14.05.15, Squatriti, Landscape and Change in Early Medieval Italy

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Richard Keyser

The Medieval Review 14.05.15

Squatriti, Paolo. Landscape and Change in Early Medieval Italy: Chestnuts, Economy, and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xiii, 236. ISBN: 9781107034488.

Reviewed by:
Richard Keyser
University of Wisconsin, Madison

In this thoughtful and often witty book, Paolo Squatriti shows how and why chestnut cultivation should matter to scholars from a number of fields, including especially historians of pre-industrial Europe and environmental historians. The fact that many Anglophone scholars are unfamiliar with chestnut cultivation as a historical phenomenon provides the author with an opportunity to suggest--in what I take to be a slyly sardonic historiographical comment--that this study may be seen as a microhistory, insofar as it focuses on "a seemingly small and particular subject that opens unexpected vistas onto supposedly familiar historical terrain" (x). Indeed this description is in some ways quite accurate: the history of chestnut cultivation, or castaneiculture, is an original perspective from which to view, for example, the transformation of the post-Roman world. But as those familiar with the agrarian history of such countries as France, Italy, and others as far away as Japan know, there was nothing quaintly obscure about chestnut cultivation. For more than a millennium in many regions chestnut cultivation was--and in some places still is--a significant component of agro-ecosystems, and thus of local societies and cultures as well. Among the services Squatriti has performed in this original, concise work is to make this history and its literature more accessible to English-speaking readers.

Beyond its specific intervention into the history of chestnut cultivation, this book's key contributions lie in the fields of medieval socio-economic history and environmental history. Its carefully interwoven arguments demonstrate the value of taking an integrated approach to both these fields, as well as their links to cultural history, although this latter approach remains secondary. Squatriti's central arguments all serve to show that Italy's (and by extension also western Europe's) post-Roman transformation was complex. While on the one hand agrarian production became re-oriented around local peasant subsistence, on the other hand there are few signs of supposed 'Dark Age' catastrophe. Overall the landscape may have become more wooded, but Squatriti insists on its persistent heterogeneity, with some areas actually being used more intensively than in Roman times, albeit in different ways. In the resultant "mosaic" of landscape forms (13-14), the extension of chestnut cultivation serves as a prime example of hybridity between nature and culture, and of the active re-shaping of landscapes undertaken by early medieval people.

The Introduction efficiently sets the multiple historiographical scenes. Opening vignettes gesture towards the wider cultural significance of trees as evidenced by the prevalence of tree cults and early medieval efforts to do away with them. More significantly for Squatriti's larger arguments, he reviews the long tradition that associates wooded land with primitive barbarism. With its roots going back to such ancient authors as Hesiod, Varro, and Tacitus, this association shaped how scholars saw the early Middle Ages from the time of Gibbon right through most of the twentieth century. A persistent and for long virtually unquestioned consensus held that post-Roman Europe was "cloaked by thick woods" (7), notwithstanding extremely weak evidence for assessing the proportion of wooded land in most regions. It is only quite recently that sophisticated tools of landscape archeology are beginning to offer a more evidence-based view, albeit one that so far has not overturned scholars' general impression that woodlands probably increased after ca. 500 CE, or perhaps even earlier. But this rapidly accumulating archeological evidence also suggests that such processes were by no means homogenous across Italy or Europe. Instead, Squatriti argues, it would be safer to conclude that landscape change varied regionally and locally, with some areas being newly cleared or more intensively used even as others saw extensions of woodlands. Moreover, the evidence suggests that even in the early Middle Ages woodlands were sites of much human activity and exploitation, for grazing, gathering, and wood harvesting of various kinds and intensities. Now that ecologists themselves have abandoned their earlier attachment to notions of stability and 'climax' equilibrium, the changes of the post-Roman period can be seen less as a return of a (mythical) wilderness, and more as "a small twist in an ongoing series of adjustments in Mediterranean treed landscapes" (17). In this typically European context, in which all landscapes are highly humanized "cultural landscapes," the anthropogenic woodlands created by castaneiculture fit right in (20- 21).

