man from


nature, from a micro and macro cosmos, Christianism introduced

an imbalance in relationships-parallel to and intertwined with that

derived from the three-functional system-which broke away from the

traditional animist egalitarianism which, as we have seen, was later
circumstantially recovered by Franciscanism. The imbalance was
necessary if man was to be able to dominate nature through techno-
logy (and not through magic or astrology). It was not by chance that
scholastics-the relative desacralisation of nature by means of Thomist
’Rationalism’-coincided with the ploughing surge and the expansion
of cities at the height of the Middle Ages. Yet, labour was still, in the
collective mind, the penance for the original Sin.34
Medieval Europe inherited from Greeks and Romans the notion of
an ’egalitarian natural state’, a golden age when all men were equal and
it was not necessary to work (it was enough to reap): ’Earth herself
without disturbance or action of the hoe, without being wounded by
the plough, yielded everything for free’ (Ovid).35 From this state of
innocence, identified in the Bible with the Garden of Eden, we
proceeded-because of the original Sin-to the state of ’fallen or corrupted
nature’ (Saint Bonaventure) where animals were divided into ’burden
beasts and livestock’ to provide mankind with food, clothing and
entertainment and ’wild, damaging beasts’ to punish, keep alert, defy
or teach man.36 In both cases, beasts served man according to divine

design, and if some of them were hostile, it was because they belonged
to the fallen nature (like man): they had rebelled against man, after the
latter had rebelled against God.
Economic historians have underscored the ocupation of land during
the central centuries of the Middle Ages as a key phenomenon in
history, comparable only to the Neolithic Revolution as a successful
victory in taking over the natural environment which brought about the
retreat of the woodlands, the taming of beasts and the dominance of

’Let make man in our image, after our likeness and let them have dominion over

fish of the and over the fowl of the air and over the cattle and over all the earth and

over every creeping thing that

creepth upon the earth’: Genesis, 1, 26.
For disobeying God Adam will be damned: ’cursed is the ground for thy sake, in sor-
row shalt thou eat of it all the
days of thy life’: Genesis, 3, 17.
Norman Cohen, En pos del Milenio, Madrid, 1983: 186-87.
Restituto Sierra, El pensamiento social y econ&oacute;mico de la escol&aacute;stica, vol. II, Madrid,
1975: 329-30.

space (road links).37 It was thanks to the technical advances that took
place in the Middle Ages that Europe would later assume technologi-
cal leadership, which, among other things, would enable the maritime
expansion from the sixteenth century onwards.&dquo; This technological
expansion, which not all authors assess correctly, was related to a

change in attitude towards manual work (promoted from the sixth

century onwards by the Benedictine Order) and nature, where the
divine mandate of dominating nature so as to feed and clothe mankind
was complied with. However, we should not take the argument too far
because medieval tools were not yet able to fully substitute human
muscular strength, but were merely an accompaniment.39
The Western farming landscape was undoubtedly the ultimate con-
sequence of the Middle Ages,4° which, nevertheless, had not broken the
essential ecological equilibrium because of technical shortcomings (we
are yet far from the great commercial and industrial revolution) and
what is more important, was far from the mentality of a time charac-
terised by a natural law and economy. There existed at the time an all-
powerful church which perfectly fulfilled its social and ideological
function, desacralised nature so that
could work it, but did not

fail sanctify inexplicable, extraordinary and marvellous natural


phenomena, cleverly combining reason and faith, elitist and popular

The leap from the hermit monk to the resettling monk took place
within a system of natural economy. It is highly significant that the
subsistence economy, which produced for consumption, was described
as ‘natural: However, the medieval ecomony was acquainted with

craftsmanship, commerce and the city, while remaining essentially

rural and self-sufficient in character. This natural economy had evident
limitations as regards the domination and degradation of nature, which
would be irreversible when the land and its products became goods
and machines substituted muscular strength. As long as this did not
happen, man lived in (relative but enough) harmony with his environ-
ment. The more technology and commerce advanced and man’s

Guy Fourquin, Histoire &eacute;conomique de 1’Occident m&eacute;dieval, Paris, 1979: 109-34;
Robert Fossier, La infancia de Europa. Aspectos econ&oacute;micos y sociales. 1/El hombre y su
Espacio, Barcelona, 1984: 33.
Lynn White, ’La Expansi&oacute;n de la Tecnologia, 500-1500’, C.M. Cipolla (ed.), Historia
econ&oacute;mica de Europa. 1. Edad Media, Barcelona, 1981: 152-85.
Gourevitch, Les Cat&eacute;gories: 59.
Robert Delort, La vie au Moyen Age, Paris, 1982: 31.

dependance on nature decreased, the more aggressions against nature

began to take place.
The medieval man did not mingle with nature like in primitive
societies, nor did he confront it as in modern and contemporary societies;
he mantained his non-differentiation from the natural environment.4’
It is for this reason that the medieval man described the basic legal
rules that regulated his life in society as ’natural laws’. Natural law
ruled for men and animals; it was an eternal law and a natural instinct;
it was above the rights of people, the positive law and the laws that
men dictated for themselves, because it came from God and followed

man’s leanings towards goodness. ’To natural law belong all provisions
which contribute to preserving the life of man’, observed Saint
Thomas.&dquo; Let us compare this with what major nineteentli-century
rationalists proposed: ’Human sociability does not come from nature
nor consequently from God but from a free social pact of individuals
and this is its effective cause.’43
Feudalism is, as we have already noted, an ecological form of pro-
duction : it is capable of making nature the object of its technological
action and at the same time of seeing and feeling it as the subject of its
economy, its law and its religion. What strikes a modern mind as contra-
dictory was for the medieval man, cultivated or not, perfectly coherent.
He marvelled at nature while he ’wounded’ it with the plough; he
feared the woodlands and the wild beasts while befriending burden
and hunting animals; he exercised his free will while abiding by the
natural law. In all this, he followed the Biblical discourse, recovered,
updated and spread by scholastics in accordance with their times.
Hostile Nature
In the same way that the harmonic
replication of the three-functional
system implied inequality (workers), sin (prayers) and violence
(warriors), the new medieval relationship with nature demanded, if it was
to work out correctly, inequality (man/nature), sin (corrupted nature)

and, of course, violence-the violence which a hostile nature exerted

against man and that which exerted against his natural environ-
ment. By regulating how ’people may conquer the land by force ... when
it should not be possible through expertise or skill’, the legislator equalled
Gourevitch, Les Cat&eacute;gories: 59, 70.
Sierra, El Pensamiento: 355.
Ibid.: 899.

the violence of man over nature with the violence of man over man,
and both were called ’wars: (a) ’they should have the resolution to defeat
things by force and strength either when breaking huge rocks or boring
great mountains or levelling out the high places and raising the low ones,
or by killing the wild beasts ... hence such a conflict is called war’ and

