How did people view the rural environment during the middle ages, renaissance and early modern period, and were they more interested in exploiting, consuming or preserving it?


Attitudes towards the rural environment have evolved with the passage of time, beginning with the positivity of the Bible’s creation story and God’s wish for humans to conserve the environment, keeping the value and quantity constant by replenishing what they had used.[1] This concept decreased during the Middle Ages between the 5th and 15th Century, and Renaissance period, between the 14th and 17th Century, as manmade objects became more and more frequent through the destruction of natural resources such as trees. A visible indicator of this is the expansion of housing and city centres which decreases the area of natural, untouched land. This would suggest that with the progression of time, the values of the rural environment have decreased and the desire for manmade produce has increased. However, after exploiting nature’s goods and creating bustling cities, one began to miss the peacefulness of the rural environment and desire to return, perhaps nudging the people of the 18th Century Early modern period towards preservation, whereby gardening became a form of maintenance. To evaluate attitudes towards the rural environment, one must examine the changes in the presentation of gardens and the manipulation man possessed over them, consummation of natural resources such as animals and trees, religion in relation to the creation of the world, and whether the city or countryside was more appreciated.

Main Text

The admiration of the rural environment during the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods was largely due to a culture of widespread religion, particularly in England with Christianity, stemming from God’s creation of the earth, and the Garden of Eden.[2] Augustine believed the natural environment to be symbolic of God,[3] as the creator of the earth, and therefore it was sacred and should be respected by earth’s inhabitants. Thus, it can be argued that religion during this period encouraged people to take care of the environment so as not to insult God and his magnificent creation. One may have believed that they could feel closer to God by become closer to nature, particularly when taking in the sublime views around them; this connection to God could be experienced by standing on the top of a cliff looking down on the ferocious waves surrounding them.[4] Taking this into consideration, the religious views regarding the creation of the world, this would suggest that people from the Middle Ages and Renaissance period were against exploitation of the earth and its creatures as this would insult God’s work. However, one could question this view with the fact that the development of Churches and Cathedrals took place, which are considered as being the centre of worship and communication with God, which contradicts the preservation of the natural environment as man has built upon the natural land, thus creating an unnatural connection to God. This shows a progression in attitudes towards the rural environment since The Golden Age by Ovid, who believed that God had created all of man’s needs, there was no need for man to add to this.[5] This perhaps illustrates that the looser connection to religion with the advancement of scientific knowledge and technology through the progression to the Early Modern period, caused humans to neglect the environment as they believed their goods to be superior to that which was naturally provided. Taking this into account, if man thought they were closest to God when at one with his creations, how can they become close to God when within a manmade house in a bustling city, in contrast to the peaceful waves of the ocean upon a secluded beach? To counter the view that people believed that the rural environment should be preserved for religious reasons, the Bible could also be interpreted as encouragement for men to exploit the environment rather than preserve it.

The Bible states that the world was created for man’s use, therefore implying that humans could do with it as they pleased. Although it did not however suggest that deforestation or overfishing should occur as it was man’s job to ‘replenish the earth and subdue it’.[6] Nevertheless this caused men to put themselves above nature in the hierarchy of living things,[7] therefore defending their exploitation of natural resources. Ovid suggests that humans have grown to exploit nature throughout the years, as during the Golden Age the world was untouched by man, progressing towards a manmade society with the Silver and Iron Age as the natural world is gradually destroyed by man in the process, in order to create shelter from the wood of trees and tools from cut stone[8]. Therefore, by the Medieval, Renaissance and Early Modern period, this destruction has advanced even further with the development of houses, shops, farming and clothing. This suggests that humans had very little care for the natural resources around them and are dissatisfied with the natural shelter they provided. With regards to deforestation, Edmund Spenser would cynically argue that if plants and trees are to die eventually, as per the natural cycle of life, then why shouldn’t humans make the most of them and benefit from their use in whatever way they see necessary, rather than letting these potential resources go to waste?[9] This would imply that people of the Medieval period saw it as their duty to make the most of the resources nature had to offer them, which did not seem to be exploitation at the time, rather resourcefulness. It could be argued therefore, that conservation was a later response to the exploitation of the environment suffered during the medieval and renaissance period, after man has destroyed forests and instead created a city. Much in the same way that one enjoys a trip to the countryside as a break from the hustle and bustle of a city such as London, which was a desire existing in the Early Modern period as William Wordsworth In Tintern Abbey expresses the glory of the environment after living in the ‘brown’, ‘crowded’ and ‘noisy’ cities[10]. Whilst this source supports that cities were expanding and nature receding, the evident desire to return to the countryside suggests that nature was always valued by humans, but that they did not realise this, or appreciate it’s beauty until after they had destroyed what was naturally occurring around them. Having said this, it could be argued that humans in the Middle Ages did in fact appreciate the rural environment as gardens and their maintenance were a frequent and costly feature of castles, partially as an illustratration of their wealth.

