Environment, emotion and early modernity

The latest issue of the journal Environment and History is a co-edited special issue from John Morgan (Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol), and Prof. Sasha Handley (History, University of Manchester).

In Environment, Emotion and Early Modernity, the editors bring together a group of seven scholars writing at the intersection of the histories of environment and emotion in the early modern period. The collection covers forestry and geomancy in early modern Korea, foodways and emotional communities in seventeenth-century North America, and much inbetween.

Read the collection here. Morgan and Handley’s editorial is available for free on Ingenta Connect.

Table of contents:

Sasha Handley and John Morgan
Lusty Sack Possets, Nuptial Affections and the Material Communities of Early Modern Weddings
Sasha Handley
Foodways and Emotional Communities in Early Colonial Virginia
Rachel Winchcombe
Sylvan Anxieties and the Making of Landscapes in Early Modern Korea
John S. Lee
An Emotional Ecology of Pigeons in Early Modern England and America
John Emrys Morgan
Trees and Disease: The Ecology of the Roman Campagna in the Seventeenth Century
Lisa Beaven
Summer, Sun and SAD in Early Modern England
Tayler Meredith
‘The Sky in Place of The Nile’: Climate, Religious Unrest and Scapegoating in Post-Tridentine Apulia
Giovanni Tarantino

Swimming into Green Transitions

by Dr Marianna Dudley (History, University of Bristol), reposted with permission from The Greenhouse.

My reason to apply for a Green Transitions Fellowship at University of Stavanger was to make a start on a book about the history of wind energy. I presented my work to the academic community here early on, and spoke about how the history of wind energy has been shaped by interactions between people, place, and technology. The wind moves through these interactions, itself a product of planetary motion, oceanic currents, and the meeting of sea, air, and land. And while it was time in the quiet work room that helped me commit words to the page, it was time out in the Stavanger land- and seascape that helped me think.

I’ve been developing ideas on how energy technology interacts with place and the people who inhabit it. British state interest in wind turbines just after the Second World War was inflected with ideas about landscape, weather, identity, and productivity, and this shaped how and where turbines were tested. The wind is a dynamic actor in this history: it challenged attempts by meteorologists to predict it, and by engineers to harness it. New wind technology layered over old traditions of living with abundant and occasionally extreme weather, adding to already established and embodied knowledge of wind and place. Throughout my work I’ve been fascinated by winds, waves, tides, rivers – environments on the move that resist attempts to pin them in place, and yet forge a sense of place through their very transience.

A diving board on the edge of the fjord. Seaweed is visible in the blue water under the diving board

Arrival in a new place brings with it an impulse to get grounded. As a swimmer, I like to learn the land by stepping off it and into the water. Here in Stavanger there is plenty, and I’ve been offsetting my solitary, stationary, writing with as many swims as I can. The view from the water helps to make sense of the shore.

Swimming reaffirms again and again that environments are dynamic, changing, and alive. The fjords pulsate with life like the lion’s mane jellyfish I avoided and comb jellyfish I didn’t (transparent, and without venom, brains, or complex nervous systems, they were so wonderfully, barely, there). The seaweeds are spectacular. Shallow fields of sea grass and inky deep fjords alike have been crystal clear, though signs warn against fishing in certain spots due to contamination. Contrasts of clean/dirty, visibility/invisibility, course through the history of energy. Renewable energy claims to cleanliness need to be interrogated carefully. Swimming in Stavanger – an oil town – has helped me keep these issues in mind.

Freya the walrus painted on a wall in Stavanger by street artist Pøbel

New friends have joined me on many of these swims and we’ve joked about writing an article on ‘swimming-as-praxis’. Here is my confession, then, that (pretension aside) I believe that swimming helps me understand my work and the world around me. One of my first swims here was in a dock while Pøbel, a local graffiti artist, painted a tribute to Freya the walrus on the side of a grain warehouse. Freya had visited harbours across the North Atlantic, sinking sailboats in her magnificent wake. She was killed by Norwegian authorities in the Oslofjord days before I arrived, for the crime of attracting too many crowds to see her (but on the bizarre grounds of her own safety). Seeing her take new shape by the water’s edge at Stavanger was a prompt to keep thinking about power, about place, about ecosystems and care. To keep swimming. To keep writing.

