Environmental History in Romania: The Travail of a Scientific Field. Part I.

In an expanded version of his ‘Notepad’, originally published in Environment and History 25.2 (May 2019), Stefan Dorondel of the Francisc I. Rainer Institute of Anthropology in Bucharest expores the field of environmental history in Romania.

To write about environmental history as an independent epistemological field in Romania could be a task accomplished within minutes. This statement is rigorously true only if we consider environmental history as a field of scientific inquiry without taking into account works from related disciplines such as geography or anthropology. Even enlarging the range to encompass other disciplines that include works that attempt to study the intersections between the environment and society does not yield tremendously numerous results. In the following pages I explore some of these works in an effort to build a framework on which the study of environmental history in Romania could raise its scaffold. In order to accomplish this task, I posit the existence of three periods in the historiography of environmental historical studies: the pre-socialist period (roughly end of 1800 up to 1945), the socialist period (1945 to 1989) and the post-socialist period. Part 1 of this blog covers the first two periods, and the second part will cover the last period and offer some conclusions.


The pre-socialist period

There are several big figures who conducted research at the intersection between nature, society and history such as Grigore Antipa (1867–1944), Simion Mehedinti (1868–1962) and Vintilă M. Mihăilescu (1890-1978). Antipa was an ichthyologist who extensively studied the Danube Delta and the Lower Danube and was the promoter of the first modern fishing law (1896) in Romania. His studies included riparian populations, their fishing practices, their way of life and the political economy of the Lower Danube and Delta – in an approach that would be appreciated by an environmental historian or political ecologist.[1]He drew plans based on a historical approach for what we would now call sustainable fishing. For instance, he mentioned the richness of fishing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in one of the largest lakes in Romania (Lake Greaca, Southern Romania) that communicated constantly with the Danube, while linking the rising scarcity of Danube fish to the unsustainable fishing practices of riparian peoples. He interviewed old fishermen regarding fishing practices and fishing ecology and pointed out that the scarcity of sturgeons was likely due to the newly emerging, chaotic capitalist fishing practices in Romania.[2]Yet, the primary interest of Antipa was to find sustainable ways to exploit the countless wetlands along the Danube and the Delta and all his research was directed toward this end.[3]Nevertheless, in drawing economic plans for organiszing fisheries, Antipa engaged deeply with history of fishing practices, including a thorough description of fishing tools from the medieval age to his time (early 1900s). That makes him a key person in evaluation of any field which focuses on the intersections between history, society and nature.

Photo 1_Grigore Antipa (2)
Grigore Antipa

Some of his associates such as Vasile Roşu published books (for example Drenagiu şi irigaţiune în Austria [Dredging and Irrigation Systems in Austria]) (1902) that analysed dredging and the irrigation systems in different countries perceived as much more advanced than Romania. These countries were perceived as models which Romania had to follow in its process of modernising economy and nature or, on the contrary, examples of bad practice in nature modernisation from whom Romania could draw lessons. The USA and the embankment of the Mississippi River was also discussed by Ion Vidrascu as a bad example of building embankments. He showed that the Americans had learned the hard way the usefulness of un-submersible levees which were not been able to protect them from catastrophic floods in 1927.[4]

Antipa and his followers were rather interested in developing the fishing economy and the ‘modernisation’ of the Danube and villages lying along it. Thus, history of different natural resources – of fish, rivers, lands, forests – was engaged in order to draw policies and plans of modernisation rather than for strictly epistemological reasons. History of the environment was thus wielded as a political tool of changing social and economic realities, especially in rural areas.

Simion Mehedinţi, a student of Frederich Ratzel, the founder of Anthropogeography, was interested in sociocultural anthropology and in geography. He was, in fact, the first professor of geography of the University of Bucharest.[5]Scientifically in debt to anthropogeography, history, ethnography and geography were interrelated sciences – so close to each other that it would be difficult to separate them. For instance, in his one of his masterpieces, Coordonate etnografice civilizaţia şi cultura[Ethnographic Coordinates: Civilization and Culture] (1930) Mehedinţi defined civilisation as ‘the sum of all crafts and tools used by humans to adapt to the physical environment’.[6]He emphasised the importance of tools for the human adaptation to environment – tools that are a prolongation of teeth, nails and jaws. Adaptation to the physical environment is the key point in his work. Clothes, tools, houses – all represent the adaptation to a certain climate. Most of his ethnographic examples come from the Romanian peasant culture. However, he uses anthropology textbooks of the time to illustrate his point.

