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GreeneryEcocritical Readings of Late Medieval English Literature$

Gillian Rudd

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780719072482

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: July 2012

DOI: 10.7228/manchester/9780719072482.001.0001

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Introduction: green reading

Introduction: green reading

Chapter:
(p.1) Introduction: green reading
Source:
Greenery
Author(s):

Gillian Rudd

Publisher:
Manchester University Press
DOI:10.7228/manchester/9780719072482.003.0001

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter introduces present green literary criticism that is used on late medieval texts and ecocritical literary study. It first tries to define the term ecocriticism and then addresses the issue of anthropocentrism. This chapter also tries to show an analogy between ecosystems and literary analysis, and takes a look at several texts that have been subjected to green criticism.

Keywords:   green literary criticism, late medieval texts, ecocritical literary study, ecocriticism, anthropocentrism, ecosystems, literary analysis, green criticism

The picture at the front of this book is of a small cottage which was originally a shrine to St Winifred in the hamlet of Woolston, not far from Oswestry in Shropshire.1 The shrine building dates from 1485, although the site itself has been regarded as holy since the twelfth century, when a well was reputed to have sprung from the spot where St Winifred's remains rested briefly en route from her burial site to Shrewsbury, where her relics were to be housed. St Winifred's Well, as it is now called, is not the famous well at Holywell, but it is dedicated to the same saint and the architecture of its humble cottage echoes that of the larger Holywell buildings. This lesser site has waxed and waned in popularity and the area immediately around it has changed concomitantly. Currently it is situated on a triangle of land, nestling quietly between working farms, with trees, hedges and a pool, fed by the spring which is still guided out from underneath the cottage through stone basins. A quiet public footpath runs through the plot, rather neatly separating the old cottage from the newly adapted pigsty which has been renovated to be a simple but nonetheless modern bathroom. Sitting in the doorway or on the edge of one of the basins it is possible to feel thoroughly surrounded, cocooned even, by the natural world. Tree-creepers, wrens, owls, goldcrests, toads, voles, shrews, harvest mice, kingfishers, swifts and bats all add to this feeling, and the careful restoration of the cottage itself to a quietly modified version of its fifteenth-century origins adds a sense of ‘stepping back in time’ which is frequently attested by the comments in the visitors’ log book. Nature, apparently untouched and undisturbed by the holidaymaker's presence, is all around.

St Winifred's Well encapsulates many of the paradoxical elements that cluster together in environmentalist thinking and (p.2) ecocriticism alike and epitomises my own interests in bringing current green literary criticism to bear on late medieval texts. The cottage occupies a geographical, environmental and commercial position made up of many of the contradictions inherent in our human relations with the non-human world. Its appeal lies in its apparent remoteness, but in fact it nestles on several different kinds of borders. Most immediately it is tucked between working farms, whose buildings are carefully screened from sight by trees and hedges cropped by their cattle. Regionally, it is situated in the borderlands of Wales and England and so partakes of both without being limited to either. It is a site where various reactions to and version of the natural world meet, blurring the division between spontaneous and man-made landscape. The spring itself is natural, occurring without human aid or intervention and is a constant source of fresh water, but now inaccessible to larger animals because of the buildings around it. The bathing basins and timber-framed cottage are not natural per se, but are constructed from natural materials, both originally and in its latest restoration by the Landmark Trust who now owns it (itself a reflection of modern interest in historical accuracy and environmental issues). Their existence reflects the natural human impulse to both sanctify and seek to contain natural sites like springs. Many of the trees have been deliberately planted, others encouraged, cut back or converted to hedges as human preference or need required. The pool in its current form is the result of human intervention, created by digging out the banks of the stream which ran from the well, but the wildlife that visits or lives in its environs has made its own way there – although it is now actively encouraged as enhancing the aesthetic and commercial appeal of the spot. Yet however much one detects artifice in even the most ‘untouched’ aspect of this place, here, as elsewhere, the influence of the non-human should also be acknowledged: the sycamore tree in the hawthorn hedge is likely to be fortuitous, even if ‘allowed’ to remain by the human custodians of the land. Human and non-human influences intertwine, and the non-human world is as ready to exploit us and the environs we create as we are it and them. Relations are fluid, depending on the species concerned and the time of year, but they are not entirely one-way. Many visitors bring animal companions, as I did, somewhat to the detriment of the rodent population, but arguably to the delight of the grasses (p.3) whose seeds are carried further afield by the coats of enthusiastic pets charging in and out of hedges new to them. Finally, the effects of such visits are carried away by the visitors and for a while at least affect how they view their usual environs and the stories they tell.

This last function raises questions about the purpose of preserving such places. Its carefully maintained lawn and pond could be cited as proof of humankind's inability to let the non-human world exist unless it has some value in human terms (here that of recreation) while also of giving humans the sense of being benign controllers. At the same time the array of wildlife, plant as well as animal, could be taken to show that is it not just humans for whom such pockets of land act as a refuge. Taking that line further, it becomes possible to argue that insisting that such places serve only a human purpose denies the non-human world autonomy and denigrates other species's evident ability to turn our manipulation of habitats to their advantage. Of course, this is by no means always the case: humans have destroyed a good deal in pursuit of their own convenience or pleasure, but in this particular case it is not possible to argue straightforwardly that human intervention has been bad for other forms of life. St Winifred's Well is thus simultaneously an example of humans imposing their preferred version of what is desirable on the non-human world, an instance of the seemingly innate human impulse to venerate the non-human world, and a demonstration of the resilience of the actual, real world in the face of human control. Most importantly all these elements coexist, however much they may seem to be at odds in the abstract. The result is a sense of unease, which, once noticed, is hard to allay, but which itself is a rich response, albeit one that makes it impossible to arrive at a single, unambiguous and uncompromised reaction to places such as this.

