Seminar 3: Landscape as Knowledge

The Shifting Landscapes series focusses on knowledge of and concerning the medieval landscape, and the third of our seminars, Landscape as Knowledge, brought to the fore the embodiment of the landscape itself as knowledge. Our discussion was led by scholars of medieval Scandinavia and France, Dr Emily Lethbridge of the University of Iceland, and Dr Mary Franklin-Brown of the University of Cambridge.


For Emily Lethbridge, the type of knowledge represented and transmitted by the landscape was a dominant theme, its enduring nature, but also its mutability in relation to changing circumstances and rights. Encompassed in an overarching landscape are stratigraphic layers of knowledge of meaning and depth, glimpses of which are captured in stories and enunciated in place-names. Textual sources are grounded in a changing topography, illustrating a dynamic relationship between writing and place.


Notwithstanding the wealth of surviving sources from Iceland in particular, there are gaps in the record, as well as absences caused by deliberate erasure. Certain political and geographical perspectives are dominant; other voices are supressed, including those of women and the enslaved. Turning our attention to the urban landscape of Reykjavík, as codified in the twentieth century, Lethbridge reminded us of characters not commemorated in street-names, their reputations at variance with the vision of the past deliberately portrayed in that planned cityscape.


A very different cityscape – the medieval landscape of chess – was used by Mary Franklin-Brown to address complementary themes, not least how space is inhabited and perceived. Its development and the changing nature of its abstract, chequered background can represent people’s evolving orientation in relation to their environment, both geographically and down through narrative time. How the movement of particular chess pieces varies in different times and places is important in this context, but must be considered in terms of location within the (chess) landscape as a whole. The importance of perspective highlighted by Lethbridge, with reference to occluded perspectives in particular, was brought to the fore once more by Franklin-Brown who alerted us to the possibility of multiple, simultaneous perspectives in a given landscape. Sundry seams of knowledge – allegorical, literal, physical – in multifarious landscapes – literary, concrete, imaginary – were explored by our speakers. In accessing the knowledge, the landscape must be read with a critical, nuanced eye.


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