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The Character of Monastic Landscapes in Early Medieval Europe

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - ChroMoLEME (The Character of Monastic Landscapes in Early Medieval Europe)

Reporting period: 2016-09-01 to 2018-08-31

The 'desertum' or desert is a common element in the accounts describing the foundation of Early Medieval monasteries. The word conveys the idea that the saint founder broke all ties with society, entering into an uninhabited wilderness to live a life of peace and solitude. Until the last two decades scholars accepted this description from Early Medieval saint's lives unquestionably. As a result of this, monasteries were considered as playing a key role in the Christianisation of the rural landscape. The narrative of monastic founders, leaving their urban lives behind them and going into the wilderness, provided a useful model for how the spread of Christianity happened - they were seen as pioneers, taking the light of Christianity into the darkness.

In recent year attention has focused on dispelling this 'desertum' description. However, most of these critiques have focused on textual soruces alone and lack specific, detailed evidence relating to the landscapes in question, necessary to build up a concrete challenge to this traditional narrative. The ChroMoLEME project was designed to take an innovative, interdisciplinary approach to the early medieval landscape, combining the results of archaeological excavation with remote sensing (aerial photography, geophysics, LiDAR, Terrestrial Laser Scanning) and an analysis of historical cartographic material to provide a clearer image of the actual landscapes in which these sites were founded, demonstrating that even the most iconic monasteries were intimately linked to secular society. The methodology used included Historical Landscape Characterisation (HLC) which allows the researcher to build up an image of how land use changed over time.

There are a number of ways in which providing a clearer picture of the process of early medieval monastic foundations is important for modern society. Perhaps the most pressing concern is the fact that this project challenges a simplistic narrative of religious conversion: the Christianisation of Europe has long been held up by nationalist politicians as a key moment in the history of this continent, one that has given it a distinctly Christian character. At a time when populist politicians across Europe are stoking anti-immigrant sentiment by warning of a loss of this character through the 'islamification' of our nation states, it is important to demonstrate just how complicated and drawn out the process of religious conversion actually is, and how deeply linked it is to the workings of society and established politics.

The following objectives were set:

Objective 1: Training under supervisor and specialist staff in GIS and HLC.
Objective 2: Create a GIS-based dataset of the Core Case Study area and interpret it using HLC
Objective 3: Conduct a comparative GIS-based analysis monastic sites on the continent.
Objective 4: Dissemination
The initial work consisted of a training programme. The Fellow was provided specialist training in the use of GIS the application of HLC and the use of various remote sensing techniques by members of the McCord Centre at Newcastle University.

Following the Training phase, the Fellow collated the data required to conduct the HLC of the Core Case Study. These data were then integrated into the project GIS. Where these data did not have geographical information to line them up with the geographic co-ordinates of modern mapping, it was necessary to link them up through a process known as geo-referencing. This process was carried out for the 1826 Napoleonic Cadastral maps, which provided a window onto the pre-industrial landscape of the region. An Access Database was created to store the information for the HLC. As this was the first time a HLC had been conducted on this area of France, it was necessary to establish the character types of the region. When all of this preparatory work had been completed, work began on dividing the landscape into distinctive character types. The results were then interrogated to highlight specific changes or trends, and this allowed for the production of maps which informed our understanding of this landscape over time. In order to ensure accuracy in the HLC, a process known as ‘ground-truthing’ was carried out, which involved fieldwork on the ground in the study area to test certain hypotheses.

The Core Case Study was followed by an initial Comparative Study of the landscape setting of the monastery of Luxeuil, also founded by St. Columbanus. A similar process was undertaken for this area (data collation, integration into GIS, Access Database, completion of HLC). A further comparative case study of the monastery of Bobbio was delayed by issues with the Secondment host, however, the required data to complete this comparative HLC has, been obtained and the comparative case study is currently underway.

Results: In the case of Annegray it has been demonstrated that for the periods following the Early Medieval period the land was subject to extensive agricultural exploitation – there are also indications that this was the case in the period preceding the Early Medieval Period. This would suggest that the landscape that Annegray was located in was heavily exploited, and thus inhabited, upon Columbanus’ arrival. In the case of Luxeuil, this has been demonstrated even more emphatically. Thus not only has the description by Jonas of Bobbio of these two locations as deserts been shown to be false, but a more accurate image of the actual landscape in which this important religious and political actor was functioning has been provided.
The project has progressed beyond the state of the art by providing a genuine model of early monastic landscapes based on the consideration of a wide range sources, something that will influence the work of historians tackling the motif of the desertum in hagiographical texts. In convening a conference on the work of the project, as well as sessions in major international conferences, the project has engendered a renewed debate on this topic and taken a leading role in its direction. The publication of an edited volume on the question of the desertum, edited by the Fellow, will make the ChroMoLEME Project a clear standard bearer in the shaping of future debates on both monastic and conversion landscapes. The Fellow’s ongoing role in bringing together a European-wide research network will further emphasise this reality. The fact that the data from the Core Case Study and the Comparative Case Studies will be deposited in the Archaeological Data Service (York University), means that it will be freely accessible to any researcher wishing to replicate the innovative approach taken by the ChroMoLEME project. In the public sphere, the results will be provided to the cultural departments of the regions in question, with the hope that they will influence decisions on heritage management and research approaches.

Within the Core Area the field systems in this region have been found to be particular stable over a long period of time. This has led to the Fellow instigating development of a new research project that will investigate the progression of these field systems. This will be done in collaboration with local stakeholders (members of the farming community, cultural attachés, representatives of the The Ballons des Vosges Regional Nature Park etc.) and will culminate in a cultural fair in which the produce and practices of the local farming community are showcased.
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