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  • Negotiating the Landscape: Environment and Monastic Identity in the Medieval Ardennes by Ellen F. Arnold
  • Leanne Good
Negotiating the Landscape: Environment and Monastic Identity in the Medieval Ardennes. By Ellen F. Arnold (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012) 301pp. $65.00

The Ardennes forest proves a fruitful location for a case study about the use of environmental elements in the construction of monastic identity. This interdisciplinary survey investigates how the monks of the twin houses of Stavelot and Malmedy were influenced by the experience of their environment, from the mid-seventh-century to the mid-twelfth century. It also explores the ways in which the monks manipulated their environment, both physically and imaginatively, in order to achieve the goals of these communities.

The first four chapters present various aspects of monastic involvement with the natural world. Chapters 1 and 2 explore monastic representations of the forest environment, both as an isolating and threatening wilderness and as a nurturing and productive resource. The third and fourth chapters consider conflicts about land and the stories that the monks employed to bolster their claims, which emphasized the morality of monastic land use. The fifth chapter pulls together these strands to argue that the monks of Stavelot–Malmedy consciously constructed a religious landscape in order to serve both their economic and spiritual needs, and in the process created a communal identity tied to the land that they occupied.

The study utilizes a variety of sources, including property charters, the correspondence of Abbot Wibald (fl. 1130–1158), and, above all, hagiographical accounts, which Arnold explores “as a historian interested in the construction of cultural identities”(12). Her approach is informed by ecocriticism, a form of literary criticism that focuses on textual expressions of cultural values and perceptions related to the environment.

Arnold’s theoretical stance in regard to the relationship between nature and culture is not fully explicated. The terms environment, nature, wilderness, and landscape are sometimes used interchangeably; a clearer definition of these terms would have better elucidated her position. However, Arnold challenges the paradigm, established by White, that medieval Christianity fostered an attitude of dominion over nature.1 She stresses that monks were not constrained by a stagnant religious stance but exercised great latitude in the use of religious texts and in their representations of the natural world. The forest location of Stavelot–Malmedy enabled monastic authors to employ a trope of isolation and to emphasize the real and imagined dangers that allowed them to exercise their spiritual strengths. Thus, the protection and improvement of the natural surroundings of the monasteries assumed a religious meaning. [End Page 387] The appreciation of natural beauty and abundance was also tied to an idea of holiness. The natural world represented paradise, envisioned as the “pasture of heavenly life” (104).2

In addition to literary exegesis, Arnold details the economic and agricultural management of the land that the monasteries possessed. Of particular interest are her discussion of the terms applied to woodlands in various contexts—such as saltus, silva, and the legal designation forestis— and her investigation of the measurement and valuation of land as property. Chapters 3 and 4 concern conflicts about property and forest rights that Stavelot and Malmedy negotiated with Merovingian, Carolingian, Ottonian, and Salian rulers, as well as with the local aristocracy, the bishops of Cologne, other monastic houses, their tenants, and even with each other.

In the context of these conflicts, the hagiographies created by the monks established their authority by connecting saints to places in the surrounding region and sacralizing local landmarks. For example, Arnold contends that the fictional elements of the Passio Agilolfi served as an appeal to Henry IV to remove Malmedy from the control of Archbishop Anno II, who had translated the saint’s relics to Cologne. The Passio reworked an account from the ninth-century Liber Historiae Francorum into a story that associated royal power with the forest surrounding the monastery (159). In the new version, Charles Martel disguised his troops with branches to attack his enemies, who were under the impression that the forest was attacking. The monks inserted Saint Agilolf, the former abbot of Stavelot-Malmedy, into the account, claiming that he was...


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pp. 387-388
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