Presentism in Environmental History: The View from the Sixteenth Century

Jean Rotz (1542), detail

Scroll this

Note: This is the first in a series on environmental history and early modern history cross-posted with Borealia, the blog of early Canadian history. 

In the 1560s, if you were a European mariner in search of fish in the northwest Atlantic, you did not go to Newfoundland or Canada or New France. These were rarely used terms and the places they represented still lay outside accepted geography, holding sway only with a handful of Italian cartographers. For a while some Portuguese and English geographers thought that there was indeed an island or archipelago called New-found-isle, one that would prove to be like Madeira or Hispaniola, a model island colony carefully enshrined in a wider imperial framework, but these dreams came to a crashing end around 1520 when people actually tried and failed to colonize the region. Instead, in the 1560s mariners visited each year a place they called Terra Nova: Terre-Neufve, Terranova, Tierra Nueva, Terra Nuova, Newland.

Giacomo Gastaldi’s depiction of Terra Nova (1556).

It was their own word, used by fishermen from Portugal to Brittany to Holland, to describe the place they visited in their five-month-long fishing voyages. The vast region of encompassed all the waters of what is today maritime Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador, and was wholly defined by the way in which humans interacted with the environment: Terra Nova was wherever you went to catch codfish, and its boundaries could shift with the movement of the fish. The name may have been used partly as a wry jest, for it encompassed the maritime spaces of the northwest Atlantic Ocean (certainly not Terra) which possessed an ecology and climate which most closely resembled northern Europe (certainly not Nova). Terra Nova only existed for part of the year, the warm months when a ship could actually move on the ice-free waters, before becoming closed off to visitors with the onset of an early winter. It was a concept of geography (for Terra Nova was articulated by mariners as a definite place on the map) which was defined by water, by ecology and by food production rather than land and cartographic conceits.

The story of Terra Nova, rather than Newfoundland or Canada, has been overlooked because so much of the history written about the fisheries of the northwest Atlantic has focused on the eighteenth through twentieth centuries. But the idea of Terra Nova, and the multi-national fishery which defined it, was firmly centered on the sixteenth century. It is also an idea which only appears when we approach the region from below, to see how those who actually worked the waves thought and experienced life on the far north Atlantic Ocean. The use of the term Terra Nova by mariners rather than Newfoundland or Canada is an environmental problem, for their geographic conception was so deeply shaped by climate and ecology. It can tell us little about the transformative early modern phenomenon which historians seem to fixate on: the rise of the Anthropocene, the reshaping of the global landscape and demography or the spread of disease regimes. In other words, Terra Nova has little to do with the present: it neither connects to modern debates, resonates with the great environmental upheavals we face, and long predates the industrial era.

Detail of map of North America by Samuel de Champlain, showing the Grand Bank fisheries (1634)

But it is important to examine ideas like Terra Nova and the environmental frameworks which shaped them, for the behavior of European mariners in the sixteenth century makes no sense without them. Mariners envisioned an open and vast world in the northwest Atlantic, one which defied state control and which was deeply familiar to those who had worked on the coastal fisheries of western Europe. The way they understood space and the environment shaped their economic and social behavior, which in turn touched shaped their relationship with indigenous peoples and emerging European empires. And it points to innumerable related questions as yet unanswered: why did the idea of Terra Nova not endure beyond the sixteenth century? Did similar geographic conceptions develop amongst maritime communities elsewhere in the Atlantic? How does the idea of Terra Nova challenge our modern notion of Canada, Newfoundland or the maritime peninsula as defining geo-political features of the northwest Atlantic? How did the idea of Terra Nova, a phrase which was originally coined by the Portuguese, spread between maritime communities? These are important questions which will tell us much about the relationship between humans and the environment in the sixteenth century, though not necessarily thereafter. But for that reason we need to look closer at them: the sixteenth century is more than just chapter one in some longer story, and more than a precursor to our current debates about the environment. It is something important to understand on its own terms.

Detail from French edition of Olaus Magnus’ A Description of the Northern Peoples, showing fishing ship at Iceland (1555).

My work focuses on the commercial cod fisheries of the northwest Atlantic in the sixteenth century, what was called Terra Nova instead of Newfoundland, and their place in a wider Atlantic and European context. At its heart my work is about humans, the environment and food production in the earliest years of European expansion into the Atlantic basin. Although I am trained as an early modernist, the overwhelming dominance of late seventeenth/eighteenth century studies in early modern environmental and Atlantic history means I identify more as a late medievalist/early-early modernist.

What has been most striking to me as I’ve worked through my project, and which has required an adjustment to my thinking, is how under-represented the early modern period is in environmental history. This is doubly true of the early-early modern, and even the late medieval, world. As I moved deeper into my project and engaged more with environmental history scholarship, two strands of presentism became clear, each of which make me apprehensive for different reasons. The first is the overwhelming focus by historians on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. During a recent visit to ASEH I spent considerable time discussing the matter with a colleague who studies the fifteenth century like I do, after we both noticed that barely two panels out of the dozens present touched upon the pre-eighteenth century world. It has consistently been my experience that pre-eighteenth century environmental history remains something of a fringe curiosity at conferences, and monographs are few and far between. It has been hard not to feel somewhat isolated in an academic field so relentlessly focused on the present. This state is surprising inasmuch as the early modern world offers such fertile fields for environmental historians. There is something so immediate about the relationship between humans and their environment in the sixteenth century, and the sources are so rich and challenging. This relationship, more visible than in earlier eras, is much closer to the long historical norm of human-environmental balance than our present state.

Coastal fishermen in Europe. Visvangst (1582).

