Negotiating the Landscape: Environment and Monastic Identity in the Medieval Ardennes

Negotiating the Landscape: Environment and Monastic Identity in the Medieval Ardennes

Negotiating the Landscape: Environment and Monastic Identity in the Medieval Ardennes

Negotiating the Landscape: Environment and Monastic Identity in the Medieval Ardennes


Negotiating the Landscape explores the question of how medieval religious identities were shaped and modified by interaction with the natural environment. Focusing on the Benedictine monastic community of Stavelot-Malmedy in the Ardennes, Ellen F. Arnold draws upon a rich archive of charters, property and tax records, correspondence, miracle collections, and saints' lives from the seventh to the mid-twelfth century to explore the contexts in which the monks' intense engagement with the natural world was generated and refined.

Arnold argues for a broad cultural approach to medieval environmental history and a consideration of a medieval environmental imagination through which people perceived the nonhuman world and their own relation to it. Concerned to reassert medieval Christianity's vitality and variety, Arnold also seeks to oppose the historically influential view that the natural world was regarded in the premodern period as provided by God solely for human use and exploitation. The book argues that, rather than possessing a single unifying vision of nature, the monks drew on their ideas and experience to create and then manipulate a complex understanding of their environment. Viewing nature as both wild and domestic, they simultaneously acted out several roles, as stewards of the land and as economic agents exploiting natural resources. They saw the natural world of the Ardennes as a type of wilderness, a pastoral haven, and a source of human salvation, and actively incorporated these differing views of nature into their own attempts to build their community, understand and establish their religious identity, and relate to others who shared their landscape.


In the middle of a cold, icy medieval winter, the bare trees of the Ardennes would have provided little shelter from biting winds, snow, and freezing rain. But once spring arrived and “it was the time when the hoary ice melts off of the mountains and the west wind loosens up the fetid earth,” the Ardennes were beautiful. On one particular morning in April 716, as a monk named Agilolf walked through the beautiful forest toward his death, “the woods were in leaf, the plants were bright with flowers.”

Changes of the seasons often brought dramatic alterations in the appearance of the mountainous, forested Ardennes. Although at times the woods may have presented a dark visage to strangers, as spring approached they would have been clothed in a range of brilliant new greens, filled with beeches and birches, water-loving alders, and leafy, shady oaks. As the canopy grew in over the summer, trees would provide shade and shelter for plants, people, and animals. Glades and clearings were sprinkled throughout the shady, cool woods, and they would have been bright and open places, their grasses and flowers welcoming people and animals. Then the fall would usher in a new range of colors, fruits, and nuts. Tangles of brush and trees would have grown up in the places where woods and glades met, creating a varied, interesting, and complex ecosystem.

Agilolf was walking near the Amblève River, and on the day in question, the spring thaws would have already begun. the river would have been swollen and swift, running down from its source in the Hohe Venn, a high plateau that dominates the Northern Ardennes. After flowing through the mountains surrounding the plateau and past some high, forested hills, the river is joined by one of many tributaries. the beds of both rivers were swampy, with drier land located twenty meters higher up, and a medieval author explained that they “provided many accommodations . . .

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