Focusing on natural history and cultivation, the first chapter describes the biological "mutualism" (19, 200) or "coevolution" (27) that shaped interactions between humans and the chestnut tree (Castanea sativa). In this view of inter-species "collaboration" (54), each performs a kind of work. Although this now- familiar effort to take a non-human species' perspective enlivens his review of the chestnut tree's growth, longevity, fire-resistance, habitat preferences, etc., it does not seem to add anything new to our understanding of this species' biology and natural history. Squatriti's focus on work and collaboration across seasons, years, and even centuries succeeds much better at conveying something of what those who lived with chestnut groves actually did and, for example at harvest time, may have felt. Chestnut cultivation required a detailed understanding of a host of interrelated biological and ecological factors. It was only with careful human help that chestnut trees, which naturally have a surprisingly narrow range, expanded to occupy a much larger amount of the Italian landscape, at least in relatively moist, mid-altitude environments. The trees could be grown for lumber or coppiced (cut frequently) for small wood, but they were usually valued most for their highly nutritious nuts. Early medieval Italians grafted their favorite varieties and smoked the nuts for better preservation. The overall labor demand was relatively low and fit neatly into the agrarian calendar, with the late-fall harvest coming well after both the grain and wine harvests.

Thus, Squatriti argues, castaneiculture should be seen as a sophisticated and economically rational agrarian strategy. In this he joins Jean-Robert Pitte and other recent scholars in debunking the negative image created by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers, who saw the chestnut as a "base food, primitive and rustic...associated...with backwards mountain folk" (53), or as it has often been called in French, the "bread of the poor" (le pain du pauvre). Squatriti contributes significantly to this rehabilitation, not least by showing that the history of western castaneiculture, which has traditionally focused on the early Modern period (1500-1800), must also consider earlier times. As he demonstrates in the following chapters, it was in late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages that this form of arboriculture first became solidly established in Italy.

The second chapter is devoted primarily to scientific and historical debates about the chestnut's origins, propagation, and environmental impacts. The traditional view held that this tree was a Roman import into Western Europe, spreading with the Empire across the continent. This view also held that the chestnut's adoption occurred during times of growing population, when such a marginal food could help alleviate the hunger of poor mountain folk. More recent archeological research suggests instead that the chestnut may have been indigenous to restricted habitats in Italy and elsewhere in mid-altitude southern Europe, and then began to be propagated more widely by humans only in the late Roman period. The new evidence that castaneiculture expanded between the third and seventh centuries, when population fell, considerably weakens any necessary link between chestnuts and demographic pressure. Instead, as Squatriti persuasively argues, the chestnut's low labor demands, relatively dependable production, versatility (supplying small wood, lumber, and nuts), and compatibility with pastoralism, viticulture, and other agrarian pursuits, made it a natural fit in a late antique and early medieval world shaped by reduced manpower and the predominance of a "peasant mode of production" (70-73). In this context, moreover, the advantages of chestnut trees were apparent even to lords. The expansion of castaneiculture had wider agro-ecological consequences. Because chestnuts had to be gathered on the ground, chestnut groves tended to preclude the typically medieval method of free-range fattening of pigs. Thus the spread of chestnut cultivation seems to be correlated with (relative) declines of pig-raising and the pig's arboreal partner, the oak, while it encouraged the increase of more compatible sheep- and goat-raising (74-79).

This chapter ends with an examination of how early medieval documents conceptualized chestnut trees and groves in terms of land use and law. In an echo of the natural-cultural hybridity evoked in the introduction, it appears that chestnut groves might be considered either as cultivated or uncultivated land. Most commonly, however, the chestnut groves that appear in the sources were viewed as cultivated, private land, resembling orchards more than other, less fully humanized woodlands, which were typically treated as uncultivated land subject to "common property" regimes (80-83).

