Friday, 22 April 2016

Ultima Thule


'Concerning Thule, our historical information is still more uncertain, on account of its outside position; for Thule, of all the countries that are named, is set farthest north. 'Strabo, Geography, 1st century BC

The term 'Ultima Thule' was used in Classical and medieval geographical writing to describe mysterious places in the distant north beyond the known world of trade, empire and civilisation. Since the first use of the concept by the Greek explorer Pytheas debate has raged as to whether the phrase refers to Norway, Greenland, Iceland, Orkney, Shetland or, perhaps more likely, an amalgam of all dimly known northern climes. Having just spent several days in the unambiguously epic and often thrillingly peculiar landscapes of Iceland I can only back its candidature to be the very embodiment of Ultima Thule.


'It is no use trying to describe it, but it was quite up to my utmost expectations as to strangeness: it is just like nothing else in the world.' 
William Morris on his first visit to Iceland (1877)
As with Morris, my words can only pale in the face of a first sighting of Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, and the other wonders of the trip, so here is a visual montage of 'the place where the sun goes to rest.' (Geminus of Rhodes, 1st century BC).




'Thule; an island in the Ocean between the northern and western zone, beyond Britain, near Orkney and Ireland; in this Thule, when the sun is in Cancer, it is said that there are perpetual days without nights.'
Servius, 4th century AD






'By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named Night,
On a black throne reigns upright.
I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule –
From a wild weird clime, that lieth, sublime,
Out of Space – out of Time.'
Extract from Edgar Allan Poe's poem Dream-Land (1844)
















'(Auden) said that Iceland was like the sun that had set, (but) you could see the sunshine on the mountains: Iceland followed him like that - the colours of the setting sun on the mountains. He said that he was not always thinking about Iceland ... that he was never not thinking about Iceland.'
Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell, Moon Country (1996)







Friday, 11 March 2016

Landscapism dispatch #1

Bloody hell! A PhD takes over your life. Expansive blog posts unrelated to my PhD research are probably going to be few and far between over these three years. So landscapism dispatches will have to be brief; no bad thing. 


A good number of interesting things have been kindly brought to my attention or stumbled across already this year, and here is something of a cartulary (damn, can't shake off my research head!).  



As soon as I finish reading Rob Cowan's excellent Common Ground (a distinctive voice in the somewhat crowded territory of 'New Nature' writing) I hope to plunge into From Hill to Sea; the work of the ever-engaging Fife Psychogeography Collective in book form. Those Fifers know how to find the strange brew that soaks the hills and flows to the sea in their kingdom above the bridge.

"And I rose up, and knew that I was tired, and continued my journey”. Artist and composer Martin A. Smith has produced a new film, Secretly sharing the landscape with the livingexploring part of the Icknield Way in Buckinghamshire, following in the fecund footsteps of Edward Thomas:



You can find out more about Martin's work here.

The daily on-line posts from A Year in the Country provided twelve months of eclectic imaginings on the unsettled bucolic a while back and in April comes an album of sonic accompaniment featuring a goodly mix of collaborators, The Quietened Village: "a study of and reflection on the lost, disappeared and once were homes and hamlets that have wandered off the maps or that have become shells of their former lives and times".



Further audio reports from the landscape edge come in the shape of Justin Hopper's poetry and sound project, I Made Some Low Enquiries, featuring none-other than folk legend Shirley Collins and available from the English Heretic website.



Radio has become my day-time company in recent months, through the fountainhead that is BBC iPlayer. Melvyn Bragg curating In Our Time, 6 Music's Freak Zone, Radio 4's aurally-charged production of The Stone Tape, Late Junction eclectica on Radio 3, The Children of Witchwood and old Sherlock Holmes episodes on Radio 4 Extra; the list goes on. Current enjoyment is provided by music journalist Laura Barton's exploration of the relationship between landscape and music across the British Isles in her Radio 4 documentary series, as described further here.



The music of the crags and cliffs of Red Daren and Black Daren is a song of stone. Here in the Olchon Valley is found the geological rim of England as western Herefordshire sheds its Anglo-Saxon facade and bleeds into the Black Mountains of Wales. A recent Sunday morning jaunt amongst the Old Red Sandstone passed through this hushed borderland, climbing to the Hatterall ridge; Hatterall, perhaps, bastardised from At y Heu: 'towards the sun'.   





And back home the summit of my books to read mountain has moved further out of reach with the addition of Time's Anvil: England, Archaeology and the Imagination by Richard Morris, Bloody Old Britain by Kitty Hauser, Anna Pavord's Landskipping, John Lewis-Stempel's Meadowland and The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Right, back on the Monk's Trod now for me.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

PhD research paper #3. Further landscape perspectives: experience and perception

From time to time I will post 'bite size' chunks of the material I am preparing for my PhD thesis: works in progress, but content which I feel may be of interest to a wider audience. All will be very much draft versions, not necessarily - probably not - reflecting the final wording that will eventually appear in the Thesis. In-text references are included but a full bibliography is not. This paper is based on a section of the initial literature review and follows on from my research paper #1 and research paper #2

Further landscape perspectives: experience and perception


Literary and artistic representations

‘A humble chapel of David the Archbishop (St David) formerly stood decorated only with moss and ivy … a situation truly calculated for religion and more adapted to canonical discipline than all the monasteries in Britain.’
(Gerald of Wales in Thorpe 1978, 96-7).

In the above description of the location of Llanthony Priory in Monmouthshire Gerald of Wales is not simply reporting the topographical features that he observed, his words are heavy with symbolism. Allegorical descriptions of the landscape and setting of monasteries were common in contemporary writing during the monastic period. For instance, Clarke (2006, 68) has shown how the fenland houses of Glastonbury (Somerset), Ely (Norfolk) and Ramsey (Kent) exploited the symbolic potential of their local watery landscapes (and the practical transformations through drainage and cultivation which they were enacting) in twelfth and thirteenth century texts and pastoral conventions which ‘transform the realities of topography and monastic land management into allegories of spiritual cultivation and triumph’. Later representations of medieval monastic life and landscape in art and literature that go beyond using monasticism as a suitably archaic and esoteric setting for mystery and Gothic intrigue[1] are relatively sparse. One writer who spent much time in monasteries across Europe during the middle twentieth century was Patrick Leigh Fermor. In his vivid and empathetic prose can be found descriptions which evoke the imagined monastic landscape of the Middle Ages. This account of his arrival at Abbeye de la Trappe in Normandy is worth quoting at length as illustration:
‘It (the abbey) dwindled off into farm buildings, and came to an end in the fields where thousands of turnips led their secret lives … Among the furrows an image mouldered on its pedestal; and under a sky of clouded steel, the rooks cawed and wheeled and settled. Across the December landscape, flat and waterlogged with its clumps of drizzling coppice and barren-looking pasture-land, ran a rutted path which disappeared beneath an avenue of elm-trees … Isolated monks, all of them hooded and clogged, at work in the fields, ploughing or chopping wood, dotted this sodden panorama and the report of their falling axes reached the ear long seconds after the visual impact. Others were driving long herds of cattle to graze. Two of them would converse for a few seconds in their extraordinary semaphore, and then ‘Viens, la blanche!’ or, ‘á droite, grosse bête!’ would break the silence as a cow or a laggard cart-horse was urged through a gap in a hedge. Then the stillness fell once again’ (Fermor 1988, 67). 