Even so, the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were a period where human communities engendered some of the most dramatic transformations of the global environment: the biological exchange in the Atlantic, forced mass migration and demographic collapse, the land reclamation projects in northern Europe, the rise of enclosure farmland, the terraforming of new colonial spaces. It was also a period when the ecological, climatological and geographical constraints on human behavior were so much starker and more pressing than they would be from the late seventeenth century on. Fishermen bobbing on the cold waters of the Scotian Shelf in the 1540s were rightly awed by the inscrutable power and danger of the ocean, and the sudden seasonal shifts which drove them home each September. Carefully parsing that paradoxical relationship, whereby humans could have outsized impact on the environment in some cases and be almost hostages in the next, remains the great task of early modern environmental historians.

A second trend is the pressure to connect the early modern period to contemporary environmental concerns and debates. I was vaguely aware when I began my project that I was wading into something which was being reflected in the news around me. The success of Mark Kurlansky’s book Codand later Jeffrey Bolster’s work on the New England fisheries ensured that my topic was familiar to many historians and non-historians alike. I increasingly became aware of how the sixteenth century fishery could be seen as resonating with contemporary debates: the collapse of the Newfoundland fisheries, debates over fisheries management and the future of the oceans, questions about food security and public health. Many early modern historians are limited by a focus on the big problems whereby humans shape the environment, on the most extreme ways in which humans and the environment interact. This represents a kind of presentism, a projection of our own fears into the pre-eighteenth century world. This is the struggle at the heart of early modern environmental history, for there are many transformation in the sixteenth century and beyond which resonate with academics and audiences today, but there is also an implicitly increased pressure to find and highlight these links and connections, to inject the twentieth century into the sixteenth.

By and large I have tried hard to moderate the inclination to engage with these kinds of issues in my work. The problem is that so many of the crucial structures which define our current relationship with the environment were absent in the sixteenth century. In the far north Atlantic there was a marked absence of strong (or even vaguely coherent) central states, of commercial capitalism, even of permanent settlements by Europeans. Humans’ (especially coastal Europeans’) understanding of nature and ocean spaces were contested and evolving, a mish-mash of folklore, classical theory and religious sentiment. The very idea of an Atlantic Ocean didn’t exist. I did not want to follow earlier historians and frame the formation of fisheries at Newfoundland as just the starting point to a much longer and larger story about commerce, empire and the creation of Canada. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially the catastrophes of the latter, loom large over the history of early Newfoundland and its fisheries, but I think there is value to understanding the relationship between humans and the environment outside of how it directly connects to our own world and our own fears. For instance, the modern concerns with over-fishing the seas and ocean fisheries management is a moot question in the sixteenth century. European understandings of ocean fish stocks and ecosystems were very different from our own, and different from their understanding of freshwater fish. If Newfoundland, Iceland or Morocco were ruthlessly exploited for fish without collapsing it was not because of better management or unbridled commercial interests but rather because the number of humans relative to the size of marine biomass was so small. On a practical level, over-fishing on anything more than a local scale was entirely beyond the technical capacity of sixteenth century fishermen (I suspect most European fishermen would have willingly over-exploited the oceans if they could). Ultimately, even if over-fishing were an understandable proposition, the tools by which it could be limited- state regulation, multilateral treaties, quota systems, fines- could not be achieved with the limited resources and capabilities of fledgling sixteenth century states. If fisheries were better managed in the sixteenth century it was a product of the constraints fishermen faced rather than intentional choices, and therefore we have few lessons to draw from their behavior. Rather than inform our discussion of fisheries management and over-exploitation, the formation of the Newfoundland fisheries can tell us how modern and anomalous those concerns may be.

Ship surrounded by sea monsters, early 16th century.

The prevailing interest in presentism, both in temporal focus and in connecting to contemporary issues, comes from a good place. We, both historians and non-historians, are more aware than ever about the importance of environmental issues to our modern world and the need to study their historical context. But I would not want us to devalue early modern history that does not engage with major environmental issues and debates or which lies outside the industrial era. This is the problem with the rising interest in the Anthropocene: at best the early modern period is the tentative start point for this narrative, at worst it is outside the Anthropocene and thus removed from the greatest environmental history project of our times.

To return to the idea of Terra Nova, this was a place that had no place in the Anthropocene. Its boundaries and features were defined by nature in a way that no amount of commercial exploitation in the could alter. It was shaped by the under-appreciated inertia of late medieval social, economic and intellectual structures, so that Breton or Basque fishermen off of Newfoundland in the 1570s interacted with the environment in a way that would have been familiar to a West Country fisherman on the Irish Sea in the 1340s. Yet precisely for that reason we should examine it: the idea of Terra Nova, in being so starkly different from the present while still shaping human behavior, shows how narrow and unhelpful this presentism can be for understanding the past. In studying how European mariners understood space, the environment and food production in the sixteenth century I hope to add to the growing voice of late medieval and earl-early modern environmental historians who are trying to show how much we have to offer the field at large.

The following two tabs change content below.

Jack Bouchard

Jack Bouchard serves as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library where he works with the Before “Farm to Table”: Early Modern Foodways and Culture project, a Mellon-funded collaborative research initiative. He received his PhD from the University of Pittsburgh History Department in 2018. Dr. Bouchard’s research interests involve food history, maritime labour and the environmental history of islands in the early Atlantic. He is currently preparing a manuscript (very) tentatively titled Terra Nova: Food, Water and Work in an early Atlantic World, which offers a new history of the northwest Atlantic in the sixteenth century. Next year Dr. Bouchard will be joining the history department at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, where he will serve as an assistant professor teaching environmental history.


NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.