03.05.17, Ainsworth and Scott, Regions and Landscapes

Main Article Content

Charles Burroughs

The Medieval Review baj9928.0305.017


Ainsworth, Peter and Tom Scott, eds.. Regions and Landscapes: Reality and Imagination in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Bern: Peter Lang, 2000. Pp. 244. ISBN: 3-906765-32-6.

Reviewed by:
Charles Burroughs
Binghamton University

In the short introduction to this group of essays, based on papers delivered at the Leeds International Medieval Conference in July 1997, the discussion turns to the landscape evoked by an anonymous sixteenth-century German reformer in a highly idealized vision of his native land. The "Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine" saw his homeland -- the upper Rhineland -- as a distinct and blessed landscape, and so as an appropriate setting for messianic transformation. Further the location of the Rhine valley at the heart of Europe, in his view, made it an ideal center for the export of this religious renewal to the whole Christian world. For the authors of the introduction, the text illustrates the combination of reality and imagination characteristic of responses to landscapes in medieval and early modern northern Europe. In particular, it exemplifies the tendency for town dwellers, when imagining a paradisial society, to identify their own bustling commercial towns with Jerusalem or Arcadia, according to their cultural orientation.

Curiously the introduction, though co-authored by Tom Scott, does not connect the Revolutionary's image of the Rhine valley as the spine of a cohesive region with Scott's article in the volume. In opposition to the familiar image of the Rhine as a major barrier and boundary between nations, Scott evokes a fragmented landscape, at least for the early modern period, characterized by strong rivalries dividing the main cities on the river; one remarkable result of this a preference to use roads rather than the eminently navigable river for the carriage of goods. Though unifying mechanisms did exist, notably in the coinage leagues emphasized by Scott, the promise of the Rhine as the potential "heart of a European commercial empire" (163) was not fulfilled. Scott's wistful counterfactual echoes the Revolutionary's dream of a united valley, but the relationship is not made explicit; indeed in general, for all the interest of many individual papers, little is done to weld them into a cohesive volume. In part, this is surely due to the absence of an appropriate theoretical framing: few of the authors seem aware of the rich and highly interdisciplinary literature that has developed about the idea of landscape (there is no reference, e.g., to John Stilgoe, Dennis Cosgrove, or Kenneth Olwig).

The volume begins promisingly with Margriet Hoogvliet's sophisticated article on the "Medieval Hermeneutics of Cartographical Space." Hoogvliet is well informed about recent work in the history of cartography; at the outset she notes the influential and interdisciplinary scholarship that understands even modern maps as ideologically charged cultural representations rather than objective accounts of a geographical reality. The effect of this scholarly tendency has been to lessen the gap that once seemed so absolute between medieval and modern cartography, in view of the former's evident symbolic aspect. Taking an opposing tack Hoogvliet argues that "there is more to medieval culture than ideology alone" (26); what distinguishes medieval cartographic representation from modern map making is the absence not of certain practical interests, but rather of the demand for unambiguous representation. Medieval maps refer to "reality," but this reality is composed of multiply signifying elements, and as such requires multiple interpretive methodologies.

The various medieval theorizations of levels of meaning are well known; the challenge for Hoogvliet is that the medieval world maps (mappae mundi) do not include cues for multiple interpretation, though many combine imagery with diverse textual material. She reviews various medieval literary genres in which multi-level hermeneutics explicitly occur and to which allusions seem to be made in the maps. She concludes that a key model for the maps is a medieval form that has only recently received due attention, the "exegetical diagram." These complex structures assert symbolical, allegorical, and typological relationships, and often include geographical material. A striking omission from the paper, given the theme of the volume, is the occurrence in some mappae mundi of representations of or references to landscape, many mappamundi include images of paradise and a number of other pictorial elements, and in the Hereford mappamundi the image of surveyors implies the territory they are about to explore and record, as well as their practices and techniques of territorial scrutiny. Hoogvliet's concern, however, is to posit the exegetical diagram as a kind of "symbolic form" (Hoogvliet herself does not use this concept, famous from the work of Cassirer and Panofsky; instead her work is explicitly indebted to Hans Blumenberg). To me at least, as an architectural historian, this raises questions about the externalization of such a symbolic form in such fields as the layout of settlements (especially bastides) or fortresses. Rather than wider meditations on medieval culture, however, Hoogvliet turns at the end of her article to the issue of the persistence of the exegetical diagram into the early modern thought world.

In contrast to Hoogvliet, Joanne Snow-Smith's paper "Late Medieval Artistic Images of the Landscape of Hell," proceeds with little reference to current scholarship, even on the subject of hell, or indeed to the larger theme of the volume. The opportunity is there, but Snow-Smith does not emphasize or even perhaps recognize a shift in her own discussion from representations of Hell as a set of regions, assigned to various types of punishment, to a landscape of suffering; this use of the term "region" recalls the fields of the exegetical diagrams of Hoogvliet's article, which Snow-Smith does not seem to know. The most "landscape"- like image of hell discussed by Snow-Smith is a large miniature in the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry, which however is not discussed in terms of its own immediate context, a set of famous landscape representations, but only, following a remarkably old-fashioned art historical paradigm, in relation to an autonomous iconographic tradition.

