14.11.04, Nordeide and Brink, eds., Sacred Sites and Holy Places

Main Article Content

Thomas A. DuBois

The Medieval Review 14.11.04

Nordeide, Sæbørg Walaker and Stefan Brink. Sacred Sites and Holy Places: Exploring the Sacralization of Landscape through Time and Space. Studies in the Early Middle Ages, 11. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. Pp. xii, 281. ISBN: 9782503541006 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Thomas A. DuBois
University of Wisconsin-Madison

In the volume Sacred Sites and Holy Places: Exploring the Sacralization of Landscape through Time and Space, Sæbjørg Walaker Nordeide and Stefan Brink have edited a collection of eclectic and often insightful articles related to the sacral aspects of space and place in past European religious traditions. Based on papers presented in a 2007 conference held at the Nordic Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Bergen, the anthology focuses on three main areas: 1) pre-Christian Nordic sacred spaces and their survival or transformation in the process of Christianization; 2) the establishment of forms of Christian sacrality in medieval European contexts; and 3) case studies that shed analogical light on Nordic phenomena, specifically, the pre-Christian landscape of ancient Greece and the urban cityscape of fourteenth-century Prague. Although far from united either methodologically or in terms of geographic coverage, the collection's various articles offer valuable overviews and explorations, often by renowned scholars in the areas of archaeology, onomastics, history of religion, art history and medieval studies.

Given the Nordic location of the original conference, it is not surprising that the first topic--sacred spaces in the pre-Christian Nordic region, before, during, and after Christianization--represents the collection's most central and most thoroughly examined focus. Here the collection includes articles by leading scholars in the field, revisiting findings they have published elsewhere and extending or updating these with reference to recent or ongoing research. Veikko Anttonen builds on his extensive previous research on semantic and conceptual shifts in the key terms for sacred spaces in Finnish and Estonian, pyhä/püha and hiisi/his as reflected in place-names. Anttonen sees the terms as originally designating boundary areas and places for ritual contact with the dead. In the process of Christianization, they became glossed as "holy" and "evil/demon" respectively, an imposition of a Christian good/evil dichotomy that replaced an older notion of the landscape as a place for differing ritual activities and conceptualizations. Charlotte Fabech and Ulf Näsman present a magisterial overview of current archaeological understandings of "central places" as key elements of pre-Christian Scandinavian religious traditions. The authors review the wealth of late-twentieth-century archaeological research in the region that demonstrates the development in the sixth century of sites like Gudme, Sorte Muld, and Uppåkra, possibly in imitation of Roman Iron Age sacral sites. The rise of these sites correlates with a shift of notions of sacredness from places within the landscape to constructed places such as temples or halls. These sites are then eventually Christianized during the era of conversions. The rich discussion includes examination of Helgö and of the status of wetlands, springs, islands, groves, outcrops, hills, and glacial erratics, and the material signs of Christianization in various objects and settlements as well. Drawing on a wealth of supporting evidence, the authors stress a strong continuity between the late pre-Christian landscape and that shaped by Christianity.

Also within this first theme, Asgeir Svestad's archaeological examination of Sámi burials demonstrates the degree to which Sámi burial customs reflect both a shift from pre-Christian to Christian religious adherence and simultaneously a continuation of ideas and customs across this religious divide. Grave depth, location, and accouterments all indicate a continuity in the view of the dead as resources and interlocutors for the living. Stefan Brink sidesteps a recapitulation of his seminal research on Norse landscapes of power as reflected in place-names and instead provides a broader theoretical discussion of the processes of charging spaces with sacral power, drawing on the works of, among others, the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan and the archaeologist Anders Hultgård, and examining the sacralization of the landscape from the pre-Christian to Christian eras. In her introduction to the volume, Sæbjørg Walaker Nordeide also touches on her own research on the distribution and possible meanings of cross monuments in different parts of Norway, objects that may have played a role in asserting or confirming Christian control over the landscape.

