It was a huge pleasure to meet in person and online for our conference, Shifting landscapes of the medieval world, which continued the work and discussions of our seminar series of the same name. On 13, 14, and 15 September 2022, scholars from around the world engaged in productive and stimulating dialogue around the theme of landscape, seen from the perspective of medieval studies in a range of global cultures. Presentations touched on literature, visual culture, agriculture, geography, topography, cosmology, palaeography, theology, and history; explored real and imagined landscapes in the cultures of England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, France, Algeria, China, Italy, Scandinavia, Prussia, and Ukraine; and gave insights into landscapes depicted in a polyphony of languages, including Latin, Arabic, Old Norse, and Sanskrit. Via our contributors’ papers, we journeyed over land and sea, Earth and outer space, to the beginning and end of time, and to the heavens and the underworld. All the details of the papers and speakers can be found in the conference programme on the CRASSH website.
In our call for papers, we asked a series of questions:
- How are boundaries between countries and cultures defined in the Middle Ages?
- What role does landscape play in medieval narrative and memory?
- How is landscape represented in medieval visual art?
- How do medieval representations of landscape resonate with modern ecocriticism?
- What can medieval landscape tell us about the interactions between the natural and the supernatural?
- What are the ethics of landscape management, naming, and ownership in the Middle Ages?
- How can we speak of the agency of landscape in the Middle Ages and now?
- Who is visible in the medieval landscape – and who isn’t?
As our speakers responded with creativity, rigour, and verve to these prompts, landscape came into focus as an encounter between the human and nonhuman, where the power of both these forces is evident. As much as the human may impose categories, hierarchies, and perspectives, the nonhuman pushes back with senses of space and time which are redolent of a more-than-human world view. As several participants observed, implicitly and explicitly, landscape might not be considered a medieval category at all. Certainly the notion of admiring a view and depicting it using a specific grammar of perspective and naturalism is a definitively postmedieval phenomenon. But, as our seminar participants and our speakers at this conference emphasised, landscape is an extraordinarily productive tool to think with as we consider the relationship between the physical world and the human imagination.
We also focused on the other term in this title. Anyone thinking of a title in English will have realised how useful the suffix -ing is in denoting a multivalent sense of agency and passivity. As a present participle and an adjective, ‘shifting’ suggests both that the landscapes we explore can move and are moved; they can effect transformation and be transformed themselves. Thinking about medieval landscapes is an opportunity to observe different facets of endurance, longevity, and mobility. Some medieval landscapes are still discernible, even recognisable. Some are completely effaced; some are only accessible through texts, artefacts, records, or images. Our encounters with landscapes often leave us changed, but give us the opportunity to see how our environment is being changed.
While we might not have been radically transformed by our participation in the conference, the invigorating and insightful conversations over the two and a half days certainly enriched and enlightened all participants, whether they joined us in the flat and still quite parched landscape of early-Autumn Cambridge, or through the virtual landscape of the screen.