The third chapter switches gears to tackle what Squatriti calls the "poetics of the chestnut" in the early Middle Ages (88). By thoroughly canvassing references to or discussions of chestnuts in a wide variety of genres between classical times and the end of the first millennium, Squatriti is able to show a growing familiarity with this plant and its products. Whereas classical authors such as Virgil and Pliny treat the chestnut as a lowly fruit and one whose nomenclature and natural history were not fully understood, by ca. 400 CE Augustine and other Christian writers show much more familiarity with both the nut and the tree. By the sixth-century Cassiodorus is able to describe the thick chestnuts woods on the hills around Como, in northern Italy, as a beautiful and thoroughly natural feature of the landscape (108). By the ninth century the act of peeling off the chestnut's husk could provide a metaphor for the widespread ideal of reading more deeply than language's mere outer covering (integument) (116-117). By this time texts show that "the normalization of the chestnut" had proceeded so far that "chestnut" came to denote a brownish color, and by the tenth century a type of clerical tunic that was usually of that color (121-26).

Although they come last, the fourth and fifth chapters represent the empirical core of the book's examination of the history of Italian castaneiculture. These chapters present case studies of chestnut cultivation in the particularly well-documented regions of, respectively, Campania and the Po Valley.

In Campania by the eighth century chestnut groves were widespread, in both coastal and inland zones. In contrast to the chestnut's early modern association with poor rustics, in early medieval Campania elite landowners appear to have valued chestnut groves very highly. In some cases landowners seem to have considered chestnut groves as ideal women's property, assigning them to female kin in dowries and other arrangements, no doubt, as Squatriti infers, because of their reliable income and low demand for labor (142-143). Although there is some evidence for the use of chestnut lumber, firewood, and vineyard stakes, all of these uses pale in comparison to the predominate Campanian focus on the trees' fruit. Whereas the initial phase of widespread planting must have taken place in the more "autarchic" period between the third and seventh centuries (130), by the later ninth and tenth centuries there is abundant evidence that smoked chestnuts had become a commercially valuable commodity, or rather commodities, given that several distinct cultivars were recognized. The commercial precocity of the Tyrrhenian coast also revitalized viticulture and hazelnut cultivation, but chestnut groves remained a prominent feature of the Campanian landscape into modern times.

In a survey of archeological evidence that by now may seem repetitive (although the specific sites and types of evidence are in fact different), in the Po Valley too the chestnut was marginal at best in classical times, and then became more widespread across late antiquity and the beginning of the early Middle Ages. By the time the documentation becomes more abundant, for the ninth century, chestnut grove owners included both powerful ecclesiastical institutions and aristocratic lay people, as well as some lay people of middle rank. As in Campania, chestnut cultivation was more widespread than in modern times not only in terms of social class, but also topographically, being commonly found both above the 300-meter line of altitude, which is considered the tree's optimal habitat today, and well below that line. Some fascinating glimpses of specific, apparently highly variable landholding practices emerge from the Po-Valley texts: in some cases chestnut groves might be managed as common property, but with private ownership of specific trees within the grove (167). In other cases living trees could be bought and sold individually, perhaps even separately from the rights to the soil underneath the trees, and in at least one case ownership rights to a single tree were subdivided into halves (so that each owner got half of the tree's fruits) (193-194).

The brief Conclusion returns to a literary mode by discussing the poetry of Giovanni Pascoli, whose bucolic verse of ca. 1900 includes two anthropomorphizing poems devoted to the chestnut. By thus giving voice and agency to a tree, these poems provide a fitting way to encapsulate Squatriti's arguments about the "mutualism" that pertained for so long between chestnuts and people (200). Coming as they did towards the end of the chestnut's more-than-millennial career as a pillar of peasant life, these poems also drive home just how "sustainable" this human-arboreal relationship was. As Squatriti so aptly puts it, "the Standard Environmental Narrative of plunder and desecration is not the only story environmental historians can tell" (202).

The fact that Squatriti shows with such insight and wit that there is more than one story to tell in environmental history is reason enough to recommend this book to a wide audience of scholars interested in environmental, agrarian, or economic history. Its clarity and concision make it appropriate not only for scholars but also for graduate students, advanced undergraduates, and non-academic readers interested in this important part of Europe's agro-ecological, social, and cultural history.

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Author Biography

Richard Keyser

University of Wisconsin, Madison