Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.11.31

Clare A. Lees, Gillian R. Overing, A Place to Believe In: Locating Medieval Landscapes.   University Park, PA:  The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.  Pp. x, 272.  ISBN 0-271-02860-2.  $25.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by John Howe, Texas Tech University (
Word count: 1206 words

The ideal reader for A Place to Believe In may be hard to find, even among the interdisciplinary subscribers to the Bryn Mawr Classical Review. True, all the contributors to this collection of essays agree that landscape is both geography and its associated human constructions (physical and mental); all explore how landscapes ground earthly and spiritual communities. But these essays jump from late antiquity to the contemporary world, from concrete geographical and textual studies to impressionistic speculations. Some readers might wish that the initial studies of Northumbrian landscape had been expanded into their own more focused book. Others might prefer a volume more systematically devoted to theoretical, literary, and gender questions. The diversity apparently results in part from the project's genesis at a summer gathering in 2003 at Whitby, an attempt "to think about place, in place" whose micro and macro concerns are not always in harmony.

Perhaps the best way to approach this volume is to accept its inconsistencies as a virtue and to read it as a rambling introduction to the rapidly expanding world of landscape scholarship. So the editors intended. Indeed, in an introduction to "Anglo-Saxon Horizons: Places of the Mind in the Northumbrian Landscape" (pp. 1-26), Claire Lees and Gillian Overing set the stage for "a thoroughgoing contemplation of place" by outlining the volume's three general sections on place, literature, and perceptions of place; by invoking some theories and theorists; and then by embarking on a description of how "we. . .two women" began a "meditation and an exploration of the idea of Northumbria" through "various trips." Here conversations in a pub in Leeds and in a convent of Anglican sisters of the Paraclete who cherish a connection to Hild's Whitby are mingled with longue durée Northumbrian geography, snippets of history, and an attempt to define a Northumbrian "horizon" by means of "icons of Northumbrianness" that privilege a rather different geography than that championed later on in this volume by Ian Wood. This Northumbrian case study does illustrate that a landscape contains "strata of memory". Although not everyone will be comfortable with its juxtaposition of existential experience and "objective" historical analysis, both are features of contemporary landscape studies. Their melding here, and in other places throughout the volume, sometimes produces a meandering style, enhanced by the presence of extensive explanatory notes which are commendably presented as real footnotes at the bottom of each page by Pennsylvania State University Press.

The first section, "Place Matters," concentrates on Northumbria. Art historian Fred Orton's "At the Bewcastle Monument, in Place" (pp. 29-66) situates this mysterious early eighth-century "obelisk" in its geographical context, asking why it is where it is and what it was intended to do (answers involve Bewcastle's role as a major military center in Roman Britain and a post Roman attempt to invoke Roman majesty once more). Orton's work helpfully introduces research on both local geography and Hadrian's wall. Ian Wood's "Bede's Jarrow" (pp. 67-84) is less concerned with Jarrow itself ("more standing fabric than almost any other pre-Viking site") than with its geographical connections and location in a royal world of ports and monasteries that ultimately situates Bede not on the periphery, as his carefully calculated reticence about current events seems to imply, but in the thick of Northumbrian court life. Kelley M. Wickham-Crowley's "Living on the Ecg: The Mutable Boundaries of Land and Water in Anglo-Saxon Contexts" (pp. 85-110) effectively harnesses major literary and historical sources to demonstrate that the Anglo-Saxons, who had arrived by sea, continued to be fascinated, even fixated, on the liminal spaces connecting land and water--islands, shores, promontories, fens, etc.

The second section, "Textual Locations," is more varied in content and quality. Stacy S. Klein's "Gender and the Nature of Exile in Old English Elegies" (pp. 113-31) deals with geographical journeys that turn out to be spiritual metaphors: overt statements and subtle use of different verbs all present exile for men as active heroic engagement, exile for women as entrapment, stasis required by unwelcomed limiting structures and heroic ideals. Then the section jumps disconcertingly to Ulrike Wiethaus' "Spatial Metaphors, Textual Production, and Spirituality in the Works of Gertrude of Helfta (1256-1301/2)" (pp. 132-49), an examination of enclosure and mystical transcendence. Stephanie Hollis' "Strategies of Emplacement and Displacement: St. Edith and the Wilton Community in Goscelin's Legend of Edith and Liber confortatorius" (pp. 150-69) examines the geographical rootedness of the praises of Edith (at Wilton 961-84) by Goscelin (d. 1114?), whose agenda seems to be in part to evoke and geographically situate his memories of his beloved advisee, Eve, who had left Wilton to become a recluse at Angers. Diane Watt's "Faith in the Landscape: Overseas Pilgrimages in The Book of Margery Kempe" (pp. 170-87) sees the travel book aspects of Margery's autobiography as more literary than narrative, a perspective that sheds light on her well known pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Rome as well as on her sketchily documented last ones by comparing them with Bridget of Sweden's experiences (the mention here on p. 181 of Pope John XIII must actually mean the antipope John XXIII).

The third and final section, "Landscapes in Time," ranges even farther. Sarah Beckwith's "Preserving, Conserving, Deserving the Past: A Meditation on Ruin as Relic in Postwar Britain in Five Fragments" (pp. 191-210) examines attitudes toward historical places in five examples that include the staging of the Corpus Christi cycle plays among medieval ruins in York after World War II, British attitudes toward WW II ruins, the preservation of the SS massacre site of Oradour-sur-Glane in the Limousin, ruins as spiritual home in Rose Macaulay's 1950 novel The World My Wilderness, and Daniel Libeskind's "reflecting absence" memorial to the victims of the destruction of the World Trade Center. Kenneth Addison's "Changing Places: The Cistercian Settlement and Rapid Climate Change in Britain" (pp. 211-38) introduces increasingly precise research on medieval climatic change and speculates about how the rise and fall of the Cistercians relates to this change, although the major documented aspect only involves the abandonment of some high altitude cereal culture. Ann Marie Rasmussen's "Visible and Invisible Landscapes: Medieval Monasticism as a Cultural Resource in the Pacific Northwest" (pp. 239-59) examines perceptions of sacred landscape in today's Oregon and offers possible points of tangency with medieval attitudes. If there is a unifying principle underlying this section, it would appear to be that contemplation of medieval landscapes can challenge and deepen modern attitudes.

To appreciate fully this disparate collection, readers will need a meditative mindset. Each contribution attempts to consider landscapes as repositories of meaning with the potential to illuminate the societies that helped create them. But abrupt geographical and chronological swings may disorient the linear reader. Here, with only a couple of exceptions, "interdisciplinary perspective" does not so much mean essays that bridge disciplines as juxtaposed essays from different disciplines. The resulting inconsistencies in rhetorical strategies are illustrated even by the titles of the essays themselves, whose average length doubles from seven words in the initial historical section to twice that in the following sections. Readers interested in questions of early medieval Northumbrian identity and of potential theoretical approaches to landscape studies may find this volume rewarding, at least in part; others may conclude that the title promises more than the book delivers.

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