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Ellen F. Arnold: Negotiating the Landscape. Environment and Monastic Identity in the Medieval Ardennes (reviewed by Michael Wolfe)

This is not the usual kind of book review that I usually write.  Instead, in the spirit of the IHR’s intention to create a forum for serious, collaborative engagement, please consider me an agent provocateur who will try to stir things up for the sake (I hope) of our mutual edification.  Ellen Arnold sets her sights on a number of very ambitious goals in her fine new book, based on her 2006 dissertation at the University of Minnesota, about monastic attitudes and behaviors in relation to their local landscape.  Hers is a case study of how the monks in the abbeys of Stavelot and Malmedy viewed the formidable tangle of forests and waterways of the Ardennes region over the period from their foundation in 648 by St. Remacle to the mid 12th century when their most noted abbot, Wibald, died.  These abbeys are located in the vicinity of present-day Belgium and Luxembourg.  Dr. Arnold quite rightly follows the lead of historians, such as Elspeth Whitney and Richard Hoffman, who over the past 20 years have moved the discussion far beyond Lynn White Jr.’s originally provocative thesis that medieval society sought dominion over nature.  More nuanced views, inspired by the work of Americanists such as Donald Worster and William Cronon, now posit a multi-level, more dialectical relationship that privileges negotiation with the natural environment, not its conquest, hence the title of this book.

My first question regards this notion of negotiation, which largely revolves in Dr. Arnold’s study around the relationship between people, in this case the monks, and a place, in this case the Ardennes.  However, as the study proceeds it appears the monks mainly negotiated over those lands where they contested rights with other groups of people, be they woodsmen, peasant cultivators, local nobles, the Imperial court, the bishops, or other monastic houses.  Indeed, so many of the cartulary and hagiographical source materials which Dr. Arnold uses reflect for the most part views from the late 11th to the mid 12th centuries, a time during which the monks of Stavelot-Malmedy attempted not so much to negotiate their relationship with the Ardennes but rather with the fasting changing world beyond the forest.  This leads me to ask if the story Dr. Arnold is telling here is not just about nature per se but even more about the efforts of a set of eminent Benedictine houses to reinterpret their history and identity in a bid to forestall signs of their waning prestige and fend off growing calls for reform, from first the Cluniacs in the 10th century and later the Cistercians, to its mission and position in post-Carolingian Europe.  Neither of these Benedictine reform movements figure much in the narrative, at least overtly.  This becomes especially clear at the end of the book in chapter five, though it might have been brought out earlier in the study to underscore what seems to have been an essentially instrumental use of nature – both textually and economically – to advance or protect the monks’ interests and place in the world, not just the Ardennes.

While invoking the Annales School and devoting attention to social and economic factors, Dr. Arnold primarily embraces a cultural approach to her topic, though whether that springs from her main source materials – charters, vitae, and miracle stories – or her own predilections is not clear.  I suspect it’s a combination of the two.  In her introduction, she makes a point of distancing herself from eco-criticism, which makes sense given its overtly engaged stance, but I wonder if her monks weren’t creating their own, religious-inflected medieval form of eco-criticism.  Dr. Arnold frames her study around the twin poles of how nature shaped culture, and culture in turn shaped nature.  More specifically, she asks how the monks’ religious identity influenced how they acted in the landscape, and how features of that landscape – the trees, the rivers, the animals – correspondingly affected this identity.  Identity and landscape meet in a place she calls ’the environmental imagination’, unpacking it using a hermeneutics she calls ‘environmental exegesis’.   I, for one, would have liked a more sustained and precise, even technical discussion of how this approach works, though glimpses of that come through in those sections of the book dealing with interpreting charters and her literary analysis of evolving versions of the saints’ lives and miracle stories.