More generally, the combination of landscape, nature and sense of place with language, music and imagery is one of the most potent and enduring alliances within artistic and literary practice. As Grigson (1984, xiii) has noted, it is artists, folklorists, poets, musicians and writers who are often able to most memorably articulate ‘an immediate record … of observations, of something seen, something sensed, something or other felt and enjoyed, in the country around them’. Here we can see another largely untapped potential confluence with landscape archaeology practice.[2]

Academic analysis of art and literature has tended to view the landscape as inferior and subordinate to the main subject of the work (human activity, buildings, animals and so on). Landscape, as background, organises or frames the subject to give context or definition, but interpretation of its intrinsic significance is often overlooked (Andrews 1999, 5-7); an echo of the aforementioned peripheral position of landscape in the study of monastic sites and their history until relatively recently. In an art history context, for instance, the traditional position presupposes a straightforward relationship between landscape, or a good view, and art, with the painterly image as the prime expression of this.[3] The artistic representation elicits an instinctive human response, which may be culturally influenced but essentially comes from within. A more sophisticated constructionist view has since become dominant, emphasising how we select, edit and interpret what we see. In Andrews (1999, 1-3, 15) formulation, the process of producing an artistic representation of a particular scene is twofold: ‘Land into landscape; landscape into art’, achieving a combining of the actual terrain in view and the pictorial image; in effect ‘the dissolving of the two together’.

A particularly fruitful exemplar of the symbiosis between art and landscape is Romanticism, a new way of looking at the world aesthetically (the gaze or view) and the relationship between nature and humanity which developed in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century, influenced by, but also reacting against, the scientific rationality of the Enlightenment period (Johnson 2007b, 18-33). A transformation in envisioning that still resonates: as Austin (2013, 4) points out: ‘The monastic ruin is a key graphic, literary and architectural component of that change still strongly influencing our management and visiting of monuments in the contemporary landscape’. A number of notable figures associated with the Romantic Movement produced work in and about places and landscapes in the study area (as explored in Knight 1999; Moore 2007). William Gilpin is often credited with energising the popularity of notions of the picturesque and sublime through the publication of his Observations on the River Wye and Several Parts of South Wales in 1782, after which the Wye valley was firmly established on the domestic Grand Tour circuit for those who were both fashionable and wealthy. Gilpin (2005, 40) describes the landscape setting of Tintern Abbey in classic romantic terms thus: ‘The woods, and glades intermixed; the winding of the river; the variety of the ground; the splendid ruin, contrasted with the objects of nature; and the elegant line formed by the summits of the hills, which include the whole; make altogether a very inchanting (sic) piece of scenery’.

It was on a walking tour in 1793 that William Wordsworth passed through the Wye valley and was inspired to write Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, the final poem in his ground-breaking Lyrical Ballads collection with Coleridge (Daiches and Flower 1979, 119). Wordsworth focus was less on the narrow aesthetic vision of Gilpin and was guided by a more physical and emotional immersion in the landscape, to him the ruined abbey resonated with ‘the still sad music of humanity’ (Hardyment 2012, 76). The ruins of monastic houses featured regularly in the prodigious output of JMW Turner and he painted Llanthony Priory, Tintern Abbey and other topographical sites in the area. Of course, Turner and other landscape painters of the time were not seeking to develop an accurate documentary record of what they saw. Nevertheless, their work provides not only much topographical evidence (see Figure 1) but is also of value to the historian as a nuanced commentary on the tensions between the emerging new world of agri-industrial process and infrastructure and the buildings and land-use of earlier ages (Hamilton 2003, 11).


Figure 1: Llanthony Abbey, Cwmyoy, Monmouthshire by JMW Turner, 1794. The painting shows the surrounding hills higher and more precipitous than in reality, with a similarly romanticised river scene in the foreground. However, also clearly represented is the still now extant curvilinear enclosure on Loxey Tump above the ruins, which may originate as a medieval sheep corral operated by the Priory.
Both Llanthony and Tintern have continued to be the subject of much artistic work, inspired by the combination of romantic monastic ruins, a legacy of spirituality and dramatic landscape setting.[4] The study area as a whole also has a rich heritage of poetry, prose and folklore with a strong sense of place, a repository recording encounters and experiences captured whilst moving through the landscape which can help to bridge the gap between landscape archaeology and cultural theories of identity, memory and perception embodied in the landscape (Dunham 2007, 183).[5] There is also, as Macfarlane (2014, xxviii-xxix) highlights, a more esoteric legacy: ‘Perhaps because of its combination of wildness (high ground) and habitability (rich valleys), the southern English-Welsh borderland is a region that has bred a peculiar number of seers, savants and mystics’.[6] For instance, Alfred Watkins fieldwork in pursuit of his fanciful and discredited ley-lines theory during the 1920s can be seen as, in Matless’ words, ‘… an eccentric mirror-image of field archaeology’ as it was being developed and codified by Crawford and others at the time (1998, 82). An additional relevance is that most of the topographical descriptions and illustrations that appeared in Watkins’ book, The Old Straight Track (1925) are of the south-eastern Welsh Marches. The symbolism and referencing of temporal heritage within the landscape in artistic and literary representation, specifically in relation to the monastic legacy of the study area, would seem a fruitful evidence-base for further investigation. 

An example of an evolving literary conceptualisation of landscape that can also be drawn into this discussion is found in the flowering of what has been, somewhat misleadingly, called the New Nature Writing of the last decade or so (Procter 2014, 78). Perhaps in contradistinction to the long tradition of British natural history and topographical writing which has provided a balm of rural idyll for an increasingly urbanised population, contemporary writing on nature, landscape and place is in many ways coaxial to the cultural geographical responses to landscape discussed later in this section. Iain Sinclair has described natural historian Richard Mabey as ‘the unacknowledged pivot’ between an earlier tradition of environmental and nature writing and both the more experiential ‘new nature’ genre and those described as psycho-geographers (Hardyment 2012, 183; Mabey 2010, 11).[7] All share a rejection of the narrow confines of subject-specific discourse and a recognition of the interplay between human culture and the natural environment,[8] reviving the cadence of earlier generations of British writers such as John Clare, Richard Jefferies, Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas (Procter 2014, 78).[9]

As this brief and partial synopsis has shown, sense of place is a vital component in a remarkably wide range of artistic and literary work. Topographical knowledge of the places and landscapes that form the subject matter can certainly assist in our understanding of art, music and writing (Daiches and Flower 1979, 7). However, the relationship is reciprocal: an analysis of art and literature inspired by or interpreting place can help our understanding of how these landscapes, and perceptions of them, have evolved over time.

Cultural geography and landscape


A return now to Johnson’s (2007) assertion that well-established empirical techniques and post-modern experiential approaches need not be mutually exclusive when studying historic landscapes. Both, in fact, embody the ancient Greek notion of theoria: to look, to contemplate, to speculate; or, in Walter’s (1988, 19-20) words, ‘a complex but active mode of observation’. The rich potential, largely untapped,[10] to blend cultural geographical discourse on how places are perceived, experienced and remembered with a more conventional landscape archaeology approach, as advocated by Fairclough and Johnson and outlined in my research paper #1 will now be examined (with due regard to the sage warnings from Fleming and others on the need for a bedrock of empirical context and substance when considering landscape perception).

A central concern of the New Geography that developed during the late 1960s and through to the early 1980s was to reframe notions of space, place and landscape through the prism of experiential perspectives, as articulated, for instance, through the concept of phenomenology. This approach viewed the environment as more than just a passive backdrop or external object of the spectator’s gaze; providing a challenge to more traditional ideas of landscape as simply a way of seeing the world or a repository of empirical material data (Creswell 2004, 12-13; Tilley 1994, 10; Wylie 2007, 144). Such a paradigm drew on European philosophy concerned with the nature of existence, in particular the concepts of dwelling, being in the world and embodiment, the intertwining of self and landscape as the basis of experience as espoused by philosophical theorists Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Tilley 1994, 13-14; Wylie 2007, 140-151).

More recently Tim Ingold has revived this questioning of the notion of landscape as a way of seeing the world and the Cartesian duality between culture:nature and observer:observed that has traditionally informed cultural geography, anthropology, archaeology and Western philosophical thought as a whole (Ingold 2000, 189; Wylie 2007, 145). His challenge to this order is to build on Heidegger’s ‘dwelling perspective’, binding nature and culture together whilst also recognising the dynamism inherent within landscape processes: ‘It is through being inhabited that the world becomes a meaningful environment’ (Ingold 2000, 173).[11] Thus a ‘human ecodynamic’ approach is constructed, requiring an integrated research methodology (McGlade 1999, 465).