Dr. Marianna Dudley is a historian at the University of Bristol. Her work explores environmental change and its impacts on communities, places, and politics in modern Britain. The rise of renewable energy is a current focus, and she is writing a history of wind energy. She was a Greenhouse Green Transitions Fellow at University of Stavanger, 15 August – 15 September 2022.

This post was first published on The Greenhouse Green Transitions Fellows Blog, and we are grateful for permission to republish it here. The Greenhouse is a research center at the University of Stavanger that draws together those with an interest in the environmental humanities. Since 2022, the Centre for Environmental History has partnered with The Greenhouse.

Upcoming talk // Fields Into Factories: Scotland’s Unexplored Second World War

On Wednesday 5th October, at 7p.m. Gary Willis (History, University of Bristol) will be presenting a free online talk entitled: ‘Fields Into Factories: Scotland’s Unexplored Second World War‘.

His talk will be based on his nearly-completed PhD thesis, which looks at the impact on the British rural and peri-urban landscape of the network of Royal Ordnance Factories and military aircraft factories that were built by the State in the run-up to and during the Second World War.

These military-industrial sites were constructed very rapidly under conditions of national emergency between 1937 and 1942 – thereby short-circuiting the in any case  weak civic planning consultation processes that existed at the time.  They produced war materials which by their very nature were dispensable and in the case of ammunition could be used once-only – and by 1945 the vast majority of these sites were no longer required for the purpose for which they were built, leaving a lasting imprint on the British landscape.  Further proof, if it was needed, of the wastefulness of the war-making process.

The environmental and historical significance of military-industrial sites – as opposed to say, military airfields – is that the former represented a nearly always exclusive and permanent change in use of the land of the landscapes they occupied – whereas many military airfields shared their sites with agriculture even during the war, and many airfields were transferred back into civil agricultural use at the end of the war.

The impact on the landscape of militarisation is only one side of the story that Gary will explore however. He will also explain how the contours of landscapes, geology, and climate were active agents in influencing the location and form that this militarisation took in Scotland.  He will look in particular at the decision-making process for the location of a Royal Ordnance Factory in Scotland which subsequently became ROF Bishopton, near Paisley, west of Glasgow.

Registration is via Eventbrite

The Temporalities of a Rotting Rat

Dr Alice Would (University of Bristol) discusses the temporalities of taxidermy following an encounter with a rotting rat, which is pictured below.

In January 2022, I received an email from my former PhD supervisor, the environmental historian Peter Coates, asking what I wanted to do with my attempt at taxidermy. This was a white rat, or rather, ‘now very sorry looking Mr Rat.’ Peter was packing up his office ahead of retirement when he rediscovered the rat’s bodily remains inside a plastic bag. We had taken a taxidermy course together in 2018; I was researching the processes and materialities of Victorian taxidermy and we thought it would be a useful exercise to trial practice-informed historical research. As I reflected in an essay for Environmental History Now, my own embodied experience was inextricable from my practice.[i] I was a knot of nerves, my ethics were challenged, and my fingers wouldn’t do what I asked of them – the coordination needed for taxidermy is considerable.

The Rat in 2018

I learned how taxidermy has always been a multisensory confrontation and discovered a great deal about the technicalities of Victorian practice: de-fleshing, looping wires, and cupping stuffing in the palm of the hand so that it sits within the animal skin as flesh would. However, and perhaps most significantly, I also encountered the barriers standing in the way of embodying a Victorian taxidermist. My practice was very much of the present, and I took my own worries, preconceptions, intentions, and lack of skill with me when I met with the rat’s skin. These feelings stayed with me: I was unsettled by the experience, and the way the smell of death clung to my fingers, and I therefore continued to keep a purposeful distance between myself and the rat and this is how he ended up residing in Peter’s office. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Rat was packed away in a bag on a high shelf.

Over the course of my research, I kept coming across the processes of decay within the writing of hunters and taxidermists, and, consequently, rot, epidermic breakdown, and time became central themes, winding their way through my thesis. Everywhere I looked, from diary entries about skinning and preparing specimens within the colonial hunting grounds of East Africa, to museum records from both the turn of the twentieth century and the present day, I found descriptions of animal specimens hosting insects and bacteria. The British hunter Charles Peel noted how obsessively he watched-over his animal skins when travelling and shooting in the British Protectorate of Somaliland in the 1880s as ‘the ravages made by a little grub-beetle were terrible.’[ii]

Roughly a hundred years later, a curator at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, Devon (the museum Peel donated many of his specimens to), similarly described the ‘ravages’ of so-called museum pests, and their specific effects on the taxidermy within the Peel collection.[iii] I was struck by the entropy revealed in such statements. Taxidermy is always undertaken in an attempt to preserve an animal in time and body, and it is often conceptualised as ‘freezing’ the animal, and yet these sources also spoke of an accelerated disintegration, and of the circling processes by which death supports life. Consequently, I reflected on the ways in which time is embodied, and how the histories and temporalities of hunting and taxidermy might contribute to our thinking on the Anthropocene.