All of this is pertinent to ecocritical literary study. The questions raised and the contradictions foregrounded by considering the existence and effects of such places as St Winifred's Well are the same as those found when analysing texts in the light of current green concerns. Not all the questions are asked of the texts; some will highlight the contradictions inherent in green reading, but that is right. Ecocriticism cannot be a school that seeks to create and maintain a single, uniform outlook. Central to ecological thinking in general is a recognition of the importance of (p.4) diversity – of species, of environments and even of approach. Balance is achieved not through the eradication of one thing and the total dominance of another but by a constant movement of position that keeps everything in play, as now one thing takes precedence, now another, and each responds to the other elements, wittingly or not, in the constant shift of life and death, survival and extinction.

In this volume I explore some of the literary borderlands where human and non-human meet. The meeting grounds I have chosen are late medieval English texts, here presented as sites where modern ‘green’ concerns with how humans relate to, construct and inhabit the world coincide with how these things are articulated by medieval literary texts. Such ‘green reading’ is not, of course, to be confused with claims that any given text is itself ‘green’. Rather the chapters that follow should be regarded as essays in the true sense: explorations of ideas here conducted with the premiss that the arguments need to be led by what is in the individual texts themselves, with the aim of revealing what eco-criticism can bring to the fore that is usually either relegated to the background or simply overlooked altogether. In order to make this process more accessible I have elected to concentrate on mainstream texts thus providing some degree of shared and familiar territory for most readers. At the same time, working with material such as Chaucer's poetry, the works of the Pearl poet and Langland will show that green concerns are not restricted to texts that deal exclusively and obviously with human/non-human nature relations. That is not to say that green analysis of less well-known material should not be done, merely that it is not done here.

Which brings us to the question: what is ecocriticism? Rebecca Douglass has provided a succinct definition in her article ‘Ecocriticism and Middle English Literature’ where she says: ‘ecocriticism is reading with attention to treatments of nature, land, and place, informed by a desire to understand past and present connections between literature and human attitudes regarding the earth’(Douglass 1998: 138). This is certainly a place to start, but green reading goes beyond simply paying attention to how nature, land and place are treated in terms of representation. Close attention has already been paid to the role of landscape in literature in these terms, not least by Pearsall and Salter who (p.5) begin Landscapes and Seasons of the Medieval World (1973) with an assertion which simultaneously highlights the frequency with which landscape occurs in medieval romance and dismisses a large number of such appearances: ‘Where landscape has no symbolic purpose to fulfil, it hardly exists, except as a series of glimpses caught by the knight from the road, or the lady from the castle window’ (Pearsall and Salter 1973: 52). The kind of attention advocated by Douglass means that we do not allow even ‘glimpses’ of landscape to pass without comment, instead we ask the question: why is that particular unsymbolic glimpse of landscape included there? And we are not satisfied with an answer that accounts for such passing sightings in terms of adding local colour or even a touch of realism. Rather, ecocriticism calls upon us to recognise the extent to which, as Glen Love puts it, the ‘enveloping natural world is a part of the subject on the printed page before us [and] even when it is not, it remains as a given, a part of the interpretive context’ (Love 2003: 16). That interpretative context will include such questions as: how far humans are regarded part of the world, how far set apart from it; whether nature (or Nature) is seen in hierarchical terms or as made up of a vast array of different things each equally worthy; whether humans are stewards of nature with a duty to protect as well as use it, a privileged species who by nature and divine decree may exploit the world around with impunity, or simply one of a vast number of life forms, no more nor less valuable, albeit more capable of making a distinctive mark; what the effects are of regarding the non-human natural world as a reflection of the divine mind and sometimes a tool for divine retribution. The list is long and by no means homogeneous, nor do the items listed here exhaust it, but this version serves to indicate the reach and variety of topics explored by green reading.

Although the elements focused upon inevitably alter according to which text is being read, some concerns persist throughout. Chief amongst these is the issue of anthropocentrism. Buried within Douglass's ‘desire to understand past and present connections between literature and human attitudes regarding the earth’ is the admission that humans are too readily self-referential in their attitudes. Ecocriticism strives to move away from the anthropocentrism which creates and operates a value-system in which the only things that are seen, let alone valued, are those that (p.6) serve some kind of purpose in human terms. This in turn raises the difficulty of how we may speak for the Other (all that is not human) without either perpetuating the human/non-human divide or absorbing that Other into the human. Clearly to speak for it risks abrogating it into the human, the very thing ecological theory urges us to avoid, yet not to speak for it seems to relegate it to the realm of silence and thus render it invisible, again, a position greens seek to avoid. This debate is perhaps most clearly conducted in terms of anthropomorphism, and it has been tackled in these terms by both Jonathan Bate and Val Plumwood. Where Bate's main aim is to trace the rise of human awareness of the non-human as a valid Other, Plumwood explores the consequences of both adopting and rejecting anthropomorphism, finally arguing that such metaphorical habits may be the most effective ways humans have of attempting to apprehend and value the non-human world.2

