Religion in the Middle Ages: Forests and Beyond

Technology is defined as a particular species’ use of tools or knowledge to adapt to or control its environment. Humans have certainly used their will and knowledge to create marvels to control, expand, and destroy their surroundings. However, without an inspirational push from human culture, these technologies would, and could, not exist. For the Western world, it was the caustic mix of religious fervor and superiority that helped to propel technological innovation. Specifically, European piety in the Middle Ages justified the massive destruction of forests to create cultivated land. This early divine rite led the way to a huge surge of interest in foreign lands. God, and the power Christianity instilled on the Europeans, backed technology that fathered a burst of agricultural output, vanishing forest, and a lust for new land and wealth.

The Middle Ages marked an age of change and expansion in Europe. By approximately 1000 CE, the population of Europe reached 38.5 million, only to double again to 75.5 million in the next 300 years. (Williams, 107) Increasing food supply, “better health, and lower mortality” created the boom. (Williams, 108) What caused this surge of good fortune? Michael Williams’ answer to this question is the church-sanctioned exploitation of land. Where transcendentalist H. D. Thoreau saw an otherworldly power in nature, Medieval Christian Europeans saw overwhelming disorder and sin. To the Europeans, nature needed to be brought under control with the human and by a human standard. By bringing their surroundings “into the realm of human affairs,” Westerners believed they could appease God and have a better understanding of the earth. Men were encouraged to clear the forest and take part in creating “a divine, designed earth” that would show off God’s magnificence. (Williams, 104) In addition, humans could please and calm themselves with knowledge of their surroundings. Natural occurrences such as lightning and floods must have been frightening in a world where scientific research was pushed off the table in favor of religious teachings. Where current scientific explanations have supplied understanding, religious teachings quelled fears about the unknown. And what better way to deal with the unknown than destroy it? After all, they could manipulate forests full of “sin” into a recognizable and manageable field.

Indeed, Europe was feeling a surge of religious devotion during this time. To show off their piety, Christians constructed myriad cathedrals, churches, abbeys and monuments. Some religious edifices could hold an entire town of people (10,000 count) and some are comparable to a modern 40-floor skyscraper. (Williams, 104) Many of these buildings still stand today. Aside from being technologically marvelous and beautiful to look at, Europeans definitely benefited from regular, planned meetings. Congregations facilitated not only the spread of religious words, but also ideas and texts.

The extravagant buildings are representative not only of the new technological devices and methods to help create them, but also the new wealth and power they created. There was a clear hierarchy of religious leaders during this time. Priests and clergymen had great power over the towns they oversaw, and though they swore to devote their lives to the teachings of God, they had considerable influence. (“Religion in Middle Ages”) First of all, priests could read the word of God. To illiterate followers or those unable to view the sacred texts, priests were the holders of absolute truth, goodness and power. Additionally, donations were part of every service. Those who disagreed with the teachings of God were considered “heretics” and were either exiled or killed. It’s not hard to believe that the church held social order fairly well by teaching the rules and morals of Christianity.

One way Christianity was projected onto social order was through agricultural expansion. Clearing the forests represented a relatively easy and accessible way to not only please God, but also serve the community. For most Europeans of this age, clearing the forest was a positive change in many regards. First and foremost, the forest provided logs for building, heating and lighting. Logs were necessary to basic survival, and were probably considered to be in infinite supply. The newly cleared forests provided land for agricultural expansion. New sources to exploit the land called for better and more efficient technologies. Land was practically considered to be relieved of “original sin” when it was cleared and cultivated. (Williams, 112) To better work the land, new tools were developed such as the heavy wheeled plow that cultivated the heavier forest soil. (Williams, 110) Originally this plow was used with oxen, but soon the labor-saving horse replaced oxen. The harness used with the plow had to be changed as well, considering the one used for oxen strangled the horses.

Clearing, cultivating and harvesting was done with increasing efficiency, which only increased the yield of surplus grain, allowing for more food per capita, more surplus for business, and more incentive to justify the continuation of the pattern. More and more, people were urged to go “deeper into the woods… to serve God.” (Williams, 113) Removing forests practically became an edict under some rulers, for example, under King Charlemagne’s rule in France. Forested areas caused conflicts, charters, agreements and other devices to keep order and information on record. The various governing powers of the areas had specific laws pertaining to the forests, preserving some areas and exploiting others. During this time period, culture revolved around productivity and expanding at the expense of the dense, natural forest of Europe.

The resulting combination of a surplus food, better health, and general success of productive agriculture had developed Europe and given its various countries a sense of pride and competition. Adding the power of religion created a new incentive: colonization. Beginning the 16th century, shipbuilding had become efficient and durable enough to create fleets of ships that could explore the seas. Behind warfare, trade and especially missionary work hid religious motive. In the words of Vasco da Gama on his journey to Asia, Europeans were looking for “Christians and spices.” (Cipolla, 132) Religion provided endurance for the terrible journeys across the oceans, warfare among natives of foreign land, and even fed into competition between European powers. (Ehrlich, 255)

Frankly, Europeans had the means to expand. Weaponry was more developed and deadly than ever. Religious leaders, such as queens and kings of England, Spain, Portugal, and France gave permission and funding for missionary and trade expansion. Great thinkers provided new information, such as Copernicus who proved the heliocentricity of the earth. (Adas, 26) Of course, all of the scientists of the time were firm believers in God. Though there is a clear line drawn between modern science and religion, the two clung to each other during the 17th century. Scientists and astronomers explained physics and movement of planets mathematically with a clear appeasement to the church.

Europeans were victorious in their conquests because of their increasing technologies. Whether it was a patch of gnarly forest that represented the evils of the world or an entirely new continent, Europeans spread their prowess across the land and oceans. This feat could not have been accomplished without the presence of religious fervor. The importance of the church was reflected greatly in the actions of earlier Europeans, seen in the decimated forests and enormous churches and other religious buildings. Religious piety provided a loop of destroying land to create cultivatable land, which created food. The repeated cycle created an alarming result. Expansion to other lands created power and wealth, not to mention new territories that provided new resources. In turn, these voyages required extensive developments on shipbuilding, weaponry and navigation.


Adas, Michael, "Machines as the Meaure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance", Cornell Univ. Press 1989, pp. 1-35.

Cipolla, Carlo M., Epilog from "Guns, Sails, and Empires: Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion, 1400-1700" Sunflower Univ. Press, 1996, pp. 132-148.

Ehrlich, Paul R., "Ch.11: Gods, Dive-Bombers, and Bureaucracy" in "Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect" Island Press, 2000, pp. 253-279.

Williams, Michael. "Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis" (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003), pp. 102-142. ISBN 0-226-89926-8, Cornell SD 131 .W53 2002

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