Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
13.07.04, Arnold, Negotiating the Landscape

13.07.04, Arnold, Negotiating the Landscape

Ellen Arnold examines the relationship between the monasteries of Stavelot-Malmedy and their environment in the Ardennes region from circa 650 to 1150. The densely forested Ardennes today occupies modern Belgium and Luxembourg, and parts of France and Germany. Throughout the Middle Ages, monasteries in the Ardennes had various interactions with royalty, including Merovingian and Carolingian rulers, and the German Emperors. In her book, Arnold explores the religious, cultural, and social processes through which the monks of Stavelot-Malmedy constructed a unique monastic identity in this highly contested area of medieval Europe. Arnold argues that this identity was rooted in their understanding of nature, which in turn influenced the monks' use and management of resources. As she observes: "By treating each [monastic] community as a group constructing its own history and telling its own stories, and located in a distinct place, we can tease out the processes through which individual communities developed their own, distinct environmental imaginations" (211). Arnold accomplishes her purported goals in this book and proves the utility of micro-history in landscape studies. The author presents a broad range of local sources, from the personal correspondence of the twelfth-century Abbot Wibald, to vitae and miracle narratives, to charters that record settlement disputes, charitable donations, land exchanges, property rights, and taxes. These narrative sources were in dialogue with other documents and both narrative and normative texts remained tied to local concerns.

As Arnold notes, micro-history has long appealed to scholars asking questions about the relationship between people and the natural world, but her book is one of few works on environmental history to adopt a cultural approach. Through this lens, Arnold appreciates the complexity of the monks' interactions with their local ecosystem. She follows the Annales in connecting environment, social structures, and mentalités, whereas more recent scholarship on ancient and medieval environments shows less interest in this convergence. The book follows a long tradition of case studies on individual monasteries, abbots, and congregations. Despite an abundance of sources, remarkably little scholarship exists on these two particular monasteries, and there remains great potential for further study.

The first chapter ("Religious Roots: Foundation in the 'Forest Wilderness'") describes the monks' understanding of the landscape as two-fold: the landscape was both an untamed wilderness and a classical pastoral paradise or locus amoenus. The monks' interweaving of these two seemingly antithetical views of the landscape in hagiographical texts created their religious identity and presented that identity to others residing in the landscape. The boundless wilderness had to be imagined in the Ardennes, and this landscape existed at once with the realities of a competitive economy. Stavelot-Malmedy's identity resulted from a dynamic between perceptions and reality in which the former was informed by a distinct monastic ideal. This ideal advocated solitude and peaceful isolation, but narrative texts also imagined a harsh landscape in which the monks faced constant danger from animals, the elements, crime, and temptation. Although perceptions of the landscape appear full of contrasts, Arnold argues that the monks' descriptions of wilderness and civilization are not dichotomous but rather "overlapping" (56).

Arnold disputes the popular assumption that medieval populations deforested their lands recklessly in the second chapter ("Controlling the Domesticated Landscape: Value, Ownership, and Religious Interpretations"). The charters list various pertinences on monastic lands (livestock, timber, fruit-bearing trees), providing evidence of a domesticated landscape in which the monks of Stavelot-Malmedy recognized the value, productive potential, and the need to sustain resources within their systems of production and exchange (68). Amid her illumination of the connections between monastic culture and the landscape, Arnold omits a central aspect of monastic spiritualty: the cloister. What was the role of the cloister in the landscape? How did the monks' cloistered life complicate their sense of sacred space, and of isolation?

The monks of Stavelot-Malmedy took great care to recover and protect property, and evidence of conflict resolution reflects competition over resources in the Ardennes. The third chapter ("Fighting over Forests: Establishing Social and Religious Authority") shows that when the monks recorded conflicts they made choices about what they remembered and forgot, altering their history to construct a monastic identity (111). Arnold does not connect attempts to reclaim lands to "reformed" perceptions of property, which we understand influenced Cluny's property management in the tenth century. Perhaps reform polemic affected property management at Stavelot-Malmedy as well. Arnold explains that the monks juxtaposed "good" (monastic) and "bad" (secular) uses of land; that is, miracle stories described nobles as abusing the abundance of nature through exploitive practices such as hunting (132). The desire to preserve property manifested itself at Stavelot-Malmedy as controlling the landscape in two ways: establishing boundaries to assert agricultural control, and demarcating places in their landscape as holy. The monks associated the cultivation of the land with cultivation of souls. They rooted their spirituality in the wildness of the forests and the domestication of the wilderness through agriculture.

In the fourth chapter ("Creating Conflict: Forests in the Monastic Imagination"), Arnold finds the monks' two diverse views of the Ardennes reconciled in an image of the landscape that balances wild and domesticated space, with the forest as the liminal zone between the two. As she argues, this imagined landscape reminds readers that "violations of monastic land rights and imbalances in the natural order could be punished and rectified by the saints and the monks" (146). Arnold does not contextualize this discussion in monastic reform, but the monks' use of divine order as a means to distinguish monastic and secular space adds nuance to our understanding of ecclesiastical property in the tenth and eleventh centuries.

The final chapter ("The Religious Landscape and Monastic Identity") reiterates that the monastic spirituality of Stavelot-Malmedy depended on their authority in the landscape, which revealed itself in tangible and intangible ways. Beyond controlling an agricultural economy, the monks sought religious control of the landscape through the Christianization of the Ardennes (173). The topos of a saint manipulating nature as part of a mission to convert people occurs often in the miracle stories of Stavelot-Malmedy, and as Arnold admits, it was nothing new, but she places the theme in a new context; in terms of negotiating the landscape the topos takes on a new significance (179). But what does "landscape" really mean? Arnold offers an extensive review of the relevant scholarship and theory regarding landscape. However, the definition and discussion of landscape appears only near the end of the book (see 174). Why so late? She understands rightly that landscape is not land, and it is not nature. Landscape is not a product but a participant in social action. Arguably the author should have foregrounded the meaning of landscape rather than allowing it to emerge slowly and triumphantly at the close of the book. Moreover, perhaps Arnold affords the monks too much agency in shaping their landscape. She states that monastic and political actors could make landscapes "legible," but monks could also make landscapes holy, because monastic property was owned by the saints (174). Monks certainly possessed the authority to do so, though it is crucial to note that the power to designate sacred space never lay solely with the institutional Church.

The story of Stavelot-Malmedy and its monks, their relationship to the landscape, and the effects of that relationship on the local economy, will interest environmental historians, landscape archaeologists, scholars focusing on "place" and "space," as well as historians of ecclesiastical culture. Among its many contributions, Negotiating the Landscape demonstrates the value of a cultural perspective to environmental studies.