University of Nottingham

Early modern discourses of environmental change and sustainability

Project outline

This network, supported by English Heritage and the Peninsula Partnership for the Rural Environment (PPRE), aimed to advance understanding of both early modern and modern cultures of sustainability through collaborative research. The network was designed to bring together scholars from across the humanities and social sciences, including specialists working on regions other than Britain, to consider the expression, negotiation and transformation of notions of environment and sustainability over time and place.

Section of a map from the Norfolk Record Office. Section of a map from the Norfolk Record Office.

Network aims

Discourses of environment and sustainability constitute a pressing modern concern. Despite their historical heritage, issues of climate change, deforestation, energy and food security, overgrazing, biodiversity, conservation and land management are presented and perceived as fundamentally modern experiences. Little attention has been paid to conceptualising early modern discourses of environment and sustainability, although anxieties over poverty, drought, health, fuel and food shortages, deforestation and floods prevailed during this period. Governments and local communities sought solutions for these very real threats to the socio-economic order and political stability of the nation.

The main questions we set out to ask were:

  • What were the predominant early modern discourses of sustainability and environmental change?
  • What are the sources through which such discourses can be accessed?
  • What light do these early modern discourses shed on modern discussions and practices of sustainability?


Workshop 1: 'Sustainable Households and Sustainable Communities'

Location: Innovation Centre, University of Exeter, Streatham Campus, Exeter
Date: 18th February 2011

This workshop examined conceptions of sustainability within collaborative units like households and localities, as well as in wider debates about 'improvement', common land and resource management. Papers explored issues such as the ethics of resource management and thrift in early modern households, sustainable communities and the politics of order, sustainability and contested common land, and literary discourses of forest management.


Workshop 2: 'Sustainable Futures: Crisis Management & the Uses of the Past'

Location: Institute of Historical Research, London
Date: 27th-28th April 2011

The second workshop examined the cultural and political uses of the past, approaches to immediate crises, and strategies for sustainable futures in early modern discourses of landscape and environmental change.


Workshop 3: 'Past Environments and Sustainable Futures in Cornwall'

Location: The Cornwall Centre, Redruth, Cornwall
Date: 2nd July 2011

The third event was a public workshop. Speakers drew upon literary and cartographic sources, oral memory, practical knowledge and historic landscape evidence to explore the impact of environmental change on the physical and cultural landscape of Cornwall, and how such changes have shaped local attachments to place, knowledge and memory over time. It included participants from the Institute of Cornish Studies, CAVA, the Tamar Valley AONB, the National Trust and English Heritage.


Environment and identity conference

Location: Pendennis Castle, Cornwall (supported by English Heritage)
Date: 20th-21st July 2011

The project conference extended the geographical, chronological and political scope of the workshops, investigating the relationship between government policies and local initiatives, and encouraging a comparison between past and present. The interdisciplinary panels addressed specific issues under the following broad themes: landscapes and communities, climates, resources, and global narratives of environmental change. Plenary sessions included talks and group discussions led by representatives from the Peninsula Partnership for the Rural Environment and English Heritage.


Plans for future outputs include; collections of essays on early modern sustainability (the Huntington Quarterly has been approached for a Special Issue) and/or on 'Environment and Identity'; a web archive of network proceedings; and articles by the PI advertising the aims and outcomes of the network (invited by Literature Compass and Society for Renaissance Studies).  

Project web page:

Hugh Platt, 'Diuerse sorts of Soyle' in The Jewel House of Art and Nature (London, 1594) taken from EEBO.

Award details

Duration: July 2010 - October 2011 

Principal Investigator: 
Dr Ayesha Mukherjee

Dr Nicola Whyte

Higher Education Institution: 
Department of English, University of Exeter

Network partners


PPRE logo

Related links



Landscape and Environment Programme

School of Geography
University Park
University of Nottingham
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

telephone: +44 (0) 115 84 66071