Somehow, though, it was still a shock when my rat rotted, despite my clear lack of skill when putting him together; it isn’t often that we encounter decay in our sanitised present.[iv] A week or so after he emailed, I met Peter to find out for myself what ‘very sorry looking’ looked like. It was the first time I had been into his office since the pandemic introduced us all to an abrupt new experience of time. The rat was both hardened and crumpling, a fading white-yellow body just visible within the sweaty plastic. Moths the colour of sand traversed the skin surface, I could make out clutches of eggs clinging to the places where hair had once grown. I was disgusted, but it also felt like a fitting end to my PhD and this period of thinking about lively death in the past. The rat was a tiny living landscape within the wider ecosystem of Peter’s office with its books, papers and maps, animal skulls, lumps of wood, tea caddies and view of nesting squirrels.

The rotting Rat in 2022

The question remained of what to do with these disconcerting animal remains, and we decided to dispose of the rat. Whilst I felt a little compelled to see this temporal process through to the bitter end, neither of us could stomach the practicalities. The rat confirmed my thinking that, as environmental historians, we should endeavour to follow the traces of liveliness when they are offered up by our sources. Even within the most unpromising of case studies, for instance the tales of extraction, extinction and death that are central to museum collection, environmental actors were not necessarily entirely deadened and silenced. They were sites of multispecies exchange, and often continued to play a role in shaping peoples’ emotions and actions – and their experience of time.

Dr Alice Would is a lecturer in Imperial and Environmental History at the University of Bristol. She completed her PhD on the taxidermy trade in the long nineteenth century in Britain and empire in 2021.

[i] Alice Would, ‘Sensing Taxidermy in the Present’, Environmental History Now (2019)

[ii]  Charles Peel, Somaliland: Being an Account of Two Expeditions into the Far Interior, Together with a Complete List of Every Animal and Bird Known to Inhabit that Country, and a List of the Reptiles Collected by the Author (London: F. E. Robinson & Co, 1900), 118-9.

[iii] Letter to the Oxford Theatre, 2 May 1996, RAMM Archive.

[iv] For more on rot see: Caitlin DeSilvey, Curated Decay (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017); Jamie Lorimer, ‘Rot’, Environmental Humanities, 8 (2016), 235–39.

Ties to the Land – Amina Khan

Reblogged from the Pen and the Plough

Amina Khan visits Willowbrook Farm in Oxfordshire to find out more about the UK’s first Halal and Tayib farm and the Radwan family’s approach to sustainable farming.

‘Those who take agriculture seriously enough and study it long enough will come to issues that will have to be recognised as religious’, writes the farmer and writer Wendell Berry in his foreword to Lord Northbourne’s Of the Land and the Spirit. A leading figure in the organic farming movement and a prolific writer on comparative religion, Lord Northbourne coined the term ‘organic farming’ in his book Look to the Land. In this forgotten classic of organic farming, written twenty-two years before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, he warned against what he called ‘chemical farming’ and lamented at how ‘soil fertility was being mined.’ His writing went on to influence Thomas Merton, E. F. Schumacher and Wendell Berry, amongst others.

Read more on the Pen and the Plough

The Farmer of Myddfai

Reblogged from the Pen and the Plough

This piece by Pen and Plough researcher Dr Pippa Marland is based on her interview with Hywel Morgan (https://thepenandtheplough.wordpress.com/2022/05/17/an-interview-with-nature-friendly-farmer-hywel-morgan-pippa-marland/) and published with his permission. Illustrations by Katie Marland.

Above the village of Myddfai, Escairllaethdy Farm stretches over 150 acres. The farm, which lies on the western edge of the Brecon Beacons at the foot of the Black Mountains, has been in Hywel Morgan’s family since his grandfather bought it after the Second World War. It’s an upland livestock farm, and Hywel also has grazing rights on the common land on Mynydd Myddfai for his sheep, horses, and, more recently, cattle. He describes himself as a hill farmer, and one who is especially passionate about the hills.