That raw spatial entity becomes landscape through perception and memory has been a central concern of anthropology and cultural geography in recent times (Wylie 2007, 191). Landscapes are increasingly seen as ‘a form of codification of history itself’ and, as such, embody remembrance and invoke the past (Stewart and Stratham 2003, 1); or rather, the physical and perceptual remains of multiple pasts, including those more distant and open to different interpretations (Holtorf and Williams 2006, 237; Shama 1996, 10; Tilley 1994, 11). However, as Holtorf and Williams (2006, 236-7) have identified, landscape archaeology ‘rarely considers how memories (including mythologies, genealogies as well as cultural, community, and personal histories) were inherited, inhabited, invented and imagined through the landscape’. In reality, physical experience of the landscape and local social customs, relations and memory are indivisible. Furthermore, topographical reminders have often been fundamental as a way of spatial remembering and interpreting in times of social and economic change (Walsham 2011, 7; Whyte 2009, 2, 9)There is, therefore, considerable scope to more effectively connect and cross-reference the recording of material traces through archaeological fieldwork with evidence of how landscapes have been remembered and reappropriated by successive generations, through the interpretative layers provided by oral folk memories, antiquarian investigation, Romantic artistic representation, the modern heritage industry and so on (Holtorf and Williams 2006, 238-242) (see Figure 2).


Figure 2: The Stony Way, Tintern, Monmouthshire: A major routeway connecting Tintern Abbey with its outlying granges and manors during the monastic period, now a backwater recreational path but with the remnants of its engineered medieval surface still clearly visible and echoed in the name of the path; its past also remembered through inclusion in the Cistercian Way long distance walking route (Author).

A phenomenological approach to landscape, based on experience, memory and perception has manifested itself widely across the humanities and artistic practice, demonstrating its practical utilisation as a distinctive form of landscape study that can supplement other approaches (Wylie 2013, 57, 61).[12] In an archaeological context, phenomenology has been particularly pioneered in prehistoric studies (see, for instance, Bradley 2000; Tilley 1994, 2004, 2010), where a coalescing of anthropology, archaeology and performance practice has emerged (Wylie 2007, 169).[13] This can be seen as part of a broader exploration of the social and political dimension of landscape now firmly established in the archaeology of prehistory and its management as a heritage resource (McGlade 1999, 459). For instance, as illustrated by Darvill’s (1999, 116) advocacy of a ‘space-time-action model’ in which the analysis of the physical distribution of sites and features is a starting point for investigating social action and experience across the landscape rather than an end in itself.

As most comprehensively practiced and explained by Christopher Tilley (2004, 219), the phenomenology of prehistoric landscapes is characterised by a tactile and field-oriented approach, foregrounded by direct in situ encounters that go beyond the standard interactions with artefacts, sites and landscapes of drawing plans, photography, mapping and excavation: activities that disembody the evidence from its landscape context through conversion into text and imagery, producing what Thrift has described as ‘dead geographies’ (Wylie 2007, 171). The aim is to reclaim landscape as a holistic term embracing body, place, perception and the relationship between people and place, to identify an ‘intelligent landscape’ in which the topography and physiography of land and thought are distinct but linked (Tilley 1994, 14; 2004, 25). An approach Ingold (2005, 122) has described as ‘a manifesto for a genuinely outdoor archaeology’, a response to the paradox that much of the writing up, analysis and theorising of archaeological fieldwork takes place indoors i.e. away from the experience of being in and inhabiting the landscape under scrutiny, through sight, sound and other senses and feelings.

Criticisms of the phenomenological approach to landscape


Such approaches have not been without their critics and sceptics, indeed phenomenology in particular has been viewed with suspicion by many in the academic disciplines in which it has been practiced (Wylie 2007, 180). There has been a perception that it amounts to little more than an ambiguous abstract theory, removed from practical experience, lacking a clear and valid methodology[14] and dislocated from environmental, socio-economic, historical, and indeed wider landscape, contexts (McGlade 1999, 461; Wylie 2007, 139-140, 180-1). Such claims are strongly refuted by its advocates who counter that everyday experience and field-based practice are central tenants of the approach. In Tilley’s (1994, 11) words it requires ‘a continuous dialectic between ideas and empirical data’. In relation to its archaeological application, Fleming (2007, 89) has questioned how well the fieldwork methodology of the phenomenological approach has been established, in contrast to the more clearly formulated and tested techniques of modern landscape archaeology. More specifically, the veracity of claims made about the siting of, for example, certain Neolithic monuments following phenomenological research has been queried (Barrett and Ko 2009, 275).

More fundamentally, the charge has been levelled that there is an underpinning romanticising of rural, pre-modern and non-Western ways of experiencing landscape, with a simplistic and nostalgic view of the ‘more authentic’ engagement of the past in comparison to modern, detached, objective interaction (Wylie 2007, 181-2). In reference to the medieval period in particular, Bull (2005) has outlined the many pitfalls of applying a modern value system or even a mock medieval interpretation to how people thought and acted during the Middle Ages, an unconscious trap that it would be easy for a phenomenological viewpoint to fall into.

The tensions between landscape archaeology and post-modernism in the form of phenomenology and other post-processual theory were recorded in the series of exchanges between Fleming and Johnson previously alluded to in research paper #1. This is a debate which could perhaps run and run, but to the outside eye Fleming’s (2008, 76) even-handed conclusion that, as with other disciplines across the humanities and social sciences, post-modernism can bring refreshing innovation to existing landscape archaeology praxis rather than replacing it seems to be a judgement that most could agree with.[15] Such a view seems to fit well with Wylie’s (2007, 186) assertion that the phenomenological approach has ‘identified new topical grounds and new forms of research practice, at once enriching and diversifying the ambit of landscape studies’.

Psycho-geography and deep topography


A further layer of cultural geographical thought will now be brought into the discussion: an approach to landscape and place, psycho-geography, that has to date had limited convergence with phenomenological ideas and practice, let alone those of landscape archaeology. In its archaeological and anthropologist incarnations, phenomenology has generally concerned itself with a rural context. In contrast, with its loose origins both in the English literary tradition of radical commentary on the underbelly of the city, largely centred on London,[16] and the dérive (unplanned journey) of the Dadist and Situationist art and intellectual movements of mid-twentieth century Paris, psycho-geography has largely remained resolutely urban in focus (Coverley 2006, 12). The common ground between the two is the focus on direct experiential engagement with spatial surroundings, generally through the agency of walking.

Perhaps because it is quite nebulous and resistant to definition, psycho-geography has become something of a catch-all term, a meeting point for a number of ideas and traditions with interwoven histories relating to the convergence of psychology and geography: the impact of the geographical environment on the human mind, emotions and behaviours (Coverley 2006, 10-11). In essence, psycho-geography provides a fresh way to read and interpret geographical space and bring together normally disparate subject-matter.[17] The work of Iain Sinclair in political perambulations through contested spaces in and around London has proved particularly influential (see, for example, Sinclair 2003, 2011), but perhaps the magnus opus of a contemporary emerging landscape philosophising that can be loosely aligned with the psycho-geographic tradition is W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn (1995). Sebald recounts a ground-breaking narrative of a long East Anglian walk that becomes a portal for evocations of and meditations on an array of times, places and people.[18] Young (2010, 24) has commented that: ‘Both these authors are adept at springing out the hermetic and esoteric histories lying latent in the landscape’.

