Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800

Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800

by Keith Thomas

Throughout the ages man has struggled with his perceived place in the natural world.

For how would have civilization progressed, if not by the clearance of the forests, the cultivation of the soil, and the conservation of wild landscape into human settlement?

Yet what of the healing powers of unexploited nature, its long-term importance in the perpetuation of human civilization, and the inherent beauty of wild scenery?

"Between 1500 and 1800 there occurred a whole cluster of changes in the way in which men and women, at all social levels, perceived and classified the natural world around them," explains Keith Thomas.

Thomas seeks to expose the assumptions beneath the perceptions, reasonings, and feelings of the inhabitants of early modern England toward the animals, birds, vegetation, and physical landscape among which they spent their lives, often in conditions of proximity which are now difficult for us to appreciate.

It was a time when a conviction of man's ascendancy over the natural world gave way to a new concern for the environment and sense of kinship with other species.

It must give way to fields and pastures, which are of more immediate use and concern to life." Shortly thereafter, in 1763, Edwin Lascelles pronounced the "The beauty of a country consists chiefly in the wood." People's relationships with animals were also in the process of dramatic change as seen in their growing obsession with pet keeping.

Preserving the environment, saving the rain forests, and preventing the extinction of species may seem like fairly recent concerns, however, Man and the Natural World explores how these ideas took root long ago.

  • Language: English
  • Category: History
  • Rating: 4.09
  • Pages: 332
  • Publish Date: October 1st 1996 by Oxford University Press, USA
  • Isbn10: 0195111222
  • Isbn13: 9780195111224

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Keith Thomas published Man and the Natural World in 1983. The subject of the book was how the relationship between humans and the natural world changed in England between 1500 and 1800. After 1800 came the hurricane of the Industrial Revolution, the world wars, the brief era of cheap and abundant energy, and the tsunami of hysterical insatiable consumers. Population was exploding, the human realm was spreading across the countryside, and England was speeding toward the elimination of nature. When Trevelyan delivered his lectures prior to World War II, he was deeply pessimistic. The church had programmed society to believe that humans inhabited the realm between angels and brutes, and that nature was created for the use of man. Most of the book examined the relationship between humans and animals. In the years following 1800, nature has taken her worst pounding ever, and animal misery has reached breathtaking new heights. With his book, Thomas gave us a revealing glimpse into a forgotten era when life was filled with animals, a time when civilization was muscle powered, and every breath was sweetened with the intoxicating aroma of steaming fresh manure. Sane people eagerly await the year when the lights go out, the cell phones die, the machines go silent, and we return to a muscle powered way of life the end of a long, miserable, stunningly destructive war on life, and the beginning of a much needed healing process. Many powerful new stories will be needed to help us remember what it means to be human, to remember the long-forgotten treasure of wildness and freedom, to remember what it feels like to be fully alive.

In Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800, historian Keith Thomas argued that English sentiments regarding the natural world progressed from exploitation in the sixteenth century to conservation in the nineteenth. According to scripture, God created each animal and plant to serve man and subordinate to his wishes and needs. However, Thomas was careful to point out that this uncompromisingly aggressive view of mans place in the natural world was by no means representative of all opinion in early modern England. The natural world existed for its own sake, independent of the needs of humans. Of course, humans day-to-day experiences with animals conflicted with the theological view of nature. Englishmen lived and worked with animals on a daily basis, not just because there were much more of them at the time, but also because they depended on them so much for food, labor, and companionship. On one hand, the examples were often entertaining and they provided a broader look into society in England at the time. Overall, Man and the Natural World is an excellent work and an interesting read. It shows how our contemporary debate over conservation and exploitation of the natural world is not unique to our time.

I did not actually intend to read this thing, not entirely.

For this wandering beyond his self-imposed bounds, he can be readily forgiven, for what he has produced in this volume is an illuminating guide to popular and learned beliefs relating to the animal and vegetable worlds in early modern England, and how general views relating to these non-human domains shifted during the period in question. Nonetheless, Thomas is able to identify and highlight broad trends and shifts in general attitudes between 1500 and 1800, which to a significant extent are expressive of the early conquest and domination of the natural world in England.