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Fabrice Mouthon, Le Sourire de Prométhée. L’homme et la nature au Moyen Âge

Florian Besson (English translation)
Traduction de Nemo Fournier et Emma Kaisla
Cet article est une traduction de :
Fabrice Mouthon, Le sourire de Prométhée. L’homme et la nature au Moyen Âge
Le sourire de Prométhée
Fabrice Mouthon, Le sourire de Prométhée. L'homme et la nature au Moyen Âge, Paris, La Découverte, 2017, 317 p., ISBN : 9782707190970.

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Notes de la rédaction

Review translated by Nemo Fournier (ENS de Lyon) and Emma Kaisla (Columbia University, Barnard College), as part of the Transatlantic Collaborative Translation Workshop between Barnard College-Columbia University and the École normale supérieure de Lyon. Supervised by Professors Laurie Postlewate (Barnard-Columbia) & Layla Roesler (ENS de Lyon).

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1“Man and Nature”: from a rather clichéd theme, Fabrice Mouthon, a medievalist specializing in rural alpine communities, provides an excellent object of historical study. The author studies the relationship that human societies from the fourth through the sixteenth centuries maintained with nature, the latter understood in the broadest sense of the word: animals, climate, resources, microbes, rivers, forests, landscapes, etc. He develops his analysis of this relationship to nature in three parts: the idea of nature, the use of natural resources, and the organization of the natural environment. It would take too much time to discuss all the riches in this book, which arrives at an opportune time in the burgeoning study of medieval environmental history. Rather, I will limit myself to emphasizing three strong points in the work.

2The first is the way in which Fabrice Mouthon analyzes the progressive invention of a conception of nature during the medieval period, especially from the twelfth century on. This invention surfaced first in texts, as the rediscovery of the Aristotelian corpus nourished a new interest in the cosmos that resulted in the development of Nature, a divine creation distinct from God. This invention also depended on a growing awareness of the human capacity to modify the environment, as well as a new vision of the landscape, one, for instance, that pushed Petrarch to scale Mont Ventoux out of sheer curiosity, and the artists of the 19th century to draw realistic landscapes for the first time.

  • 1 « Quoi de neuf au Moyen Âge ? »

3The second strong point is the comprehensive image of the period that emerges from the text. The author uses his inquiry to contest persistent clichés in the collective imagination: no, during the Middle Ages, the world was not covered by forests; on the contrary land clearing was, very early on, significant. No, the Middle Ages was not a primitive period where peasants barely survived by scraping their subsistence from the earth: the yields increased, cultivated areas were extended, tons of wood were cut every year, and millions of fish were caught in operations that were already functioning on an industrial scale. The people of the period were not passive before nature and its unintelligible mechanisms: not only did scholars propose interpretative systems allowing people to understand, see, and predict catastrophes and climatic variations, but above all the populations continuously acted upon and transformed the environment. Fabrice Mouthon also underlines the ways in which the people of the Middle Ages attempted to solve the problems of urban pollution, deforestation, or even the collective ownership of natural resources. The author makes excellent use of recent contributions in archaeology, such as the excavations of Lake Paladru, the castrum of Montfélix, the village of Durfort, the mines in Argentière, and many others, thus demonstrating the extent to which we can no longer study (medieval) history without archaeology. He insists, notably, on the innumerous inventions that punctuated the period: new forms of ploughshares, or harnesses, new types of animal or fruit/vegetable products the grapevine and the rabbit, for instance, spread progressively from the south towards the north. By showing this, the work is consistent with current research trends, as is also reflected in this year’s large-scale exhibit at Cité des Sciences entitled “What’s new in the Middle Ages?1

4Finally, Fabrice Mouthon knows how to emphasize the high degree of reflexivity in this type of research, allowing us to consider the notions at the heart of contemporary political debates, such as the notion of anthropization – that is, the impact of man on his natural environment – or of the climate crisis. The author returns to Jared Diamond well-known thesis, according to which societies can collapse for failing to learn to manage their environment, or that of Lynn White, for whom Christianity would have produced a desacralization of the natural world that is directly responsible for the current ecological crisis. In these often controversial debates, the author knows how to remain measured, calling for a healthy prudence regarding these broad reconstructions of the past.

5The subject is vast and there was a real risk of getting lost in it, in the sense that all existing sources could be used for such an object of study. Therefore, the author judiciously narrows his scope to focus on two axes. The first is geographic: even if the work covers the whole of medieval Europe, from Scandinavia to Italy, the majority of the examples are centered on the Hautes-Alpes and Savoie, areas that the author knows best and which he has previously studied. This permits him to present novel examples, taken from local archives – such as the flood of the Valley de Champoléon in 1448, or the remarkable sharing of water from the Valley de la Maurienne that occurred in 1492. These examples usefully complement the more well-known sources. This second axis is documentary: the author returns frequently to the same source, the Annals of the Monastery of Colmar, which serves almost as a guiding thread in the labyrinth of references. This double choice gives a true coherence to the work.

6One might have wished for a clearer outline made explicit from the introduction, since at times it is slightly difficult to follow the author’s line of thought. The chapter on the anthropization of the natural environment, which, in particular, covers the whole demographic growth of the period, would have been better placed at the beginning of the work, insofar as it influences the rest of the text. Certain passages, such as the sections on epidemics or natural catastrophes, are a little rushed, but it was certainly necessary to make a choice, and we will console ourselves with the excellent chapters, notably those on energy or the progressive development of rights over nature. Several color illustrations, assembled in a central booklet, are useful additions to the argument, as the author is careful throughout the book to analyze numerous iconographic documents. The bibliography at the end is quite complete, even if certain points could have been updated with the most recent contributions in research: the author mentions, for instance, the black rat as the vector of the plague, even though it now appears that the gerbil was the guilty party. Finally, it would have appreciated if the author had addressed further some extra-European zones: the easternmost areas of the former Roman Empire, in particular, would have provided excellent examples of adaptation to a demanding natural environment, and thus led to a comparison with the relationship to nature in the medieval Muslim world.

7These few points of detail, however, do not detract from the fact that the book as a whole is an impressive work. It is clearly written for a general readership, in an agreeable style and with very few footnotes. At the same time, its rigorous precision and technicality make it just as valuable for experts. The latter will especially appreciate the historiographic mastery, which allows the author to contextualize each reference by quickly reminding readers of the debates surrounding this or that thesis. The introduction situates the work within the field of environmental history, and recalls the importance of this approach. At the cutting edge of historiographic and scientific trends, Fabrice Mouthon’s work should all the more hit its mark, considering that the questions the people of the Middle Ages were already confronting about the role of nature are being posed with even more urgency in our contemporary societies.

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1 « Quoi de neuf au Moyen Âge ? »

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Florian Besson (English translation), « Fabrice Mouthon, Le Sourire de Prométhée. L’homme et la nature au Moyen Âge », Lectures [En ligne], Les comptes rendus, mis en ligne le 21 janvier 2021, consulté le 25 février 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Florian Besson (English translation)

Florian Besson is a doctoral student in medieval history at the University Paris-Sorbonne.

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