Photo 2_Simion Mehedinti 1
Simion Mehedinţi

Vintilă M. Mihăilescu was another geographer whose works included history, ethnography and geography. He made a history of human settlements (mostly villages but also Bucharest, the capital of Walachia and later of Romania) in the southern lowlands of actual Romania from antiquity to 1900s. Using archaeological and historical documents, including maps, and contemporary ethnographic observations Mihăilescu analyses the structure and density of villages, their distribution across the space linked to access to natural resources – rivers, land and agricultural fields. As documentation multiplied in the nineteenth century, he was able to document the movement of population and the environmental consequences of the liberalisation of the grain commerce after 1829: vast deforestation and the transformation of the savannah-like lowlands along the Lower Danube into agricultural fields.[7]

Photo 3_Vintila Mihailescu (2)
Vintilă Mihăilescu

This period is characterised by the fact that Romanian scholars were mostly trained in western universities and were perfectly contemporary with western scholars and their works. Some of them, like Antipa or Mehedinţi, were favourite students of west European scholars who founded new scientific fields. They carried knowledge, methods and approaches back to Romania and taught them at the university or promoted policies to ‘modernise’ nature for the benefit of the society. Yet, they also contributed to the global knowledge of the period and their publications were equally prized by Romanian and foreign scholars. The best proof is that both aforementioned Romanian scholars had their work reviewed in the most important scholarly journals of the time and were celebrated by important figures in their respective fields.[8]A second feature of the scholarship in the interwar period, and in particular of these founding figures of their respective scientific fields, is that the research they carried out was widely interdisciplinary. Antipa was a biologist, Mehedinţi was an anhropogeographer, whereas Mihăilescu was a classic geographer. Yet, all three engaged history and ethnography in their analysis, all three positioned their studies at the intersections of history, society and nature.

Romanian contemporary historiography, mostly interested in politics, diplomacy and military events and facts –a very nineteenth century style of researching history – still omits including the research of these authors into the main historical narrative of Romania. Looking retrospectively, it is quite difficult to have a clear picture of the history of modernisation of Romania at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth without including the fierce technological and ideological debates concerning the fate of rivers, the transformation of ponds, lakes and backwaters along the Lower Danube into agricultural fields. It is difficult to understand the policies of modernisation in interwar period without referring to the obsession with constructing large infrastructure (bridges, canals, irrigation systems) – seen then as well as now – as the key point of a country’s economy modernisation.[9]We can only partially understand state formation and national identity without referring to the emergence of protected areas and national parks in Romania at the beginning of the twentieth century. These subjects were quite marginal so far in Romanian historiography. However, all these transformations of the newly emerged nation state (1878) were intended in the most direct way to alter nature, to transform it for the sake of people.


The socialist period

Technically, the socialist period was one that promoted several laws and policy measures to protect nature and the environment. In fact, many laws meant to protect nature remained unapplied or poorly implemented on the ground whereas the regime promoted an aggressive policy of industrialisation and intensive agriculture.[10]For this period one can count only a few books and several small articles which fit a wider definition of environmental history. One of these analyses the importance of forests in Romanian history starting with prehistory.[11]Constantin C. Giurescu explored forestry works and related tools, the importance of old trees as markers of different land properties from medieval times until the collectivisation of land (1946–1962), and various usages of different trees (from construction to firewood). He pointed out that late nineteenth-century industrialisation required a huge quantity of wood which led to drastic deforestation throughout Romania. The same author wrote a history of fishing in Romania in which he describes the economic importance of fish for communities living on the current territory of Romania – a country with one of the richest river networks in Europe.[12] He examines the fishing trade in Romanian history, the main species of fish living in Romanian waters as well as fishing tools and practices. This was conceived as the first volume, which ends with the modern period. A second volume, never published, was meant to cover the end of the nineteenth century until the socialist period.

Henri H. Stahl, a sociologist, focused on the commons (villages, lands and forests) in Romanian history. In his impressive work he illustrates the transformation of property rights over land and forests from the Middle Ages to the modern period. He shows not only the way the commons were organised and the techniques of exploitation of land and forests but also the physical consequences to natural resources (deforestation, land fragmentation, land exhaustion).[13]

Several other short journal articles describe fishing during the Middle Ages in different provinces and its economic importance. These articles are rather descriptive and, more importantly, they do not aim at studying the environment but economics. Environment is presented in these studies as a sort of stage on which the economic facts unfolds.[14]Fish, in these studies, are nothing else but an economic resource depleted from its natural state. These studies are important for bringing to light different documents, often found in obscure archives that are  difficult to access. A future environmental historian would use these historical documents to draw a larger picture of environmental transformations in the Middle Ages and the modern history of Romania.

The socialist period in Romania, due to the rigid political regime (that ranked with Albania as the toughest socialist regime in Europe) had poor links with Western academia especially after 1971. This is the reason that the main developments in the global evolution of environmental history had no echo in Romania. For instance, the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring(1962), which contributed substantially to boosting environmental movements in the West, remained virtually unknown and un-echoed in Romania—and this remains the case today.


