Thomas, Keith (1933– )

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Thomas, Keith (1933– )

Thomas, Keith (1933– ), author and intellectual. The typical Englishman of the period 1500–1800 saw himself as the center of the universe, with the various animals and plants placed on earth to serve his own purposes. With Man and the Natural World: A History of the Modern Sensibility, author Keith Thomas examines the evolving relationship between civilized man and his wild environment in a book "alive with the color and charm of nature itself," according to Michael Kitch in a Washington Post Book World article.

As Thomas describes life during this technologically and socially active segment of English history, humans often had whimsical or complicated classifications regarding the animals in their lives:" Hanoverian cows were given names—Gentle, Lovely, Mother-like or Welcome Home—but pigs and sheep were not," writes London Times critic Michael Ratcliff. "Seventeenth-century dogs were allowed in church, even at the communion rail, but were hanged like felons if they had killed or been otherwise 'wicked'; cats and cocks were fair game for torture, but no creature was eaten which had been a worker or given pleasure as a pet, and horsemeat never took on." The author, says Ratcliff, "is an historian of infinite curiosity and vast reading, and [Man and the Natural World] covers an extraordinary range of subjects, among them gardening, folklore, forestry, cruelty, refinement, fashion, class, battery pig farmers in the sixteenth century, ornamental dogs at the Stuart court, the shift from country to town and the rise of a sentimental nostalgia for the land. In the process he surprises, informs and entertains on every page, and detects a tragic paradox within an inexhaustible comedy of English manners and life."

"There is a lot to trace," acknowledges Noel Perrin. Writing about Man and the Natural World in the New York Times Book Review, Perrin recounts: "At the beginning of the period, nearly all Englishmen took for granted that the sole function of other life-forms was to serve man. Flies served to remind us of the shortness of life. Lobsters were not only good to eat (a 16th-century gentleman remarked), they provided the diner with valuable exercise as he cracked their claws—and their wonderful armor made a good subject for military contemplation. Those plants that gave us neither food nor medicine often gave us messages from God. So did birds."" Paradoxically, Thomas suggests that we turned our conscience to nature only when its conquest was nearly complete," states Kitch." The environmental ethic, he explains, arose with prosperity, but prosperity wrenched from nature itself. His explanation leads him to a dilemma. For man has come to look upon himself as a predator, if a remorseful one, saddled with reconciling the ascendancy over nature that civilization requires with the sensitivity to nature that civilization fosters."

While Perrin cites some faults with Thomas's work—the author, he says, "has a tendency to treat all his quotations equally, as if levels of seriousness in speech did not exist and context did not matter"—the reviewer also feels that the book "has two great charms. One is the almost incredible wealth of supporting detail. . . .[The other is the author's] gift for apt quotation. One hears a thousand or more voices in this book, most of them lively." As an example Perrin refers to "the voice of an indignant nobleman, Lord Sheffield, who said of his children's tutor, 'He would maintain to my face that both hawks and hounds, which I did then and do now moderately delight in, were not ordained by God for man's recreation, but for adorning the world.' The tutor failed to gain tenure. The book is full of these delights."

Concludes Kitch: "[The author] puts history to its highest purpose and achieves it in a style at once pleasing and perceptive. Man and the Natural World, like a favored guidebook, is both a reliable guide and a congenial companion."


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Thomas, Keith (1933– )

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