(b) ’and if this they must accomplish, against all these aforesaid things they
have to struggle, much more so against men when they were their foes ...
by coveting their lands or by spoiling them&dquo;’ It amounted to saying that
if man had to force nature to humanise it ’much more so’ he had to prove
to be violent against other men to ’protect what is his’ and ’conquer that
of his foes’~: in the first case to dominate the land, in the second to defend
it. This medieval approach to human life as a constant struggle, both inter-
nally and externally, to control nature made quotidian and non-contradic-
tory both the violence which man exerted over nature and the violence
which nature exerted over man: a hostile nature was therefore, a necessary
factor for the balance of medieval life and mentality.
Historians of the Middle Ages polarise their assessment of the
man-nature relationship depending on their field of work: economic
historians stress how man managed to dominate nature (Fourquin,
White, Fossier),47 and the historians of mentalities speak rather of how
nature subdued man owing to man’s lack of technical implements to
master it (Bloch,48 Le Goff,49 and Fumagalli,50 the exception being

Delort51). Obviously there is empirical data that supports both read-

ings and indicates that coercion worked both ways. The medieval inno-
vation did not lie in the hostility of nature-apparent in preceding
societies, notably in the most primitive-but in the power that man
acquired over his environment at the height of the Middle Ages. A
global approach should be able to account for the ostensible imbalance
between a primitive mentality and a relatively advanced economy.
The hostility of nature was a consequence of its active function as
subject and a requirement for its humanisation. If nature had offered
44 Marc Bloch had already noted how war and, for instance, the tempest, intermingled
at the same level, in the medieval mentality: La sociedad feudal, Madrid, 1986: 105.
Partidas, vol. II: 21, 7.
See fns 37, 38.
Bloch, La sociedad feudal: 94.
Le Goff, La civilizaci&oacute;n del Occidente medieval: 661.
Fumagalli, Cuando el cielo se oscurece: 15, 24.
See fn. 40.

its fruits without struggle what sense would human labour have made?
Does not the fear caused by the wild unknown imply a kind of pro-
tection against human violence? Does not the very fear caused by the
earthly powers unleashed lead man to the Lord that unleashes them,
remaining faithful to a God who rewards the fair with the fruits of the
earth and punishes the unfair with plagues?52 To be sure, other hidden
powers, gods or devils, controlled-according to popular belief-the
natural powers, but under no circumstances did they contemplate the
medieval notion of work (consequence of sin) and the medieval notion
of reason (ultimately conditioned by God).
Offical medieval Christianity placed on man the main responsibility
for confronting nature, leaving the control over the extraordinary, inex-
plicable and marvellous (for the human knowledge of the time) nature
to supernatural powers (God and the saints). What man did not domin-
ate through his effort, skill or medieval science, he dominated by means
of a monotheistic, syncretic and anthropomorphic religion.
The second way, therefore, to humanise medieval nature, corrupted
by the sin of man, was by remembering that God had made man the
centre of the world. ,

The genealogist, Aponte, tells us, at the beginning of the sixteenth

century, of a fifteenth-century feudal nobleman from Galicia (Pedro
Alvarez de Soutomaior, ’Pedro Madruga’): ’He was one of the most
uncomplaining labourers in the whole of Spain because were it raining,
snowing, freezing or were there the worst blizzard ever, he would not
fail to do what should be done.’53 Another gentleman, however, Alvaro
Pérez de Moscoso, disliked by Aponte, was the protagonist of a very
different story in which 30 armed men sought to steal the treasure of
Coruxa Cave but they ’took so much fright’ of some birds that
attacked them and of a river that ran through the cave that they
stepped back and the ’poisonous air’54 brought their deaths within a
year.55 Depending on the subject of the action-a hard-working gentle-
man in the first case and a nature jealous of its treasures (superstitious

fears protect it) in the second-the resultant of the action would be

either dominated or dominating nature.

De Reynold, ’Cristi anismo’: 100.
Vasco de Aponte, Recuento de las casas antiguas del reino de Galicia, Santiago,
1986: 261.
A recurrent issue is that of foul air when the Black Death is striking, as we will see
further on.
De Aponte, Recuento: 177.

The great revolution that took place between the eleventh and
thirteenth centuries as regards the man-nature relationship consisted in
imposing a double direction: nature acted on human society, like in the
ancient and Roman world but at the same time, human society acted
on nature both directly through technology (first innovation) and

indirectly through clerics instead of wizards (second innovation) without

destroying the ecological equilibrium as opposed to the post-medieval
world (third innovation).56 In other words, we are before a double sub-
ject : humanity and natura, which since they are inseparable are bound
to take turns in the action of fighting each other: man invoked provi-
dence when he found himself in a weak position (great disasters). So as
to make this double, alternating (object/subject) role of mankind pos-

sible, the church introduced two practical and/or theological innova-

tions when it updated its message-scholastic rationality in high circles
(savante culture) and white magic in low circles (popular culture),
although any high/low distinction in practical terms should be seri-
ously qualified. These coexisted in the medieval minds, but are hardly
understandable to the modern rationalist.
This double approach to nature, at once both malleable and fear-
some, indicated by medieval sources, baffles the contemporary observer,
the professional historian included, as one more medieval paradox.
These ostensible contradictions are not so, however, if we place them
in their concrete context, and stay away from anachronisms.
Let us look at the double use that medieval man made of nature,
ambivalent but not ambiguous, in four concrete cases (woodlands,
animals, storms and the Black Death) depending on the subject of
action (man/nature) and on the means of action (reason/magic).
The forest played an extremely relevant role in the Middle Ages: it
encompassed everything. Fundamental in husbandry as a provider of
fuel (wood), as pastureland (swine) and as a means of noblemen’s
entertainment (hunting), as well as in religious life (hermits and monas-
teries), it suffered the action of agriculture in the central centuries of
the Middle Ages, the ploughing robbing it of a territory which, to
a certain extent, was recovered in the crisis of the Late Middle Ages.&dquo;

Medieval man transformed the woodland into a familiar, frequented

We do not have to wait until the Industrial Revolution: from 1492, medieval Europe
inaugurates modernity with an ecological and bicultural cataclysm in America: Manuel
Gonz&aacute;lez Molina, Historia y medio ambiente, Madrid, 1993: 18 ff.
Georges Duby, Econom&iacute;a rural y vida campesina en el Occidente medieval, Barcelona,
1973: 190.

