According to long-standing scholarly opinion, the twelfth century discovered nature. This essay argues that earthly nature was not discovered in the twelfth century. The twelfth-century authors of the philosophia mundi or the sculptors who fashioned the acanthus capitals at Rheims Cathedral in fact did not think of their work as belonging to the category of nature but to something entirely different from nature–to the order of creation. Continuing to seek “nature” in the medieval past risks overlooking or misunderstanding some profoundly suggestive materials about how people once experienced God, each other, and the world. Examining metaphor and imagery that adopts features of the natural world, this essay thinks through the implications for twelfth-century people's spiritual lives of the idea that God, through the Incarnation, entered not nature, but creation. In particular, the essay examines the role of “trees of incarnation” as contemplative models in women's religious communities for making Christ present in the imagination and in the world. M. D. Chenu's attention to the category of nature in his historical and theological writings is then revisited in order to propose ways of rethinking the manner in which medieval religiosi perceived the material world as a medium for experiencing and continuing the Incarnation of Christ.
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Sara Ritchey; Rethinking the Twelfth-Century Discovery of Nature. Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 1 May 2009; 39 (2): 225–255. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10829636-2008-021
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