Pope Francis and the Traditions of Medieval Environmentalism

This is a guest post written by Ellen Arnold, PhD. Arnold is Assistant Professor of History at Ohio Wesleyan University and author of  Negotiating the Landscape: Environment and Monastic Identity in the Medieval Ardennes. Follow her on Twitter. Read more of her work on this site here.

The capacity to imagine a “whole earth”—fragile, surrounded by emptiness, is not ours alone

Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change has caught the world’s attention. Here in the US, this has brought new attention to the role of the church in science and the legitimacy of faith leaders engaging with economic and ecological issues. This has put the Catholic Church’s relationship with environmentalism in the news—but that relationship is nothing new.

As many will undoubtedly point out in the coming days, Pope Francis named himself after a medieval saint closely associated with environmentalism. Yet too much attention on this tie, and on St. Francis himself, may be a bad thing. Our modern conversations about St. Francis of Assisi make him seem exceptional—he is a proto-hippie and proto-ecologist. He has become the lone medieval lover of nature (the Johnny Appleseed of the Middle Ages)—mythologized out of his context.

This clouds the ways that almost all medieval saints were connected to local environments and to the protection of God’s creation. Medieval saints, scholars, and everyday Christians cared about nature, wrote about nature, and thought deeply about their environment. They recognized the fragility of the earth and valued nature as God’s creation. The history of ties between the medieval church and care for the natural world is deeper and richer than we imagine. As we engage with Francis’ encyclical, we need to recognize that the Catholic Church is not new to the table on this, and that older ideas are worth revisiting and revising as we look to chart a way forward.

In many ways, the way we live in and with nature is radically different from that of the past—we have created new problems (acid rain, ozone depletion, and artificial toxins). We use resources on massively different scales, and have radically altered our energy regime (extractive and non-renewable materials dominate global energy landscapes). We have also overcome many things that used to endanger human survival (the eradication of smallpox and the invention of plastic have saved millions of human lives).

Yet though the scale of our interactions with nature might have changed, we share with medieval people (and the medieval church) more common environmental concerns than we might expect. Medieval people did not live in an Edenic “balance” with nature—they, like us, practiced large-scale, profit-driven agriculture, stretched land beyond its limits, over-exploited fuel resources (such as peat and coal), and developed complex and fragile food systems to feed expanding cities. Yet they also (like us) believed that people could alter their environments in ways that made them more “useful” or “healthful” for human communities. They planted orchards, created massive systems for diverting water resources to run sewage systems, raised fish in artificial ponds to keep steady food supplies, and regulated urban pollution to protect the health of both rivers and people.

Medieval people were also not ignorant of environmental risk—they were aware that land was limited, that droughts could hit, and that forests could disappear. Medieval land managers developed practices to expand the longevity of natural resources, and to protect the resources they controlled. Almost every medieval forest, for example, had large sections that were “coppiced”—a practice in which people harvest the branches and shoots of a tree and then wait for them to regrow. Medieval kings also established Europe’s first “national parks” when they created protected forest zones that privileged wildlife habitat.

Finally, the capacity to imagine a “whole earth”—fragile, surrounded by emptiness, is not ours alone.

Gautier de Metz’s Image du Monde
(BL MS Harley 334)

Ancient and medieval thinkers knew that the earth was both round and finite. Medieval monks, scientists, and theologians alike recognized that it was also fragile, and unique. Today, we express that uniqueness by evoking Earthrise (for example in this article)–in the past, they expressed this through stories of creation, and images of the world as made and then protected by God. Medieval representations of the earth (1) show it as not simply bestowed upon humanity alone, but, quite literally, in the hands of God (2).

Today, we tend to view life in the Middle Ages as nasty, brutish, and short. We assume that nature was the adversary, that there was no sense of the beauty of nature and little appreciation for abstract contemplation of nature. But medieval people noticed birdsong, commented on the marvelous ranges of colors and smells of wildflowers, cultivated ornamental trees and plants, and kept exotic birds and animals. They saw in the colors of flowers, the behavior of animals, and the qualities of birds signs about God’s creation and moral lessons to instruct people on the right ways of living in the world. Though medieval people might not have talked about the value of nature in quite the same ways we do, they did have an appreciation for nature’s bounty and balance, and an awareness of how easily disrupted both were.

Many may be surprised to learn that Pope Francis has a Master’s degree in Chemistry, because of the American assumption of not only a separation of church and state, but also of church and science. But that assumption is a false one, one, largely a cultural and historical construct produced in the 18th and 19th centuries. The medieval church championed science, actively managed resources, and thought about how human work impacts nature. Medieval monastic scholars preserved, read, and wrote extensive commentaries on the scientific works of antiquity. They also produced their own.

Bishop Isidore of Seville wrote the world’s first encyclopedia. The 7th-8th century saint and scholar Bede wrote biblical commentaries and also “On the Reckoning of Time” and “On the Nature of Things,” as well as compiling precise tide-tables. Bestiaries from the twelfth century, famous today for their fantastical animals, were compendiums of natural history and strove to explain the web of human and animal life. Monastic communities throughout Europe were at the forefront of agricultural technologies and engineering advancements. They maintained agricultural production and managed lands across vast territories and across centuries. They also developed the modern university, pursuing knowledge of the seven liberal arts and working to better understand and value God’s creation.

In the Christian faith (modern and medieval), failure and the recognition of our responsibility for failure is a necessary step to salvation. Human knowledge of the Fall is necessary for salvation, just like awareness of the natural limits of resources is necessary for ideas of sustainability to develop. But as Pope Francis writes, faith (and progressive action on global climate change) requires more than blame and guilt: “Faith likewise offers the possibility of forgiveness, which so often demands time and effort, patience and commitment.” (3)

If, encouraged by Francis, we work “to respect nature all the more, and to discern in it a grammar written by the hand of God and a dwelling place entrusted to our protection and care,” we may be able to ally science and faith more fully. If we can step beyond a modern understanding of the isolation of scientific inquiry to a sphere separate from faith and history, more people may understand and embrace the purpose and value of science. If we can drop our restricted (and negative) view of the deep relationship between Christianity and ecology, we may be able to yield more converts to conservation and ecological concern, and help heal our communities, or souls, and our environment.


(1) Fifteenth-century manuscript of Gautier de Metz’s Image du Monde (BL MS Harley 334)

(2) Codex Vindenbonensis 2554, 12th cent. Bible Moralisee

(3) Pope Francis: quotes (6/29/13, no. 55) http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catholic-social-teaching/upload/pope-francis-quotes.pdf

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