Michael Twomey

Retired Dana Professor, English

Environmental Humanities

Environmental criticism is a new and exciting branch of literary study that combines various modes of literary analysis — historical, formalist, feminist, neo-colonialist, etc.— with environmental study.  My work focuses on reading medieval literature through an environmental "lens." I'm interested in "environmental memory"--how literature conveys a culture's collective environmental ideologies--and in how medieval literature registers historical environmental changes and events.  Below are some samples of my work in environmental criticism.

Publication: “The Exemplary Environment of Bartholomaeus Anglicus,” in Reading the Natural World in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance:  Perspectives on Ecology and the Environment, ed. Thomas Willard, Arizona Studies in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, 46 (Turnhout, BE: Brepols, 2020), pp.  71-88.

In one sense, “Isidorean” encyclopedias--those that drew their contents primarily from Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae (636)--are like textual arks, preserving biblical and late Roman environments for future readers to encounter.  In another sense, they are the National Geographic of the Middle Ages, a means of virtual tourism to faraway places with strange sounding names.  In either sense, Isidorean encyclopedias were uncommitted to local climate and geography, promulgating a reading of nature that consisted of “exemplary environments”—places of mental habitation accessible through the book lying open before the reader.  The most widely-read of these encyclopedias was Bartholomaeus Anglicus's De proprietatibus rerum (On the properties of things; ca. 1240), whose prologue and epilogue, along with various statements within, make it clear that its purpose is to serve as a companion to biblical study.  

Lectures:  "Practicing Ecocriticism" and "How the Forest Became the Wilderness," September 24, 2019, Bethany College, Bethany WV.  “Practicing Ecocriticism,” delivered to faculty and students from across the college, introduced the aims and practices of ecocriticism. In this lecture, I also spoke about my work in environmental memory--how literary and cultural artifacts influence human thinking about nature by complementing, altering, and even displacing memories based on first-hand experience. “How the Forest Became the Wilderness,” delivered to a class on English literary history, focused on environmental memory specifically with regard to medieval and early modern English forests. By the year 1600, the wild and dangerous “forest of adventure” in chivalric romances such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight contrasted starkly with the reality of England’s shrinking, heavily-restricted and domesticated royal forests. By comparison with these diminished English forests, the vast forests of North America appeared to English colonists as a wilderness that was inhabited by savages, owned by no one, far from royal policing, and therefore free to be seized, cleared, and settled.

Teaching: "Practicing Ecocriticism," August 28, 2018, in the Svartárkot Culture-Nature program, Kiðagil, Bárðardalur, Northern Iceland.  

This lecture introduced students to ecocriticism as a form of literary and cultural criticism, first distinguishing it from "nature writing" and then outlining two "waves" of ecocriticism:  the first, in which ecocritics mainly celebrated wilderness and sustainability, blaming anthropocentrism for the degradation of the natural environment; and the second, which incorporates other critical approaches such as feminism and post-colonialism, no longer romanticizing nature untouched by mankind, but rather focusing on environmental justice that respects both the natural world and human beings.  The lecture highlighted the ecocritical concept "environmental memory," defined by Lawrence Buell as an environmental imprint on memory that influences future action or thought, whether consciously or unconsciously, or directly or indirectly.  Information about the Svartárkot Culture-Nature program is further below; in 2018, students came from Canada, Britain, and the USA.

Conference paper: "The Fjords Were Full of Fish: Environmental Conventions in Landnám Narratives," Twelfth Annual Fiske Conference on Icelandic Studies, Cornell University, June 2, 2017.

In this paper, I look at several instances of environmental memory that link some of the best-known texts in medieval Icelandic literature:  accounts of environmental bounty that occur in Settlement (Landnám) narratives found in Íslendingabók, Landnámabók, and a number of the family sagas.  None of these Settlement accounts is an eyewitness account.  Each is the final product of what Pernille Hermann calls “local narrative culture," some of which continues to this day in parts of Iceland.  These instances of environmental memory occur in the form of narrative conventions--repeated, predictable narrative elements forming patterns that set up expectations for reading all or part of a literary text. The three conventions operating in Settlement narratives are: (1) Taking the land, when settlers arrive in the ninth and tenth centuries, claiming and naming land on the uninhabited island; (2) Dividing the land, when settlers generously give away plots of land to later arrivals; and (3) Assessing the land, when settlers praise Iceland's natural bounty--its lakes and rivers teeming with fish, its shores full of driftage and beached whales, its forests full of firewood and its bogs full of bog iron, and its grazing land so vast and rich that escaped animals can winter over on it.  The three narrative conventions that I have described here suggest that saga narratives using them conform more to narrative norms than to historical reality.