place. 58 The image of the forest offered by the sources is, however, that
of a feared place inhabited by bandits, beasts and wizards, linked with
darkness, and home of the fierce wolf. Bloch and Le Goff highlighted
this two-faced medieval forest as both repulsive and desirable,59 some-
thing which certainly applied to the medieval nature as a whole.
In the case of animals the view is triple-faced. On one hand we had
animals like oxen, horses and lambs, which were useful to men and
thus had a positive connotation.60 They were necessary for work, war
or hunting. On the other hand, there were wild beasts, representing
the anti-human side of nature, one which had rebelled against the
sinner. The former-like men-abided by natural law and their taming
bears were witness to the dominance of mankind over nature, although
it is not this that the sources of the time stress. They portray animals
mainly as a threat,6’ as ’wild animals’ which must be killed. This was
especially true for wolves, the hallmark of the Middle Ages because
of their number, strength and contact with men.62 Yet, they seldom
symbolised the devil.
The clash between man and wolf stemmed from the struggle for
survival. It was not a religious struggle but a practical one; it was defen-
sive hunting, not a means of purging human sin. To represent evil, or
the devil, the medieval man had a third type of animal: the cat63 and
even other domestic animals, 64 which were not necessary for labour
and were inoffensive enough to be among men, thus embodying the
hidden power of the enemy. These thus represented a role which
neither the cow, for instance, nor the wolf could adopt because the former
was necessary to man and the latter not compatible with him. The

practical sense of the medieval man kept the marvellous, divine or

devilish away from economic or survival activities, and in this he was radi-
cally different from primitive man. Medieval men believed to the letter
Vito Fumagalli, Las piedras vivas. Ciudad y naturaleza en la Edad Media, Madrid,
1989: 106-7.
Jacques le Goff, Lo maravilloso y lo cotidiano en el Occidente medieval, Barcelona,
1986: 32.
60 Ie Roy Ladurie, Montaillou: 432 ff.
Fumagalli, Las piedras vivas: 121-22, 132.
Delort, La vie au Moyen Age: 23-24.
F.M. Gelabert and F.J.M. Milagro (eds), Domingo de Guzm&aacute;n visto por sus contem-
por&aacute;neos, Madrid, 1947: 422; Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou: 431; Robert Darnton has stud-
ied the continuity of this tradition in modern Europe, La Gran Matanza de los gatos y
otros episodios en la historia de la cultura francesa, Mexico, 1987.
The monkey and the lizard, for instance, Domingo de Guzm&aacute;n
: 467, 472.

in transcendence, but they reserved an important part of their everyday

life for the economy and the struggle for survival, without that implying
a radical change in mentality.
The wolf, and wild beasts generally, were useful65 to medieval society
in two ways: (a) creating common interest’ through defensive hunting, 61
where all the three classes (clerics, gentlemen, and peasants’~ took
part, a process which clashed with the medieval tradition of (offensive)
hunting as the business of noblemen; and (b) as punitive tools of human
justice, for a plebeian convicted of gross offences, and to be punished
with the death penalty, was ’if he were serf ... given to the wild beasts
to meet his death&dquo;’ This identification of the serf with wild beasts’°
was indicative both of the state of domination in which nature was to
have been and of the inhuman image that the prevailing culture had
of the feudal serf.71 The parallel between the representation of society
and the representation of its relationship with nature is again apparent.
The serf, if he was docile was beneficial and lived among (noble) men,
and if he was ’wild’ had to die like an animal, even better, in its claws:
bad animals were, thus, useful for punishing bad men. This provided a
way of closing the circle of dominating/dominated nature which con-
tributed towards maintaining stability in the social and natural
medieval system.
Medieval man managed to establish a new balance with nature,
which religion and nature endorsed and hid. He responded to violence
with violence, but had no qualms about using the violence of wild
animals to maintain social cohesion. The alternation in the action of man
and animal, and of man and nature at large lay at the foundation of the
In the sense of the quotation by Saint Bonaventure, that is, to punish, to test and to
(see fn. 36).
In 1225, Alfonso IX grants a privilege to the neighbours of the banks of river Sil
and forces them to comb the Lord’s land for two days every year to hunt bears: Julio
Gonz&aacute;lez, Alfonso IX, vol. II, Madrid, 1944: 570.
67Also the foxes, Jos&eacute; Maria Monsalvo, Documentaci&oacute;n hist&oacute;rica del archivo municipal
de Alba de Tormes ( Siglo XV ), Salamanca, 1988: 280. See fn. 68.
68Bishop Gelmirez decrees, in 1113, in the territory of Santiago that ’every Saturday
with the exception of Lent and Pentecost, Presbyters, Gentlemen and peasants, who are
not legitimately busy, shalt gather together to hunt wolves’, a custom still alive in 1299
and 1326: Antonio L&oacute;pez Ferreiro, Fueros municipales de Santiago y su tierra, Madrid,
1975: 160, 398-99, 530.
Partidas, vol. VII: 14, 22; see also ibid., vol. VII: 31, 4, 6, 7.
Ibid., vol. VII: 15, 9, 15 and 18.
Which the Renaissance will, of course, make extensive to all medieval men

(see fn. 1).


harmony of feudal relationships in the rural environment, but it was

asymetrical: the great catastrophes and epidemics indicated (or so con-
temporaries believed), that medieval nature was eventually stronger
than man. Emergency situations were too common to forget; they wiped
away laboriously achieved economic feats, and only religion-in combi-
nation with superstition-could account for them and appease them. It
was in this way that the ‘backward’-from the point of view of modern

rationalism-medieval mentality dominated socially and economically:

the instrumental reason was subordinated to the supernatural.
The consequences of storms and other natural disasters on medieval
survival economies were catastrophic. The inability to understand the
natural causes of these phenomena and the lack of a protective state that
could compensate its social consequences only made the problem more
serious and left the solution in the hands of God, the devil or the stars.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Pedro Ciruelo, in his
struggle against superstition, reminded us that Aristotle and the clas-
sical philosophers ’knew’ ’the natural causes’ of thunder, lightning
and hail, which had nothing to do with angels or devils, thus making
spells&dquo; unnecessary. The medieval church competed successfully, if
only partially, with ’sorcercers of storms’ to appease unleashed nature,
at the expense of forgetting classical philosophers and pointing to
divine wrath&dquo; as the origin of storms and other disasters.&dquo; Ciruelo
himself was forced to admit, despite everything, that one in ’one
hundred thousand storms’ was caused by devils: ’but this God permits
only very seldom, because He wants His creatures to make their
movements in common&dquo;’ This would not take place until the

Enlightenment freed man of the ’darkness’ of magic, superstition and

religion: the Enlightenment which brought about great advantages and
some disadvantages for humankind, as we know only too well. The
divine wrath symbolised by a hostile nature was recovered in favour of

Ciruelo, Reprobaci&oacute;n de las supersticiones: 151.
73A re-thinking of medieval philosophy endorsed by the Council of Trent in 1551:
Martin Gelabert&oacute;, ’Tempestades y conjuros de las fuerzas naturales. Aspectos m&aacute;gico-
religiosos de la cultura en la Alta Edad Moderna’, Manuscrits, no. 9, 1991: 327.
In 1464, the earthquake in Seville is subtly interpreted as against the Jews ’a
powerful, cruel punishment against infidels by God’s will./Which brought the Jewish
quarter down’: P.M. Catedra (ed.), La historiograf&iacute;a en verso en la &eacute;poca de los Reyes
Cat&oacute;licos, Salamanca, 1989: 185.
Ciruelo, Reprobaci&oacute;n de las supersticiones: 153.