The second main theme of the assembled articles--the establishment of forms of Christian sacredness in medieval European contexts--includes three papers, each offering fresh and interesting studies that provide interesting parallels or contrasts to the other articles of the anthology. In a methodologically innovative study, historian Kurt Villads Jensen examines Crusader approaches to Jerusalem, real and imagined, during the twelfth century and after. Focusing on the process of Christianizing the landscape, Jensen looks at the ways in which sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and objects were manipulated to impose a new religious order upon the natural and built environment, both in the Middle Eastern Crusades and, more particularly, in those of the eastern and southern Baltic. Art historian Bente Kiilerich examines the transformation of pre-Christian to Christian in the Greek built environment. As Kiilerich shows, Christians did not immediately favor the conversion of existing sacred structures into churches, but rather, built new buildings of their own in distinct areas. Subsequent re-consecrations of preexisting secular or sacred buildings took place over the course of centuries, as the perceived threat of the old religion lessened. Often, as in the case of the Parthenon and Erechtheion, no written sources survive that clearly address the process involved in what one might term a "religious repurposing," although the transformation seems to have occurred in the sixth or seventh centuries. In a thoughtful critique of past scholarship, Kiilerich disputes the common assumption that early Christians defaced pagan monuments, offering evidence to suggest that the partial destruction of ancient art in the Greek world may have resulted from later religious polities, warfare, accidents, antiquarian looting, and weathering. In a topic closer to the Nordic region, church and mission historian Torstein Jørgensen examines landscape-related regulations in the early Norwegian provincial laws. Laws initially composed during the reign of King St. Olaf (r. 1015-1030), and subsequently further refined and updated by later monarchs, identify particular places for the deposition of the bodies of the dead. Infants born with severe deformities were to be buried under heaps of stones in areas called forvé, "unholy places." Children born with lesser but still fatal deformities could be left to die at the door of the church, receiving Christian baptism and burial. Exposure of unwanted infants in forest areas was forbidden. The flodmål--the littoral zone between the ebb and high tide marks--could serve as the burial place for those who had committed serious crimes like theft and suicide. As Jørgensen shows, through the imposition of a Christian law code, the entire province became "sacralized" in the sense that it was made compliant with Christian worldview and norms. Jørgensen relates these laws to developments in law codes occurring elsewhere in Christendom during the same era.

Two further articles present cases studies that shed light on the ways in which cultures in other parts of Europe and in other eras have approached the questions of sacredness and landscape. Archaeologist and historian Gullög Nordquist presents a richly detailed overview of the various myths and understandings associated with the pre-Christian Greek landscape. Surveying the works of ancient writers like Pausanias, Plato, Polybius, Strabo, Ovid, Hekataios, Hesiod, and Apollodoros, Nordquist presents what Greek authorities have to say about the sky and its stars, as well as the landscape and its rivers, trees, animals, and birds. Place-based sanctuaries and rituals placated and commemorated divine beings and events, and ensured that the human community would continue to have access to key elements of life, e.g., water and fertility. Art historian Zoë Opačić presents the fourteenth-century expansion of the city of Prague as the capital of the Holy Roman Empire under Charles IV. Through the way he had certain buildings rebuilt (e.g., his ancestral castle and church), the array of new monasteries and convents he endowed, and the grid-based layout of the city's massive new section, Charles made conscious and canny choices that asserted historical continuity and sacral dominion. Rituals associated with the translation of a set of key Passion relics to the city helped underscore these inscribed meanings for city dwellers and for visitors to the metropolis that had now become the capital of Europe's greatest political entity.

Since each of the articles is largely independent of all others, the editors have made a wise choice in equipping each with its own bibliography, making it easier for readers to excerpt articles according to specialization or interest. Although certain underlying themes do recur in the various articles, for the most part, aside from the introduction, the anthology does not offer overarching findings or cross-article discussions. Nonetheless, the volume's fine articles themselves, and the more than sixty accompanying illustrations and maps, makes this work both informative and attractive. Its various contributions will prove of great interest to specialist and generalist readers alike, and can be productively included as readings at the undergraduate or graduate level.

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Author Biography

Thomas A. DuBois

University of Wisconsin-Madison