Thinking the Unthinkable: Belief, Climate Change, and Premodern Weather

Associate Professor Kellie Robertson (The University of Maryland)

Thursday 23 November 2017

Room 402, Forgan Smith Tower, The University of Queensland St Lucia

In his recent book The Great Derangement, the critic Amitav Ghosh explores the modern conundrum of human-caused climate change, noting that it follows the logic of the ‘environmental uncanny’ – that is, while weather catastrophes appear to ‘have no human referents at all’, they are ‘nonetheless animated by cumulative human actions’. This type of direct causality, according to Ghosh, brands weather disasters as ‘the mysterious work of our own hands returning to haunt us in unthinkable shapes and forms’. This paper explores the ways in which medieval and early modern writers, long before the Anthropocene, also created narratives of anthropogenic climate change that highlighted the intimate but sometimes precariously unpredictable connections between the human and nonhuman worlds. For premoderns, the weather served as a thought experiment that modeled the invisible forces at work on us in terms of their visibly determinative consequences (whether the effect of wind on material bodies or divine foreknowledge on human actions). In doing so, it dramatised an unthinkable subject position: How are humans imagined to be at once the victim of the weather and potentially its cause?

Kellie Robertson teaches English and Comparative Literature at the University of Maryland. Her most recent book is Nature Speaks: Medieval Literature and Aristotelian Philosophy (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), which examines late medieval poetry in the context of its physics, arguing that both domains struggled over how to represent nature in the wake of Aristotelian science. She is also the author of The Laborer’s Two Bodies: Labor and the ‘Work’ of the Text in Medieval Britain, 1350–1500 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) and the editor (with Michael Uebel) of a collection of essays entitled The Middle Ages at Work: Practicing Labor in Late Medieval England (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). Her research has been supported by fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Humanities Center. Her current book project, Yesterday’s Weather: Narrative and Premodern Climate Change, looks at how medieval and early modern societies depict the shock of the natural disaster. Long before the advent of global warming accelerated by industrialisation, humans imagined their own actions to be causally related to weather events. This book asks: What does anthropogenic climate change look like before the Anthropocene?

This is the final seminar in the UQ Node 2017 series on the theme of “Belief”.


Image: Hildegard von Bingen, Liber Divinorum Operum I.4: Cosmos, Body, and Soul. C. 1163-1173.


Room 402, Forgan Smith Tower, The University of Queensland St Lucia