On the Trail of Nature

Man and the Natural World: A History of the Modern Sensibility

by Keith Thomas
Pantheon, 425 pp., $19.95

The Book of Revelation suggested that at the Resurrection, dogs, like other unclean beings, would be excluded from the New Jerusalem; this was accepted in medieval England. Chaucer has nothing good to say about the dog and neither has Shakespeare. Yet there were dogs and dogs, as Keith Thomas notes. Mastiffs and mongrels were called lecherous, incestuous, filthy, and truculent, and the butcher’s cur was snarling and sullen. But the hound was noble, sagacious, generous, intelligent, faithful, and obedient. Mr. Thomas guesses that the reason for this distinction was essentially social. An early-eighteenth-century writer noted that people tended to have dogs appropriate to their social position. But the charm of Man and the Natural World is that it does not insist too heavily on socio-historical explanations of this type. Mr. Thomas has a careful honesty as a historian, and a strong feeling for particularities. Having sketched a plausible generalization that might explain a changing attitude to nature in Britain, he forthwith produces a string of interesting counterexamples. He excels in details and in regional variety, and he avoids the heavy, Hegelian periodization that can become a deadening feature of social history.

In the “early modern period,” which Mr. Thomas is mainly concerned with—roughly from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries—domestic beasts were often dressed up with bells, ribbons, and other finery, and familiarly spoken to. Geese and chickens were called to their food by the words “Yuly, Yuly,” “Coom biddy” (Come, I bid thee). Pigs were called “sic, sic, sic” in the north; “chuck, chuck” in Hampshire; “sug, sug” in Norfolk; “sook, sook” in Devon. “Bawk up,” said the Suffolk milkmaid as she tied up her cows; “Rynt thee,” said her Cheshire counterpart, meaning “Move over, I’ve finished.”

The book engenders a desire to quote and to go on quoting in this vein and is itself largely composed of strings of quotations from an impressive range of English sources. The piling up of concrete details conjures up an untidy, vivid picture of the past, stretching from early modern England to the nineteenth century, a picture that is sometimes beautiful in its crude and contrasting colors and its antique vocabulary, and sometimes disgusting. Something like a smell of ritualized cruelty and barbarism comes from the pages about bearbaiting, cock-fighting, and other animal contests and tortures. How lumpish and odious our ancestors seem to have been, bullying animals and mocking idiots in their muddy villages; how leaden and insensitive the contemporaries of Shakespeare, in that age of respected wit and learning.

Yet the Anglo-Saxon words that picked out their harsh pleasures and formed their peasant taxonomies are often magical. Mr. Thomas most skillfully draws out the implicit poetry in the early names of natural kinds, both of animals and of plants. His lists make Rabelaisian English, for example, of plant names—hounds’ piss, bearfoot, bird’s eyes, cat’s tail, cranesbill, coltsfoot, goat’s beard, miller’s thumb, dead man’s fingers, bachelor’s buttons, shepherd’s purse, fool’s cap, ladies’ slippers. This from one of his lists chosen…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.