Nick Papadimitriou is another writer who has been labelled as a psycho-geographer. In Scarp: In Search of London’s Outer Limits (2012), he defines his approach more specifically as Deep Topography. This terminology could also be used to describe the work of writers and researchers, largely operating outside of the academic arena, such as Keiller (2013), Robinson (1990) and Self (2007). Exponents of a more nuanced counterpart to psycho-geography, less shackled to its conceptual and urban prescriptions though also an even less theoretically sharpened approach.[19] Self (2007, 11-12) has described deep topography as ‘minutely detailed, multi-level examinations of select locales that impact upon the writer’s own microscopic inner-eye’, combining ecology, history, poetry and sociology. As Papadimitriou’s ventures into deep topography throughout the Middlesex-Hertfordshire boundary lands and Sebald’s long existential walk along the East Anglian coast have demonstrated, any landscape can in principle be opened up to what Sinclair has described as: ‘psycho-geography lite. It was a long way from the Situationists but it suited the English sentiment about walking, deep-topography, historical scavenging’ (Kobek 2014, 7).[20]

Although psycho-geographical texts and practice have attracted academic interest in recent years, this has tended to be within the confines of cultural geography and literary studies and focused on the urban experience.[21] There has been little interaction with other disciplines traditionally concerned with landscape: ecology, history, archaeology and so forth. It is perhaps worth speculating that the critique of and suspicions around phenomenology outlined above would be equally manifest in relation to psycho-geography and deep topography, particularly as it is generally practised outside an academic or professional setting. The underpinning philosophy and praxis here is perhaps though closer to more established approaches to landscape and place than one might initially think as archaeology, ecology and local history are all disciplines partially dependent on a dedicated cadre of amateur enthusiasts. Self (2007, 12) has proclaimed that practitioners of psycho-geography are ‘really only local historians with an attitude problem’, though often viewed with suspicion, if noted at all, by those in professional landscape study fraternities.  

Experience and perception in the study of historic landscapes

The adoption of the types of approaches that explicitly examine experience and perception considered here has been somewhat under-developed in the study of historic landscapes, despite the fact that there would appear to be considerable scope for greater application in considering how people moved through and engaged with their surroundings (Gardiner and Rippon 2007, 6; Gilchrist 2009, 391; Holtorf and Williams 2006, 237). Examples would include Altenberg’s (2003) comparative consideration of space and identity in case studies drawn from perceived marginal areas of medieval Britain and Scandinavia, and Johnson’s (2002) adoption of a phenomenological approach to underscore his study of the role of castles as elite stage settings, reflective of a focus on symbolism when considering designed medieval landscapes. Nicola Whyte’s Inhabiting the Landscape: Place, Custom and Memory, 1500-1800 (2009) can also be cited as a novel example of landscape archaeology research that foregrounds understanding and integrating people’s perception, memory, interpretation and experience of landscape, rather than focussing more narrowly on economic and environmental factors to explain landscape evolution, rooted in evidence from detailed local case studies. As Whyte (2009, 5) contends: ‘Understanding the landscape, as it was ‘inhabited’, should not be confined to prehistory’.

As Walsham (2011, 5) observes, people in the early modern period did not have a polarised view of nature and culture, they were indivisible in the landscape: ‘A supplementary source of revelation’, imbued with meaning and memory. A recurring and on-going phenomena that Tuan (2013) has characterised as ‘topophilia’, the connection and interrelation between people and place. This intertwinedness can also be given a voice through the combining of some of the perspectives drawn from cultural geography identified here with landscape archaeology practice; providing a freshness to the analysis of landscape and place, through the enriched understanding of environment, culture and meaning that interdisciplinarity can encourage (Cosgrove 2008, 3). The rich and varied afterlife of the monastic estates in the study area for this project, coupled with the artistic and literary output and folk memories that they generated, has particular potential for the application of this more expansive landscape perspective.




[1] For instance, The Monk: A Romance (1796) by M.G. Lewis, generally viewed as one of the first Gothic novels; M. R. James’ ghost story, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1904); Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1983); the Cadfael (1977-1994) historical murder mysteries of Edith Pargeter; and Casper David Friedrich’s painting, The Abbey in the Oakwood (1810).

[2] For instance, landscape archaeology, is not represented amongst the contributors to the multi-disciplinary discourse on landscape and art context in DeLue, and Elkins edited volume, Landscape Theory: The Art Seminar (2008).

[3] As articulated, for instance, in Clark’s Landscape into Art (1966).

[4] As detailed in the hand list brochures for the Sites of Inspiration: Tintern Abbey and Llanthony Priory exhibitions at Abergavenny and Chepstow Museums in 2014. The Llanthony valley has been a particular foci for artists, notably during the period in which sculptor and typographer Eric Gill established a bohemian artistic-religious community at Capel-y-ffin in the 1920s.

[5] Evidence for which would include a rich corpus of Anglo-Welsh folklore tales (Palmer 1998; Simpson 1976); the late nineteenth century country diaries of the Reverend Francis Kilvert; the fiction and non-fiction of Raymond Williams: see, for instance, People of the Black Mountains I: The Beginning, and II: the Eggs of the Eagle (1990a,1990b) and The Country and the City (2011); and Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill (1998), Owen Sheers Resistance (2007) and Iain Sinclair’s Landor’s Tower (2002): all novels underwritten by their Welsh Marches and Black Mountains locations.

[6] As illustration, Macfarlane name-checks William Langland, Thomas Traherne, Henry Vaughan, John Dee, Arthur Machan and Alfred Watkins. Macfarlane has written of a contemporary convergence of psycho-geography, ecology, archaeology, mythology and hauntology more generally in British culture in his article, This Spectred Isle (2015).

[7] Mabey’s prolific output includes a 1986 biography of Gilbert White (eighteenth century parson-naturalist and author of the Ur-text of British natural history writing, Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, 1798), The Unofficial Countryside (1973), a seminal exploration of the nature in urban edgelands, and Nature Cure (2005), a treatise on the positive impact of the natural world and sense of place on the human condition.

[8] For example, see Deakin (2007), Macfarlane (2007, 2012, 2015): evidence of a synergy with the deep topography and psycho-geography of Papademitrou, Sebald, Sinclair and others discussed further on in this section.

[9] Books such as Jefferies’ Wild Life in a Southern County (2011) and Thomas’ The South Country (2009), chronicled not only flora and fauna but also the human life of communities whose everyday lives were immersed in the landscape, based on intimate knowledge and capacious walking.

[10] For instance, the overview of methodological approaches and practical guide to investigating medieval rural settlements in Christie, and Stamper’s edited volume, Medieval Rural Settlement: Britain and Ireland AD800-1600 (2011), contain no mention of phenomenological or other cultural geographical approaches (Jones and Hooke 2011; Lewis 2011).

[11] Somewhat puzzlingly, Ingold used a painting of a medieval scene, The Harvester by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1565), rather than direct experience to demonstrate being in the landscape (Gilchrist 2009, 391-392).

[12] Examples would include: Ingold’s (2000) already mentioned application in anthropology; Land Art based on bodily contact and experience of landscape as practised by, for example, Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long and Robert Smithson; Richard Skelton’s experimental musical and literary projects in specific locations using sound, art, photography and archive research to reflect on the landscape and its inhabitants (Hudson 2015, 65-6; Skelton 2010); practice and performance studies involving direct participation of walking, driving, climbing, gardening etc.; and movement and mobility studies, connecting eye, body and land (Lund 2012; Pearson and Shanks 1997; Wylie 2005; 2007, 166, 177; 2013, 61).

[13] The experimental encounters with sites, materials and landscapes in Shanks and Pearson’s Theatre/ Archaeology (2001) being a prime example.

[14] Tilley’s field methods have been criticised for being overly dependent on the perception and interpretation of the individual researcher, an over-representation of visual perception at the expense of other forms of experience and an over-emphasis on experiencing specific monuments rather than the wider landscape (Altenberg 2003, 27-28).

[15] It is also interesting to note that one of the few examples of an experiential approach to historic landscape fieldwork is provided by Fleming himself in a novel article on medieval long-distance roads that uses a modern journey on horse-back along such a track as part of its evidence base, though the use of this methodology is not elaborated upon (Fleming 2010b).

