Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

March 23, 2018   |   Ithaca, NY


Q&A: Professor researches historical views of nature

Michael Twomey, retired Dana professor in the Department of English, presented at the 24th annual conference of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies on Feb. 9. The paper he presented, titled “Exemplary Environment: Isidorean Paradigms of Nature in Medieval English Encyclopedias,” will be turned into a book.

Opinion Editor Meaghan McElroy spoke to Twomey about his presentation, exemplary environments and the culture surrounding ecocriticism.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Meaghan McElroy: Can you give me an overview of your research?

Michael Twomey:  My research is about books we call encyclopedias, but that word didn’t actually exist until the 16th century, so nobody called them that. They were books that purported to cover the whole world. But if you’re a European living between the time of ancient Rome and what we call the Age of Discovery — when Europeans started fanning out and colonizing the New World — the world is Europe, the Mediterranean, North Africa, part of the Middle East going as far as India, and you’re dimly aware of China far beyond that. Though they’re supposed to be about the world, they’re really a small part of it. They cover the natural world, so they’re about nature. … What I started to notice is that these books were used in schools — schools that were attached to churches or universities throughout the Middle Ages. And so each generation of encyclopedias that comes along essentially recycles what’s in Isadore’s book. You’re going through a period of a thousand years or more and the same stuff is being repeated over and over again. Who’s reading these books? University students, monks in monasteries, some secular people who were attached to courts but study in church schools. When they’re studying the environment, they’re studying the Mediterranean and the Middle East. They’re studying the same stuff that Isadore wrote about in the 7th century. The two differences are when Europeans rediscovered Aristotle in the 12th century. They incorporated Aristotelian “science” and then they began to look at nature allegorically, so it was symbolically important rather than literally important.

MM: When I was reading the summary of your paper, I saw you referred to nature as an exemplary environment. Can you explain what that means?

MT: This is from a book I’m writing called “Exemplary Environments,” because exemplary means they set examples or they contain examples, so we study the environment for what it teaches us, not for what it is. Lions, for example, you think they’re supposed to be ferocious, but they give birth to their children a certain way. They take care of their children in a certain way, so they’re examples of loyalty. The lily is an exemplar of purity. When you grow up in a culture where nature means these things, you don’t really see things for what it is. And it’s easier to use things for what you want to use it for, rather than what it is. It could lead to a kind of neglect of the environment.

MM: What do you think are the implications of that that are leading to environmental crises?

MT: If you think that nature is essentially exemplary, which most medieval people did, then when you see a forest, you think wilderness. You think danger. You think wild animals. You think demons, and so you want to subdue it. All the evidence suggests that white people came from Europe to the New World in the 15th and 16th centuries. What they were really encountering were managed forests that Native Americans had learned to balance with their crops and so on. They also had sustainable practices for hunting as well. And all of that was thrown out of whack when Europeans saw big trees and they needed those trees for the masts of the ships. There were managed forests in Europe, but they kept getting smaller and smaller because they weren’t seen as places of natural beauty or places that were necessary for the ecology; they were places for hunting parks for the nobility. If you made them a little bit smaller, the environmental impact of that didn’t really matter. It was the economic impact or the social impact that mattered to them. So those attitudes were carried to North America when Europeans came here.

MM: Do you have any final thoughts?

MT: I just wish that more people would study the environment for its own sake. Let me ramble for a little bit. I’ve been doing ecocriticism for maybe almost 10 years now, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that a lot of people who consider themselves to be environmental critics of literature are not really not interested in the environment; they’re more interested in playing games with words. It kind of bothers me about my profession. I have a personal mission to make environmental criticism of literature environmentally responsible, and that’s kind of my credo.

Meaghan McElroy can be reached at or via Twitter: @meaghan_mcelroy