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Response to Review of Negotiating the Landscape: Environment and Monastic Identity in the Medieval Ardennes

I would like to thank Michael Wolfe for his thoughtful and engaging review of my book. His questions and commentary encouraged me to use this opportunity of response to continue the discussion, to provide a bit of an ‘origin story’ for this project, and to encourage medieval and environmental historians alike to continue expanding the definition and scope of pre-modern environmental history.

I would like to start by picking up on Dr. Wolfe’s invocation of Moore’s poem, which encourages poets to find ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’. This is an intriguing phrase, and I think that it indeed captures well my intent to balance the fantastic imaginations of the medieval forest (ours and theirs) with the lived practical experiences of the forest as resource – full of, if not toads, then pigs and sheep and farmers and fences and paths and swineherds and merchants. By examining hagiographical sources (where my heart has always been) I wanted to find mundane nature alongside the miraculous, and when looking at charters, I wanted to flip the question, and see the ideas, imagination, and constructed memories that exist alongside the more apparent economic and agricultural data.

Initially, this project developed from a study of Louis the Pious’ royal charters, in which I was primarily interested in establishing a clearer sense of the royal engagement with forests – however my attention was quickly drawn to two of the charters concerning Stavelot-Malmedy that revealed a complex relationship not only between the forest and the monks who received the charter, but also between Louis the Pious and the memory of previous royal decrees. This connected the forest to my own growing interest in the work of Patrick Geary and Amy Remensnyder on the ways that narrative and normative sources constructed imagined and reconstructed pasts.(1)

Dr. Wolfe presents my book as a cultural history focused on issues of memory, narrative, and monastic struggles to clarify and define their identity, an assessment that fits my own sense of the methodologies driving my research. As has been argued elsewhere by myself and by Richard Unger (2), medieval environmental history, though owing its origins in great part to the models of cultural and intellectual history presented by both the Annales school and American environmental history, has developed as a discipline in ways that emphasize the medieval agricultural economy, responses to climate and environment, and cooperation with the natural sciences. This has led to a general tendency of pre-modern environmental history to emphasize the tangible, the economic, and the quantifiable. Because I wanted cultural forces, religion, narrative, and discourses of sanctity to be the highlight and main focus of the book, I am glad that ‘the imaginary landscape dominates the book far more than the actual ecosystem of the Ardennes’.

By actively working on a project that foregrounds culture, religion, and narrative, I wanted to help shift the field, to nudge scholars interested in the medieval environment (generally much more oriented towards materialism) to adopt some of the questions, theories, and approaches already common in US environmental history and modern European environmental history. I wanted to do a project that while paying attention to the tangible environment focused on issues of perception, cultural representation, and construction of ideas about nature. Through this focus, I hope to have opened the door for both medieval and modern environmental historians to broaden views of the role of nature in shaping medieval thought, and to understand that the medieval cultural discourses involving nature were more complex and relevant to our own than is normally assumed.

Peter Brown’s work on the religious culture of Late Antiquity and saints’ cults has deeply influenced and inspired my own, particularly his wide-ranging use of sources and his dedication to mentalities and identity.(3) Though Through the Eye of a Needle was not yet published when I finished the book, I think that this most recent work will be very important to continuing efforts to contextualize and understand early monasticism, particularly its relation to material economies, resources, and labor. A fully realized economic history was never my intention or even really feasible given, as Dr. Wolfe points out, the gaps in Stavelot-Malmedy’s record. Though I did address the forest economy (broadly defined), I was interested less in fiscal issues and monetary wealth and more in the ways that control of landscape and resources (of course intrinsically tied to wealth) were deliberately linked to spiritual and communal identity. I do, however, think there is a lot of room both in monastic history and in environmental history to explore concepts of resource value and commodification, and it would be very exciting if someone were to write a pre-modern prologue of sorts to Donald Worster’s Nature’s Economy.(4)

My book also did not explore monastic dialogues about the spiritual value of labor – in no small part because of how little it appears in my sources, but also because dealing with this and other aspects of monastic reform, though clearly a key aspect of monastic history, drew me a bit too far afield for my purposes of highlighting the complex ways that nature intersected with religious identity and cultural memory. (Such a focus could have also ceded a bit too much of the ground to 12th-century Cistercians, whose reforming rhetoric often obscured the rich diversity of Benedictine culture).

