Middle Ages 5th – 15th centuries


  • Plague devastates Europe in the 1300s  but leads to the beginnings of a public health system.
  • Water pollution tends to be less of a problem for dispersed populations than it would later become.
  • Tree cutting in the forests of England, France, Germany leaves large tracts totally denuded by around 1550 in England and the 1600s in Europe, forcing a switch to coal.
  • Soil conservation was not widely practiced in the Mediterranian region, but cultures in China, India and Peru understood the long term impact of soil erosion and used terracing, crop rotation and natural fertilizer to prevent it.



c. 622 — Muhammed built Islam on existing regional religious beliefs, apparently including the teachings of the remnants of the Jerusalem branch of Christianity, which may have become the Sufi branch of Islam. These included pro-animal teachings. According to Islamic scholar Jasmi Bin Abdul:

The care and love of wild animals has been emphasized both in the Qur’an as well as in Sunna, the traditions of the Prophet. In verse 54:28, there is a reference to Allah insisting that the people of Tamud share the water with their camels. In the Sunna of Prophet Muhammad, we see many instances to show that He advocated kindness toward animals. According to one tradition, Allah punished a woman because she imprisoned a cat until the cat died of hunger. The Prophet also tells us that a prostitute’s sins were forgiven because she gave water to a thirsty dog.

676 — Cuthbert of Lindisfarne enacts protective laws for birds on the Farne Islands (Northumberland, UK).

1079 — English King William (the Conqueror) establishes the New Forest as a hunting preserve.  According to the official visitor’s site,  “The ancient system …  to protect and manage the woodlands and wilderness heaths is still in place today through the efforts of Verderers, Agisters and Commoners – literally the judges, stockmen and land users of the forest.”   (Also see New Forest timeline).

David Hume, the great Scottish philosopher, had this to say about the New Forest in his History of England:

Not content with those large forests which former kings possessed in all parts of England, he resolved to make a new forest near Winchester, the usual place of his residence; and for that purpose, he laid waste the country in Hampshire for an extent of thirty miles, expelled the inhabitants from their houses, seized their property, even demolished churches and convents, and made the sufferers no compensation for the injury.  At the same time, he enacted new laws, by which he prohibited all his subjects from hunting in any of his forests, and rendered the penalties more severe than ever had been inflicted for such offences. The killing of a deer or boar, or even a hare, was punished with the loss of the delinquent’s eyes; and that at a time when the killing of a man could be atoned for by paying a moderate fine or composition.

1080 — Shen Kuo of China writes about the environment (as recorded in the Dream Pool Essays):

In recent years there was a landslide on the bank of a large river in Yong-ning Guan near Yanzhou. The bank collapsed, opening a space of several dozens of feet, and under the ground a forest of bamboo shoots was thus revealed. It contained several hundred bamboo with their roots and trunks all complete, and all turned to stone…Now bamboos do not grow in Yanzhou. These were several dozens of feet below the present surface of the ground, and we do not know in what dynasty they could possibly have grown. Perhaps in very ancient times the climate was different so that the place was low, damp, gloomy, and suitable for bamboos. On the Jin-hua Shan in Wuzhou there are stone pine-cones, and stones formed from peach kernels, stone bulrush roots, stone fishes, crabs, and so on, but as these are all (modern) native products of that place, people are not very surprised at them. But these petrified bamboos appeared under the ground so deep, though they are not produced in that place today. This is a very strange thing

1150 — Sri Lankan King Nissanka Malla carved into a stone a decree stating that, “It is ordered, by beat of the drum, that no animals should be killed within a radius of seven gau from the city” of Anuradhapura, his capitol. The decree combined consideration for animal welfare with concerns about public health and sanitation, and about the emotional effect on children of witnessing slaughter. (M. Clifton, 2007)

1150-1250 — Rise and persecution of the Cathari, a vegan sect in southern France who were eventually exterminated by the Albigensian Crusade and the institution of the Inquisition in 1233.(M. Clifton, 2007)

1182-1226 — Life of St. Francis, the most prominent of a long line of Catholic saints who rescued animals, intervened to prevent the killing of wild predators, and practiced vegetarianism. Although such practices seem to have been honored as holy much more often than not, there never seems to have been a strong belief within mainstream Catholicism that they should be adopted by ordinary people. Francis in almost all of his teachings except his acceptance of the Catholic hierarchy headed by Rome closely paralleled the Cathari, and the Church was during his own time and afterward often vexed to the point of rewriting history by the difficulty of distinguishing Franciscanism from Catharism.(M. Clifton, 2007)

1197-1253 — Life of Richard of Wyche, Bishop of Chichester, an early British critic of the morality of animal slaughter.