’social cohesion’, sometimes against the serfs (identified with wild

beasts) and Jews, 16 more often than not in order to strengthen the role
of prayers in medieval society.
The medieval man was very far from the Stoicism of Pliny the Elder
during the eruption of Vesuvius (A.D. 79), which killed him.&dquo; Neither
did he despair before the earthly apocalypse ’71 or take refuge in a temple
awaiting God’s mercy.’9 Indeed, he acted through go-betweens, usually
clerics,80 who had curates strike the bells against hail,81 or by partici-
pating directly in processions and rogationsg2 and by taking individual
initiatives such as placing frying-pans and pots skyward when there
was a storm.83 The Christianisation of ’gentile’ rites resulted in a Chri-
stianised white magic84 which, from the sixteenth century onwards, was
confined to folk culture, and was prosecuted by the Inquisition.&dquo;

See fn. 74.
Fran&ccedil;ois Ellenberger, Historia de la geolog&iacute;a, vol. I, Barcelona, 1989: 46.
It appears in the New Testament that Jesus said: ’there will be stench and famine
and earthquakes but do not despair because these things are necessary and it shalt not
be the end yet Ram&oacute;n Alba, ’Relaci&oacute;n de todo lo ocurrido en las Comunidades de
Castilla’, in, Acerca de algunas particularidades de las Comunidades de Castilla tal vez
relacionadas con el supuesto acaecer Terreno del Milenio Igualitario, Madrid, 1975: 181.
Gelabert&oacute;, ’Jempestades’: 339.
80 Saint Augustine strengthened the power of medieval priests: ’the heaven takes
fright, the earth marvels ... and each and every creature made by God shudders before
you’: Alonso de C&oacute;rdoba, Un serm&oacute;n castellano del siglo XV, Barcelona, 1983: 91.
Medieval saints like Saint Benedict (see fn. 19) and Saint Dominic, proved with miracles
that they could dominate the Earth: Domingo de Guzm&aacute;n, according to his biographers,
was able to stop the rain, the fire and bleeding, Santo Domingo de Guzm&aacute;n: 202, 361,

401, 417, 565, 568, 597.

Rodr&iacute;guez, ’Superstici&oacute;ns, bruxer&iacute;a e maxia na Galiza medieval’: 364; Juan Carlos
Martin Cea, El mundo rural castellano a fines de la Edad Media, Valladolid, 1991: 392-94;
See fn. 81, and Inaki Baz&aacute;n, Delincuencia y criminalidad en el Pa&iacute;s Vasco en la tran-
sici&oacute;n de la Edad Media a la Moderna, Vitoria, 1995: 384. In order to avert a recent earth-
quake, which had its epicentre in Sarria (Lugo), locals improvised the Sacred Heart
Procession, which had not taken place for 10 years, using the medieval arguments of
guilt (’we are evil’) and of divine power (’when there are quakes I think of Jesus, who is
the only one who may be of any help’), La Voz de Galicia, 1 June 1997.
Synodicon hispanum. I. Galicia, Madrid, 1981: 76.
Whoever made a spell with the good intention of ’ridding us of clouds, which throw
hail or fog so that they did not spoil the fruit ... is for that deserving of reward’:
Partidas vol. VII: 23, 3. White magic was supported by a doctrine from Isidoro de Sevilla
to Bacon, including Roman Law, Cardini, Magia: 45 ff.
Weather magic had not disappeared altogether: ’The Local Council of Barcelona are
to send to the nuns belonging to the order of Saint Clare at the monastery of Pedralbes

However, depending on divine reason or, even better, on

superstitious-divine reason did that human, instrumental,

not mean

everyday reason did not count. What could the common man-or his
institutions for that matter-do against natural disasters? For one thing,
he could try to palliate the material consequences of the catastrophe pro-
voked by God or the devil (with God’s permission), which amounted
to contradicting the religious viewpoint, since it exonerated men of the

responsibility of sin: God punished and the secular power took practi-
cal measures. It corresponded, under the provisions of the Partidas,
to the lord and not to the vassal who paid the taxes, to take upon himself
the losses ’by fire or earthquake or flooding’ 16 The king accepted after
the 1348 Black Death a revision of royal taxes since ’out of the deaths
and the bad blizzards and the great disasters that have occurred ...
[commoners] cannot comply or pay the amounts they used to’S7 and,
again in 1425, the tax on coins was abolished for a five-year period in
Murcia and its lands because of the bursting of the river Segura,
’which wiped away up to six hundred houses and had destroyed all the
wheat, barley, wine, oil and chattels’.88 The socio-economic sphere and
the mentality operated, as always, at different but compatible levels in
medieval society: Were not those who asked for and obtained exemp-
tions from taxes the same as those who participated in rogations to the
Lord so that the blizzards would stop or rain come? Men in the Middle
Ages succeeded-without much difficulty, used as they were to mixing
the imaginary with the real-in giving rise to what are complex paradoxes
for the current observer so that spiritual beliefs and material interests
did not clash.
The weakness of medieval rationalism was precisely that it found it
extremely difficult to relate causes and ends, that is, to be properly rational.
The failure to know the natural causes of natural disasters and the lack

a dozen of eggs the week previous to the wedding of Infant Cristina and I&ntilde;aki
Urdangar&iacute;n so that on October 4th it does not rain and the day is bright’: La Voz de

Galicia, 20 June 1997; see also fn. 82.

Partidas, vol. V: 8, 28. It was not always complied with. In 1376, a forum contract
established that a payment must be done ’regardless of freezing or whatever other for-
tuitous event’: Anselmo L&oacute;pez Carreira, Ourense no s&eacute;culo XV, Vigo, 1991: 37.
Valladolid Courts in 1351, request no. 46.
Palenzuela Courts in 1425, request no. 39. That same year, the king of Navarra and
the lord of Alba reduced by a third the order out of scarcity of bread, since the neighbours
could ’not comply nor pay without great prejudice for their properties’: Documentaci&oacute;n
hist&oacute;rica del arcbivo municipal de Alba de Tormes (
siglo XV
): 141.

of knowledge about nature at large made astrology, magic and religion

essential as providers of the fundamental certainties that man needed to
live and die. The case of the Black Death is telling. God punishes sinning
mankind with the plague but how did the plague reach mankind?
Today we know that bacillus Yersinia pestis (isolated in 1894) comes
from rats which transmit the disease to man through fleas and lice, a
process facilitated during wet and hot periods. In the Middle Ages the
transmitting agent was wrongly identified with foul air (Hippocratic
thesis further developed by Galen and Avicena), which tied in well
with the concomitant explanation of astrology and religion: the
fouling of air was induced by the conjunction of planets or by God’s
wrath, for was not clean air an element which received the ’pure light
of the sky? ’89 Both the responses and the measures to be adopted had
to do with this certainty. It was believed9° that the climate, by the end
of summer, including unburied corpses and the refuse in the channels
and streets, facilitated the fouling of air. Hence, it was advisable to bury
corpses, be hygienic,9’ and build fires to purify the air and give off
pleasant smells. Some of these hygienic measures contributed indirectly
to getting rid of rats, lice and fleas, while others-such as avoiding con-
tact with women or penitent processions-had a direct incidence of

guilt and sin as main causes, although common sense also imposed
other types of initiatives such as locking city gates to prevent the
entrance cf fleeing plague victims (for instance, Alcoy in 1489).92
When the source of the evil they were suffering was unknown, little
else could be done except invoking the Almighty to find a remedy.
The medieval man was rational as far as his scientific, philosophical
and mental development allowed him to be. He had learnt to profit
from his ambivalent relationship with nature to the point of integrating
a hostile nature in his mental and social system. But this control over

nature, direct or indirect, had its limits as regards great disasters. It was
then that the Christianity-magic symbiosis directed human thought
and action in such a way that it embossed all medieval thought, pre-
disposed to the marvellous by inheritance, with its hallmark.

