On the Nature of Things is a podcast about how the people of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland understood their relationship to the natural world, from 700 to 1700.
That the project took the form of a podcast is the result of two interrelated factors. Firstly, the pandemic: during lockdown we both relied upon our daily walk and, when possible, we opted for walks in nature. Secondly, the quiet: we missed conversations, and being interrupted, and the cheerful noise of everyone talking at once (Zoom effectively stifles this: lest we forget, it is a business tool, and was not made for daily chatter). So as we walked, if we walked alone, we would listen to a podcast.
There are six episodes in total – the apocalypse, the cosmos, magic, water, trees, and the harvest – all of which touch on different aspects of the natural world. As an early medievalist and an early modernist, we have chosen to explore the experience of historical people: what about the natural world did they enjoy, or exploit, or fear?
The foundation of the project is our mutual and growing alarm regarding the environmental crisis. This is not a point that we belabour within the episodes themselves, but integral to the project is the conviction that the natural world is precious and endangered. Our aim is to encourage reflection on humanity’s relationship to nature and how this has changed over time. There are certainly some things we can learn from medieval and early modern people regarding the earth’s treatment (others, like the use of Communion wafers to encourage bees in honey production, we can safely discard).
For each episode we interviewed at least one specialist in the topic, which was an excellent opportunity to build upon existing academic networks. All interviews were conducted remotely, and we were able to talk to academics based overseas. This resulted in a plurality of voices from different institutions and disciplines, at various stages in their careers.
We interviewed Abi Bleach (University of Manchester), Aylin Malcolm (University of Pennsylvania), Dr Todd Borlik (University of Huddersfield), Dr Tabitha Stanmore (University of Bristol), Prof. Hilary Eklund (Loyola University), Anjali Vyas-Brannick (University of York), Prof. Marjorie Rubright (UMass Amherst), and Prof. Emily Steiner (University of Pennsylvania). We are grateful for their wisdom, generosity, and enthusiasm.
A key feature of our episodes is the inclusion of historical documents, from poetry to spells to diplomatic communications, read by student actors. We included well-known extracts alongside those that listeners may not be familiar with, such as works in Old and Middle English, read in the original. The readings are intended to move the topic from abstract to immediate, giving the listener access to the words of historical people. It was important to us that actors were given a central role in the podcast due to the disappointment and difficulties they have collectively faced during the pandemic.
Outcomes and Next Steps
Once the podcast has concluded, we aim to work towards an interdisciplinary conference which builds upon the centrality of the natural world to medieval and early modern life. In the meantime, we are giving a joint paper about the podcast at the 2021 Borders and Crossings Conference at the University of Kent. One of the central themes of this year’s conference is local travel and re-engagement with the natural world during the pandemic.
Whilst making the podcast it became evident how passionate medieval and early modern scholars are about looking after our planet; every interviewee showed a commitment to using their historical environmental research as a tool to combat climate change. The podcast has now reached listeners in 23 countries, and as we receive their feedback it is clear that its message has resonated beyond the academic community.
Our ability to make On the Nature of Things is due entirely to funding from the AHRC-TORCH Graduate Fund, which we were delighted to receive in December 2020.
On the Nature of Things is available here. For updates and new episodes follow @thenaturepod on Twitter.