Given that we are human it may be a fallacy to say we can ever move beyond the bounds of our own views of the world. Yet eco-criticism, like the green movement in general, believes that the attempt is worth the effort for the shift in attitudes and world-view it offers. Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring has been credited with starting the environmentalist and ecological movements, asserted that ‘the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction’ (1954).3 While for some that assertion may seem utopian, it has the virtue not only of advocating the kind of attention promoted by literary critics like Douglass but also of introducing the idea of wonder as a positive and valid response to the non-human world. For Carson, as for many others (green critics among them), wonders and realities are not opposites but two ways of describing the same thing. To acknowledge wonder is to acknowledge a sense of humility and also of integration of ourselves with the world as a whole. For the texts focused upon in this volume that world is also very clearly a created whole and, as the section on Hugh of St Victor and Piers Plowman illustrates, wonder is an appropriate and indeed necessary response; one that reveals proper attention to the Creation of which we are an integral part.

Understanding ourselves as constituent parts of a wider whole and further appreciating that this means that our actions (p.7) have consequences for all other elements of the world is part of the notion of interconnectedness that is central to green thinking. That is that species and elements that seem distinct are in fact bound by a web of connections, each dependent on others to greater or less degrees. None is truly able to function without the other, or at least not for long. Such thinking is now frequently presented under the short hand term ‘ecosystem’ and we are becoming accustomed to references to very small ecosystems, such as can be created by the close proximity of plants in a house or garden, and the much larger ecosystem that defines our world. It is not possible to exist outside an ecosystem of some sort and all things necessarily partake of the largest one of the planet as a whole. Even on a local level, where it is possible to say that particular individuals (human or other) are not part of a given system, it is still the case that their being outside it helps to define it.

Bringing Carson and Love together it is possible to see an analogy between ecosystems and literary analysis. The effects and applications of green reading reach from detailed close readings of passages embedded in larger texts to wider, general conclusions about habits of thought, representation or attitude. As with current ecological and environmental debates, the two may conflict with each other, as what emerges from a close reading may be at odds with the evident general attitudes of the larger text, yet that does not mean that either the micro or macro interpretation is wrong. It merely shows that the two coexist. This recognition is particularly liberating for ecocriticism as it allows it to explore texts that are not overtly ‘about’ nature. Indeed, although ecocriticism can be said to have its roots in the study of American nature writing or the British Romantics, it is now reaching into every genre and period. As the title of Armbruster and Wallace's 2001 collection of essays indicates, ecocriticism is expanding Beyond Nature Writing.

As the range of texts subjected to green criticism is increased, a debate about ecocritical methodology comes to the fore.4 In part this is due to an understandable desire to get away from being boxed into dealing only with descriptions of landscape in literature, but it also reflects the range of disciplines ecocriticism draws upon, each with its own established methods of investigation. Thus philosophy, literary criticism and scientific exposition jostle (p.8) each other in arguments over what kind of methodology green readers should adopt.5 Such diversity is welcome. Ecocriticism has its roots in the ethical and political concerns of ecology and environmentalism. Like feminism, therefore, it draws its energy from a clutch of attitudes and beliefs, not all of which will be regarded in exactly the same way by all practitioners, and not all of which will be to the fore in any given reading of a text or topic. There is a risk that too great a concern with methodology will rule out types of approach that not only yield interesting readings in themselves but also reflect ongoing extra-literary green concerns. There is a danger, too, that too much emphasis on method will detract attention from the literature itself. Karl Kroeber hailed ecocriticism as a welcome new development in literary and critical studies precisely because ‘ecological criticism resists current academic overemphasis on the rationalistic at the expense of sensory, emotional, and imaginative aspects of art’ (Kroeber 1994: 2) Yet while decrying rationalism, Kroeber and others of this party evince a strong desire to prove things empirically, thus laying themselves open to the charge of reintroducing rationalism via another route. Hence calls have gone out demanding greater focus on the ‘materiality of nature’, to borrow Onno Oerlemans's phrase,6 which overtly privileges the crossover between science and the arts. The balancing act thus becomes one between a desire to give due consideration to the actual, material world and a recognition that ‘nature’ is to some extent a human construct, liable to change according to shifts in human society.7 One effect of this balancing act may be a sense of unease, of things shifting as we look at them, and it is often such unease that provided the starting points for the readings offered in the following chapters. As green literary debates continue in general certain concerns, topics and terms recur, apart from the self-evident concern with ‘nature’. While the critical focus is on the non-human world, at least as much as the human (for some, more than) and while human/non-human relations continue to form a central part of ecocritical investigation, other concerns are beginning to be acknowledged as just as important. Increased emphasis is being placed on the myriad ways in which things are related, interdependent within ecosystems, in ways not fully acknowledged heretofore. Connections between animal, mineral and vegetable species are acknowledged to be more intricate than they at first (p.9) appear, creating ecosystems in which each element is dependent on the functioning of all the others. Such ecosystems can be either very big, encompassing the whole planet and its atmosphere, or very small as when a group of pots in a yard or corner of a room create a micro-environment. Importantly, the systems are organic, that is, they change constantly and respond to external elements as well as the various forces created by the workings of the system itself. This makes them both highly adaptable and very fragile. Fluctuations are integral, but the removal or marked alteration of any given element results in change which may be fatal, or evolutionary, depending on your point of view. Each micro-system is also likely to have effects on the larger macro-system, although such effects may be hard to trace, which means that apparently individual and local actions may have unforeseen consequences. That in turn means that every species is implicated in the fates of others.