[16] Notably the writings of those whom Ackroyd (2004, 308-14) has termed ‘Cockney Visionaries’, from Chaucer and Bunyan to Defoe, Blake and Dickens. A tradition taken forward into the modern age through the contrasting work and style of Ackroyd himself, Ballard, Sinclair and Keiller (Coverley 2006, 25-9).

[17] For instance, Solnit’s (2001) writings on the history, philosophy and psychology of walking and Farley and Symmons Roberts (2011) exploration of the minutia of England’s urban edgelands.

[18] Which can be compared with film-maker Werner Herzog’s record of his walk from Munich to Paris, Of Walking in Ice (1991), and also has echoes of Hilaire Belloc’s (1945, 1958) accounts of his proto-psycho-geographical neo-pilgrimages from Canterbury to Winchester and from the Upper Mosselle valley in France to Rome at the turn of the twentieth century.

[19] A Google Scholar search for deep topography yields plentiful references to oceanographic research but none for cultural geography or landscape study.

[20] A further example would be Worpole and Orton's (2005, 2013) exploration of the marginal countryside of the estuary indented, marsh rich and semi-industrial Essex coastline: a liminal landscape in close proximity to, but also estranged from, the urban expanse of London.

[21] For example, Richardson’s Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography (2015) and Garrett’s examination of the practice of urban exploration (urbex) or place-hacking, Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City (2013).

Thursday, 14 January 2016

PhD research paper #2. The study of monastic landscapes

From time to time I will post 'bite size' chunks of the material I am preparing for my PhD thesis: works in progress, but content which I feel may be of interest to a wider audience. All will be very much draft versions, not necessarily - probably not - reflecting the final wording that will eventually appear in the Thesis. In-text references are included but a full bibliography is not. This paper is based on a section of the initial literature review. 

The study of monastic landscapes


An overview
The wider landscapes of monastic estates, in contradistinction to monastic precincts and their buildings (see Figure 1), have often received only limited attention from landscape archaeology practitioners and few studies have attempted to examine the symbolism and perception of the landscapes of monastic estates, particularly as they evolved after the Dissolution (Aston 2007, 185; Bond 2004, 10; Everson and Stocker 2007, 215). This is despite the fact that, in contrast to other elements of the medieval landscape such as rural settlements or field systems, a clearer evidence-base for monastic operations is often available to the researcher.

Figure 1: The precinct of Llanthony Priory, Cwmyoy, Monmouthshire in its landscape setting (Author).

Comprehensive contemporary documentary evidence is frequently (though not always) readily accessible for monastic houses, including charters and other legal papers, manorial records and tax and valuation surveys (in some cases collected together in cartularies or other registers). Such documents provide detailed information on the physical appearance, topography and development of estates: an example of the symbiotic relationship between the work of the monastic population and the agricultural landscape around them (Davies 2014, 140; Moorhouse 1989, 29-30). In addition, there is also often a survival of a greater degree of physical evidence of buildings and large-scale landscape development projects (Aston 2007, 20).

This rich documentary legacy has facilitated a vast corpus of academic literature on the history of monasticism in Britain. Whilst generally little focussed on the wider landscape per se, there are numerous works that provide important contextual information on the architectural, agricultural and economic activity of monastic operations.[1] Often such narratives are driven by long-standing orthodoxies, such as the foundation of monastic houses in reclusive areas of wilderness, based on the non-critical use of contemporary sources that have more recently been challenged (Pestell 2004, 1).

Picturesque monastic ruins were also a popular topic of interest for antiquarians from Dugdale[2] onwards and a conservative agenda primarily interested in the physical appearance of the church and cloistral architecture has in many ways remained until relatively recently, itself influenced by the interest of the Romantic Movement in monastic ruins from an artistic perspective - a theme explored in more detail later in this chapter (Pestell 2004, 1-2). A narrow focus on architectural survey and developing ground plans of the central buildings of the precinct based on excavation became the long dominant mode of fieldwork for monastic sites, supplemented by a spotlight on the workings of individual granges and out-farms as part of the study of the wider economic framework as outlined below (Austin 2013, 4-5).

Monastic holdings are well represented in the long tradition of historical study of well-documented medieval estates (Pestell 2004, 7). Much of what has been written is from an historical geography or economic history perspective, often focussed on particular economic, organisational and agrarian aspects and mostly taken from documentary research though still of great value in landscape terms (Moorhouse 1989, 43; Rippon 2009, 230) (see Figure 2).[3] The focus has often been on the very particular estate management system of the Cistercian Order. For instance, Donkin’s (1978) overview of the historical geography of the Cistercian houses of England and Wales provides a detailed analysis of the estates and holdings of individual institutions, and the particular economic and agrarian model initially practised by the Cistercians in rejecting the manorial system of the generally longer-established Benedectine houses in favour of direct land management through the grange system.[4]



Figure 2: Broadshawe, Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire. An upland stock farm for cattle (vaccary), part of the network of granges and specialist farmsteads described in Kershaw’s economic history of Bolton Abbey (Author).

Often emphasised in this research is how the very underpinning values of the Cistercian Order in seeking independence from the outside world, and (in contrast to other orders) requiring the White Monks to work the land themselves and reject dependence on the feudal labour of the manorial system, directly impacted on the management of their estates. In particular through the development of the grange system and the subsequent innovation of deploying a lay workforce as economic operations flourished and expanded into areas of marginal land (Burton 1998, 13; Coppack 1998, 95-6; Knowles 1963, 215-16). Some of these ideas are now contested as generalisations. For instance, Davies (2014, 133) argues that the desert eremitic ideals of early monasticism were maintained through a more pragmatic, sometimes even ruthless, policy during the central Middle Ages: ‘Monasteries might create deserts in order to have a place of withdrawal, as the Cistercians were accused of doing in twelfth-century England’. Such manipulation of the landscape to provide secluded space included the reorganisation of estates and land-use, for instance to create consolidated blocks of arable fields or the draining of marshland, and could lead in practice to desertion (forced or otherwise) by former inhabitants (Moorhouse 1989, 32; Rippon 2004b, 127-8).

Archival and spatial data on the holdings and estates of the Augustinian Order have been catalogued and analysed by Robinson (1980a, 1980b) on a national scale. As with the Cistercian research discussed here, this document-based historical geography analysis provides landscape evidence incidentally. An important point highlighted is that Augustinian houses operated with a greater flexibility than other denominations. Individual houses could therefore reflect either extreme of monastic estate management practice, that is a network of conventional manors following the well-established Benedictine model with income largely received from the rents of tenants, or manors which consisted mostly of demesne land with all produce and profits used by the monastery, in effect operating as granges akin to those in the Cistercian system (Robinson 1980, 309).  

Two scholars have been particularly prominent in foregrounding the landscape in monastic research. Mick Aston and James Bond were responsible for early multidisciplinary attempts to recreate the landscape of monastic estates during the 1970s and have, more recently, published comprehensive overviews of the core elements of monastic topography based on their long-standing research work (Aston 1972, 2007; Bond 1973, 1979, 2004). Austin (2005, 108; 2013, 8-9) has argued that this has provided a necessary first step of classification and typology, of amassing data but is also indicative of an instrumentalist approach apparent in monastic landscape archaeology: the artificial separating out of functional and technological elements to describe how monastic estates worked rather than an analysis of the landscape in a more holistic sense.

Both Aston (2007, 128) and Bond (2000, 12-13) have pointed out that the impact of medieval monasteries on the landscape has often been underestimated and remains largely unexplored due to limited detailed research on the topography and topology of individual estates, despite the fact that, at their height, monastic houses had rights of exploitation (through endowment of land and other privileges) over as much as a quarter of the whole land mass of England and Wales. Their major contribution has been to continuously underline that the very practical requirements of monastic houses scattered across all parts of town and countryside inevitably led to a considerable impact on the medieval landscape. In Bond’s (2000, 63) words: ‘Their needs placed demands on the resources of the land, for food, water, fuel and building materials. In consequence, even the most deliberately secluded communities could hardly avoid becoming focal points in the landscape, as landmarks and route centres’.

