Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2012

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

David Glimp

Second Advisor

Katherine Eggert

Third Advisor

Richelle Munkhoff

Fourth Advisor

Paul Hammer

Fifth Advisor

Valerie Forman


My dissertation focuses on the development of the proto-ecological concept of "the oeconomy of nature" in works of literature and natural philosophy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Tracing interconnections between the discourse of estate management and the rhetoric of natural philosophy, I find that "oeconomy" (the early modern art of household management) provides a conceptual vocabulary through which thinkers understood the natural world as a self-regulating system made up of independent agents. Through readings of Edmund Spenser, Ben Jonson, George Herbert, Kenelm Digby, Margaret Cavendish, and John Milton, my dissertation challenges recent accounts of early modern environmental thought by highlighting the historicity of concepts such as "ecology" and "environment" and by unearthing an alternative terminology that early modern thinkers used to understand the material world.

The first three chapters trace a genealogy of the oeconomy of nature in the writings of natural philosopher Kenelm Digby through the work of his two principal literary influences: Edmund Spenser and Ben Jonson. Spenser and Jonson pave the way for the oeconomy of nature by representing divergent paradigms for understanding the natural world. Through this grouping of texts, I contend that, rather than existing at the margins of scientific epistemology, imaginative literature serves a critical function in the development of new forms of knowledge. I argue that Digby develops the oeconomy of nature as a way of reconciling the discourse of Baconian empiricism, with its tendency to fragment nature into observable parts, with his desire to produce an integrated model of the natural world. Chapters 4 and 5 then focus on the ways in which George Herbert and Margaret Cavendish respond to ambiguity regarding the human subject's position in the oeconomy of nature. Attentive to the dynamic interplay between works of imaginative literature and those of natural philosophy, my project asserts that literature plays an important and generally underappreciated role in the development of scientific thought.