The most developed version of this notion of ecosystem is that propounded by James Lovelock in the 1960s and fully articulated in his book Gaia (1979). Here the planet Earth is presented not only as a complete ecosystem but as a self-sustaining unit, a complex organic system, that acts to correct imbalances, however caused. Lovelock's Gaia thus has life but does not have an identifiable consciousness or self-awareness, is not, in that sense, alive. None the less, his suggestion that it should be treated as if it was alive and his choice of name (that of an ancient Greek earth goddess) have encouraged others to regard Gaia as a single identity, rather than as a system resulting from the interplay of its constituent parts. In part this reflects the human inclination to venerate natural phenomena, an inclination to which literature bears witness in many ways, but it must also be said that the notion of Gaia as a conscious being can also encourage heedlessness. Humans can act as they like, secure in the knowledge that an older power will right all wrongs. Rather than creating respect for the system as a whole, the Gaia concept thus unintentionally creates a sense of licence for humans to act as we please. The concept is further complicated by Gaia being evidently female, with all the connotations of fertility, mothering and subservience that brings. Ecofeminists, most notably Val Plumwood and Carolyn Merchant, have pointed out how such associations have legitimated the human habit of exploiting the non-human world, while (p.10) yet increasing a trust in it as somehow always working towards what is best for us – where ‘us’ comes to denotes a predominantly western male concept of the human.8 Such attitudes overlook the fact that Lovelock's Gaia acts in her interests, not ours, and there is nothing to say she must consider the perpetuation of humans desirable. Given which, we do well to heed any warnings that the wider system might send us that things are changing in ways that we find disconcerting or even hostile.

The implications of Lovelock's choice of name for his hypothesis is thus at odds with his own account of its consequences. It is just such conflations and their consequences that green reading seeks to foreground, reminding us that, for good or ill, we are part of the world and tend to be bound by our conceptions of it. The phenomenal world self-evidently exists, but it is not static. Nor are our perceptions of and attitudes towards it: our ways of perceiving the ‘natural world’ necessarily superimpose, albeit crookedly, whichever concepts of nature dominate at a given moment. It is impossible to slough off such concepts entirely.

However, while ‘the relation of image to world will doubtless remain very much alive within the literature and environment movement’ (Buell 1999: 706), both the material and the mode of ecocritical debate continues to expand, bringing with them, it is to be hoped, a useful diversity of approach, allowing what Buell refers to as a ‘map of interlocking but semi-autonomous projects’ to develop.9 It does no harm to bear in mind that one of the most fervent cries from environmentalists has been for the protection of biodiversity. Species and habitats flourish best where there is room for change and adaptation as well as for simple regeneration of what already exists. This seems to me to be an exciting and useful paradigm to follow in critical practice. It serves to unbalance any emerging hierarchy, allowing for new appraisals of the material before us and for refreshing reactions to and thoughts about both the texts and the ideas behind them. A case in point is that way recent calls to focus on the actual nature being represented in and by the literature give rise to some challenging questions regarding allegory which are particularly pertinent for medievalists.

Following D.W. Robertson's Preface to Chaucer of 1962, we have become accustomed to read medieval literature allegorically (p.11) (‘iconographically’ is Roberston's preferred term) and indeed, despite a period of unpopularity, belief in the importance of allegorical reading is once again enjoying some prestige.10 This may seem a particular requirement for reading medieval literature, and certainly Robertson's call to more figurative reading was a welcome counter to reading every aspect of Chaucer's descriptions as either realistic or conventional, but we must be careful not to assume that each and every element in a description is allegorical. Robertson himself allows for non-figurative elements, albeit relegated to a secondary role: ‘even more significant than the appearance of these formally iconographic descriptions, … is Chaucer's tendency to mingle details of an iconographic nature with other details which produce an effect of considerable verisimilitude’.11 For Roberston it is the presence of the iconographic that gives meaning to the ‘other details’; his readings translate the allegory, but have little to say beyond the above comment about any non-figurative trees or horses, and nothing at all about the actual ones that are over-written by the allegory. One of the consequences of reading ecocritically is to focus on those ‘other details’ and give them credit for doing something more than merely adding to an effect of ‘verisimilitude’. Green reading poses the question of exactly what such non-iconographic, descriptive elements are being true to: of whose ‘real’ is operating at any given time and what undercurrents may be at work in those apparently insignificant ‘other details’. This is not to say that the figurative use of the non-human world should be set aside as irrelevant to green reading altogether. Human language is riddled with metaphor, simile and analogy, all of which combine to create an allegorical habit. The challenge must be to read with an awareness of allegory, while also focusing on the actual animals, plants, rocks or seas under debate. For literary critics it is not a case of either/or but of both-and.

