Invasive Species and Medieval Literature

In Layamon’s Brut, a thirteenth-century early Middle English chronicle, based on the earlier accounts by Wace and Geoffrey of Monmouth, England is a land that is constantly under siege. The section that I work with the most–known as the “Arthurian Section”–documents the invasion of the Saxons and their depredations against the English people.

According to Wace:

Fors de lur nés a terre eissierent,
Par tut le päis s’espandirent,
Armes quistrent e robes pristrent,
Maisuns arstrent, humes ocistrent

[They swarmed off their ships onto land and spread through the region, seeking weapons, taking clothes, burning houses, killing men] (from Judith E. Weiss’s 2002 edition and translation, Wace’s Roman de Brut: A History of the British).

Layamon expands significantly on this moment:
Sone swa heo a lond comen; þat folc heo a-sloȝen.
þa cheorles heo uloȝen; þa tileden þa eorðen.
heo hengen þa cnihtes; þa biwusten þa londes.
alle þa gode wiues; heo stikeden mid cnifes.
alle þa maidene; heo mid morðe aqualden. (10457-61)

The violence enacted by the Saxons is much more explicit and detailed than in Layamon’s sources. The people are broken down into their tripartite functions–those who work the earth (the “cheorles”), those who protect the physical bodies of the citizens (the “cnihtes,” or knights), and later, those who protect the souls of the people–the priests (not in the excerpt above)–and all are slaughtered. What interests me here is the relation between the people and the land, especially since Layamon explicitly references the land (“eorðen” and “londes”) more than Wace does. The land becomes inert–there are no longer people to till it or to protect it, and the females capable of birthing future generations are destroyed in a violent parody of the agricultural process.

And that led me to wonder: to what extent do medieval texts include descriptions of the land and the impact of invasions on it?

In the Middle English 13th-century King Horn, Horn’s father encounters “Saracens” (a vague term often applied to non-Christian groups in medieval literature) while riding along the shores of his land. The invaders tell the king,

“Thy lond folk we schulle slon,
And alle that Crist luveth upon
And the selve right anon.
Ne shaltu todai henne gon.” (47-50)
The Saracens kill the king and proceed to slaughter the inhabitants–those who refuse to give up their religion–but there is no mention of the people’s relationship with the land, and while the churches are destroyed, the land seems to remain fairly intact. Interestingly, Horn’s mother retreats into a “roche of stone” (77) until her son matures and avenges his father.

While the 14th-century Fouke Fitz Waryn is not necessarily an invasion story (it’s often classified alongside the Robin Hood ballads as an “outlaw” tale), it offers an interesting picture of the impact of local skirmishes between the Normans and the Welsh upon the Marcher landscape. Throughout the text, towns and castles are constantly constructed, and these same towns and castles are constantly destroyed. Keep in mind that at this time, castles were large fortifications, often surrounded by earthen ramparts and wooden palisades. Construction required massive amounts of rock from quarries and timber from forests, and the creation of moats and ramparts would significantly disturb the soil. The sieges themselves could last for entire summers (this was the prime time because the invading armies could find adequate supplies). Just as in Layamon’s Brut, the rural populations were either destroyed or displaced–which would prevent opportunities to plant new trees (and other crops). The Marcher areas were largely mountainous, which means that the thin layers of soil would easily be eroded away once the trees and other natural vegetation would be harvested.

But all of these details are absent from the text; at no point does the narrator draw attention to the depredations on the land or express concern about the ecology. Of course, this is due to the purpose of the text–it is an “ancestral” romance, designed to highlight the struggles and victories of an aristocratic family.Another 14th-century outlaw tale, the Norse Saga of Án Bow-Bender, recounts a feud between Án Bow-Bender and King Ingjald. What is interesting is that whereas there seemed to be no concern for the land in Fouke Fitz Waryn, it is implicitly present here. This is, I think, due to the significantly different ecology of Norway as compared to England. The Norse relied heavily on both animal husbandry and agriculture, but because they did not use crop rotation techniques until late in the medieval period, they relied heavily on manure to ensure adequate crops. Therefore, livestock and plants–including fields that provided fodder for livestock–were valued highly. Although the king’s men do burn down a farm at which Án sought refuge (and Án subsequently rebuilds the structure), they only do so once (as opposed to the repeated cycles of destruction and rebuilding in Fouke Fitz Waryn). Rather than seek protection in a large man-made fortification (as Fouke and his relatives do), Án is more likely to turn to natural strongholds, such as caves, forests, etc. (and Grettir follows a similar pattern in Grettis Saga).

I can’t help but think that if Án’s story took place in England, either he would deplete the surrounding landscape to build castles, or if he retreated to the natural landscape, his enemies would subsequently raze his land to the point where it could no longer sustain human life (at least not for a while). From what I’ve read in Middle English literature (and there are several other texts that I could reference aside from the few mentioned here), there seems to be an indifference to the extent of natural resources at hand. While the medieval Norse texts do contain destruction of man-made structures, they do not occur with the frequency that they occur in the Middle English works. Perhaps this is due to the smaller scale of conflicts in Norway. Or perhaps it is an implicit recognition that in Norway (and Iceland), resources were much more limited and therefore could not be destroyed as willfully as in England.

Right now, the forests in Colorado are under siege. In part by humans–Colorado is a destination location, so new houses will always require timber. But there is another invasive species that has resulted in many dead and diseased trees that not only do not serve the local ecology (human or otherwise), but they also have added to the number and intensity of wildfires in the state. Not much, if anything, can be done to stop the spread of the Mountain Pine Beetle. Here are two pictures that I took a few years ago which show some of the damaged trees; the top picture shows trees after a wildfire swept through the area, and the second shows several trees killed by the Pine Beetle.

Foothills outside of Boulder, July 2013

Foothills outside of Boulder, July 2013

Rocky Mountain National Park, June 2013

Rocky Mountain National Park, June 2013

What’s the connection between invading forces in medieval literature and the Pine Beetle? Both seem to be unstoppable. Neither seem cognizant of the harm being done. Both are driven, at least to some extent, by the need for survival. The Pine Beetle does not maliciously kill these trees, after all–as it bores through the bark of pine trees, the side effect is the death of the tree. The “Saracens” were in search–historically and in the literature–of resources–treasure as well as natural resources–to ensure their survival (and their ability to flourish). And of course, one of the conditions that has allowed the Pine Beetle to spread so quickly is global warming–that is, higher temperatures which, through our continued drive to use resources with little thought to how they will be replenished, is also due to human activities. How different are we, then, from the Pine Beetle?


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