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Keith Thomas

Man and the Natural World

Changing Attitudes in England 1500–1800

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
It is becoming almost a chiché today to say that we are living through the sixth great extinction, in which an ever-increasing number of species are being driven to extinction by human activity. The writer and broadcaster David Attenborough has acquired the status of conscience of the nation by making television documentaries that bring home to a wide audience the effects of our way of life on the natural world. The latest example is his demonstration of pollution of the oceans by a deluge of plastic that is proving lethal to many of their inhabitants. The widespread media attention that all this gets today may make us think it is a modern phenomenon, but Thomas shows that its roots go back to the early modern period, when profound changes in outlook occurred.

In Tudor and Stuart England there was a long-established opinion that the world had been created for the sake of humans, and other species existed to provide for our needs and pleasures. Attitudes to animals largely depended on how well they fulfilled their appointed role. They might be useful for work, as in the case of dogs and horses, or they could provide food, as did pigs and poultry; some, such as oxen, could perform both roles. As for wild animals, some could be eaten, but others, such as rats, mice, and foxes, could not and in fact were merely a nuisance; these were 'vermin' and needed to be destroyed.

The story Thomas tells is how and why this view changed in the period under review, until it became almost the direct opposite of what it had been at the outset. There were many reasons for this, but an important one was the movement of the population from from rural to urban. In the early years of the period most people would have seen a wide range of different animals continually in their daily lives, but by the end of it such encounters would be much less frequent, although still more widespread than is the case today. This caused people to think of animals in a different way.

Much of the discussion is concerned with cruelty, which was widespread at the beginning of the period and was often horrific. Some of this was incidental cruelty; horses and oxen were frequently beaten unmercifully to make them work, but this was due to indifference to animal suffering rather than malice. Some, however was based on a desire to inflict pain as an amusement; and many men indulged in pastimes or 'sports' such as cock-fighting or the baiting of bears and other animals. Thomas doesn't spare us ample descriptions of all this. But even in the early part of the period there were exceptional people who saw things differently, and as time went by their number increased, until their way of thinking and feeling became the norm. Cruel sports, with the notable exception of fox-hunting, were progressively outlawed. This was a profound change.

By the later seventeenth century the anthropocentric tradition itself was being eroded. The explicit acceptance of the view that the world does not exist for man alone can be fairly regarded as one of the great revolutions in modern Western thought, although it is one to which historians have scarcely done justice.
One manifestation of this new sensibility was the development of vegetarianism. At first this was a very small movement, largely inspired by classical texts, and most converts to the cause, such as the young James Boswell, soon slipped back; but it grew progressively throughout the eighteenth century. Even those who continued to eat meat became increasingly squeamish about its implications; slaughterhouses were kept out of sight and attempts were made to kill animals more humanely. It was now felt necessary to justify meat-eating on ethical grounds and some rather dubious arguments were advanced for this purpose. As a lapsed vegetarian myself I found this rather uncomfortable reading.

The book focuses mainly on how people thought about animals, but it also looks on changing attitudes to trees and flowers. And there is a discussion of landscape which I found particularly interesting.

At the beginning of the period wild country, and especially mountains, were thought to be useless and were seen as places to avoid if possible; people who lived there were looked down on as barbarous. But the later seventeenth century saw a growth in nature mysticism and the beginning of mountain climbing as recreation. Thomas thinks that this was largely a reaction against the domestication of much of the land by gardeners and agriculturalists.

Once the new sensibility to wild landscape began it spread rapidly, taking on a quasi-religious tone._'Nature was not only beautiful; it was morally healing.'

By the end of the eighteenth century…the old preference for cultivated and man-dominated landscape had been decisively challenged. Encouraged by the ease of travel and by immunity from direct involvement in the agricultural process, the educated classes had come to attach an unprecedented importance to the contemplation of landscape and the appreciation of rural scenery.
This attitude in turn led to a desire to preserve the wild landscape in its pristine form.
What was notable about this new taste was was that the scenery which was most particularly admired was no longer the fertile, productive landscape, but the wild and romantic one. Henceforth there would be a growing concern to preserve uncultivated nature as an indispensable spiritual resource.
This concern is still very much alive today, and is being debated in the context of the National Parks; how far should they be 'left to nature'?. It is one aspect of the wider problem of how to reconcile modern civilisation with nature, which the people in the early modern period were already beginning to be troubled about.
On the one hand they saw an incalculable increase in the comfort and increasing well-being of human beings; on the other they perceived a ruthless exploitation of other forms of animal life. There was thus a growing conflict between the new sensibilities and the material foundations of human society. A mixture of compromise and concealment has so far prevented this conflict from having been fully resolved. But the issue cannot be completely evaded and can be relied upon to recur. It is one of the contradictions on which modern civilization may be said to rest. About its ultimate consequences we can only speculate.


%T Man and the Natural World
%S Changing _Attitudes in England 1500–1800
%A Thomas, Keith
%I Allen Lane
%C London
%D 1983
%G ISBN 07139 1227 8
%P 426pp
%K history

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