In the following readings of medieval English texts I seek to maintain this awareness of both-and, of different but equal, in the hope of displaying further riches within the texts considered. Frequently this involves devoting attention to elements of the works which are usually regarded as marginal, and bringing to the fore aspects which have been previously overlooked. Focusing upon them, reading as it were through green lenses, will bring out new facets of the texts and allow us to refocus our views accordingly, (p.12) but this is done with the aim of adding to our appreciation, not of replacing more established readings wholesale. For example, consider Chaucer's short poem ‘The Former Age’ which, with its use of an ideal rural past, is the very kind of literature we might expect to find subjected to green criticism. Like all texts that make use of the idea of a Golden Age, this lyric is evidently more preoccupied with the flaws of the present age than the ideals of the former one. That does not mean that it is not available for ecocriticism: the point is not to claim that texts are themselves ‘green’ in outlook but to reveal how pervasive the tensions between human and non-human are, even when being portrayed as being in harmony. Apparently unambiguous phrases can be shown to carry additional implications which betray a response to the non-human natural world of which the author was probably unaware. The job of an ecocritic is to show the range of attitudes in play, just as that of a feminist is to reveal the set of gender associations at work within any given text: neither necessarily seeks to claim that the text, far less the author, shares their own outlook.12

Structurally, ‘The Former Age’ revolves around the traditional contrast between the ‘blisful’ idealised Golden Age, that bygone time when humans were at one with their surroundings and not obliged to work, and the ‘cursed’ current, corrupt, state of affairs. It begins:

  • A blisful lyf, a paisible and a swete,
  • Ledden the peples in the former age.
  • They helde hem payed of the fruites that they ete,
  • Which that the feldes yave hem by usage;
  • They ne were nat forpampred with outrage.
  • Unknowen was the quern and ek the melle;
  • They eten mast, hawes, and swich pounage,
  • And dronken water of the colde welle.
  • Yit nas the ground nat wounded with the plough,
  • But corn up-sprong, unsowe of mannes hond,
  • The which they gnodded and eete nat half ynough.
  • No man yit knew the forwes of his lond,
  • No man the fyr out of the flint yit fond,
  • Unkorven and ungrobbed lay the vyne;
  • No man yit in the morter spyces grond
  • To clarre ne to sause of galantyne.

(‘Former Age’ 1–16)13

(p.13) Chaucer's Former Age is like many another. All is simplicity and content: no delving, no spinning, and no sweaty business (that comes later, in line 28). In keeping with the tradition, Chaucer creates a notion of an idyllic past long gone while also relying on the common knowledge that such past never existed. Chaucer's picture of this former age is surely intended to be one of humanity and nature in harmony, a right relation which results in a balanced earth. Yet several of Chaucer's words here are smugglers; some carry undeclared commercial connotations that run contrary to the clear surface meaning of the lyric, while others hint that life in this ideal world was not so idyllic.

The term ‘feldes’ seems innocent enough, and is easily read as equivalent to our modern ‘fields’ that is a piece of land with defined boundaries, often cultivated or used for pasture. These meanings are indeed acting here and were in common use by Chaucer's time, as the Middle English Dictionary shows. However, consciously or otherwise, Chaucer's use in this poem may also retain the older, but still current connotations of ‘felde’ as an open space or plain. This concurs with the idyllic notion of a spontaneously generous nature, but it also carries with it the customary linking with woods, attested by the MED citations and reflected here in the movement across four lines from the ‘feldes’ apparently yielding ‘fruites’ to the ‘mast, hawes and and swich pounage’ which are also part of the contemporary diet and which are more usually found in hedgerows or woodland. Significantly, too, the mention of ‘feldes’ calls up a comparison with the latter-day life of grinding corn in mills, reminding an attentive reader that the natural fruit of plains is more likely to be grasses and their corn than the berries the word tends to summon up. Wide open plains are not in fact good places to find food that humans can simply pick and eat. Thus in Chaucer's ‘feldes’ the open flat plain jostles with the bounded, farmed area of land as the poem holds both definitions in play. If the Golden Age is truly one of pre-agrarian economy, then ‘feldes’ is simply open ground, but why then is it ‘feldes’ plural, rather than the more straightforward ‘felde’? That final ‘s’ concurs with the general trend of the poem towards fields as bounded areas, defined by humans and serving their needs. Even if we allow such Golden Age fields to be free from cultivation, this second concept of field is necessarily the result of some kind of human intervention. Boundaries are implied, and even if these are (p.14) made up of such naturally occurring markers as rivers it is still an act of human projection to declare the space between a field. The fact that this is an anthropocentric world-view is soon made apparent as monetary concerns prevail with people regarding themselves ‘payed’ by the crops which the fields yield ‘by usage’. To gloss the ‘usage’ as ‘by custom’, naturally (without cultivation)’ as the Riverside editors do supplies the immediate meaning, but overlooks other associations of ‘use’, for example that those who produce the crops have the right only to work the land; they do not own it and are obliged to give some kind of payment either in produce or work to those who do. The terms thus imply that the humans own the fields and so receive due payment from those who have the use of them. The plants have become in effect the peasant workers, or possibly tenant farmers, of the lord's land. The implications reach further when the effects of ‘yave’ are taken into account, as Chaucer (following Boethius) selects the most indolent version of the golden age for his poem.14 These fields habitually and spontaneously yield crops and the tone of the poem blithely assumes that such crops are intended for human consumption; are indeed presented as a gift (‘yave’). The fields are not quite personified, but the humans are securely at the top of the hierarchy in this idealised world.