Arguably during the Middle ages humans expressed their appreciation of the rural environment through the creation of gardens within castle boarders; which were to an extent an expression of their wealth. A strong example of this can be seen at Kenilworth Castle, whereby Robert Dudley added a Garden to welcome Queen Elizabeth I in 1575, as an attempt to win her love[11]. Whilst the current garden is a recreation of the original, mapped out from the original sketches and designs, it cost English Heritage £3 million to reconstruct back in 2009[12]. Given the purpose of this Garden in particular, it can be reasoned that either Dudley himself thought highly of the natural environment, or thought that Queen Elizabeth admired the beauty of flowers and plants. If they were considered repulsive or went unnoticed, surely another art of seduction would have been selected instead, and surely if considered so inferior, flowers would not be presented in front of the Queen, let alone be a part of a garden designed especially for her approval. To further this argument, the terrace, arbours, planting, fountain and aviary, featured in the garden, would have been a massive expense even back in the Medieval period[13]. Taking this into account therefore, it can be argued that Dudley must have valued the beauty of flowers and plants, otherwise he would not be allowing such an expense. This can be cross-referenced with the gardens seen at Blenheim palace[14] and in Frédéric Scalberge’s ‘Jardin du roi’[15].The fact that time, effort and money was put into both the creation and maintenance of these gardens during the Medieval and Renaissance period, implies that nature’s beauty was highly regarded. Despite this however, the appreciation of nature can be questioned with relation to gardens and gardening, as they are under the manipulation of the human race, rather than being admired in their natural form.

The juxtaposition of admiring nature’s beauty but then perfecting it, is apparent in Francis Bacon’s ‘Of Gardens’, in which he writes a detailed guide on how to construct the perfect garden[16]. Whilst it can be argued that Bacon was an admirer of the rural environment, as he has taken the time and effort to create a guide encouraging others to look after their gardens with in depth descriptions of the sensory experience of flowers, which again costs time and effort and expense to carry out; but it is not the natural beauty Bacon admires, it is perfection. After seeming to connect with nature’s provisions, Bacon goes on to almost criticise nature, stating that fountains make the garden ‘unwholesome’ as they attract frogs and flies, and usually end up mud covered unless they are maintained to the highest of standards[17]. Furthermore he wishes the garden to have provisions for shade rather than be subjected to sit in the direct sunlight, and would prefer gravel to walk upon rather than grass and the earth beneath it as this is too dirty. The fact that Bacon considers a garden complete with the addition of fountains and statues also suggests that the natural beauty of flowers, trees and plants is not enough alone, only with the addition of these manmade objects. This contradiction between the seeming admiration of nature and the desire to be kept as far away from its natural form as possible. This implies that people of this period would only appreciate nature when they could obtain benefits from it, like warmth – but not too much. This view is also upheld in the ‘Shepherd’s Calendar, December’, where the failure of harvests and death within the flock brought about a dislike for nature as it had failed to provide sufficient resources for humans to consume[18].