At the height of the expansion and development of monastic lands the wealthier houses were undoubtedly trail-blazers in estate management through the enclosure of uplands, mineral extraction and so on (Waites 2007, 215-16). Aston (2007, 23), however, cautions that twelfth century England and Wales were already anciently settled countries with all land owned and utilised in some way, including woodland, waste and fen, therefore ‘the idea of pioneer monks moving into unknown and undeveloped primeval lands in this country in the early Middle Ages is a romantic but untenable myth’. Interplay with the wider secular landscape was also an important element, not least because monastic and lay estates would have many commonalities (Everson 1989, 141). As Moorhouse (1989, 50) has shown, monastic estates would reflect economic and social changes in the outside world, for instance the rapid increase in leasing for a secure income in the later Middle Ages. The Dissolution then led to a renewed period of change and development as secular owners created new estates and residences out of the legacy of the monastic houses (Aston 2007, 15). 

Medieval monasticism was, of course, a transnational phenomenon, perhaps the first since the fall of the Roman Empire (Bond 2000, 64), and a recent pan-European landscape perspective is provided by Davies (2014, 138), who emphasises that monastic houses across the continent obtained most of their income from the collection of rent or in kind rather than through the sale of produce, with direct management of estates and other economic resources mostly restricted to larger houses, generally through a wide variety of labour services from tenants. She also argues that across Europe monastic communities developed landscapes of power, through services and rents from tied tenants (although the extent of service required could vary considerably) and the exercise of patronage over smaller scale landowners and richer peasantry, as well as social memory through, for instance, the siting of marker stones and crosses in the landscape (Davies 2014, 141-2). She concludes that ‘the capacity of some monasteries not simply to sit on the land surface but to mould and change the landscape is as significant for the changing visual environment as it is for economic growth’ (Davies 2014, 143).[5]


Examples of monastic landscape studies


Stephen Moorhouse (1989) produced probably the first published overview of monastic estate development in Britain from a landscape perspective, following a conference on rural monastic archaeology in 1988, though using evidence largely restricted to the north of England. Here the importance of reading the physical remains of the landscape in the context of the ‘constantly changing economic machine of which they were a product’ was underscored. Furthermore, ‘the monastic estates could not survive in isolation. They thrived on commercialism and exploitation, particularly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and thus were both socially and economically integrated into their own region’ (Moorhouse 1989, 68). This sense of dynamism and the impact of the outside world is emphasised by Bond (2001, 55) who has highlighted the different phases of estate management during the long centuries of monastic activity. For example, the practical difficulties in managing production from often scattered estates as more holdings were accrued in the early period of monastic growth that led to renting out of more land. This was followed by a return to more direct management of estates as a result of population growth and a period of rising prices and demand in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, with a subsequent return to leasing out to tenants once more as the population reduced and labour costs rose in the early fourteenth century.

Moorhouse (1989, 67) also made the case for further archaeological fieldwork and mapping of the integrated networks of landscape features making up specific monastic estates, based on the often detailed topographical descriptions spread amongst the various types of archival documents where they survive, as well as other sources such as field- and place-name evidence. The historic landscape and related sources can potentially hold evidence of a wealth of topographical features associated with monastic operations, ranging from communications routes, mills and farm complexes to fishponds and processing infrastructure, mineral extraction and even many of the more ephemeral features essential to day to day monastic activity and economy (e.g. wayside crosses, kilns, ovens, bird or animal traps, archery butts, animal pounds, dovecots, sheep washes etc.) (Moorhouse 1989, 59-65). 

In reviewing progress in this area as the current century commenced, Bond (2000, 72) concluded that ‘the potential for continuing enquiry remains vast’. More recently Davies (2014, 143) has noted: ‘We could do with more archaeology of monastic landscapes: evidence of physical change in settlement patterns and in types of structure, as well as those underlying economic strategies; clearance, planting, changes of crop and of stock, erection of boundaries, could all be revealed’. It remains the case that much archaeological fieldwork focusses on case-studies of individual houses and is still largely concerned with the precinct, home demesne or manor and other immediate landscape features (Brown 2012, 8; Pestell 2004, 1; see, for example, Coppack 2003; Greene 2004; Ludlow 2002). Pestell (2004, 6) reflects that, despite some new approaches such as Robinson’s investigation of geographical patterns of monastic foundation already mentioned, theoretically-based research in monastic landscape archaeology has been quite rare,[6] with a general bias towards an economic analysis (monasteries as a capitalistic model) at the expense of addressing the spiritual elements of activity and the place of the monastery in its wider landscape and community context.


Figure 3: Oblique aerial photograph of the extensive earthworks at Monknash Grange, St Donats, Glamorganshire (www.coflein.gov.uk/en/catalogue/).

The monastic grange is one feature of the wider landscape that has been subjected to a relatively high degree of analysis. Until relatively recently this has tended to focus on their role in the economy of monastic communities rather than archaeological or topographical fieldwork, perhaps in part due to the fact that granges often form the nucleus of later and still extant farmsteads and so are relatively inaccessible, though there are a handful of sites that have now been investigated in more detail (Butler 1989, 7).[7] Moorhouse (1989, 45) points out that upland areas provide the greatest potential for understanding the layout, different functions and evolution of granges as they experienced less subsequent agricultural development (because of abandonment or contraction due to climatic change or economic factors) and therefore landscape features have often survived relatively undisturbed as shrunken or abandoned farmsteads.[8] The most conventional general text on the subject remains The Monastic Grange in Medieval England (Platt 1969), which first highlighted the long-lasting significance of the grange system for the landscape, particularly in more marginal agricultural terrains, with archaeological, cartographical and architectural evidence brought to the fore. Williams (1976, 1984, 1990) has also researched the spatial development and economic activity of the granges of the Welsh Cistercians, with direct relevance to this study. The prevailing Cistercian grange model as a particular typology of enclosure, function and built structures has begun to be challenged as more detailed assessments of individual granges and regional distributions are carried out (Brown 2012, 294-6; Waites 2007, 57-89). For instance, at Strata Florida (Cardiganshire) the evidence has demonstrated a pragmatic hybrid of local and Cistercian practice often retaining pre-existing tenurial and land management processes (Bezant 2014).

In response to the relatively underdeveloped monastic landscape research agenda a number of projects and studies have offered new methodological and theoretical frameworks which seek to place the monastery in a wider landscape, local and regional setting and challenge orthodox thinking (Gilchrist 2009, 387; Keevil 2001, 137). The most sustained example of this more holistic archaeological investigation of a medieval monastery and its landscape has been the Bordesley Abbey (Worcestershire) project run by the University of Reading since 1969, inspired by the pioneering work of Aston and others in highlighting the untapped potential of the extensive earthworks in and surrounding monastic precincts to increase knowledge of the workings of monastic houses (Aston 1972) (see Figure 4). Bordesley has demonstrated the value of a detailed long-term research programme integrating architecture, archaeology and archival work, including pre- and post-monastic study of the local countryside and wider regional landscape context (Astill et al 2004). For instance, the project has identified three zones of granges with distinct land-use and settlement patterns: a model of economic management which enabled the abbey to exploit the resources of different pays (Astill et al 2004, 139).


Figure 4: The extensive earthworks of the Bordesley Abbey precinct, Alvechurch, Worcestershire http://www.reading.ac.uk/bordesley).

This approach, familiar in other medieval research studies such as Wharram Percy (Yorkshire), Whittlewood (Buckinghamshire/ Northamptonshire) and Shapwick (Somerset), has now been applied in a Welsh Cistercian context through the Strata Florida project commenced in 1999 (Austin 2004; Bezant 2014; Rippon 2009, 237). Here the aim has been to place the monastic precinct in its wider landscape, environmental, social and economic contexts, addressing wider issues such as identity, spirituality and cultural resistance, and contributing to the heritage and regeneration agenda for the Cambrian Mountains region (Austin 2004, 193-4; 2013, 4). Landscape archaeology techniques have been applied to enable the detailed reconstruction and interpretation of the late twelfth-century precinct and core estate, the abbey’s grange system and a well-preserved monastic communication route (Bezant 2014; Fleming 2009, 2010; Fleming and Barker 2008). In formulating a detailed ‘biography of place’, the project is providing evidence that normative rules for behaviour, management, architecture and so on were flexible and changeable over time and location, and subject to complex, sometimes subtle, local variation (Austin 2013, 10).

