E. Ann Matter

title.none: Fumigalli, Landscapes of Fear

identifier.other: baj9928.9408.004 94.08.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: E. Ann Matter, University of Pennsylvania

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1994

identifier.citation: Fumagalli, Vito. Landscapes of Fear: Perceptions of Nature and the City in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994. Pp. vi + 222. $49.95 (hb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 94.08.04

Fumagalli, Vito. Landscapes of Fear: Perceptions of Nature and the City in the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994. Pp. vi + 222. $49.95 (hb).

Reviewed by:

E. Ann Matter
University of Pennsylvania

In Italian literary society, university professors, even professors of medieval history, play a large and visible role. Specialized scholars often write articles and reviews for the popular press, and dedicate a part of their publications to the general reader far more frequently than do their American counterparts. Although Umberto Eco is probably the most famous scholar pop-star of Italy, he is not the only one. Vito Fumagalli, professor of medieval history at the University of Bologna and expert on early medieval agriculture, is another medieval historian whose works have hit the Italian best-seller list. Landscapes of Fear is an English translation of three of Fumagalli's popular studies of problems in medieval history.

The three books published in Italy as Quando il cielo s'oscura (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1987), La pietra viva (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1988), and Solitudo carnis (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1990) appear here as Parts I, II, and II of the Landscapes of Fear. In English, the three parts are entitled "When the Heavens Darken," "The Living Rock: The City and Nature in the Middle Ages," and "The Solitude of the Flesh." As Fumagalli explains in the introduction to the collection, the three studies reflect his changing interpretations of and approaches to medieval culture, but have in common a concern for the relationship between human beings and nature, and highlight the reflection of human nature in the medieval perception of the environment. Part I has primarily to do with the relationship between people and the environment, Part II with the growth of cities (the changing of that environment), and Part III with medieval attitudes towards the body. Fumagalli acknowledges the vastness of the scope of the book, and underlines his intention to avoid "too rigid and uniform an interpretation of events," while striving to portray "the vulnerability, apprehensions, fears, aspirations, drama, and tragedy" of the relationship between medieval people and nature (p. 2).

Does Fumagalli succeed in this ambitious undertaking? I would have to say yes and no.

From the standpoint of a scholar of the Middle Ages, no. The very subject of the book is potentially anachronistic, depending on one's working definition of "nature," but Fumagalli does not go into this problem in any detail. For example, Alan of Lille, whose "De planctu Naturae" might have provided some clues for medieval theorizing on this subject, is not considered. Furthermore, some of the generalizations Fumagalli offers (without medieval sources to back them up) would have to be irritating to most medievalists. The chapter "Dreams" in Part I, for example, begins with a discussion of Alcuin's awareness of "the evanescence of the physical world and the speed at which everything moves towards its final dissolution." From here, Fumagalli turns to the high infant mortality and short life span of medieval people, and ends the paragraph with the observation that medieval chronicles often refer to the protagonists of land deals and rents as the sons of deceased fathers ("Pietro del fu Andrea", "Paolo di Antonio di buona memoria"), p. 23. But of course, this paragraph bounces between two very different worlds: Anglo-Saxon England, and late-medieval Italy. Is this observation equally true for both? Likewise, the repeated example of Bobbio as paradigm of the medieval foundation purposely laid on top of a Roman Christian ruin, an example which is evoked at least three times, suggests, wrongly, that all early medieval foundations were Christian re-claimings. This was certainly not the case everywhere in Europe: not in Normandy, for example, nor in Germany north of the Elbe, not to mention Scandinavia.

On the other hand, yes, Landscapes of Fear does fulfill Fumagalli's goal of portraying the emotional underpinnings of medieval culture, at least for those whose reading is not too burdened by details. The example of Bobbio about which I just complained is used to great advantage in the chapter of Part II entitled "Dead Cities." The portrait of Columbanus founding a monastery in a site where "dense forest stretched for mile upon mile, interrupted only occasionally by the stark ruins of towns and villages destroyed during the barbarian invasions or abandoned after long decline" (p. 71) is a startlingly vivid portrait of what urbanization meant in some parts of Europe during the early Middle Ages. Fumagalli has mastered the tough task of describing obscure and difficult concepts in a way that attracts the reader and makes her want to know more. The translation of Shayne Mitchell is anything but literal, but it attempts with a great deal of success to replicate Fumagalli's dynamic and colorful Italian rhetoric according to the norms of English literary style. I doubt that Landscapes of Fear will make a great impact on English-speaking medievalists; but it is entirely possible that the book could become popular and widely read by the more intellectual type of general reader. With proper supervision, it could also be used effectively in the classroom.

There is, though, a certain poignancy in the way this English translation of Landscapes of Fear demonstrates the difference between the Italian and the Anglophone general reading public. In the original Italian printings of these books, Latin phrases were often used as puns and amplifications of Italian chapter titles. For example, all of the chapter titles in Solitudo carnis begin with a Latin tag, all of which have been dropped from the English translation. So, the enticing "Fastidium huius mundi. Il disprezzo del mondo" becomes "The World Condemned," losing the vibrancy of both "fastidium" and "disprezzo", neither of which can be summed up as "condemned." Is it really necessary to protect us from Latin?

And, finally, there is the consideration of price. These books are available in Italy in paper, none costs more than 15,000 Lire, about $10.00. Bringing the three books together into one should have made the cost go down; but Landscapes of Fear is being marketed in cloth only, and for a whopping $49.95. It is to be hoped that Polity Press has a paper edition in planning, so that this book will be able to get to its natural audience in the English-speaking world of readers.