Imagining Nature and Creating Sacred Landscapes in Early Medieval England and Francia, c. 400-850

Terry, John, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Kershaw, Paul, Department of History, University of Virginia

This dissertation explores the range of attitudes towards and perceptions of the natural world in early medieval England and Francia, c. 400-850, and the ways in which those interpretations could shape and be made to shape religious life. Building on that diversity, this study argues that textual representations of nature constitute a central but neglected theme in early medieval sources. Textual representations of nature in sources on religious life—history, hagiography, liturgy, poetry and epistolary evidence—offer scholars access to ideas of the Christianization of space and place in this period. Images of nature informed by scriptural, exegetical and hagiographic conventions helped give form to sophisticated textual strategies for making sense of communal Christian life, especially in monastic contexts. These textual networks are crucial components of the ways in which early medieval authors tried to redefine a fundamentally changed Europe in the centuries after Roman rule. Reading nature in the sources illuminates how intellectuals thought about and with the world around them as part of larger projects of defining what it meant to be a Christian in post-Roman Europe.

Current scholarship on early medieval attitudes towards nature tends to organize them into broad “positive” and “negative” categories. This study challenges and revises such analyses, exposing both the diversity of perceptions as well as the functions descriptions of nature could accomplish within the texts in which they appeared. Textual images of nature could reject formerly pagan landscapes, reenact Scripture in local environments and mirror the religious life cultivated by monks, ascetics and religious communities. Natural images also shifted with contexts: for the authors of late antique Gaul (c. 350-650), forceful arguments for nature’s ability to shape religious life and its fitness to harbor holy people often tempered a dominant narrative of the conquest of nature. For early historians and hagiographers of post-Roman Britain (c. 500-820), cultural shifts brought on by the end of Roman rule and rapid conversion to Christianity after 597 produced a need for new textual strategies arguing for nature’s ability to foster religious change in specific landscapes. Anglo-Latin poets of the period deployed diverse natural metaphors to express central elements of monastic identity such as craftsmanship, building and landscape manipulation. By the period of Frankish missionary activity (c. 690-900), textual descriptions of nature were crucial for expressing conversion processes in missionary vitae. Towards the end of the period, that rhetoric had coalesced with apocalyptic thought about the physical, non-Christian world “at the ends of the earth.” By tracing the paths of natural themes through these sources, this study sheds new light on the creative ways in which early medieval people thought about religious life and defined their faiths in a period of broad cultural change.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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