Di&aacute;logo de la dignidad del hombre: 80.
Velasco de Taranta, ’Tratado de la peste (1475)’, Tratados de la Peste, Madrid, 1993.
Following the 1348 plague, attention was increased throughout Europe to public
hygiene: Agust&iacute;n Rubio, Peste negra, crisis y comportamientos sociales en la Espa&ntilde;a del siglo
XIV, Granada, 1979: 76 ff.
Jos&eacute; Hinojosa Montalvo, Textos para la historia de Alicante. Historia medieval,
Alicante, 1990: 319.

The man-nature relationship offered a different perspective depending

on who the main subject of action was. Economic historians, as we
have remarked above, viewed medieval man as a producer of goods, a
trader or a builder, and deduced that he dominated nature; while the
historian of mentalities came across a view of the medieval world
which subordinated man to an active, harrowing and man-dominating
nature, driven by the supernatural. It was not just that the medieval
economy was scarcely developed; neither was philosophy or mentality
if our reference point is the modern world (although the best reference
for understanding the Middle Ages is the Middle Ages themselves).
The humanisation of nature during the Middle Ages is a real, irrefut-
able historical fact but it is a humanisation limited by the skills and
the omnipotent power of a providence whose foundations were in the
power of nature (divine natural law). In other words, this was a con-
trolled humanisation, with its positive and negative consequences:
Negative, in that man was not fully free to advance and conquer wel-
fare ; positive, in that nature limited what humans could make of it.
Friendly Nature
The medieval economy produced goods only indirectly. It did not aim
at profit as the term is understood in a capitalist economy. The
medieval economy produced mainly for consumption and its ruling
classes sought above all to ’increase their states’, that is to say, to
increase their lands and vassals, as it was they who produced-via
taxes and through donations (Church) or war (gentlemen)-the lords’
incomes. In this context of natural economy, the human pressures on
nature were lesser in magnitude and significance in comparison with
what came later, but perceptible, nonetheless, because of the techno-
logical advancement in farming and fishing, which gave rise to protec-
tive measures for the natural heritage. These measures were imposed
by common (non-productive) sense and ultimately by an animist-
providentialist view of nature. Both motives were intertwined. Eco-
nomic sources, however, do not reflect the superstitious motivations,
whereas narrative sources seldom speak of ecomony. It is the task of
the historian to attempt such synthesis, to make global history.
The three-year shift in crops’ is the most outstanding farming inno-
vation during the Middle Ages. A third of the land was left fallow,
another third devoted to winter cereals, and the remaining third
reserved for spring cereals. Previously, with the two-field system,

half of the field remained unploughedeach year. The increase in

productivity remarkable,
was because lands were worked most of the

year and there was a reduction in unploughed surfaces.9’ Saint Francis

’exhorts the farmer to leave the sides of the orchard unworked so that
the green of the grass and the beauty of the flowers hearld the beauty
of the Father of all things&dquo;’ This particular administration of farming
resources to prevent their exhaustion was based on need and common
sense (something which disappeared with technological advancement)
and was favoured-and ultimately determined-by religious animism,
which never entirely disappeared and was offically acknowledged by
Franciscan spirituality.
’How should the King protect his lands?’ As the Partidas stated, this
was achieved by making sure that ’villages or other places do not die

away ... and also by ensuring that trees, vineyards or any other thing
[that] man ... lives on is not felled, burnt, or damaged in any way, not
even out of spite’.95 This protection of productive means and life is a

staple in medieval economic documents. The medieval man cared for

the nature which provided him with a living and for the means of
working it: the land, the aminals and the plants that yielded fruit.
’Neither oxen nor cows nor other ploughing beasts’ may be pawned
(neither the plough nor the serfs), the same as the ’sacred things’ and
unlike the fruits of ’cattle, trees and inheritances&dquo;&dquo;’ Cattle could
neither be pawned nor left as security,9’ nor stolen, the last being a crime
that entailed capital punishment.98 The protection measures for bene-
ficial animals even encompassed the eggs of pigeons,&dquo; falcons and par-
tridges.’°° ’Trees or vines, or vineyards are things which must be most
protected because the fruit they yield is profitable to mankind and cause
much pleasure and consolation when they are seen&dquo;&dquo; However, this
love (with a superstitious and religious veneer to it) of living beings and
Lynn White, 1&egrave;cnolog&iacute;a medieval y cambio social, Buenos Aires, 1973: 85-89.
San Francisco de As&iacute;s. Escritos: 325-26.
Partidas, vol. II: 11, 3.
Ibid., vol., V: 13, 2, 3 and 4.
Order by Alfonso X in 1252 for the territory of Santiago, article LX: ’that labour
oxen be not left as security’. Fueros municipales de Santiago y su tierra: 383-84.
Partidas, vol. VII: 14, 19
Salamanca Courts in 1465, petition no. 23; Documentaci&oacute;n de Alba de Tormes
( 100
): 237-38 (1460).
Fueros municipales de Santiago y su tierra
: 378-79 (1252); Valladolid Courts in 1258,
petition no. 34; Jerez Courts in 1268, petition no. 17.
Partidas, vol. VII: 15, 28.

nature pointed to the fact that their defence was not limited merely to
a utilitarian attitude but was able to look beyond the here and now, no

mean achivement in itself.

