Good morning “Lords and Ladies, learned and lewed, and all those who reject or object to those stated binaries!”—I hereby invoke Luke’s greeting as our official salutation ☺.
This week’s readings had me thinking about two topics: nature and origins—the nature and origin of “fame,” for example, as we saw in Chaucer’s House of Fame, the nature and origin of the universe, as we saw in Hildegard, Sivestris, and elsewhere, as well as the nature and origin of, yes, the chicken as we saw in Macrobius. Given this running theme, I thought a blog post on both the literal and etymological origins of “nature” might be appropriate—especially given that I, for one, am having some difficulty pinpointing how the word or concept “nature” would have registered in the medieval mind.
A quick Google/dictionary search demonstrates the extent to which the term is and has been variously used—it can mean (1) “the phenomena of the physical world collectively . . . including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations,” (2) “the physical force regarded as causing and regulating these phenomena,” and/or “the basic or inherent features of something” (i.e. a “characteristic,” “essence,” or “temperament”). All of these definitions seem relevant in some way, shape, or form, to the way in which the term is taken up in our readings. Latini, for example, writes about the “works” of nature (which include generation, growth, diminution, alteration and movement, see Book of Treasures, 84), while Chaucer refers to both the forces of “nature” as a sort of animating principle while also reflecting on the “nature” of Fame (among other things). Even the first definition that appears, though it seems to suggest a more contemporary attitude towards nature (with human beings juxtaposed to as opposed to part of the “natural world”) calls to mind the extent to which the “discovery” of nature as a concept as well as an entity (?) subject to inquiry would have given people recourse to reject certain customs (religious traditions for example) on the basis of the so-called “nature of things.”
At the same time, both the term and the origins of nature-the-entity/force/or whatever you want to call it seem notably hazy… Latini suggests, for example, that “Our Lord God . . . established nature beneath himself, which orders all things under heaven, according to the will of the Sovereign Father” (84)—a conception that seems to be born out in Silvestris’ Cosmographia when Nature “appears” as a rational and anthropomorphized being who begs God to further order the earth. Elsewhere, however, Latini also suggests, drawing from Aristotle, that “nature is that through which all things move or rest by themselves” (84)—a definition that seems to figure nature as a kind of backdrop or setting for earthly life. Given the variety of ways in which nature is postulated, can we agree on one standard definition for what “nature” would have meant to someone like Silvestris, Latini, Chaucer, or others? What can we conclude about “nature” in the medieval period—is it a cause or series of causes and their effects? A backdrop? A rational entity or being? An animating principle? Is it divinely ordained or is it itself divine (Isidore of Seville, for example, in his book of etymologies suggests that “nature” may be a synonym for God)? How has our definition (or definitions?) of “nature” changed since the thirteenth century? Have you found it difficult to “translate” certain concepts or terms (like “nature”) as you read?
Here is a link to a website devoted to the etymology of nature–may it guide and not confuse us!