What did medieval people think about the natural world? And, considering the fact that most of the written sources we have for the early Middle Ages were written by people in the religious life, what did priests, monks and nuns think of it?
Unsurprisingly, more or less everything in medieval Christian literature tends to relate most things back to God, heaven and the Christian life. So, for example, bestiaries are a handguide to the animals of the world, giving a description of each animal and its behaviour, and explaining how it acts as a metaphor for human behaviour. Monastic history is full of examples of people being urged to turn their backs on pleasure of various kinds. And of course the medieval church predates the Romantic preoccupation with nature by some way. So: did medieval monastics take any pleasure in the natural world?
Whenever I think over this issue, I call to mind a little text that I read when I started studying for my MA, a short description of the monastery of Clairvaux, which has been translated by Pauline Matarasso for a Penguin Classics edition of texts by Cistercian monks. The Cistercian movement was founded around the start of the twelfth century by Robert of Molesme, with its first monastery being at Cîteaux near Dijon in eastern France; but in its early days it was heavily popularised by the charismatic St Bernard, a monk of the abbey of Clairvaux, which was a daughter house of Cîteaux. The movement rapidly spread across Europe: the big abbeys of Fountains, Rievaulx and Jervaulx in Yorkshire were all Cistercian foundations. The Cistercians were motivated by a desire to get back to basics, to return to the original teachings of St Benedict in his sixth-century blueprints for monasticism, and to practise an austere way of life, with a renewed emphasis on manual labour to produce their own food. As a consequence, their monasteries tended to be founded in rural, out-of-the-way places, which could be turned into productive land to support the community.
The little text which I mentioned above is known as the Descriptio Positionis seu Situationis Monasterii Clarae-vallensis (Description of the Position or Location of the Monastery of Clairvaux), and an edition of the Latin text can be found in the Patrologia Latina, vol. 185, columns 570-74. It appears to have been written by a member of the Clairvaux community, or at least by someone who was familiar with the monastery.
The writer describes the orchards, the valley, and most of all the river Aube, which flows through the abbey’s land, watering the crops, providing fish, and aiding the monks in their work in the mill and tannery.
This landscape has been created by God, but it is not a pristine wilderness, untouched by human hands: this is not the sensibility of the medieval writer. Instead, it has been worked upon and recreated by the monks. One side of the valley has been planted with vines, the other with crops, and the monks must work to clear away dead wood, catch fish, and run the mill. Yet they do not need to labour too hard, thanks to the obliging river, which is constantly anthropomorphised throughout the piece:
The stream does not demur, nor indeed refuse any request made of it. Instead, raising and lowering by turns the heavy pestles … it frees these brothers from their drudgery.
Matarasso, p. 289.
Almost the entire piece is shot through with the expression of sheer joy in the landscape in which the monks are lucky to live. A sick man can sit upon the grass and be comforted by the environment around him: shaded from the sun by trees, with sweet fruit hanging from the branches, he watches the fish playing in the river, and enjoys the song of the birds.
Thus for a single illness God in his goodness provides many a soothing balm: the sky smiles serene and clear, the earth quivers with life, and the sick man drinks in, with eyes, ears and nostrils, the delights of colour, song and scent.
Matarasso, p. 288.
It is striking how the landscape around is valued both for its usefulness, as a means through which God can provide for the monks’ needs, and also for its inherent delightfulness.
And then, the writer tells us how a part of the meadow has been turned into a lake: where once farmworkers used to mow hay, now monks catch fish in a net:
The net destined to entangle the fish is spread under the water, and its favourite baits are set, but primed with a hidden hook to catch the unwary – an example which teaches us to spurn delights, for pleasure harms and suffering is its price. Only the man who has never sinned or never done true penance for sin can possibly ignore that the outcome of pleasure is pain. May God keep pleasure far removed from us – that pleasure at whose doorway death stands posted …
Matarasso, p. 291.
The writer compares pleasure to bees, bringers of honey followed by a painful sting, and then reverts to describing the layout of the lake and the streams connected to it, before the little piece comes to a close.
Considering how much of this text is given over to the expression of sheer joy in nature shaped by human hands, it can feel a little disconcerting to see the writer abruptly equating delight with sin. How should we interpret this? Is the writer condemning specific kinds of pleasure, or the experience of pleasure in general? As we have seen so abundantly in this little work, he displays deep enjoyment of the natural world, both for its satisfaction of his needs and also for its sheer beingness, from a specifically Christian viewpoint; and yet he has reason to believe that pleasure can make human beings unwary of the traps that the devil lays for them. This may not be so much of a paradox as it seems to a twenty-first century sensibility: the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was a strict ascetic yet also wrote astonishing poetry about the beauty and beingness inherent in all created things. Perhaps this delightful little text serves as a reminder that people from different eras looked at the world in ways which do not correspond easily to our modern categories.
Pauline Matarasso, ed., The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century. London: Penguin, 1993.
Descriptio Positionis seu Situationis Monasterii Clarae-vallensis, Patrologia Latina Database, http://pld.chadwyck.co.uk/, vol. 185, columns 570-74.