A regional perspective is provided in Pestell’s (2004) analysis of the patterns of monastic foundation in East Anglia, which seeks to shift the agenda away from the previously discussed innate conservatism and enduring perceptions of monastic archaeology through, for instance, the foregrounding of symbolism and iconography when considering the monastic landscape, and countering the prevailing vision of Norman monasteries colonising new territory without previous monastic antecedents. Menuge’s (2000, 22) examination of the symbolism in contemporary medieval written evidence for Rievaulx and Fountains abbeys (Yorkshire) also questions ‘the agenda of the medieval foundation myth’ of civilising waste and wilderness that still permeates the landscape history of the Cistercians.[9] Another regional study, Waites’ (2007, 216) analysis of the monastic landscapes of the North York Moors and Yorkshire Wolds, highlights correlations between monastic development and patterns of subsequent continuing prosperity, agricultural specialism (particularly sheep farming), settlement and land-use. A legacy particularly of the ‘unique instrument’ of the grange as a ‘unit of exploitation’ with a range of functions, reflected in a pattern of dispersed farmsteads still occupying many grange sites to this day.

One of the few attempts to survey the landscapes of a specific monastic house and its estates in forensic detail utilising modern landscape archaeology techniques is Brown’s (2012) study of Stanley Abbey (Gloucestershire), which also assesses the impact of the suppression of the monastery on the landscape and seeks to test pre-existing models for Cistercian estate management and attitudes to the landscape in which they operated.[10]  As an example of the analysis of a particular monastic landscape resource, Rippon (2004b, 91, 129) has marshalled rich documentary records, historic maps and evidence within the historic landscape to produce an HLC reconstruction of the management of wetland resources around Glastonbury Abbey’s fish house at Meare in the Somerset Levels, previously economically marginal terrain which became one of the abbey’s most valuable manors. A fenland context is also apparent in the report on an excavation within the outer court of Thorney Abbey in Cambridgeshire, which both seeks to illuminate the wider landscape setting and also catalogue the processes of reuse and dilapidation following Dissolution (Thomas 2006, 179).      


A regional perspective


Until quite recently much of the regional literature relating specifically to monastic landscapes in Wales and the Welsh Marches was relatively old in academic research terms.[11] David Williams’ work on the Welsh Cistercians remains an invaluable contextual overview of the establishment of the order across the Principality combined with detailed economic histories covering all aspects of estate management synthesised from primary source material. In particular, the Atlas of Cistercian Lands in Wales (1990) provides a detailed compendium of relevant information, including an inventory and cartographical representations of all of the estates and holdings of the Welsh Cistercian houses, aerial photographs and interpretive maps and plans of individual granges etc.

The generally held view has been that monastic settlements had a lesser influence on the development of the rural landscape in Wales as compared to England and Scotland (Pryor 2010, 282). This could be an assumption based on the relative sparseness of monastic establishments across the less settled and farmed Welsh landscape but may also simply reflect the greater body of more recent research carried out elsewhere. This hypothesis, perhaps misleading in a heavily Norman influenced Welsh Marches context anyway, is now being challenged. For instance, Burton has argued that many Welsh houses founded in the early period of the monastic revival were part of an overt Anglo-Norman landscape of conquest and discontinuity in colonised areas, with little native Welsh input and support (Burton 1998, 22). In contrast, in areas under the influence of Welsh lords, the founding, endowing or taking over of patronage of Cistercian houses became a notable feature of Welsh kingship.[12] In turn the abbeys regularly provided political support to Welsh causes and rebellions, often to their cost. In such cases the monastic house and its estates became more integrated into the surrounding society and landscape (Bond 2005, 55; Gray 2005, 17). Often, in fact, operating as a key geographical central place in terms of communications networks (Fleming 2008, 96). Bond (2005, 57) has also shown that, even in seemingly more remote foundations in the Welsh uplands, few monasteries were sited outside the margins of previously settled land and the disruption and resettlement of existing communities as already discussed was not uncommon, particularly as the grange system spread the monastic influence over larger tracts of agricultural and upland grazing land (as documented, for example, on the estates of Margam Abbey, Glamorganshire).   

Such illustrations of the impact of the Cistercians in particular on the Welsh medieval landscape reflect the higher degree of academic discourse afforded to the denomination’s activities in Wales in recent times, with the aforementioned Strata Florida project the prime example, building on the pioneering work of Williams cited above. This interest was distilled into the content and published outputs from conferences at Cardiff in 1998 and Abergavenny in 2004.[13] In reference to the papers at these conferences, Gray (2005, 24) has emphasised that: ‘Our brief excursion into the archaeology of the sites themselves does, however, overwhelmingly present a picture of potential as yet unexploited’.


Figure 5: Speculative map of the medieval landscape around Cwmyoy, the home manor of Llanthony Priory in Monmouthshire (Map created in MapInfo, aerial photograph from RCAHMW (1975)).

Landscape-scale research, archaeological investigation and detailed topographical analysis of individual estates of the monastic houses in the study area for this Thesis has been limited. The author’s MSc dissertation and subsequent journal articles (Procter 2007a, 2007b, 2012) provide a preliminary overview of the impact of Llanthony Priory (Monmouthshire) on its surrounding environs (see Figure 5), prompted by Evans’ (1980; 1984, 52) recognition in his reports on the archaeological investigation of the Priory site in 1978 that the house’s economy, management of estates and landscape development had not been addressed. Precinct surveys have been produced for Chepstow, Llanthony and Tintern (all in Monmouthshire) and there have been a number of small-scale excavations mainly relating to monument conservation.[14] In addition, Williams (1976, 1990) has provided useful summations, analysis and mapping of the estates and granges of Dore (Herefordshire), Grace Dieu (Monmouthshire), Llantarnam and Tintern. Finally, the outcomes of site-based fieldwork activities at a number of granges have been published, including the Tintern granges located in the Monmouthshire Gwent Levels contextualised in their wider wetland landscape setting (Rippon 1996, 78-86).[15]

The monastic landscape after the Dissolution


Moving to the landscape after the Dissolution and further gaps in the research record appear. Aston (2007, 20) has noted that there is often much evidence available, both archival and in the field, of the transition and change of use from monastic to secular estates. However, as Doggett (2001, 165) has remarked, there has been little research on the demolition, conversion and re-use of monastic buildings (and their landscapes) in the vast literature on the suppression of the monasteries and its aftermath: ‘The wide question of what happened to the buildings on former monastic manors and whether the dispersal of former monastic lands among new lay landlords and tenants was in any way responsible for Hoskins’s ‘great rebuilding’ in the late sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth century remains open, and can only be answered by further research, both on a regional and national scale’ (Doggett 2001, 173).

Everson and Stocker’s (2007) study of Kirkstead Abbey (Lincolnshire) is indicative of a fresh approach to the study of the monastic precinct in its landscape setting, evidencing the post-suppression conversion of the precinct to accommodate a new secular mansion and associated formal gardens. The fate of the physical structures of monastic houses and their estates after Dissolution could vary considerably: for instance, some churches transitioned to parish churches, some abbot’s lodgings became gentry houses, others became ruinous; some estates were taken on wholesale by new owners, others were split up.[16] Holtorf and Williams (2006, 242-3) have examined ‘the manipulation of monastic architecture and landscapes in the post-reformation era in which elements of the material past were selectively remembered and forgotten’ through the integration of monastic buildings into the fabric of secular houses or the deliberate ruination or retention of romantic ruins in designed landscape. This perhaps taken to a particular extreme in the continuing and evolving ‘landscape of memory and myth’ in and around Glastonbury incorporating abbey buildings and topography. 