The felling of fruit trees’o’ was, therefore, punishable. It was ordered
that those which ’were brought down or dried up&dquo;&dquo; were to be replaced
and likewise that ’two trees yielding fruit’ must be planted within three
months for every aranzada (4.47 square metre). 104 Protection measures
even applied to products derived from trees: thus the de Fuero Viejo of

Vizcaya (1452) punishes with death the intentional spilling of cider

from casks,105 a penalty typically applied to gross offences against people
and properties. For the medieval mentality, cattle and trees and their
fruits could be as important as people. After all, the medieval man saw
himself as inseparable from living nature.
To understand the relationship of man with his ecological environ-
ment in the Middle Ages, it may be particularly useful to
pay atten-
tion to the forest, which, in as late as the nineteenth century, still
covered 40 per cent of the lands of Saint-Germain-des-Pres Abbey, a
particularly advanced area as regards agriculture.l06 As a general rule,
in late medieval Europe forests covered the great majority of lands and
the peasant economy depended on them for survival. In the twelfth
century, the first remark on the Codice Calixtino about the Galician
land was that ’it is rich in forests’1°’ and, four centuries later, another
traveller, Fernando de Colon, shows his amazement at the miles of oak
and chestnut forests that enveloped its villages.&dquo;’
The crucial question this, is about the effect of the advancement of
agriculture on these medieval forests. The upsurge in forest ploughing

Fueros municipales de Santiago y su tierra:

102 (1252).
A. El
monasterio de Santa Mar&iacute;a
Vega, de la Vega, Oviedo, 1991: document
no. 53 (1322).
Documentaci&oacute;n de Alba de Tormes ): p. 129; this measure taken in 1429, is
siglo XV
confirmed in 1498: Ibid.: 280-81.
Baz&aacute;n, Delincuencia: 562.
Georges Duby, Guerreros y campesinos. Desarrollo inicial de la econom&iacute;a europea
(500-1200), Madrid, 1979: 7.
Codex Calixtinus, Santiago, 1951: 523.
Thus writes Javier Ruiz Almansa, La poblaci&oacute;n de Galicia, 1500-1945, Madrid,
1948: 35, 36, 39; see also Elisa Ferreira, Galicia en el comercio mar&iacute;timo medieval, A
Coro&ntilde;a, 1988: 59-60; today oaks and chesnuts&mdash;Galicia’s autochthonous species-have
virtually disappeared, but not the close relationship of people with them: at Carballedo,
a few weeks ago, 200
people organised a picnic around an oak which an electric com-
pany intended to cut down, La Voz de Galicia, 4 August 1997.

(and building) during the central centuries of the Middle Ages

broke, according to commonly admitted opinion, the late medieval
balance between ploughing lands, pastures and forests, resulting in an
imbalance which, for some authors, will be one of the causes of the late
medieval crisis.l09 The immediate consequences of forest retreat were
soon evident: social conflict in an attempt to control the forest,
increased aggressiveness of wolves11° and other wild animals; bursting
of rivers as trees failed to retain rainwater... and, what is more revelant
here, the tightening of measures to protect forests. Such measures,
together with the late medieval crisis, enabled the recovery of the
forest in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.&dquo;’ Evidence of this is the
fact that in 1457, Enrique IV, by request of Guipuzcoa councils, was
forced to order that the plantation of oaks, walnuts, chesnuts, ashes
and beeches be kept at 16 feet of ploughed land.&dquo;3 The final balance of
this advance-retreat-advance process was undoubtedly favourable for
the conservation of medieval forests.
Protection measures, therefore, arose when they were necessary. 114
They defied the utilitarian sense and, more importantly, the medieval
men’s animist feelings towards nature. It was, from the late twelfth
century onwards, when the new form of production was consolidated,
that men begin to grant forests a special protection: ’[I]n the twelfth
century the forest became a sort of protected cultive of trees’.~~~ The
social struggles for forest control became a staple: in the thirteenth
century communities (use and reaping) and lords (hunting) lodged com-
plaints because of forest retreat’16 and, by the mid-fifteenth century,
Robert Fossier, Historia del campesinado en el Occidente medieval, Barcelona,
1985: 113.
Vito Fumagalli, Las Piedras vivas. Ciudad y naturaleza en la Edad Media, Madrid,
1989: 141 ff.
: 42.
Emmanuel le Roy Ladurie, Les Paysans de Languedoc, vol. I, Paris, 1966: 149; see
also fn. 57.
Jes&uacute;s Orella, Cartulario real de Enrique IVa la provincia de Guip&uacute;zcoa (1454-1474),
San Sebasti&aacute;n, 1983: 52-53.
Abusive ploughing gives rise to concerns about rational and sustained exploitation
of forests: Fossier, Historia del campesinado: 112.
Georges Duby, Economia rural: 194; see also Carlos M. Cipolla, Historia econ&oacute;mica
de la Europa preinsdustrial, Madrid, 1979: 124; Charles-E. Dufourcq, and Jean Gautier-
Dalch&eacute;, Historia econ&oacute;mica y social de la Espa&ntilde;a cristiana en la Edad Media, Barcelona,
1983: 180.
Fossier, Historia del campesinado: 111.

Castillian courts protested because lords did not stop cutting wood
freely; because their neighbours occupied their forest; or because royal
guards appropiated them.&dquo;’
The advancement of cultivable land, and the fellings and fires were
dangers that loomed over medieval forests. The 1351 courts denounced
the fact that ’five or six pines are brought down to make three or four
torches which are worthless’ and that ’those living in counties rich in
pinewoods and groves fell and burn them to sow and thus everything is
destroyed : The king’s response could not have been harder or more
indicative of the new scenario. He announced the death penalty:
‘[W]hoever felled or uprooted pines in the pinewoods or holm trees in
the groves of local councils, as it is claimed, with intention of sowing
must be killed for it and shall furthermore lose all his properties:1’8 The

very farming crisis, aggravated and sharpened by the Black Death

provided new muscle to forest protection measures.119 However, the recov-
ery of the forests enabled the monarchy in 1380 to authorise fellings.’2o
(The fact that an authorisation was mandatory indicates that there were
control measures in place.) In the fifteenth century habitual protection-
ist measures&dquo;’ alternated with occasional measures intended to promote
agriculture,122 always within a framework that made the authorisation of
the local council, the lord or the king mandatory to fell trees or to make
fires which could have been a potential threat to the forest.
In the thirteenth century, Alfonso X prohibited all uncontrolled
fires,123 and punished with death those who burnt the forests; ’The
king orders that fire must not be set to forests, and should anyone
be caught doing it, he must be thrown into the fire; may he not be
aprehended, all his possesions be taken&dquo;&dquo; Measures against potential
Valladolid Courts in 1447, petition no. 27; Valladolid Courts in 1451, petition
no. 28; Salamanca Courts in 1465, petition no. 16.
Valladolid Courts in 1351, petition no. 61.
Isabel Torrente Fern&aacute;ndez, El Dominio del Monasterio de San Bartolom&eacute; de Nava
( 120
XIII-XVI), Oviedo, 1982: document no. 65 (1362).
Amanda L&oacute;pez de Meneses, ’Documentos acerca de la peste negra en los dominios
de la Corona de Arag&oacute;n’, Estudios de Edad Media en los dominios de la Corona de Arag&oacute;n,
vol. VI, 1956: 432-33 (1380).
Documentaci&oacute;n de Alba de Tormes: 217 (1458).
See fn. 113.
’Whoever sets fire on a windy day near straw, wood or ripe grain is considered
responsible and liable for the damage hence originated’, Partidas, vol. VII: 15, 10.
Valladolid Courts in 1258, petition no. 42; this order was repeated at the Jerez
Courts in 1268, petition no. 39.