Read more on the Pen and the Plough

Uncommon Ground – Jack Thacker

Reblogged from the Pen and the Plough
Photo © Trevor Rickard (cc-by-sa/2.0)

The hearse stopped at the crossroads – two lanes folded like ribbons. It was left or right to either end of the hamlet. The left lane led to the church, now decommissioned, while the right made its way to the family farm.

‘Why has it stopped?’ I asked from the back seat.

There was a brief pause. My mother said: ‘They’re giving him one last look.’ And then the hearse turned left towards the graveyard.

Read more on the Pen and the Plough

Dark Ecologies: Art and Poetry at Nightfall

Join environmental historians Andy Flack and Alice Would, Bristol City Poet Caleb Parkin and audio-visual artist Kathy Hinde to explore darkness in their work and its connection to the more-than-human.

Tuesday 14th June 7.30 – 9.30pm. Glass Studio, St George’s, Bristol.


Andy and Alice’s research focuses on how attitudes to night-time have changed over the past several centuries, and the ways in which people have imagined what it means to be nocturnal.

Kathy’s work grows from a partnership between nature and technology expressed through installations and performances. Her work, shown internationally, offers poetic and reflective experiences that invite a heightened awareness of the world around us.

Caleb’s debut collection, This Fruiting Body (Nine Arches Press), morphs “human and more-than-human bodies in a post-human lyric disco lit with ecological thought” (Samantha Walton). It’s a playful invitation to a queer ecopoetics that permeates our bodies and speech, our gardens, homes, and city suburbs.

There’ll be opportunities to interact and talk about human and more-than-human experiences of night-time before Caleb and Kathy share work which explores these themes. We’ll encounter darkness, literal and metaphorical, with opportunities to ask questions. Then, the chance to move outside as night falls, discovering and – possibly – exceeding our human senses.

Doors open at 7:30pm for drinks and discussion, talks begin at 8:30pm.

£5 is our recommended price for this event. If this feels affordable and right for you then paying the recommended price will help us cover our costs.

There are limited number of tickets available for this session, please let us know if you are no longer able to attend: festival@bnhc.org.uk

This activity is taking place as part of the Festival of Nature 2022: https://www.bnhc.org.uk/festival-of-nature/events/

Finding Shackleton’s ship: why our fascination with Antarctica endures

Adrian Howkins, University of Bristol

The discovery of Ernest Shackleton’s ship the Endurance in pristine condition at the bottom of Antarctica’s Weddell Sea was one of the few good news stories this month.

It marked the coming together of modern stories of technological and logistical achievement with older tales of exploration and struggle. Located 3,000 metres down, 107 years after it was crushed by ice, finding the Endurance was a significant moment in polar history.

As a result of his egalitarian leadership style and the fact he “never lost a man”, Ernest Shackleton is one of the most admired explorers of Antarctica’s “heroic age”. This spanned a 20-year period of intense exploration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that became most famous for the race to the South Pole between Britain’s Captain Robert Scott and Norway’s Roald Amundsen in the summer of 1911.

Shackleton’s Endurance expedition set out in 1914 with the goal of becoming the first to cross the whole continent, but the loss of his ship led instead to a desperate struggle for survival. Stories of polar exploration have always captured the popular imagination, but what are the implications of this enduring fascination?

Obstacles, goals and distractions

The extreme environment of Antarctica features prominently in the story of the search for the Endurance, as the Weddell Sea is notoriously dangerous for shipping. The use of state-of-the-art technology adds an extra layer of interest, and the striking images produced by the expedition immediately transport us to this distant, murky, undersea world.

In the current tense geopolitical environment, there is something reassuringly optimistic about the search for the Endurance: a classic narrative of overcoming serious obstacles to achieve a spectacular goal.

A similar sense also helps to explain the excitement generated by the heroic age of Antarctic exploration in the early 20th century, much in the way space exploration excites people now. When the Endurance set sail for Antarctica from London in 1914, this too was a time of geopolitical tension, with imperial rivalries escalating into the first world war.

The expedition was given instructions to proceed because the government thought the Antarctic adventure would serve as a morale-boosting distraction. But when his ship became stuck in the ice and then sank, Shackleton’s original goal of crossing the continent gave way to the simple desire to stay alive.