Between the regions of the medieval imagery of hell and the early fifteenth-century landscape image Snow-Smith traces a familiar story of a process of humanization, notably in the dramatic realism of Giotto, followed by imagery of extreme pessimism associated with the response to the Black Death. The key example of the latter is the Campo Santo in Pisa, with its savage images of suffering. Here however the representations of hell, though certainly impressive, are relatively conventional in their catalog of punishments. Images of apparent plague victims appear elsewhere, in a far from hellish landscape, a locus amoenus, in which the beautiful and affluent encounter a horrifying vision of what each will become. Snow-Smith misses the contrast with the Très Riches Heures, in which the hellish imagery is once again confined to its own landscape, leaving the beautiful and affluent to wander complacently through the ordered, indeed subordinate, countryside.

In its emphasis on Italy, Snow-Smith's article is an anomaly in the volume. The following two papers return to the North in their focus on Flemish manuscript illumination. Peter Ainsworth in "A Passion for Townscape" discusses a mid fifteenth-century manuscript of Froissart's chronicle, lavishly equipped with images of cities and castles in front of which significant actions are shown taking place. A striking element of many of these is the contrast introduced between brightly colored landscapes and foreground figures in grisaille. The architectural backgrounds are hardly accurate depictions of the pertinent sites; rather the accumulation of typical elements (towers, cloth halls, etc.) provides opportunities for enlivening the narrative through devices that Ainsworth skillfully identifies in lengthy formal analyses (in view of the poor quality of the illustrations, this is just as well). In effect, Ainsworth posits a highly sophisticated rhetoric of imagery, which subsumes any descriptive function. The overall effect is one of a celebration of Burgundian culture (both in what is seen and through the medium of representation), and Ainsworth correctly notes the irony that the townscape imagery in large part appears in scenes of unrest and revolt. Unfortunately he does not develop this observation.

In her article "Landscape into History: The Miniatures of the Fleur des Histoires," Lisa Deam discusses a different kind of chronicle, a so-called "universal chronicle," with narratives of human history and myth, including both biblical and classical, from the creation onward. Here too interesting pictorial rhetorical strategies are mobilized, though very different ones from the Froissart chronicle. Instead of single scenes, the mid fifteenth-century Fleur des histoires contains continuous narratives, i.e., successive parts of the same narrative are shown in the same pictorial space. In some cases, there is a high degree of compartmentalization, though Deam notes that the narratives are usually difficult to read as such. The format points however to an important model, the cosmographical diagrams of the medieval cartographic tradition (here Deam's article complements Hoogvliet's). Deam offers an ideological reading of imagery that she plausibly suggests is designed to invite careful and repeated scrutiny, rather than the immediate experience of a unified pictorial space provided by the new protocols of perspective.

Godfried Croenen's short article on "Regions, Principalities and Regional Identity" explores group identity in the notoriously complex social landscape of the late medieval Netherlands. He notes the rise of a kind of "medieval nationalism" (143) associated with the self-assertion of princely states reacting to the perceived weakness of royal power. Complicating and qualifying this process was the tendency for nobles to identify themselves not with a particular region, but rather in terms of social equals elsewhere. Croenen concludes that concepts of national identity are especially slippery when used of nobles, for whom overlapping loyalties were typical. And he suggests that it was exactly the inter-regional ties and pretensions of the nobility -- and the associated "way of life" -- that enabled the highly inter- (or supra-) regional Burgundian state to control them.

The last three articles are by economic geographers, all more or less interested in showing the continuing utility of central place theory, which I had thought was by now largely discarded. Tom Scott's fascinating study "Defining an Economic Region: the Southern Upper Rhine," has in common with the previous article an emphasis on a complex and overlapping system of social relationships, though of course he deals with very different relationships and from a very different methodological standpoint. As I noted above, Scott explores processes both of fragmentation and unification within the area in question, finding the former more significant for the early modern period. The larger concern is to defend the utility of the idea of an economic region, though Scott argues persuasively that this must be defined in terms of the "flexible interaction of institutional/political factors with commercial/economic ones."

It was odd to encounter Peter Stabel's article "Urbanization and its Consequences: the Urban Region in Late Medieval Flanders" so late in the volume, i.e., following discussions of the representation of the city life in question. Stabel is mostly interested in the interplay between the region in question as a network of cities, i.e., in medieval terms a widely urbanized and even industrialized landscape, and as the arena for the self-assertion of a few especially successful cities. The latter process proved to be the more significant in the long run, in spite of certain countervailing political tendencies. We have already encountered a discussion of the history of resistance on the part of major Netherlandish cities to princely rule. Stabel notes that the repeated repression of unrest did not halt the process of centralization and of the dominance of the major cities vis à vis the rest.

Clemens Lesger's paper also deals with an economic region, discussing the urban system of a relatively little known part of Holland, in which the relative importance of centers of different size can be followed over centuries. Lesger emphasizes the importance of demographic changes (in the period in question, quite dramatic) in the availability of key service functions in a range of centers. He finds that the shifts that he tracks can be accounted for by central place theory. A key indicator is the distribution and number of notaries. This may well be so, but I was struck by the absence of discussion of the consistency of the professional activity of notaries -- and, in general, their place in the culture -- in the period in question.

Finally I note that, as often the case with Peter Lang books, the quality of the reproductions is hardly adequate, and the art historians among the contributors to or indeed readers of the volume have every reason to complain.

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Author Biography

Charles Burroughs

Binghamton University