forest fires and against those who breached the measures were issued in
the fourteenth&dquo;’ and fifteenth&dquo;’ centuries, although we lack informa-
tion about great provoked fires like those which currently devastate
our forests.
The great deforestation of pre-industrial Europe did not take place
during but after the Middle Ages, from the sixteenth to the seven-
teenth centuries.&dquo;’ New advances in crops (corn and potato) and the
upsurge in the building of houses and ships were linked to the demo-
graphic increase, which demanded more wood and created more mouths
to feed. This, together with a decrease in ecological corncern led to a

huge retreat in woodlands and to the substitution of autochthonous

species. In fact, the Industrial Revolution utilised solid fuel (vegetal coal)
and not wood from the forest as a basic energy source. The defini-
tive and irreversible crisis of forests can be located in the late eigh-
teenth and early nineteenth centuries.&dquo;’
A prolonged social conflict, which stretched, with ebbs and flows,
from the fifteenth century up to the twentieth century (very relevant
ecologically &dquo;1, was that of fishing nests in Galicia. Where wall fishing
existed as an industrial way of fishing,130 as opposed to more traditional
handicraft methods like those used in sardine fishing (known locally as
sacada, espinel and xeito). The main argument, which both sides used
in the discussion was ecological, despite the evident social and eco-
nomic implications of the conflict, which resulted in the opposition of
’rich’ and ’poor’ groups of fishermen and the villages where they plied.
In the exchange of accusations, it was claimed that the contrary
fishing tackle (a) ’kills and destroys any spawning’;&dquo;’ (b) ’infects’ sea
In 1385 a shepherd confesses to unintentionally causing a fire, for which he was

imprisoned, Textos para la historia de Alicante: 319-20.

From 1494, fires in the fields were prohibited from June until November,
Documentaci&oacute;n de Alba de Tormes: 251-52.
Cipolla, historia econ&oacute;mica de la Europa preindustrial: 124; Historia social y
Econ&oacute;mica de Espa&ntilde;a y Am&eacute;rica, vol. II, Barcelona, 1974: 244.
Molina, Historia y medio ambiente: 17-18, 35.
Protectionist medieval mentality was thus maintained in popular culture and sur-
vived the Ancien R&eacute;gime.
Defended in the eighteenth century, against the tide, by the learned Padre
Sarmiento, Documentos para la historia de pontevedra, vol. III, Pontevedra, 1904: 542,
544, 691.
: 9, 390, 691; Jes&uacute;s Gir&aacute;ldez Rivero, ’El conflicto por los nuevos
artes: conservacionismo o conservadurismo en la pesca
gallega de comienzos del siglo
XX’, Ayer, no. 11, 1993: 240; Courts prohibited as well the fishing of trouts in the

water;’1’2 and (c) disturbs ’the tranquility’ of fish.133 The first argument
corresponded with the habitual medieval protectionist argument
whose concern was to guarantee reproduction as opposed to maximis-
ing the exploitation of resources in the short run. The fear of ’infect-
ing’ water reminds us of that fouling of air which transmitted the
plague.&dquo;4 The polluting of the air and the waters kills living beings:
this medieval certainty, which seldom had an objective basis, takes us
directly to an animinst superstitious mentality which made homolo-
gous all natural elements as living entities, liable to corruption and
ailing. Finally did not that perceived necessity of keeping the sardine
’quiet’ so that it did not escape from the ria,135 attribute to fish an exce-
sive degree of ’consciousness’?
To summarise, in order to ensure that the sea offered its products to
man, it was considered harmful to break its biological development,
pollute its waters, or disturb maritime creatures excessively. An abu-
sive, inconsiderate exploitation was avoided, not because there was
scientific knowledge about causes and effects but because the reaction of
nature was feared and the responses by living beings were interpreted

superstitiously as active subjects of a bi-directional relationship with

mankind. The limit to utilitarianism was set, therefore, by a friendly
nature ready to metamorphose into a hostile nature and deny man his

upkeep, the function assigned by the Holy Scriptures, which also used
nature to keep man subdued.

reproductory season from October to November because ’it causes the depletion of
rivers’: Madrid Courts in 1435, petition no. 45.
Padre Sarmiento Documentos para la historia de Pontevedra: 13, 14, 268; for the pro-
tection of water and river fish it was also prohibited to throw ’herbs or lime into the
rivers lest the fish die’, Valladolid Courts in 1258, petition no. 43, and Madrid Courts in
1435, petition no. 45.
Ibid pp. 11, 14, 22, 23, 24, 102.
Another remarkable case is the opposition of Galician fishermen to the hunting of
whales, which was done off the Galician coast by Basque and Cantabrian fishermen as
early as the thirteenth century, and which Galician fishermen sought to expel from their
waters and finally accomplished ’because the blood of those whales inflects all fish,
which with the stench escapes from the coasts where the said whales are killed and so
much of it is wasted’: Elisa Ferreira, Galicia en el comercio mar&iacute;timo medieval: 137-39.
The superstitious motivation is disguised and intertwined with religion: from
Friday to Monday it was fobidden to go to sea so that sardines ’may be quiet without
being disturbed ... and to keep the Sunday’. Ibid
.: 22.

In the other man-nature relationship that has been analysed, the

symbiosis of pragmatism and superstition, the controlled character of
the humanisation of medieval nature by mankind,136 the dominating/
dominated or, friendly/hostile nature interfaces are not so clearly vis-
ible in the case of fishing. This is probably because neither the land
nor the trees have the capacity to act as true living subjects; they can-
not escape, like fish, if they are treated badly (without the due respect
to creatures which are also of God). Hunting animals did not have
such an integral relationship with men, for hunting was (except for
defence) a privilege of the nobility in the Middle Ages.&dquo;’
In the Middle Ages, urban pollution was a common feature that
accompanied the creation of walled cities. In the thirteenth century,
several measures were promulgated138 which nonetheless were not
enforced until the mid-fourteenth century, first, because the Partidas
were not mandatory until the Ordenamiento de Alcall in 1348, 139 and,
second, because it was the Black Death, also in 1348, that sparked
awareness about the need for greater domestic and collective

hygiene, 140 in a context where dirt was associated religiously and super-
stitiously with the fouling of air, land and bodies. The corruption of
nature had in the Middle Ages the double sense-equivalent and inter-
related but not very explicit in the sources-of the sinful nature of man
on one hand, and of nature physically stained by dirt and stench, on

the other.
In 1367, the king, holding out the threat of heavy fines, issued orders
to prevent the lettering of the backyard of the Church of Santa Maria
la Mayor in Zaragoza: ’[S]howing no respect to the divine offices
which are celebrated in the aforesaid church ... they throw rubbish,
relieve themselves, and leave there carcasses among other things ...
an unbearable stench during the religious services : The Councils’

prohibitions continued, along with the problem into the fifteenth

Killing and fishing more than it is necessary to live is seen as a sin against nature

(see fn. 134).

