Seminar 2: Landscape as History

A series that calls itself Shifting Landscapes should of course anticipate shifts of its own, and that was the case for our second seminar, on the theme of Landscape as History: in a change to our advertised line-up, our speakers were Prof Máire Ní Mhaonaigh of the University of Cambridge, and Prof Heide Estes of Monmouth University.

 

Medieval depictions of landscape and descriptions of the physical world as an aid to constructing and organising the past was the underlying theme of Máire Ní Mhaonaigh’s talk. In codifying natural features, the physical landscape could be moulded into cultural space; stories about the formation of specific places encapsulated human responses to their environment and so served as an account of the activities of people of the past. This was landscape history with a purpose, shaped by contemporary concerns, as was illustrated with reference to an extensive body of literature from medieval Ireland, dindshenchas, knowledge about notable places. Addressing specific local concerns, the overarching intellectual milieu in which this literary monument was created was shaped by approaches to the natural world espoused by the influential seventh-century bishop of Seville, Isidore, as well as Bede and other scholars. It was informed by ideas reflected also in texts discussed by Heide Estes, whose ecocritical framwork addressed the relationship between humans of the past and the environment in complementary ways.

 

Heide Estes’ presentation approached landscape from the perspective of Ecocriticism and Disability Studies, astutely pointing out that much nature writing and ecocriticism implicitly assumes the presence of a hyper-fit body that can move across and through landscapes with no physical or social impediment. Invoking Eli Clare’s work, Heide examined the language used to portray bodies and landscapes as harmful, abnormal, or out of place. In the monocultures of cornfields and corporeal conformity, that which is not understood as useful or healthy is cast out or confined. Discussions of Alexander’s letter to Aristotle about India, Beowulf, and maps from the eleventh and late twelfth century illuminated the ways in which othered bodies (disabled, monstrous, racialised others) are marginalised – pictorially placed at the edges, framed as deformed, or cast as expendable. A powerful insight of this presentation was the way in which these bodies are understood as being at the same time excessively natural (savage, brutal, primitive) and excessively unnatural (monstrous, demonic).

 

In concert, these two presentations outlined a concept of landscape as a history of the relation between the human and the nonhuman environment: landscape can be interpreted as a result of past events; and it can inflect interpretations of the bodies placed or found within it. Our speakers prompted us to reflect on the affordance of landscape, and of narratives of landscapes through time. As a confluence of human and nonhuman, landscape is a narrative about the past, present and future. Our papers demonstrated lucidly how that narrative, and the materiality through which it is articulated, participate in the ways we categorise, enable, or exclude bodies that inhabit landscapes – or who are prohibited from doing so.

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