15.08.26, Cohen and Madeline, eds., Space in the Medieval West

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Megan Cassidy-Welch

The Medieval Review 15.08.26

Cohen, Meredith and Fanny Madeline, eds. Space in the Medieval West: Places, Territories, and Imagined Geographies. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2014. pp. xvi, 245. ISBN: 978-1-4094-5301-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Megan Cassidy-Welch
Monash University

For just over ten years, the International Medieval Society of Paris (IMS-Paris) has hosted scholars from Europe, North America and beyond at a series of annual conferences organised around a particular theme. The fruits of some of these conferences have now begun to appear as edited collections of essays--Difference and Identity in Francia and Medieval France(2010), Memory and Commemoration in Medieval Culture (2013), and now Space in the Medieval West. This volume is a very welcome addition to the burgeoning historiography on concepts of space and place in the Middle Ages. The focus of this collection is well and truly on France with the essays covering various topics ranging from the ninth to the fifteenth century.

Space in the Medieval West contains eleven essays overall, grouped into three parts: "Places, monuments, and cities,", "Spatial networks and territories," and "Cartography and imagined geographies." These divisions speak to the enormous variety of conceptual and practical interpretations of "space" that existed in the Middle Ages. At the same time, they hint at the difficulty faced by modern scholars interested in this rather elusive category of historical analysis. What is the difference (if any) between "space" and "place"? How can historians usefully employ spatial thinking in their analyses of the past? In an essay collection, there is a risk that the organising category is only really critiqued and tested in the introduction, while the essays themselves simply add to the data of what is already known. Happily, this is mostly not the case with this volume, partly because the editors have focussed on France and partly because the editors have asked the contributors to attend to the historicisation of space and its theories across time, both medieval and modern.

In the first part of the book, specific locations are analysed. First, Emanuele Lugli studies ad quadratum planning in medieval architecture (particularly at Modena and Cremona), then Stefaan Van Liefferinge analyses the geometric principles behind the epistemology of space, connecting the rib-vaulting in the choir of Notre Dame with the sacred geometry of the mystic ark in Hugh of St Victor. The work of the draftsman is investigated by Robert Bork, who writes of the shaping of space in two-dimensional Gothic drawing. These three essays focus on mathematical constructions of space and are neatly contrasted with David Winter's study of the kerkenkruis, or cross-churches of the lower Rhine. This final essay of the book's first section moves the reader from the built environment--in this case, the church as territorial marker--to the reception or meaning of the symbolism of the cross to the medieval observer.

The literal construction of medieval space is teased out in the second section of the book, which investigates how various social practices--linguistic, communicative, and legal--created "new spatial identities, which contribute to the establishment of new territories." (15) Anne Lunven explores how changes to ecclesiastical territory can be identified through changes to the terminology describing religious communities from the ninth to twelfth century in the dioceses of Rennes, Dol and Saint-Malo. Thomas Wetzstein analyses the long-distance communication networks of the papacy, the Cistercians and the scholars of the high Middle Ages through their epistolary exchanges. And Ada-Maria Kuskowski considers how thirteenth-century French coutumiers worked to create and reflect juridical space.

The final section of the book contains four essays variously dealing with what Henri Lefebvre called "abstract space." This is the space of the imagination, of ideology. In an essay on the image of France in the Beatus map of Saint-Sever, Sandra Sáenz-López Pérez reiterates an older argument that this famous mappamundi emphasised French territory in order to praise it. (173) The idea of France is also found in the two geographical works of the Arab geographer, Al-Idrisi, examined here by Jean-Charles Ducène. Space is shown to be relational and interactive, rather constructed around regional difference and separation. Natalie Bouloux traces the evolving territorial space of "France" from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, exposing how changing political circumstances and the language of geography and locational identification are closely linked. The concluding essay by Catherine Nicolas analyses descriptions of the soul as a location and shows that the sacrament of the Eucharist came to function as the means by which abstract ideas were made material.

This collection contains diverse case studies, yet overall it is a coherent volume that shows how ideas of space in the medieval west were emplotted, practised and imagined. It offers new insights into how concepts of space informed social exchanges and identifications while retaining meaning in abstract thought. The editors have done well to bring together a variety of historical studies and the introduction (composed by Madeleine Cohen, Fanny Madeleine and Dominique Iogna-Prat) has shaped a purposeful and inventive intervention into the subject. It is to be hoped that further essay collections deriving from IMS-Paris conferences will continue to appear.

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