The Early Modern Wilderness


The idea that certain environments were better or worse suited for Germans went back well into the Early Modern period. As seen in the snapshot “Health and the Body,” humoral medical theory frequently expressed such environment-based thinking. But the notion of Germans as a wild forest people had mythical precedent, too. The fixation on the forest derives specifically from Renaissance humanists’ tendency to draw on Tacitus (and other classical writers) to position themselves against Rome (and by extension, Italians). The idea of the wilderness as a source of German robustness was embraced and amplified as a “national” characteristic during the 16th century. (This was concurrent with the creation of confessional identities.) Interestingly, by this time, German forests had been extensively logged and many marshes had been drained. In fact, the forests had to be increasingly regulated in response to deforestation. The wilderness was much tamer in reality than it had been before; Germanness, then, appeared both as wildness and as the romanticization of a lost (environmental) past.


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