The second stanza devotes some effort to fending off precisely these connotations by reiterating the uncultivated state of the land. Inevitably one effect of the denials and of the prolonged anaphora on ‘No’, which begins in verse two and continues throughout verse three, is to bring to mind all that is so fervently rejected. This is common to invocations of the Golden Age because the sharp contrasts between the bygone era and the current state of affairs are created by steadily subtracting contemporary evils in order to reach back to a time before they existed. However the existence of the literary convention should not blind us to other undercurrents within those contrasts. In this case we should pause over line 11: ‘The which they gnodded and eete nat half ynough.’ Normally this is understood as showing that the land spontaneously supplied more than enough food for all, implying a picture of people leaving half of what is available, having eaten their fill. However this is not what the words actually say. The image here is in fact one of starvation, of not eating half enough; an image already suggested by the humble diet of (p.15) ‘mast, hawes, and swich pounage’ mentioned in line 7. ‘Pounage’ in particular is significant as it is food given to pigs and is exactly what the starving people of Piers's half-acre are reduced to eating in the famine scene of Piers Plowman.15 That is a step beyond the lack of overindulgence indicated in line 5 and is altogether more disturbing. It is additionally interesting from a green point of view as it fleetingly places humans and animals on the same level.

Once we see one such disconcerting undercurrent, we may begin to notice others. So, for instance the fleece which ‘was of his former hewe’ (18) is ostensibly part of a purer lifestyle not unlike that advocated by many today, wherein fabrics are left in their ‘natural’ state, not bleached or dyed. Arguably, though the natural place for a fleece is on the sheep's back, so here again Chaucer's language contains a covert allusion to farming, which even in this comparatively benign form could be described as the exploitation of one species by another. While it is just possible to argue that crops could spring up spontaneously, it is less convincing to envisage a sheep voluntarily casting its fleece for the benefit of humans. The idea of sheep arises again in line 50, where ‘lambish peple’ invokes an analogy between human populace and the meek flocks we associate with kept livestock. Doubtless the intended comparison is with peaceful, content, harmless creatures, with a possible allusion to the Christian flock of obedient believers and, more tenuously, to Jesus as Lamb of God. Certainly the contrast is between these ‘lambish’ people and the warmongers who have haunted the poem since line 23. Yet this very contrast allows for a further, latent connotation to arise in the form of ‘lambs to the slaughter’ as Chaucer's poem takes its darkest turn to end with ‘manslawhtre, and mordre in sondry wyse’ (63). The contemporary world he decries is clearly no place for those ‘voyd of alle vyce’.

Notably, too, the ‘swety bysinesse’ (28) of the first sin and the cause of human downfall which ushers in the ‘cursed tyme’ is not the sexual intercourse we might expect from Christian tradition, but the literal digging mourned in the classical tradition for giving rise to covetousness, as precious metals and stones are first revealed and then desired.16 What makes such stones desirable is, of course, the human value system of commerce which has quietly risen to the surface of the poem, having been latent in the ‘payed’ of line 3. Digging things up is thus not only a source of (p.16) anxiety, but of strife, and indeed strife infiltrates the whole poem not only between people but also between humans and the soil. Ploughing is described as wounding (9) inverting the harmony of the mythic Golden Age in which ‘corn up-sprong’ (10) to create the state of affairs in which it is ‘the cursednesse of coveytyse’ that ‘sprong up’ (31–2). Green reading thus reveals that, whatever he may wish to imply, Chaucer is not in fact depicting an entirely untouched world. His Former Age is necessarily ephemeral and, in keeping with his literary predecessors, his imagination has not been able to sustain the vision of a natural landscape free of human intervention. We should not berate him for this; rather, it is interesting to note that, even when rhetoric demands a picture of a world in which humankind is a content and passive presence, our cultural imagination fails to deliver.

Such a reading of Chaucer's poem enhances rather than undermines the traditional view of it as a social satire, drawing on Boethius and Ovid, or the historically precise interpretation of it as a political satire directed at Richard II (Minnis 1995: 487–9). Indeed we need to have some appreciation of each work's literary and historical context if we are to understand how the elements brought to the fore by ecocriticism function within it. That is not to say that our current green readings must be circumscribed by our understanding of medieval attitudes towards the non-human world, but we should be aware when the conclusions we draw from a text or the elements we see at work are the results of anachronistic reading. In the readings that follow I have therefore assumed a general, basic knowledge of medieval English literature17 and worked out from there. Throughout, I aim to maintain an attentiveness to and awareness of the non-human, while also being conscious of the paradoxes surrounding reading texts which are themselves self-evidently human constructs. Some of the results are rather wry, some pessimistic, some, contrariwise, joyfully celebratory. Such diversity of conclusion arises from the diversity of the texts considered and of their own treatment of the non-human world. Thus this book as a whole will be a conglomerate of some of the attitudes towards nature (to use a convenient short hand) that can be found in late medieval English literature, as well as the inevitable effect of my own ways of reading. It will not be an attempt to present a ‘typical’ medieval view of the non-human organic world, not least because, as David (p.17) Salter so clearly puts it, ‘the culture of the late Middle Ages was capable of speaking with more than one voice when it came to debating humanity's place within the wider world of nature’ (Salter 2001: 147).