The changes and adjustments wrought by the Dissolution and Reformation to the ‘spatial context of peoples’ lives’ and their everyday ‘religious topographies’ are often under-explored territory for landscape archaeology (Whyte 2009, 7). In commenting on the widely chronicled dramatic changes to the material fabric of religious buildings during the Reformation, Alexandra Walsham (2011, 4) makes the point that ‘historians have rarely ventured beyond the doors, porches and walls of churches or the inner precincts of abbeys, priories, and convents. There has been surprisingly little scrutiny to date of the impression that the Reformation left upon the wider natural but also partly man-made environment within which these structures were situated’. Her book, The Reformation of the Landscape, provides a previously unopened window into the afterlife of the medieval religious landscape (in its widest sense), noting not only how religious assumptions impacted on perceptions of the landscape, but also how the topography of, for example, monastic houses and features in the landscape such as holy wells, wayside crosses and other sacred spaces influenced and reflected the immense societal and theological changes that sprang from the ruptures of the sixteenth century and beyond: how the landscape itself acted ‘as a form of iconography’ (Walsham 2011, 2-6).[17] Austin (2013, 4) has further commented on the legacy of monasticism in local social memory as manifested through on-going ritual practice and spiritual associations in a landscape full of meaning, often counter to official narratives.

Returning to the references to the need for more landscape research throughout this section, Walsham (2011, 17) advocates micro-level study of specific landscapes to compliment the more holistic sweep of her book. For Gilchrist (2014) this can be facilitated by a continuation and expansion of the move towards a landscape focus and utilisation of GIS, digital mapping and HLC techniques in the study of monastic archaeology observed in recent years. Moreover, with a view to increasing understanding of the totality of the monastic landscape, the benefits of an ever-expanding interdisciplinary approach, as already essayed in a wider landscape archaeology context, can be added to this.[18]






[1] See, for example: Burton and Stober 2008; Butler and Given-Wilson 1979; Coppack 2006; Greene 2005; Keevill et al 2001; Knowles (1963) for the first comprehensive historiography and outline of the way of life of all monastic orders in England during the Middle Ages; and Knowles and Hadcock’s (1971) gazetteer of all the medieval religious establishments of England and Wales.

[2] Dugdale’s Monasticon Anglicanum (1653-1673 and revised by Caley, Ellis and Bandinel into new editions, 1817-1830) was the foremost product of the transcription of contemporary manuscripts from the monastic period that, alongside the study of remaining upstanding buildings, was a key focus of antiquarian activity.

[3] See, for instance, the economic histories and thematic studies cited by Bond (2000), including Finberg (1951) on Tavistock Abbey (Devon) and Kershaw (1973) on Bolton Abbey (Yorkshire). Both largely works of social and economic history with limited content relating to archaeological fieldwork and maps included only as distribution and location indicators rather than spatial tools.

[4] Other volumes that provide valuable information on the operation, management and topography of Cistercian estates include Burton and Kerr (2011), Coppack (1998) and, for a wider readership, Robinson (1998).

[5] As illustration, thirty years of extensive study of the lands of San Vincenzo al Volturno abbey in central Italy has demonstrated a mix of resources in the landscape including high mountain pasture, arable production in the narrow but fertile valleys and alluvial plain and evidence of several phases of planned settlements, including a proto-urban settlement during construction of the monastery (Davies 2014, 137).

[6] An example would be Gilchrist’s (1994) gender-archaeological study of nunneries.

[7] Including: Abbingdon Abbey’s grange at Dean Court, Cumnor in Oxfordshire (Allen 1994); Roystone Grange in the White Peak area of Derbyshire, a holding of Garendon Abbey (Hodges 2006); Byland Abbey’s grange at Bentley in West Yorkshire (Addy and Moorhouse 1990); and work by the Royal Commissions to produce detailed plans at Monknash (Margam Abbey, see Figure 3) and other grange sites in Glamorganshire and also across Leicestershire (Aston 2007, 185).

[8] Upland granges also often illustrate the wide range of functions of these outlying demesne operations aside from the grain production more common for lowland granges, for instance, vaccaria (cattle ranch), bercaria (sheep ranch), equicium (horse stud), and mineral working. Few have been surveyed but they often have much more complex earthwork morphology than casual observation would suggest, sometimes with evidence of the reuse of prehistoric settlements and field boundaries (e.g. Malham Moor and Levisham Moor in North Yorkshire, Monknash in Glamorganshire and Roystone in Derbyshire) (Greene 1995, 4-8; Moorhouse 1989, 45-8).

[9] Similarly, Berman’s (1986) analysis of the estate management documents of Cistercian houses in the south of France concluded that the White Monks were generally entrepreneurial managers and agricultural innovators rather than frontier pioneers as traditionally portrayed.

[10] A further example is Ellis’ (2008) preliminary survey to locate estates of Winchcombe Abbey (Gloucestershire) in today’s landscape, including a gazetteer overview of all the abbey’s estates and a focus on one parish for a more detailed investigation.

[11] See, for instance: Cowley’s (1977) overview of monastic orders in South Wales; Rees’ historical atlas of Wales (1951); Roberts (1987); Sylvester (1969); and Williams’ (1969, 1976, 1984, 1990) on the estates of Welsh Cistercian houses. For more recent overviews see Burton and Stober (2013 and 2015), Robinson (2006) and the architecture-focused McCormick (2010).

[12] As illustration, the founding of Llantarnam (Caerleon) Abbey (Monmouthshire) as a daughter house of Strata Florida by Hywel ap Iorwerth in 1171 (Gray 2005, 17).

[13] Including a special Cistercians in Wales and the West issue of the Archaeologia Cambrensis journal (2005, vol 154) and a book on Cistercians architecture and archaeology in Wales (Robinson 2006).

[14] Grace Dieu: excavations by Mein (Williams 1970); Llantarnam: excavations by Mein 1977-1982, unreported; Margam: excavations by Jones (Jones 1981) and unpublished excavations 1959–63; Tintern: excavations by Courtney in the outer precinct (Courtney 1982, 1989) and various archaeological evaluations by Blockley (1997, 1998a, 1998b, 1999) and Schlee (2000a, 2000b). 

[15] Tintern granges: Merthyrgeryn (Upper Grange) was subjected to field survey and limited excavation in the early 1970s, which identified that the present farmstead is superimposed on the remains of a Cistercian grange landscape, including evidence of grange barns, field systems and droveways (Parkes and Webster 1974; Webster 2004). Fulford et al recorded a 12th century quay capable of handling sea-going vessels and river craft at Woolaston on the Severn Estuary at Woolaston on the Severn Estuary (1992). Earthwork surveys have also been conducted at Estavarney Grange and Grangefield (New Grange) (Rippon 1996, 80; Williams 1995, 19). Llantarnam granges: Earthwork survey of features including mill pond at Bryngwyn Grange, and site plan of Llanderfel Grange and pilgrimage centre (Williams 1995, 18). Lands of Mynyddislwyn grange were included in an analysis of the historic landscape in the Man-Moel district of Gwent in advance of a landscape restoration project (Gray 1999). 

[16] Within the study area, for example, Llantarnam was quickly converted into a mansion, the estates of Goldcliff (Monmouthshire) were purchased by Eton College, while the local estates of Llanthony remained as a single entity, eventually bought by poet Walter Savage Landor in 1809 with the, largely unfulfilled, intention of conversion into a fashionably landscaped model estate (Procter 2012).
[17] Providing a landscape perspective to complement historical studies on the impact of the Reformation on society and popular culture such as Duffy’s The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village (2001) and The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400-1700 (1996) by Hutton.

[18] As an example, see Lees and Overing’s edited volume A Place to Believe In: Locating Medieval Landscapes (2006), which binds and bridges a number of underlying themes relating to the meaning and perception of monastic space and place in a medieval context.