Alonso de Palencia, at the end of the Middle Ages, was outraged that peasants also
hunted: ’Behold those yokels! What formerly was privilege of very noble gentlemen,
now the rough peasants and men with no refinement whatsoever do not hesitate to

indulge in’: Prosistas castellanos del siglo XV, BAE no. 116: 348.
’Those who throw out of their windows water, bones, dung ... are very lightly
punished’ ... : Partidas; vol. VII: 15, 25.
Mar&iacute;a Paz Alonso, El proceso penal en castilla (siglos XIII-XVIII), Salamanca,
1982: 37.
Jean-Pierre Legay, La rue au Moyen Age, Rennes, 1984: 53-63.

century,141 and remained unsolved at the end of the sixteenth

Modern Nature
The transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age brought
about a new approach to nature by man, fuelled by the influx of bour-
geois traders in an essentially rural economy as well as the rise of cities
in an esssentially rural society. The development of the city was a chal-
lenge to nature, and proof of the capacity of man to dominate it.l43 In
the city, man lived free of the tyranny of nature, the oppresion of the
cold, the night, the famine. Of course, it is an exaggeration to make the
city into a sort Garden of Eden,144 but it is true that the medieval city
introduced remarkable transformations in mentality. There was a loss
of intimacy with nature, which was now beheld from a window, with
greater psychological distance, thus replacing the magic-marvellous
medieval vision by an aesthetic enjoyment and a desire to study it
empirically in order to dominate it better.145
Later it was society as a whole that shared this new attitude towards
the natural environment. The main charactistic of this attitude was to
seek the irreversible separation of man (subject) from nature (object).
From now on, irrational creatures were subject to no law (Francisco de
Vitoria, sixteenth century).&dquo; Superstitious mentality and medieval

de Alicante 441 (1414); Documentaci&oacute;n de A lba de Tormes: 255
Textos para la historia :
’[T]hat no person dares throw into fountains, troughs and pools, any dirt nor wash
there hides, clothing, meat, greens, fish ... No person must empty chamberpots into
fountains or pools ... Nor should they carry water in the chamberpots ... That no per-
son feed the swine in the street or square ... That no person throws water-clean or dirty

out of the window ... That all persons who throw water cease to do it ... That every
Saturday of every week everyone cleans any filth out of his door ... Nor rubbish nor
land nor any other thing is left at the barriers, or gates of the said city ... That the streets
be free from wood, stones and whatever other things, ’Ordenanzas de Santiago de
Compostela de 1569’, Bolet&iacute;n de la Real Academia Gallega, 1931: 32-34, 53, 71.
Jos&eacute; Luis Romero, La revoluci&oacute;n burguesa en el mundo feudal, Buenos Aires, 1967:
’Free for ever from death, they shall remain in eternal rest where there shall be
neither pain, nor disaster, nor sadness nor cold nor heat nor darkness nor night’: Serm&oacute;n
contra las Supersticiones Rurales
: 39.
Romero, la revoluci&oacute;n
: 426.
Restituto Sierra, El pensamiento social y econ&oacute;mico de la escoldstica, Madrid,
1975: 618.

religiosity, which were felt as something alive, were energically fought.

Such a mentality objectively slowed down the absolute domination of
nature through technology to ensure man’s advancement. This flight
was more successful in learned circles than in popular ones. The con-
cern to maintain the natural environment, typical of the Middle Ages,
was pushed into the background. Rationalism and the Enlightenment
thus prepared the path for the Industrial Revolution, the great protag-
onist of the most significant ecological restructuring ’of the natural
environment history in our planet’, the most outstanding consequence
of the substitution of religion by science and economy; and of God by
the market in the man-nature relationship. 147
Naive notions such infinite progress or unlimited natural

resources underlie the ideology of the conquest of nature, which


has had a profound ecological impact on Western societies. The initia-

tives against the deforestation of Europe and America, going back to
the mid-nineteenth century, have had little success: the plundering of
natural resources and the rise in pollution have got diversified at an
ever-increasing rate.’48 Modern science implies an astonishing develop-
ment in our knowledge of nature, but a similarly astonishing step
backwards in our understanding of the ecological consequences of our
actions: ’[R]eligion and tradition as resource utilisation ideologies are
perharps better adapted to face a situation of imperfect knowledge
than one of ostensible &dquo;scientific&dquo; management’.’49
The quick, ever-increasing deterioration of the natural environment
has given rise-over the last few years-to a strong ecological move-
ment which seeks to discover whether there was an ecological aware-
ness in the past. It is disappointing that some writers answer this

question in the negative,150 as opposed to the natural-environment

historians mentioned in this essay.
If we understand ecological awareness as an awareness of the risks
created by human activity in environmental terms and consequently a
preparedness to protect nature, then such a mentality not only existed
earlier but also it is worth noting that, any past period has been better
Molina, Historia y medio ambiente: 45, 63, 70.
Guha and Gadgil, ’Los habitats en la historia de la humanidad’: 87.
.: 94-95.
Joachim Radkau, ’Qu&eacute; es la historia del medio ambiente?’, Ayer, no. 11, 1993: 130;
Piero Bevilacqua, ’Las pol&iacute;ticas ambientales: qu&eacute; pasado? Algunas reflexiones’, Ayer,
no. 11, 1993: 148; usually historians who have actually studied the issue give an affirma-

tive answer: Cipolla, Historia econ&oacute;mica de la europa Preindustrial: 123.


than our contempary age in this context. This is especially true of the
Middle Ages, and generally speaking, of any non-predatory society regu-
lated by natural economies. It has been said that the reason why, in
the Middle Ages, the ecological impact was so moderate is to be found
in the absence of technical means necessary to provoke an ecologic dis-
aster. There lies the heart of the problem. We project our current eco-
nomistic hyper-rationalist mentalities on to the past without realising
that medieval man thought not so much in economic terms as in terms
of religion and magic, however difficult it is for us to understand it.
The man-nature interface in the Middle Ages had more to do with
mentality than with economy. This was also true for the scholastics.
That is why the historian of mentalities does not find traces of human
domination over medieval nature (the image of nature that emerges
from the sources remains that of a dominating rather than dominated
factor). Such traces are not valued because they are seen as quotidian,
routine. Nature was much more than a plot of land or a stretch of sea
used by peasants or fishermen to earn their daily bread. It was the
work of God and inseparable from man. It had a soul, and it yielded
marvellous things. How was it possible to attack it with impunity?
What purpose would it serve if it yielded, by divine mandate, its fruits
to man? To be sure, the man-nature relationship was not idyllic, but
was this not what God had planned on expelling Adam and Eve from

Paradise? And, likewise, were the relationships among men not con-
flicting ones (feuds, war and revolts)? Man was the friend and foe of
man in the same way that he was the friend and foe of nature. Did this
not create a unique ecosystem? The protection of nature on the part of
medieval man stemmed from a powerful instict for self-preservation.
Will the men and women of the twenty-first century be able to recover
it, mutatis mutandis?