1157 — Unendurable air pollution from wood smoke led Henry II’s wife Elanor of Aquataine to flee Tutbury Castle in 1157.

1257 — Queen Eleanor of Provence is forced to leave Nottingham Castle for Tutbury Castle because heavy coal smoke fouls the air, (noted in Markham, Brimblecombe).

1275 — Marco Polo, the Italian traveler, notices black rocks that burn on his journey through China.

1300 — The British are already beginning to use the black rocks, calling them “sea coals” because they are brought by barge or boat to London from Newcastle and other parts of northeastern England.

1300s — Forest Code introduced in France aimed at regulating wood production for the Navy.

1306 — Edward I forbids coal burning in London when Parliament is in session. Like many attempts to regulate coal burning, it has little effect.

1347 — 1350s Bubonic plague kills on third to 75% of the populations Europe and Asia, creating the first attempts to enforce public health and quarantine laws. Reaction to the plague also includes genocidal pogroms against Jews in most cities of Europe. One not very satisfying idea about this is that Jews, with greater understanding of elementary hygiene, may have had a lower infection rate, which in turn might have seemed suspicious. People had no explanation for the Black Death other than rumor, superstition and vague theories about miasmas and air pollution. (Ziegler, Markham). Plague was brought to Europe from Constantinople by returning crusaders, and the flea-infested black rats who stowed away on their vessels, it attacked most virulently after terrified cities blamed it on “witchcraft” and purged from their midst both the majority of people who had medicinal skill (mostly older women) and their “familiars,” mostly the cats who had provided rat control. (M. Clifton, 2007)

1366 — City of Paris forces butchers to dispose of animal wastes outside the city (Ponting); similar laws would be disputed in Philadelphia and New York nearly 400 years later.

1388 — Parliament passes an act forbidding the throwing of filth and garbage into ditches, rivers and waters. City of Cambridge also passes the first urban sanitary laws in England.

1420 to 1427 —  Madeira islands : destruction of the laurisilva forest, or the woods which once clothed the whole island when the Portuguese settlers decided to clear the land for farming by setting most of the island on fire.[1] It is said that the fire burned for seven years.

1452-1519 — Life of Leonardo da Vinci, scientist and painter, who prominently practiced and taught vegetarianism, and wrote that, “The time will come when humans look on the slaughter of beasts as they now look on the murder of men.”

1473 — Ulrich Ellenbog writes first pamphlet on occupational disease.

1480-1540 — Life of Bartholomew Chassenee of France, a distinguished jurist whose first case was an impressive defense of rats before the ecclesiastical court of Autuns, making him the first “animal rights attorney” on record. His last case, in defense of a doomed “heretical” sect called the Waldenses, used the same arguments and tactics, and might have saved the Waldenses, in the opinion of observers, had he not died before the trial was over.(M. Clifton, 2007)

1494 — March 24, Georgius Bauer (known as Agricola) born at Glauchau, in Saxony (Germany).

1500 — “The Mogul emperor Akbar the Great established zoos in various Indian cities which far surpassed in quality and size anything in Europe. Unlike the cramped European menageries, Akbar’s zoos provided spacious enclosures and cages, built in large reserves. Each had a resident doctor, and Akbar encouraged careful study of animals. His zoos were open to the public. At the entrance to each he posted a message: ‘Meet your brothers. Take them to your hearts, and respect them.'” [David Hancocks, A Different Nature.] This appears to be the first clear differentiation between exhibition of animals for entertainment and exhibition as attempted humane education. (M. Clifton, 2007)

1500s — Native American populations begin to be ravaged by European diseases.

1516 — Thomas Moore of England writes Utopia, a vision of human perfection and attainment. Moore mentions kindness toward animals and the abolition of animal sacrifice and sport hunting as signs of the moral advancement of the citizens of his fictitious Utopia.

1520s – 1540s — Spanish bring first horses and cattle to North America.

1533-1592 — Life of Michel de Montaigne, a French attorney whose 1588 essay Of Cruelties denounced abuse of animals as “the extremist of all vices.”

1567 — Pope Pius V issued a papal bull condemning bullfighting and other forms of animal fighting for entertainment as “cruel and base spectacles of the devil,” whose promoters are subject to excommunication. Pope Pius IX reiterated the 1567 bull in 1846, and Pope Pius XII cited it in 1940 in refusing to meet with a delegation of bullfighters. The 1567 papal bull eventualy brought prohibitions against bullfighting throughout Italy, plus a 1928 ban on bullfighting to the death in Portugal, amended in 2000. (M. Clifton, 2007).