I thank Gheorghiţă Geană, Vintilă Mihăilescu and Oana Popa for sending me pictures of Simion Mehedinţi, Vintilă M. Mihăilescu and Grigore Antipa respectively. I also thank my friend and colleague Stelu Şerban for reading and commenting aptly on an earlier draft.

[1]Grigore Antipa, ‘Câteva probleme ştiinţifice şi economice privitoare la Delta Dunărei’ [Several Scientific and Economic Problems Concerning the Danube Delta],Analele Academiei Române36(1914);Idem,Studii asupra pescariilor din Romania [Studies on Fisheries of Romania](Bucuresti: Imprimeria Statului, 1895).

[2]Grigore Antipa, Regiunea inundabila a Dunarii. Starea ei actuala si mijloacele de a o pune in valoare[The Danube Floodplain. Its Status and the Means to Exploited] (Bucuresti: Institutul de Arte Grafice Carol Göbl, 1910).

[3]See for details, Stefan Dorondel, Vera Mitroi, ‘Nature, State and Conservation in the Danube Delta: Turning Fishermen into Outlaws’, in W. Graf von Hardenberg, M. Kelly, C. Leal and Emily Wakild (eds.), The Nature State. Rethinking the History of Conservation(London and New York: Routledge, 2017), pp. 194–212.

[4]Ion G. Vidraşcu, Inundaţiile catastrofale ale Mississippiului şi îndiguirile Dunărei[The Catastrophic Floods of the Mississippi and the Embankment of the Danube], (Bucureşti, 1928). For the adaptation of Western models of river transformations to Romania, see Stelu Serban and Stefan Dorondel, ‘The Economy of a Leashed River: State, Experts and Interbellum Politics along the Lower Danube, in S. Dorondel and Stelu Serban (eds), Planners, Experts and Bureaucrats. Transforming Economy and Nature in European Peripheries(manuscript).

[5]Gheorghiţă Geană, ‘Ideas of Culture: Romanian Para-Anthropologists in the First Half of the Twentieth Century,’ Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences35(1): 23–40.

[6]Simion Mehedinţi, Coordonate geografice civilizaţia şi cultura, in S. Mehedinţi, Civilizaţie şi cultură. Concepte, definiţii, rezonanţe[Civilization and Culture. Concepts, Definitions, Resonances], edition by G. Geană, (Bucureşti: Editura Trei, 1999), p. 75 (originally published by Casa Şcoalelor, Bucureşti, 1930).

[7]Vintilă Mihăilescu, ‘Vlăsia şi Mostiştea. Evoluţia geografică a două regiuni din Câmpia Română [Vlăsia şi Mostiştea. The Geographic Evolution of Two Regions from the Southern Lowlands],’ Buletinul Societăţii Regale Române de GeografieXLIII, (1924): 1–200.

[8]See for instance the list of international contributors to pay homage to Grigore Antipa at his 50thanniversary: Grigore Antipa Hommage àson œuvre, Bucureşti M.O., Imprimeria Naţională, 1938. For Mehedinţi, see G. Geană, op. cit.

[9]For more details, see Stefan Dorondel and Stelu Serban, ‘Ecologia politică a îndiguirii: stat, comunităţi locale şi transformarea socialistă a Dunării de Jos [The Political Ecology of Embankment: State, Local Communities and the Socialist Transformation of the Lower Danube]’, in A. Timotin (ed.), Dinamici sociale şi transferuri culturale în sud-estul European(Bucureşti: Editura Academiei Române, 2019), pp. 350-364.

[10]Stefan Dorondel, Vera Mitroi, op. cit.

[11]Constantin C. Giurescu, Istoria pădurii româneşti din cele mai vechi timpuri pînă astăzi [The History of Romanian Forest from the Most Ancient Times Until Today](Bucureşti: Ceres, 1975).

[12]Constantin C. Giurescu, Pescuitul şi piscicultura în România [Fishing and Fisheries in Romania], vol. 1 (Bucureşti: Ed. Academiei Române, 1964).

[13]Henri H. Stahl, Contribuții la studiul satelor devălmașe românești [Contributions for the Study of the Romanian Commons], 3 vol. (București: Cartea Românească, 1998 [1958]).

[14]See for instance Alexandrescu M.M., Dersca Bulgaru, ‘Aspecte ale vieţii economice din porturileşi schelele Dobrogei în secolele XV-XVI’ [Some Aspects Regarding the Economic Life in the Ports of Dobrogea in the 15th and the 16th Centuries]. PeuceVI (1977): 259–270;idem, in PeuceII (1971): 267–282; Contantin Rusu, ‘Evoluţia pescuitului şi pisciculturii în judeţul Botoşani’ [The Evolution of Fishing and Aquaculture in Botosani County]. HierasusVII–VIII (1989): 431–435.

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