Heroes, problems and challenges

While there is much to celebrate in the exploits of polar explorers, the enduring fascination with polar exploration also poses some challenges. A tendency to focus on the heroic age over all other periods of Antarctic history means that other interesting episodes are frequently overlooked. Just because Antarctic exploration served as a distraction from the complexities of imperial politics, for example, does not mean that the continent has stood outside wider imperial history.

In the early 20th century, Britain drew upon the exploits of its polar explorers and scientists in making its sovereignty claim to the Falkland Islands Dependencies, known today as the British Antarctic Territory. Assertions of sovereignty made by 19th century British explorers and whalers helped to justify the British claim in international law.

The 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which functions as the overarching governing mechanism in the region, perpetuates the connection between science and politics by requiring a country to conduct substantial scientific research on the continent before it can be admitted as a full consultative member.

The number of consulative parties has increased from 12 to 29 today, with an additional 25 non-consultative parties having the right to attend meetings but not particpate in decision making. Taking a broader perspective not only widens an appreciation for the history of Antarctica, but can also add depth and nuance to the history of exploration.

Polar exploration also tends to be a history without much diversity. A single expedition from Japan broke the near monopoly of white male explorers during Antarctica’s heroic age. While not surprising for the early 20th century, this lack of diversity raises important questions about who is included and who is excluded from heroic age narratives – and who benefits from the ongoing interest. If you can’t see yourself reflected in those who feature in prominent stories about Antarctica, it may be harder to make an emotional connection to the continent and want to pursue a career there, for example.

The same goes for women and the contribution they have made to polar exploration over the last century. Very little is heard of their work and endeavours. Visiting Antarctica over the past few years, I have seen a growing gender balance in polar science. But the prominence of groups of white men in the publicity photographs of the Endurance search expedition gives the impression that not much has changed over the past century.

Another potential problem of the ongoing interest in exploration and adventure is that it tends to set up a relationship of conflict between humans and the non-human natural world. This is rarely binary, and explorers often demonstrate a deep appreciation for the polar environment.

But at the heart of interest in Antarctica during the heroic age was a desire to demonstrate individual and national prowess through the conquest of nature. Viewed from this perspective, interest in the heroic age might be seen as perpetuating the attitudes of control and dominance over the natural world that have contributed to our current environmental crisis.

A sepia photograph of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton.
Ernest Shackleton. Olga Popova/Shutterstock

The finding of the Endurance is a welcome reminder of Shackleton’s incredible story of survival. But we need to start thinking a little more critically about the values and attitudes embedded in our continuing fascination with polar exploration and adventure.

Doing more to acknowledge the gender and racial politics of the heroic era might help to start a conversation about the enduring inequalities that persist in an effort to move towards a more diverse Antarctic community, and beyond the achievements of early 20th-century white men.

Adrian Howkins, Reader in Environmental History, Department of History, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New book: Standing on Holy Ground in the Middle Ages by Lucy Donkin

Dr Lucy Donkin (History of Art, University of Bristol) has published a new book on holy ground in the middle ages.

Standing on Holy Ground in the Middle Ages illuminates how the floor surface shaped the ways in which people in medieval western Europe and beyond experienced sacred spaces.

The ground beneath our feet plays a crucial, yet often overlooked, role in our relationship with the environments we inhabit and the spaces with which we interact. By focusing on this surface as a point of encounter, Lucy Donkin positions it within a series of vertically stacked layers—the earth itself, permanent and temporary floor coverings, and the bodies of the living above ground and the dead beneath—providing new perspectives on how sacred space was defined and decorated, including the veneration of holy footprints, consecration ceremonies, and the demarcation of certain places for particular activities.

Using a wide array of visual and textual sources, Standing on Holy Ground in the Middle Ages also details ways in which interaction with this surface shaped people’s identities, whether as individuals, office holders, or members of religious communities. Gestures such as trampling and prostration, the repeated employment of specific locations, and burial beneath particular people or actions used the surface to express likeness and difference. From pilgrimage sites in the Holy Land to cathedrals, abbeys, and local parish churches across the Latin West, Donkin frames the ground as a shared surface, both a feature of diverse, distant places and subject to a variety of uses over time—while also offering a model for understanding spatial relationships in other periods, regions, and contexts.

Cornell University Press are offering a discount of 30% using the code CSVS2022 at combinedacademic.co.uk.