1556 –Agricola writes De Re Metallica, a book concerning techniques of assaying, mining and smelting a variety of metals. Parts of the book deal with occupational hazards. Published 1556 He writes that Italian city-states passed laws against mining because of its effects on woodlands, fields, vineyards and olive groves: “The critics say further that mining is a perilous occupation to persue because the miners are sometimes killed by the pestilential air which they breathe; sometimes their lungs rot away…” Agricola discounted these and other concerns. “Things like this rarely happen, and only insofar as workmen are careless,” he wrote. The idea that workmen were to blame for occupational disease would be repeated with surprising frequency into the mid-20th century.

1546 — Italian physican Girolamo Fracastoro outlines theory of contagious disease. He reasoned that infectious diseases could be passed on in 3 ways: simple contact, indirect contact (e.g., bedclothes) and minute bodies over distance through the air. Thus, isolation and disinfection were the ways to take action against epidemics.

1560-1600 — Rapid industrialization in England leads to heavy deforestation and increasing substitution of coal for wood.

1589 — Water closet invented by Sir John Harrington in England but indifference to filth and lack of sewage meant that the invention was ignored until 1778, when Joseph Bramah began marketing a patented closet. (Markham).

c.1590 — Queen Elizabeth “greatly grieved and annoyed” by coal smoke in Westminster Palace. (Brimblecombe)

1593 — Aug. 9 — Isaac Walton born in England (dies Dec 15th 1683).

1596-1650 — Life of Rene Descartes, of France and Holland, among the most prominent of the early vivisectors whose work sparked an antivivisection movement in Europe even before there were organized humane societies. (Covered extensively by Richard Ryder in Animal Revolution.) Descartes was memorably satirized more than a generation after his death by the French philosopher Voltaire, who also attacked “the barbarous custom of supporting ourselves upon the flesh and blood of beings like ourselves,” but continued to eat meat. (M. Clifton, 2007)

1598 — Discovery of the dodo, a flightless and relatively defenseless bird, by Dutch vice-admiral Wybrand van Warwijck on the island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean. The introduction of animal predators (cats, pigs, dogs), rather than direct human predation, is thought to be the main cause of the extinction at some point between 1662 and 1700. Not much noticed at the time, by the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the phrase “gone the way of the dodo” to refer to extinction becomes commonplace.

1603 — James I succeeds Elizabeth I and orders coal burned in his London household, but rather than smokey bituminous coal from Lancashire, Durham and Cornwall, he orders importation of hard, cleaner-burning anthracite from Scotland.

1607 — First permanent English settlement in North America at Jamestown Virginia.

1634-1703 — Life of Thomas Tryon, a vegetarian shepherd from Gloucestershire, England, who crusaded against human slavery and advocated the “natural rights” of animals. He appears to have been instrumental in persuading many leading Puritans that animals have souls. The repression of animal-baiting by the Puritan regime of Oliver Cromwell included killing the animals, however, as well as punishing the human perpetrators.

1640 — Isaac Walton writes The Compleat Angler about fishing and about conservation.

1641 — The Massachusetts Bay Colony adopted as their Liberty 92 (of 100 “liberties” which were in fact the laws of the colony) the statement that “No man shall exercise any Tirrany or Crueltie towards any bruite Creature which are usuallie kept for man’s use.” This is the first humane law adopted by any western nation. (M. Clifton, 2007) (Also cited in US v Stevens, 2010).

1661 — John Evelyn writes “Fumifugium, or the Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoake of London Dissipated” to propose remedies for London’s air pollution problem. These include large public parks and lots of flowers.

“The immoderate use of, and indulgence to, sea-coale in the city of London exposes it to one of the fowlest inconveniences and reproaches that can possibly befall so noble and otherwise incomparable City… Whilst they are belching it forth their sooty jaws, the City of London resembles the face rather of Mount Aetna, the Court of Vulcan… or the suburbs of Hell [rather] than an assembly of rational creatures…”

In his diary, Evelyn writes in 1684 that smoke was so severe “hardly could one see across the street, and this filling the lungs with its gross particles exceedingly obstructed the breast, so as one would scarce breathe.”

1662 — John Graunt publishes a book of mortality statistics compiled by parish and municipal councils in England. Although the numbers are inaccurate, a start was made in epidemiology and the understanding of disease and public health.