Having evaluating attitudes towards the rural environment throughout the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Early modern period, with regards to religious influences from the Bible teachings, gardens, consumption and the development of cities, it is clear that ideas about conservation, exploitation and preservation have never been constant. Although the Bible encouraged conservation, the Middle ages was possibly an era of exploitation, in which bustling cities were created for the benefit of mankind. Whilst nature may have been appreciated by the wealthy, it was never regarded so highly that it need not be manipulated by gardeners and enhanced by manmade statues and fountains. However, certainly by the Early modern period, those who remembered living closer to nature, possessed the desire to return to the peacefulness of the countryside after experiencing the hustle and bustle of city life. When evaluating religious views on the rural environment, their desire to be closer to God and his creations contradicts entirely with the purpose of a manmade Church, which suggests that nature is seconded to manmade resources, further argued by the concept of a garden which restricts the natural blossoming of nature through mans’ manipulation of gardening and additional enhancing objects, implying that nature alone is not beautiful enough. Preservation of the rural world is unlikely to have crossed the minds of the Medieval and Renaissance population, as the development of towns on a large scale was still a new concept and small in comparison to the city of London today, therefore it can be reasoned that preservation was a concept arising during the Early modern period, whereby the effects of early deforestation and the construction of manmade buildings were becoming visible and were more unpleasant to live in, when contrasted with the tranquillity of the countryside and being at one with nature. Overall, across all three periods, it is most likely that nature was appreciated when humans could benefit from its produce and shelter. When harvests began to fail and flock die, this is perhaps where the negative view of the natural world appears as humans feel failed by God’s resources and are subjected to famine. 



Augustine, The City of God, Book VII. Chapter 23, [Accessed: 17/10/16]

Bacon Francis, The Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral, of Francis Bacon, “Of Gardens”,, [Accessed: 17/10/16]

Bible Gateway, “Genesis 1, The Story of Creation”, [Accessed: 05/11/16]

Bible Gateway, “Genesis 2:4-3:24, Adam and Eve”,, [Accessed: 05/11/16]

Bible Hub, Genesis 1:28,, [Accessed: 05/11/16]

Brown, Lancelot. Blenheim Palace garden (1716-83), 19th-cent. Baxter print

English Heritage, Kenilworth Castle and Elizabethan Garden, Elizabethan Garden, [Accessed: 4/11/16]

English Heritage Guidebooks, Kenilworth Castle, English Heritage, England 2006, p.30

Friedrich, Caspar David. The wanderer above the sea of fog, 1818, [Accessed: 20/10/16]

Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1 A.C.E, [Accessed: 20/10/16]

Scalberge, Frédéric. Jardin du roi, 1636

Spenser, Edmund. The Shepheardes Calendar, December, 1579, [Accessed: 17/10/16]

Wordsworth, William, Tintern Abbey, 1798,, [Accessed: 17/10/16]

[1] Bible Gateway, “Genesis 1, The Story of Creation”, [Accessed: 05/11/16]

[2] Bible Gateway, “Genesis 2:4-3:24, Adam and Eve”,, [Accessed: 05/11/16]

[3] Augustine, The City of God, Book VII. Chapter 23, [Accessed: 17/10/16]

[4] Caspar David Friedrich, The wanderer above the sea of fog, 1818, [Accessed: 20/10/16]

[5] Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1 A.C.E, [Accessed: 20/10/16]

[6] Bible Hub, Genesis 1:28,, [Accessed: 05/11/16]

[7] Augustine The City of God, Book VII. Chapter 23

[8] Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1 A.C.E           

[9] Edmund Spenser, The Shepheardes Calendar, December, 1579, [Accessed: 17/10/16]

[10] William Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey, 1798,, [Accessed: 17/10/16]

[11] English Heritage, Kenilworth Castle and Elizabethan Garden, Elizabethan Garden, [Accessed: 4/11/16]

[12] English Heritage, Kenilworth Castle and Elizabethan Garden

[13] English Heritage Guidebooks, Kenilworth Castle, English Heritage, England 2006, p.30

[14] Lancelot Brown, Blenheim Palace garden, (1716-83), 19th-cent. Baxter print

[15] Frédéric Scalberge, Jardin du roi, 1636

[16] Francis Bacon, The Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral, of Francis Bacon, “Of Gardens”,, [Accessed: 17/10/16]

[17] Francis Bacon, The Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral, of Francis Bacon, “Of Gardens”,

[18] Edmund Spenser, The Shepheardes Calendar, December, 1579, [Accessed: 17/10/16]

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