What Medieval Poets Can Teach Us About Climate Change, and What Evangelicals Today Get Wrong

Most climate-change deniers in the United States are devout Christians. Sixty-eight percent of Evangelical Protestants believe either that the earth is getting warmer naturally and benignly, or that isn’t getting warmer at all. They dismiss climate change science for the simple reason that God created the earth for mankind to use, and He wouldn’t destroy it, because was made for us.

The Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming opens by saying, “We believe the Earth and its ecosystems—created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence—are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing.”

As a scholar of medieval religion, culture, and literature, I am utterly perplexed by this belief, because I study a period and region of history where people were, if anything more devoutly and observantly Christian, and I’m here to tell you: medieval English people had no problem believing in climate change and ecosystemic collapse.

Like contemporary Christians, medieval Christians did believe in a providential God. They also believed Nature’s functionality was guaranteed by His will. But they did not believe that, since Nature was underwritten by divine will, Nature would automatically take care of them.

Instead, they assumed that climate change and ecological disasters were divine punishment for human malfeasance. They believed this, first, because they were living through the Little Ice Age, and everyone could feel its effects; nobody bothered to deny it, because it was obviously happening.

Medieval English people had no problem believing in climate change and ecosystemic collapse.

Second, they believed in climate change because there was strong Biblical precedent for the idea. Think of Noah. God gets mad? The weather’s bad. In medieval England, nobody was a climate change denier.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. In the fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a giant Green Knight on a massive green horse barges into Arthur’s court and challenges anyone present to strike off his head; he himself will then get a chance to strike back a year later at a place called the Green Chapel. Sir Gawain steps up and strikes off the Knight’s head. Stunningly, the Green Knight picks up his head, and carries it off on his green horse, to await his revenge upon Gawain a year thence. Awkward. And terrifying.

In Gawain we encounter the terrifying prospect that our civilized places are vulnerable to total annihilation.

En route to his fatal date with the Green Knight at the Green Chapel, Gawain encounters his own vulnerability to nature—to the merciless, cold, wet weather of the medieval Little Ice Age. In one scene, he crouches into a crack of a rock for shelter and looks at the frozen rain trickling and freezing above him, like a doomsday chandelier. Nature, Gawain realizes isn’t particularly nice—even to the good Christian knights of the Round Table.

It’s not just his own vulnerability to nature that he encounters—it’s the vulnerability of his entire culture, his way of life. Eventually, Gawain approaches a small, green hill. It’s a weird hill. It seems to have a kind of opening at one side; but everything is overgrown with grass and moss.

Eventually Gawain realizes that he is staring right at the Green Chapel without realizing it at first, because it has been reclaimed by the earth. Realizing that this is the Green Chapel is immensely destabilizing for Gawain. The mound of the Green Chapel serves as the ultimate memento mori for him, reminding him not just of his own inevitable death, but of the inevitable death of culture, the inevitable death of Camelot, and the end of the age of chivalry, its subsumption under the cold loam.

Fourteenth-century readers of this poem would have shivered in sympathy with Gawain. They were living in a landscape that coincided with the mytho-historic world of Camelot.

But where was Camelot? Like the Green Chapel in the story, Camelot had been subsumed by the earth. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a parable about climate change and radical ecosystemic fatalism. Gawain asks us to realize our radical vulnerability to our ecosystem. It asks us to acknowledge our own hubris in thinking we can somehow game the ecosystem, avoid the eventual conversion of our dwelling places into cold, green mounds.

In Gawain we encounter the terrifying prospect that our civilized places—our Camelots, our privileged places of art and culture and learning—are vulnerable to total annihilation. Our sacred places can be blasted into mere spaces, abysses, green voids.

For Gawain, much as for Dylan Thomas, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower is our destroyer—not our savior. But what medieval poets see with painful clarity is that, by refusing to accept that nature isn’t here for us to exploit, willy-nilly, we are only giving that green force, as it were, a green horse to ride on.

Happy Earth Day, says the Green Knight. I’m waiting for you.


Waste and the Wasters: Poetry and Ecosystemic Thought in Medieval England - Johnson, Eleanor

Waste and the Wasters: Poetry and Ecosystemic Thought in Medieval England by Eleanor Johnson is available via The University of Chicago Press.

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