Nature and Science in Premodern Literature

(Panel / In-Person)

Special Session
Ancient and Medieval / Ecocriticism and Science

Summer Lizer (Claremont Graduate University)
summ@****.com (Log-in to reveal)

This panel is open to papers that focus on the relationship between the natural sciences and ancient, medieval, and early modern literature (before roughly 1700 CE) from all parts of the globe. This panel explores the ways in which pre- and early modern literature works with and against contemporary scientific theories, methods, and discourses. Papers may engage any element of the natural sciences, from philosophy, theology, and theory, to inventions and practical technologies. Scientific fields may include astronomy and cosmology, biology and medicine, mathematics, physics and chemistry, and many more.

From Ovid’s theories of evolution to Milton’s “optic tube,” ancient, medieval, and early modern literature is marked by fervent engagement with the natural sciences. Indeed, in the premodern world, the arts and sciences were far more intimately connected than they are often assumed to be today. (Chaucer himself wrote a treatise on the astrolabe!) At the same time, even writers who were not explicitly engaging with scientific themes in their work were still responding to their understanding of the physical world, from bodily humors to a geocentric universe. To understand their writing, it helps to understand their world view, one informed by the scientific discourses of their day.

Today’s literary scholars are increasingly interested in ecocriticism, scientific methods and discourses, and constructions of nature, but much of this work focuses on modern literature. This panel hopes to cast this focus on nature and science backward, to a time when those words carried very different connotations. What is nature before modern understandings of ecology and evolution? What is science before the scientific method?

In a time when humanities and STEM fields are often seen to be at odds, this panel seeks to think through the deep connections between art and science, and the ways these discourses mutually constructed one another throughout their shared history.