Conference paper: "Environmental Justice in Arthurian Romance" (2017, 52nd International Conference on Medieval Studies, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo MI).

Restoring justice after the harms of injustice is one of the defining plot requirements of literary romance.  This paper looks into the occurrence in medieval Arthurian romance of a supposedly modern idea of justice:  environmental justice.  In modern ecological thinking, environmental justice has two dimensions.  One is removing environmental threats to disadvantaged human beings—for example, eliminating lead from drinking water in poor neighborhoods.  The other is safeguarding the environment by creating and enforcing environmental protection laws, since the environment cannot advocate for itself.  Environmental activists tend to assume that environmental justice is a modern idea, but in fact it is as old as the recognition of the human impact on the environment.,  In the Middle Ages, it operated at two levels.  In practical terms, a well-known medieval example is hunting seasons, intended both to control and guarantee the supply of game.  At a theoretical level, between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, medieval natural philosophers postulated that the natural order depended on a principle of dynamic equilibrium that necessitated preserving the balance of nature.  To what extent, then, might medieval romance, whose narrative arc is motivated by the desire to restore the balance of justice, show a concern for environmental justice alongside justice for the romance protagonist(s)?  This paper examines the place of environmental justice specifically in medieval Arthurian romances such as Chrétien’s Perceval and Yvain, together with their Middle English versions; the romances of the Vulgate Cycle; and Malory’s Morte Darthur.

Teaching:  “Understanding the Human Dimensions of Long-Term Environmental Change: Transformations of Iceland From the Viking Era Through the Late Medieval Period (CE 850-1500)" (2015); and “Environmental Memory and Change in Medieval Iceland" (2014), in the Svartárkot Culture-Nature program, Northern Iceland.  

During June 2015 and August, 2014, I took part in an interdisciplinary, graduate-level course for students of environmental criticism, history, archeology, climatology, ecology, and anthropology.  The course took place at Kiðagil (2015) and Storuvellir (2014), on the river Skjálfandafljót in Bárðardalur, in northern Iceland.  The chief organizers of the course were Steven Hartman (IC alumnus, English, 1987, now Professor, English Department, Mid Sweden University), Viðar Hreinsson (Reykjavík Academy, editor of Penguin Classics’ The Sagas of the Icelanders, director of Svartárkot Culture-Nature); and Tom McGovern (City University of New York).  

In 2015 the students taking the course came from England, Greenland, Japan, Sweden, and the USA; in 2014 they came from Austria, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, and the USA.  The faculty in 2015 included environmentalist/naturalist Þorvarður Árnason (University of Iceland); historian Viðar Hreinsson; archeologist Adolf Friðriksson (Director, Icelandic Institute of Archeology); environmental historian Árni Daníel Julíusson (Reykjavík Academy); Icelandic saga specialist Emily Lethbridge (University of Iceland/ Árni Magnusson Institute for Icelandic Studies); medieval archeologists Tom McGovern and Megan Hicks (CUNY); and medieval climatologist Astrid Ogilvie (Akureyri University/University of Colorado, Boulder).  In 2014, the faculty included environmental critic Lawrence Buell (Harvard University).

Besides participating in daily discussion about readings and lectures in environmental issues concerning medieval Iceland, I lectured on “Reading the Environment of Medieval Literature” and "Medieval Literature and the Environment."  In both years, I participated in a panel discussion on Grettir’s Saga, one of the most famous medieval Icelandic sagas--one of whose major episodes takes place at Goðafoss (pictured above), which is at the northern end of Bárðardalur.  In addition, I served as a session moderator and as a mentor to the students in the program.

Conference paper:  "The Arthurian Ecotone" (2015, 50th International Medieval Congress, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo MI).

This paper was one of two invited papers in a session on Arthurian landscapes sponsored by the journal Arthurian Literature (Cambridge, UK).  An ecotone is the space between two clearly-defined ecozones--such as a forest and a field--where the mingling of species from the two ecozones produces an "edge effect."  My paper argues that medieval romance writers not only incorporated ecotonal landscapes in their fictions, they situated transformative encounters in them.  Ecotones are thus environmental correlatives for important narrative events.  Modern medievalists have long overlooked ecotonal landscapes in medieval literature, mistaking them for the larger landscape features, such as forests, that ecotones abut.  In English, ecotones are often identified as "sides"; an example is the "water's side" from which King Arthur is taken to Avalon in the famous conclusion of Thomas Malory's Le Morte Darthur.