The imaginary landscape dominates the book far more than the actual ecosystem of the Ardennes.  This becomes clear in chapter one, which explores the monks’ view of their local environs as at once a dangerous, untamed wilderness (locus horribilis) and a pastoral paradise (locus amoenus).  Long biblical and classical literary traditions informed these topoi, and the monks regularly invoked them in a mixed and blurred manner, not a simple dichotomous one, she argues.  Nevertheless, the next two chapters on the relationship between these religious interpretations and the local landscape as a site for economic production and social conflict contrast these dualist views of nature that pit the spiritual over against the secular.  Cartulary sources figure prominently, as one would expect, in these sections, and while Dr. Arnold does examine the question of boundaries and perambulation narratives, the reader never gets a true sense of any of the actual places over which the monks held jurisdiction, nor up against precisely whose property their holdings abutted.  Again, her reliance on the rich Urbar of Prüm to extrapolate how the monks at Stavelot-Malmedy managed their domesticated landscape suggest her sources just cannot vouchsafe this kind of granular consideration of the actual landscape in the Ardennes.   She also leans a good deal on Oliver Rackham’s innovative studies in the forest archaeology of medieval Britain to explain the sylvan management practices of the monks.  Yet other studies of medieval forests in northern France and the Low Countries exist in sufficient number, going back at least to the 1990 issue of the Les Cahiers du Centre de Recherches Historiques (edited by Philippe Braunstein), to provide some of the missing context on ways to approach the actual landscape under consideration.  Finally, I also wonder if more discussion about the subjects of labor and wealth, drawing on work of George Ovitt or even Peter Brown’s recent book Through the Eye of the Needle, might have deepened her discussions about value and conflict in relation to the local landscape.  In part, I think my questions here goes back to Dr. Arnold’s deeper interest in the cultural meaning of landscape, since chapter three is as much about memory and identity as the social and political dynamics fueling conflicts in the forest.

The last two chapters of the book return squarely and go even more deeply into the cultural meanings of imagined landscape and monastic identity.  In chapter four, the conflicts now occur in the monastic imagination through reinterpreting the past to address present interests and challenges.  Dr. Arnold draws an explicit connection between, for example, the Rogation Days stories and contests over wilderness resources, while the fascinating tale of the ’Fighting Forest of the Amblève‘ shows how a story of martyrdom from the days of Charles Martel served as a coda for rivalries between the two abbeys set against the background of political fragmentation and conflict in the 11th century. Saints’ lives, too, such as the Passio Agilolfi, further demonstrate the instrumental use of landscape motifs to defend and advance monastic interests.  The final chapter serves as an extended conclusion that integrates elements discussed earlier in the study with the abiding themes of religious landscape and monastic identity.  Sections of this chapter read much like an introduction as she works her way through recent scholarly work.   It is also here that Dr. Arnold makes a passing reference to the ‘inscription’ of the landscape by the monks.  That is, of course, a technical term usually associated with Paul Ricoeur’s theory of representation, which might well be expanded upon by reference to the notion of ‘environmental exegesis’ discussed at the start of the book.  Even so, this final chapter is the strongest of the lot and ties up many but not all of the various strands in Dr. Arnold’s complex set of arguments.  At the end, it finally became clear, at least to me, that the imaginary landscape she explores was largely a product of that century of transition between 1050 and 1150, as the monks of Stavelot-Malmedy dealt with their future mainly by looking backward into their past and the deep forest of the Ardennes.

My final question concerns where Dr. Arnold thinks other scholars should take up the next stage of investigation into the subject of medieval environments and identity.  Here she seems torn between underscoring the unique experience of the monks of Stavelot-Malmedy and the desire to present her findings as a model for investigating localized senses of place elsewhere in medieval Europe.  It’s the classic problem in microhistory of typicality, and I wonder again if she might be able to bridge the span between the local and the general by an expanded discussion of her hermeneutics, one that might help us all arrive at what the poet Marianne Moore described in her poem entitled ‘Poetry’ as ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’.  In sum, this is a very good book to think with. I want to thank the IHR as well as Dr. Arnold for the opportunity to look for and find real toads in these forest glens, and I want to invite others do the same.


Author's Response

Ellen F. Arnold

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).

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).

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).

4. Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy: a History of Ecological Ideas (Cambridge, MA, 1994).

5. Inventing Medieval Landscapes: Senses of Place in Western Europe, ed. John Howe, Michael Wolfe (Gainesville, FL, 2002).

6. Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature-Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge, MA, 1995).