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

Keith Thomas

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Book Description

Sep 1996
Throughout the ages man has struggled with his perceived place in the natural world. The idea of humans cultivating the Earth to suit specific needs is one of the greatest points of contention in this struggle. 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? At no time were these questions addressed as pointedly and with such great consequence as in England between the sixteenth and late eighteenth centuries. "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. "New sensibilities arose toward animals, plants, and landscape. The relationship of man to other species was redefined; and his right to exploit those species for his own advantage was sharply challenged."
Man and the Natural World aims not just to explain present interest in preserving the environment and protecting the rights of animals, but to reconstruct an earlier mental world. 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. Here, for example, Thomas illustrates the changing attitudes toward the woodlands. John Morton observed in 1712, "In a country full of civilized inhabitants" timber could not be "suffered to grow. 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. The use of human names for animals, the fact that pets were rarely eaten, though not for gastronomic reasons, and pets being included in family portraits and often fed better than the servants all demonstrated a major shift in man's position on human uniqueness.
The issues raised in this fascinating work are even more alive today than they were just ten years ago. 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. These issues have much to offer not only environmental activists, but historians as well, for it is impossible to disentangle what the people of the past thought about plants and animals from what they thought about themselves.

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"This book has two great charms. One is the almost incredible wealth of supporting detail....The other charm is closely related. Mr. Thomas has a gift for apt quotation. One hears a thousand or more voices in his book."--The New York Times Book Review

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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Interesting Study of Our Relationship Towards Nature 10 Dec 2004
By Daniel R. Sanderman - Published on Amazon.com
Keith Thomas's _Man and the Natural World_ is a nice text for anyone interested in the history of England's changing attitudes towards animals and the environment. Thomas notices an interesting shift. At one time, the language of Genesis dominated England's relationship to the natural world. The earth was put here, by God, for our cultivation and for us to rule over like kings. Yet, in the modern world, we take a much different approach, choosing to value natural resources and understand ourselves as a mere part of the natural order and not nature's master. (Of course, certain sects of society, and administration's, seem to cling onto a biblical understanding of humankind's place in the natural world, but no one can doubt the general shift in thinking). Naturally the question arises: how on earth did we move, as a society, from one viewpoint to the other?

It is this question that occupies the rest of Thomas's work, as he examines it from various angles. Thomas carefully shows how our modern views towards nature are not as modern as we might imagine, but rather start taking form in the sixteenth century and start steamrolling up to the present. As noted in his own introduction and other reviews, Thomas delves into the history of England by examining literary sources, often regarded as problematic sources for historical studies, in order to try and reconstruct the attitudes of England during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and nineteenth centuries.

I enjoyed Thomas's style. It is easy to read and quite accessible to a general audience. One does not need to know anything about the topic in order to digest this work. Yet Thomas also manages to pack it with a wide variety of quotes and secondary sources, providing a springboard for further study. Thus, _Man and the Natural World_ is both an ideal text for interested students and a nice read for anyone with a casual interest in Western civilization's relationship with the natural world.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Unique Study, but no Masterpiece 28 April 2004
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Sir Keith Thomas is one of the giants of English history. He was a pioneer in the use of anthropology in historical research and has produced important work on the double standard, literary, numeracy, witchcraft, and even a short life of James Oglethorpe, founder of Georgia. His Religion and the Decline of Magic remains a great work, despite being over thirty years old and despite the mass of subsequent work on witchcraft and popular religion.
Man and the Natural World has the same feel as his earlier work. Thomas holds his topic in his hand, examines it for a paragraph and then turns it slightly to reveal a new facet. His transitions from one idea to the next are smooth and easy, giving one the impression that they have a full and well-rounded picture of some aspect of the mental world of early modern England. In Religion and the Decline of Magic the reader feels that everything has been explained and that church, superstition, material conditions, public health and popular culture all fit together in a complex but comprehensible whole. Man and the Natural World does not produce the same air of authority. It takes a broad view of the rise of modern conservationism, ranging from the late middle ages well into the nineteenth century, and Thomas' wide variety of sources is dazzling. Yet the reader probably already knows the punchline - the modern love of nature goes hand in hand with its subjugation and destruction.
This book derives from a series of lectures given at Cambridge. It is not therefore intended for a popular audience, but it is nevertheless an easy read. Thomas' point is clear even if one has never heard of the author he quotes, so little background information is necessary. Thus, anyone interested in nature, environmentalism, humane treatment of animals or vegetarianism will find this book an interesting and accessible discussion of these ideologies' development. Those with a more specialized interest in English social and cultural history will find this an important treatment of a neglected subject, but not a masterpiece on the order of Religion and the Decline of Magic.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Rich History in Search of Progress 31 Jan 2012
By Richard Reese (author of Sustainable or Bust) - Published on Amazon.com
Keith Thomas published Man and the Natural World in 1983. It was based on a series of lectures by the famous English historian George Macaulay Trevelyan (1876-1962), an upper class outdoorsman who was sickened by how the Industrial Revolution was mutilating the natural world, and ruining a precious spiritual resource.