At its heart, this is both a monastic history and a landscape history – but not in the traditional way most commonly practiced by medievalists (like Della Hooke and, though I am greatly indebted to his work, Oliver Rackham). I do not claim to reconstruct a full image of the ecosystem of and settlement within the Ardennes. Instead, I was hoping to fit in more with Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory, the many essays on the American Wilderness Debate, Paul Dutton’s work on Carolingian representations of nature, and many of the essays in the book that Dr. Wolfe co-edited, Inventing Medieval Landscapes.(5) Ultimately, though I cast a wide net, because of both my sources and my own interests what I have presented is a mosaic – and one that I hope encourages further exploration of other communities, other regions, and other landscapes. I think that my case study suggests that we still have much to learn about the medieval world and about the ways the connections between religion, culture, and nature were forged.

Dr. Wolfe is right that I have only begun to deal with the theoretical aspects of my work. I am moving towards both continued development of what I mean by ‘environmental exegesis’ (he is right, it is demonstrated in the book rather than fully explained) and to more deliberate inclusion of some of the place-based theories used by both ecocritics and environmental historians, including Ricouer’s work as well as actor-network theory and ‘thing theory’. But even as the theories underpinning my work evolve and change, I am not as much interested in developing new theoretical frameworks as in highlighting new methodologies for pre-modern environmental history. In that light, I see ‘environmental exegesis’ as a method rather than a theory – a way of reading sources rather than an epistemiological frame. In the book that created the phrase ‘environmental imagination’, Lawrence Buell argued strongly for the recognition that the literary discipline of ecocriticism can and should be applied to nonfiction writing and to works that are not explicitly about nature.(6) I am extending this call by arguing that Christian concepts of nature can be explored not only via the Bible and theological commentaries, but also through the hagiographical sources that represented local and regional Christian voices and stories. Latin narrative hagiographical sources are as ripe for ecocritical approaches as sagas and romances. An environmental exegesis would take the spirituality of these sources seriously, while also recognizing how such stories are often grounded in real places and landscapes. I would like to see hagiography used differently: as religious stories rather than as sources for nuggets of quantifiable data, as evidence of story-telling and narrative construction, and, perhaps most importantly, as relating to natural and man-made places and spaces as well as to an abstract sense of divinity.

I fully expect that other studies will find that different medieval people, facing different environments, different cultural settings, and different social relationships constructed their own set of stories, practices, and landscapes. As far as what might be next, for my own part I am trying to step away from the micro-history, though I found it richly rewarding. I am turning to a broader project on rivers and riverscapes from 300–900, hoping to answer some of the questions that my book raised both for this reviewer and myself – how can this be pushed beyond a case study? Were there ideas about nature that were common to early medieval communities? Are there any patterns in the stories across time and space? Did the narratives constructed around and environments reflect practical experiences or fly in the face of those experiences?

If I have one hope for my book, it would be that it encourages others to take up similar questions in their own research – that they more actively include what medieval people knew, felt, believed, hoped, and feared about the natural world that surrounded them – and that they recognize the role of those ideas in shaping discourses about religion, history, memory, and community identity. I thank Dr. Wolfe and the IHR for starting this conversation, and I hope that I have the opportunity to continue it with him in the future and that is also taken up by others.


  1. Patrick Geary, Phantoms of Remembrance: Memory and Oblivion at the End of the First Millenium (Princeton, NJ, 1994) and Amy G. Remensyder, Remembering Kings Past: Monastic Foundation Legends in Medieval Southern France (Ithaca, NY, 1995).Back to (1)
  2. Ellen Arnold, ‘An introduction to medieval environmental history’, History Compass, 6, 3 (2008), 898–916 and Richard W. Unger, ‘Introduction: Hoffmann in the historiography of environmental history’, Ecologies and Economies in Medieval and Early Modern History: Studies in Environmental History for Richard C. Hoffmann, ed. Scott G. Bruce (Leiden, 2010).Back to (2)
  3. Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago, 1982), and The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150–750 (New York, NY, 1989).Back to (3)
  4. Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy: a History of Ecological Ideas (Cambridge, MA, 1994).Back to (4)
  5. Inventing Medieval Landscapes: Senses of Place in Western Europe, ed. John Howe, Michael Wolfe (Gainesville, FL, 2002).Back to (5)
  6. Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature-Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge, MA, 1995).Back to (6)