In order to reflect some of the voices thus speaking in the Middle Ages, this volume is divided into five sections each taking a concept important to green concerns as its particular theme (earth, water etc.). Most sections also concentrate on two main texts or authors to supply examples and work through ideas. In a bid to consider a reasonably broad range of texts, I have not usually returned to these texts in other sections, even though there would be clearly things to say about, for example, the use of water in Pearl or Malory, or the role of trees in Piers Plowman. In the end, too, I have decided not to include a separate section on animals, preferring to include consideration of animal nature as it arises within the other topics, rather than as a separate entity. The topic is a large one and much good work has already been done on it (Salter's Holy and Noble Beasts and Salisbury's The Beast Within spring to mind as two of the more recent examples). Indeed, overall I am aware that the readings offered in this volume constitute only a beginning of what is possible in the arena of ecocritical readings of medieval texts. While the conclusions offered here emerge from my adoption of a green point of view (as I understand it), that is not to say they would be the same if applied either to other texts or by other critics. If, as Leo Marx has asserted, it is the job of literature to educate desire, then it is surely criticism's role to discover the terms as well as the objects of that desire. In fulfilling that role ecocriticism may also demonstrate the fruitfulness of mixing green concerns and literary analysis.18 The aim of this volume is to show some of what alters when we read ecocritically, refocusing our customary view in order to read as it were through green lenses. My hope is that Greenery provides some indication of the potential yield of green criticism, but also that it will somewhat disconcert readers. I take being disconcerted as a good thing, as it makes us aware of conflicts between first reactions and subsequent interpretations through drawing attention to details that don’t quite fit. The readings offered in the chapters that follow seek to first identify such potentially disconcerting elements, and then offer explanations for why they are nevertheless effective, without striving for an (p.18) homogenous overview which I believe would be both improbable and undesirable.

Notes

(1) The well and cottage above it are described by Niklaus Pevsner 1989: (323). Appositely for this study, Pevsner's introduction contains the assertion ‘Those who visit Shropshire and come back are enthusiastic as a rule about landscape – and landscape should always come before buildings’ (p. 11).

(2) Bate touches on the relatively slow emergence of green criticism in his preface to Song of the Earth while Plumwood tackles the issue of speaking and indeed conceiving of the non-human in her discussion of the role of reason in Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. She is particularly engaged with the issues surrounding anthropomorphism, and cautions against dismissing it out of hand, suggesting it may offer our best way of thinking about the world of which we are a part. See Plumwood (2002), p. 38–61.

(3) This quotation now serves as the epigraph for the Rachel Carson website; see www.rachelcarson.org.

(4) There was much call for an ecocritical methodology at the ASLE-UK (Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, UK branch) conference held at Bretton Hall in July 2002. Moves have already been made towards this, most usefully, for those interested in the application of ecocriticism to medieval literature, by Rebecca Douglass in the paper she gave at the American ASLE conference in 1997. An expanded version of this paper may be found in Douglass 1998: 136–63.

(5) The two contrasting articles by Glen A. Love and Dana Phillips in the special number of New Literary History (1999, 30: 3) devoted to ecocriticism offer a good way of entering the debate over how and what ecocriticism should cover. Love advocates an increase in interdisciplinarity, particularly in terms of approach, while Phillips challenges any reliance on the truth of scientific methods as applied too casually to literature and supports a more theoretically informed approach.

(6) Onno Oerlemans (2002). The introductory chapter of this book offers one of the many fair overviews of ecocriticism to date, although it necessarily concentrates on the areas most pertinent to literary discussions of Romantic literature.

(7) One of the best articulations of the difficulties here is Hayles 1995.

(8) Val Plumwood (1993 and 2002) presents a feminist ecological philosophy based on a critique of dominant forms of reason, which denigrate ‘female’ habits of thought and attitudes that include (rather than dismissing) emotional and imaginative forms of association between humans and other species. Carolyn Merchant focuses on the long-term and long-standing consequences of the close links made between women and nature, but also offers ways in which such links could become positive forces. See 1982, 1992 and 1995). Freya Matthews (1991) explores the links between human identity and environment, while Rosemary Radford Ruether (1992) discusses the (p.19) various aspects of the theological consequences of Lovelock's hypothesis. Stephen Clark (1993) offers a consideration of most of the prevailing models for thinking about the world as a whole and evaluates them from an ecological standpoint. An overview of the way Lovelock's idea was taken up by others may be found in Laurence Joseph (1990).

(9) See Buell's (1999) presentation of the development of green criticism.

(10) This was evidenced by the decision to hold a panel session devoted to discussing the legacy of D.W. Robertson at the thirty-ninth International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo 2004.

(11) Robertson (1962), p. 242.

(12) A useful analogy may be Arlyn Diamond (1997), which tackles the problem of seeming to claim that Chaucer was a proto-feminist and the difficulties that surround praising his presentation of women in his work.

(13) All citations of Chaucer are taken from the Riverside edition.

(14) Examples of the various classical versions of the Golden Age may be found in Lovejoy and Boas (1935; 1997) although, as the Riverside editors point out, Chaucer is following Boethius and drawing on Ovid.