The subject of the book was how the relationship between humans and the natural world changed in England between 1500 and 1800, and Thomas documented these changes with fascinating thoroughness. Prior to 1500 was the medieval era, a time of endless turbulence, bizarre superstition, and devastating plagues. 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.

The period between 1500 and 1800 was also a time of explosive change. Europe was being flooded with vast wealth and cheap food from a network of new colonies. The rising age of modern science was reshaping our perception of the world, leaving obsolete religious beliefs in its dust. Population was exploding, the human realm was spreading across the countryside, and England was speeding toward the elimination of nature. It was three centuries of growth that enriched the greedy, exploited the powerless, and tormented tender-hearted nature lovers.

When Trevelyan delivered his lectures prior to World War II, he was deeply pessimistic about the future. He fantasized that before 1800, the works of man had only added to the beauty of nature. After 1800, the process reversed course and became rapid destruction. His lectures tried to present the era between 1500 and 1800 as a time of awakening, of gradually spreading changes in awareness. Unfortunately, the improvements that he noted did not change the course of civilization.

In 1500, the English commonly treated animals in a brutal manner -- not because they were jerks, but because the notion of being respectful of animals had never occurred to them. 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. So, the lords kicked the peasants, and the peasants kicked the critters. Horses were often worked to death, and then pushed into the ditch to feed the ravenous packs of mangy dogs.

Thomas presented a theory that the miserable loneliness of growing urbanization created a pet fad, and that close contact with submissive doggies and kitties showed us that animals were not dumb lumps of walking meat. Because of this new sensitivity, many people became more aware of animal abuse. This led to the creation of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824. Some came to believe that the killing of any animal was wrong, and these became vegetarians. Thomas was sympathetic with the fair treatment of animals, but he was taken aback by those who referred to the deliberate systematic extermination of wolves as a holocaust.

Most of the book examined the relationship between humans and animals. But Thomas also discussed the countryside, the green world. Prior to 1500, forests were extensive. They were home to scary animals and mean outlaws. Deforestation was seen as beneficial, converting wild chaos into civilized order. Both farmers and industry rapidly gobbled up the trees, and as the forests vanished, people began to regard the survivors with increasing fondness. Laws were passed to protect them, and to encourage tree planting.

In 1500, cities were the hip place to be. By 1800, they had become filthy, crowded, and creepy. Urban living inspired a growing number of people to escape to the countryside whenever possible. Over the years, a trickle turned into a torrent, and the nobility became alarmed that their country estates would soon be surrounded by a rash of tourist traps. They opposed new railroads in their homelands.

Wildness became trendy. Geometric gardens were out, as were identical trees planted in straight lines. Weeds were in. Landscaping that resembled wild nature was totally cool. Artists got rich painting gorgeous panoramas showing little or no evidence of human society.

Trevelyan's pessimism was sane and reasonable. In the years following 1800, nature has taken her worst pounding ever, and animal misery has reached breathtaking new heights. There has never been a generation more isolated from the natural world than our own. 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.

Today we are suffering in the final decades of a tragic experiment with fossil powered civilization. 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. The future will be filled with animals once again. We will have no choice but to live in a radically different manner. Many horrid habits will be impossible to continue.

This book is a feast of material for creative people who are busy imagining the new stories and visions that will inspire the herd to wander in healthier directions. It provides us with perspective on how trends have flailed and floundered over the centuries, and it helpfully marks numerous approaches as failures. Attempts to reform civilization have enjoyed little success -- its swift currents always sweep away intelligent ideas.

Obviously, the only "solution" for the problem of industrial civilization is to summon a priest to perform the last rites, and then take it off life support. We have been stumbling and staggering for centuries, lost and confused. 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. Go for it!

Richard Adrian Reese
Author of What Is Sustainable
5.0 out of 5 stars insightful history 10 May 2011
By Just Me - Published on Amazon.com
tidbit from this book, showing insightfulness, "the rise of the cult of the roast beef of England closely paralleled the decline of the ox as a working animal" -- as noted by Simon Fairlie in Meat: A Benign Experiment, another great book.
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