1666 — Japan’s shogun warns against dangers of erosion, stream siltation and flooding caused by deforestation, and a proclaimation urges people to plant tree seedlings. Additional measures lead to an elaborite system of woodland management by 1700.(Collapse by Diamond, p. 301, citing Conrad Totman).

1669 — Stricter forest codes introduced in France, again aimed at regulating wood production for the Navy.

1684 — A man is pilloried in Sagan, Germany, for cruelty to a horse. Other early German convictions for cruelty to animals were recorded in 1765 and 1766. (M. Clifton, 2007).

1685 — Jared Eliot. Born Nov. 7 (Died 22 Apr 1763)A physician, clergyman, physician, and agronomist, Eliot wrote Essays upon Field Husbandry about reducing inefficiency and waste in colonial American farming methods. He had first become concerned about soil when he noticed that water running from a bare hillside was muddy, unlike water running from grassy and forested areas. He conducted experiments such as plowing green crops back into the soil to enrich it, and planting grasses and legumes to make better pastures for livestock.

1690 –Colonial Governor William Penn requires Pennsylvania settlers to preserve one acre of trees for every five acres cleared.

1691 — British “Broad Arrow” reserves large trees for shipbuilding in the American colonies.

1690s — Paris becomes first European city with extensive sewer system. See Frederique Krupa’s Paris: Urban Sanitation Before the 20th Century.

1699 — Virginia House of Burgesses limits deer hunting.

Lewis Mumford

How clean were medieval towns?
From The City in History, by Lewis Mumford: (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961), pages 288 – 293.

“I shall begin with the field in which error and bias have been rife for more than two centuries: that of medieval sanitation… As far as usable open spaces go, the typical medieval town had at its foundation and through most of its existence a far higher standard for the mass of the population than any later form of town, down to the first romantic suburbs of the 19th century.

“I lay emphasis upon the persistently rural character of the medieval town because the false contrary image has long established itself as a fixed idea, almost too firmly irrational to be removed by presentation of the actual evidence. People still mistake the cumulative decay that filled the green spaces for the original structure, which was open and sound. As long as these open spaces remained, the crude sanitary arrangements of the small medieval town were not necessarily as offensive as they have been pictured. Complaints such as that made by the Preaching Friars at Beziers in 1345, on account of the bad odors issuing from a tannery, would hardly have been made if bad odors were constant and universal…

“… Crude sanitation is not necessarily bad sanitation; for a medieval farmhouse, in which the common dung pile was the only domestic privy, was not as great a menace to its inhabitants’ health as the progressive pre-Pasteur town of the 19th century, blessed with refined water closets in every middle-class dwelling, and cursed by a supply of drinking water drawn from the same river into which the sewage of the town above was emptied. “By the 16th century, special provisions for sanitary control and decency had become widespread. Thus, Stow mentions an ordinance in London which commands that ‘no man shall bury any dung or goung within the liberties of the city’ nor ‘carry any ordure till after nine o’clock in the night.’ William Stubbs mentions that the first public sewage plant and water works were possessed by the city of Bunzlau in Silesia in 1543… Alberti, a full century earlier, in his chapter on ‘Drains and Sewers,’ distinguishes between drains that carry away ‘the filth into some river, lake or sea’ and those leading to ‘a deep hole dug in the ground.”

“Bruni’s eulogy of Florence … remarks that ‘some towns are so dirty that whatever filth is made during the night is placed in the morning before men’s eyes to be trodden under foot … It is impossible to imagine anything fouler. For even if there are thousands there, inexhaustible wealth, infinite multitudes of people, yet I will condemn so foul a city and never think much of it.’ Similarly, Leland, a later observer, in his journeys about England, made special mention of dirt wherever he came across it: evidently it was rare enough to deserve comment.

“A change for the worse certainly came about toward the close of the Middle Ages, despite sanitary regulations… Until overcrowding began, the normal smells of a medieval town were probably no more offensive than those of a farmyard; and it was not for the 19th century, with its hideous sanitary misdemeanors, to reprove the earlier period. The open sewers of a ‘progressive center of civilization’ such as Berlin [Germany], as Dr. William Osler found it in 1873, were probably as offensive to the nose and, as he noted, as dangerous to the health.”

Essential reading

Tuchman, Barbara, A Distant Mirror : the calamitous 14th century, New York : Alfred Knopf, 1978

Lansdown, R. and W.Yule, eds. Lead Toxicity: History and Environmental Impact. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Leff, S., and Vera Leff, From Witchcraft to World Health, New York: MacMillan, 1956

Sigerist, H. E. 1945. Civilization and Disease. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.