(15) See Piers Plowman B.VI. 172–330. This scene and its allusion to annual starvation are discussed in Chapter 5.

(16) Merchant (1982: 29–41) is again useful here in tracing the attitudes towards mining in the context of her consideration of the alignment of nature and woman. In the context of Chaucer's lyric and his own merchant links, it is interesting to note that in the Classical tradition is it trade, not mining, that is the downfall of the Golden Age.

(17) Hence, as indicated in the Acknowledgements, my decision to refer to editions which provide a good deal of help to readers unaccustomed to Middle English.

(18) At the conference of the UK branch of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE-UK) held in July 2002, Leo Marx issued the challenge of whether or not environmentalism, a political movement, had anything to do with literary study, and thus whether literary criticism had any business tangling with ecological concerns. I believe that challenge is answered not only by his other assertion that it is the job of literature to educate desire but also by the examples of feminist and post-colonial criticism in illuminating literary texts. (p.20)

Notes:

(1) The well and cottage above it are described by Niklaus Pevsner 1989: (323). Appositely for this study, Pevsner's introduction contains the assertion ‘Those who visit Shropshire and come back are enthusiastic as a rule about landscape – and landscape should always come before buildings’ (p. 11).

(2) Bate touches on the relatively slow emergence of green criticism in his preface to Song of the Earth while Plumwood tackles the issue of speaking and indeed conceiving of the non-human in her discussion of the role of reason in Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. She is particularly engaged with the issues surrounding anthropomorphism, and cautions against dismissing it out of hand, suggesting it may offer our best way of thinking about the world of which we are a part. See Plumwood (2002), p. 38–61.

(3) This quotation now serves as the epigraph for the Rachel Carson website; see www.rachelcarson.org.

(4) There was much call for an ecocritical methodology at the ASLE-UK (Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, UK branch) conference held at Bretton Hall in July 2002. Moves have already been made towards this, most usefully, for those interested in the application of ecocriticism to medieval literature, by Rebecca Douglass in the paper she gave at the American ASLE conference in 1997. An expanded version of this paper may be found in Douglass 1998: 136–63.

(5) The two contrasting articles by Glen A. Love and Dana Phillips in the special number of New Literary History (1999, 30: 3) devoted to ecocriticism offer a good way of entering the debate over how and what ecocriticism should cover. Love advocates an increase in interdisciplinarity, particularly in terms of approach, while Phillips challenges any reliance on the truth of scientific methods as applied too casually to literature and supports a more theoretically informed approach.

(6) Onno Oerlemans (2002). The introductory chapter of this book offers one of the many fair overviews of ecocriticism to date, although it necessarily concentrates on the areas most pertinent to literary discussions of Romantic literature.

(7) One of the best articulations of the difficulties here is Hayles 1995.

(8) Val Plumwood (1993 and 2002) presents a feminist ecological philosophy based on a critique of dominant forms of reason, which denigrate ‘female’ habits of thought and attitudes that include (rather than dismissing) emotional and imaginative forms of association between humans and other species. Carolyn Merchant focuses on the long-term and long-standing consequences of the close links made between women and nature, but also offers ways in which such links could become positive forces. See 1982, 1992 and 1995). Freya Matthews (1991) explores the links between human identity and environment, while Rosemary Radford Ruether (1992) discusses the (p.19) various aspects of the theological consequences of Lovelock's hypothesis. Stephen Clark (1993) offers a consideration of most of the prevailing models for thinking about the world as a whole and evaluates them from an ecological standpoint. An overview of the way Lovelock's idea was taken up by others may be found in Laurence Joseph (1990).

(9) See Buell's (1999) presentation of the development of green criticism.

(10) This was evidenced by the decision to hold a panel session devoted to discussing the legacy of D.W. Robertson at the thirty-ninth International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo 2004.

(11) Robertson (1962), p. 242.

(12) A useful analogy may be Arlyn Diamond (1997), which tackles the problem of seeming to claim that Chaucer was a proto-feminist and the difficulties that surround praising his presentation of women in his work.

(13) All citations of Chaucer are taken from the Riverside edition.

(14) Examples of the various classical versions of the Golden Age may be found in Lovejoy and Boas (1935; 1997) although, as the Riverside editors point out, Chaucer is following Boethius and drawing on Ovid.

(15) See Piers Plowman B.VI. 172–330. This scene and its allusion to annual starvation are discussed in Chapter 5.

(16) Merchant (1982: 29–41) is again useful here in tracing the attitudes towards mining in the context of her consideration of the alignment of nature and woman. In the context of Chaucer's lyric and his own merchant links, it is interesting to note that in the Classical tradition is it trade, not mining, that is the downfall of the Golden Age.

(17) Hence, as indicated in the Acknowledgements, my decision to refer to editions which provide a good deal of help to readers unaccustomed to Middle English.

(18) At the conference of the UK branch of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE-UK) held in July 2002, Leo Marx issued the challenge of whether or not environmentalism, a political movement, had anything to do with literary study, and thus whether literary criticism had any business tangling with ecological concerns. I believe that challenge is answered not only by his other assertion that it is the job of literature to educate desire but also by the examples of feminist and post-colonial criticism in illuminating literary texts. (p.20)