Publication:  "How Green Was the Green Knight?  Forest Ecology at Hautdesert," Arthurian LIterature [Cambridge UK] 30 (2013), 27-53.   

One of the abiding impressions made by Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK) on its readers is that the Green Knight is an embodiment of nature:  after all, he is green, he enters Camelot in the dead of winter holding a green holly branch in one hand, and he survives decapitation as if he were a tree that has merely lost a branch.  Both in the form of Bertilak and in the form of the Green Knight, he is a man of the forest.  This essay explores the Gawain-poet’s deft adaptation of the conventional forest of romance to the environmental realities of fourteenth-century English forests.  By looking historically at the ecology of Hautdesert, where Bertilak lives and hunts, it assesses the environmental stewardship practiced in the territory around the castle. 
     Bertilak's forest around Hautdesert is a deer park very much like Swythamley Park in the Peak Forest, which scholars have proposed as the inspiration for the location of SGGK.  But whereas earlier scholars regarded the landscape of Hautdesert as fictional, this article reveals the real-world practices used by Bertilak's foresters to preserve the forest's essential greenery in what turns out to be a compartmented deer park.  Old-growth trees predominate, especially lime trees, which are still notable in the Peak Forest.  Below the tall trees is a variegated understory that is coppiced to provide firewood for the castle.  Hazel and hawthorn grow in tangles outside the park as a hindrance to poachers and vermin alike. 
     Ecologists under the spell of Romanticism might not find much to like in SGGK's portrait of a forest environment maintained for the sake of hunting, firewood, and timber, especially one in which deer are harvested so violently and in such great numbers.  However, Bertilak’s hunting preserve in forested Hautdesert cannot be seen as a life-portrait of the English countryside at the time SGGK was written.  The Gawain-poet’s representation of the forest environment in SGGK is rather an exercise in historical nostalgia. 

Teaching:  "Wilderness in the Western Mind" (Ithaca College, 2013).

At Ithaca College, I have offered an intermediate-level seminar in the Honors Program called "Wilderness in the Western Mind" that is the first course in environmental humanities offered at the College.  Looking at the idea of wilderness in pre-modern Europe in terms of environmental humanities involves studying the condition of pre-modern environments and pre-modern thinking about the environment.  A course on a single aspect of how the environment figured in literature and how literature reflected and shaped environmental attitudes in the period leading up to the exploration and colonization of North America—that is, a course on wilderness in the Western mind—offers an ideal opportunity for students to be introduced to this new approach to literature.  It is especially significant because so many of the environmental attitudes that we encounter in this course still hold sway, despite the decline of wilderness and despite a rising awareness of mankind’s often negative impact on nature.
     When Europeans first encountered the North American wilderness, they encountered old-growth forests, which they cut; wild game, which they hunted; and indigenous peoples, whom they feared as devil-worshiping savages.  Notions about wilderness as a dangerous, alien space to be subdued and exploited—notions that the first colonists brought with them—are the rich, provocative, and exciting subject-matter of this course.  The readings include classic works of environmental and postcolonial criticism, literature that reflected and shaped Western thinking about the meaning and value of wilderness, and historical studies of the European and American landscapes before the Age of Discovery.  Because the course is aimed at understanding the mentality of Europeans at the time of the discovery and settlement of North America, the focus will be primarily on the culture of medieval and early modern England, including also the Biblical and classical ideologies that it inherited from the ancient world. 

Guest presentations:

  • Ms. Christina Twomey, MLA, Landscape Architect, New York City Parks Department: The US National Parks and the American Idea of Wilderness.
  • Prof. Frederik Kaufman, Department of Philosophy and Religion, Ithaca College:  Is Sustainability Possible?
  • Prof. Nancy Ramage, Emerita, Department of Art History, Ithaca College:  Wilderness in Classical and Medieval Art.
  • Prof. Steven Hartman, Mid Sweden University:  Environmental Humanities.
  • Prof. Jake Brenner, Department of Environmental Studies, Ithaca College:  Reading the History of a Landscape at the Ithaca College Natural Lands.