- Negotiating the Landscape: Environment and Monastic Identity in the Medieval Ardennes by Ellen F. Arnold
The premise of this book is appealing and provocative: “to understand the relationship that the monks of Stavelot-Malmedy had with their local environment” (p. 3) through a systematic investigation of references to the landscape of the Ardennes in writings produced by these allied abbeys from their foundation in the late Merovingian period until the twelfth century. Located in the densely forested uplands between the Meuse, the Rhine, and the Mosel rivers in what is now southern Belgium, the brethren of Stavelot-Malmedy produced numerous hagiographic narratives throughout the early Middle Ages. Ellen Arnold argues that the surrounding woodlands played an important role in these works not only as the setting for the triumphs and tribulations of local saints but also in the formation of the identity of the monks who called the Ardennes their home. Conducting what she calls an “environmental exegesis,” Arnold attempts to advance our understanding of early-medieval conceptions of the natural world through “the deliberate inclusion of the ideas, goals, stories and worldviews of hagiographers into medieval environmental history” (p. 13).
The book unfolds over five chapters. Chapter 1 examines how the monks of Stavelot-Malmedy employed the literary convention of the forest as a dangerous wilderness or an isolated desert. There follows an inconclusive discussion of the ambiguous Latin terminology for woodlands (silva, nemus, saltus, and so forth) employed in early-medieval sources, which would have been more at home in the introduction. Chapter 2 illustrates how the monks belied this notion of forest solitude through the agricultural interventions of their free and unfree dependents, who managed and exploited the natural resources of the forest (like timber, pigs, and bees) for the abbeys. Here Arnold shows how the abbots actively involved themselves in maintaining and protecting these assets. Chapter 3 looks at the ways in which the monks of the Ardennes resolved conflicts over their landed assets and property rights with neighboring religious communities, secular powers, and “unfaithful officials” (p. 128) who mismanaged monastic holdings. Chapter 4 addresses the use of the forest as both a setting and an actor in monastic story-telling. This chapter features an eleventh-century account of the murder of Abbot Agilolfus, an early-eighth-century associate of Charles Martel, which includes a scene reminiscent of Shakespeare’s depiction of the Birnam Wood (Macbeth, act 4, scene 1), in which Martel’s soldiers disguise themselves as trees to ambush their enemies. The final chapter offers a diachronic evaluation of the hagiographic stories from Stavelot-Malmedy that shows [End Page 113] how the monks constructed religious landmarks and brought miracle-working relics out into the surrounding countryside in an attempt to create and control a Christian landscape in the vicinity of their communities.
Although the application of hagiographic evidence to our understanding of how early-medieval people imagined the natural world is a worthwhile endeavor, two features of this book undermine its overall impact. First, the analytical foundation of the study is not very sound. The argument is largely impressionistic, and the concept of monastic identity is never defined. Moreover, the lack of comparative material does not allow the reader to evaluate the degree to which the brethren of Stavelot-Malmedy differed from other early-medieval monks in their literary treatment of their local environment. Second, the book would have benefited from a much firmer editorial hand. The chapters are needlessly long and often poorly organized. The author’s arguments are not plainly stated and frequently lost in the thicket of tangential digressions. Although daring and original, Negotiating the Landscape is not altogether a persuasive attempt to use the evidence of hagiographic texts to tether the natural environment to the formation of early monastic identity.