Renaissance and Reformation Environment and the Natural World
Alix Cooper
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0187


Over the course of the early modern period, Europeans came to look at, engage with, and even transform nature and the environment in new ways, as they studied natural objects, painted landscapes, drew maps, built canals, cut down forests, and transferred species from one continent to another. The term “nature” meant many things during this period, from the inmost essence of something to those parts of the world that were nonhuman, such as the three famous “kingdoms” of nature: the animal, the vegetable, and the mineral. This article focuses on nature in this latter sense and broadens it out to include more recent understandings of the modern term “environment,” so as to encompass not only plants, animals, and rocks but also entire landscapes. Scholars from a wide variety of fields, ranging from the histories of science, art, and literature through historical geography, historical archeology, historical ecology, and landscape history, have long been interested in issues related to the environment and the natural world; more recently, they have been joined by practitioners of “environmental history” and additional branches of the environmental humanities and social sciences, who have drawn on these preexisting approaches and brought still further perspectives to the table.

General Overviews

Quite a few authors have surveyed the history of attitudes toward the natural world; examples include the venerable Glacken 1967, Thomas 1983, and more recently Coates 1998. Others have used the concept of “landscape” as a lens, such as Schama 1995 and Whyte 2002. When it was first published, Merchant 1980 provided a pioneering interdisciplinary synthesis of the history of science, environmental history, and gender history, focusing specifically on the early modern period. Richards 2003 and Reith 2007 represent more recent attempts by environmental historians to bring together scholarship on the changes that affected the environment and the natural world during the early modern period.

  • Coates, Peter. Nature: Western Attitudes since Ancient Times. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

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    Brief and readable chronologically organized survey of ideas about the natural world from ancient Greece and Rome onwards, with useful chapters on the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

  • Glacken, Clarence J. Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

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    A giant, almost encyclopedic work which lays out in great detail many of the ideas that shaped Renaissance and Reformation thinking about the natural world. Excellent, though quite lengthy, multichapter sections on “The Christian Middle Ages” and “Early Modern Times.”

  • Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980.

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    A provocative work which argues that the early modern period overturned previous attitudes toward nature, far more respectful toward “Mother Earth,” in favor of activities like mining and land drainage which represented a far more active and domineering human attitude toward nature.

  • Pounds, N. J. G. “Renaissance Europe.” In An Historical Geography of Europe. By N. J. G. Pounds, 214–249. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511572265.013Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Surveys the state of European landscapes around 1500, with frequent helpful maps. Preceding and subsequent chapters also well worth reading.

  • Reith, Reinhold. Umweltgeschichte der frühen Neuzeit. Munich: Oldenbourg, 2007.

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    Offers an overview and detailed bibliography (mainly in German and English) of research to date on early modern European environments, with particular attention to themes such as climate and the “Little Ice Age,” natural catastrophes, epidemics, the forest, energy, the city, and sustainability and natural resources. Even those with no German reading ability may profitably consult the bibliography for its many English-language citations.

  • Richards, John F. The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

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    Based on case studies from Europe and other regions, sets out the view that the early modern period was a time of intensified human land use; biological invasions linked to increasing human mobility; widespread depletion of larger animals, birds, and marine mammals; and, more generally, increasing scarcity and uncertainty.

  • Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. New York: Knopf, 1995.

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    Thematically organized study of (primarily) European visions of forests, waters, and mountains in many different regional and chronological contexts, quite a few of which relate to the Renaissance and Reformation.

  • Thomas, Keith. Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England, 1500–1800. London: Allen Lane, 1983.

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    Important work which argues that attitudes toward the natural world, which Thomas portrays as (in 1500 in England) being predominantly centered on human domination over nature, gradually shifted over the next several centuries to reveal a greater interest in and understanding of the natural world in its own right. Later republished in the United States with the subtitle “A History of the Modern Sensibility.”

  • Whyte, Ian. “Early Modern Landscapes.” In Landscape and History since 1500. By Ian Whyte, 27–69. London: Reaktion, 2002.

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    Presents a short and easily accessible overview of European landscapes in 1500; the ways in which they were affected by agricultural, technological, and other developments over the next several centuries; and changing views about them.

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