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On roots and fruits. Intellectual history of the Middle Ages in relation to nature: challenges, trends, perspectives

Dramatic environmental changes have increasingly compelled historians to consider past forms, configurations, and representations of the interaction and relationship between man and nature. Philosophers and anthropologists have furnished significant input for critically rethinking methodologies, objects of enquiry, and historiographical narratives in the historical disciplines.

They denounce a fatal scientific dualism that ultimately contributes to legitimating the exploitation of nature in both theory and practice. Nowadays, according to them, this dualism primarily takes the form of an epistemic separation between disciplines of the human, on the one side, and disciplines of nature on the other. The basis of this separation is the presupposition that the human and the natural require essentially different treatments, the former being a field of subjects or meaning-givers, and the latter a field of mere objects of observation, experimentation, transformation. As a counter-paradigm, Emanuele Coccia (2018) has proposed a philosophy of nature which considers leaves, roots, and flowers not only as mediators of life but also as bearers of truth: in brief, as subjects to be interrogated.

In such critical considerations, the Middle Ages occupy a decisive position. In his critical reflections upon the «Great Divide» between culture and nature in Western thought, Philippe Descola (2013) has considered medieval Christian views as propaedeutic to the ontological dualism according to which the human and the non-human pertain to essentially different orders of being. Back in the 1960s the medieval historian Lynn White Jr. controversially identified the «Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis» in the Christian Middle Ages.

Within this framework, I suggest reflecting upon the challenges that historians of the Middle Ages, and specifically those dealing with the «intellectual» and «cultural» dimensions of this period, face when confronted with the task of overcoming human-nature dualism and with paradigms of the historical continuity of the exploitative thinking.

The first challenge concerns intellectual historians in general, who deal with what we traditionally call human productions such as ideas, reflections, representations. The second challenge concerns a critical reconsideration of the specific role, if any, of medieval intellectual and cultural constellations and phenomena within the historical inquiry into the precedents of the present fatal dichotomy between natural and human.

Facing these kinds of questions, intellectual historians of the Middle Ages have attempted to broaden the scope of their discipline in order to overcome dogmatic boundaries. They have thus begun to question once again the modalities, presuppositions, and contexts of various approaches in analyzing, representing, interrogating, assimilating, or even neglecting nature over many centuries. Some of this cutting-edge research shall be discussed in this panel.

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