I wanted to spend one post telling you the basics of my current research project; in part because I find it pretty darn interesting, and in part because I'm about to shift gears from working through sources to writing about them, and hope this exercise will help get me in the writing mood. My title: "Cultural and Religious Views of Rivers in the Middle Ages." My goal: create world peace. Errr......wait--I meant figure out what medieval people imagined when they thought of rivers, and how (and if) that was connected to the ways they experienced and used rivers. I'm interested in a concept called the "environmental imagination," which is a way of talking about the intersections of culture, memory, and nature. I believe that if we read medieval sources (especially ones connected to the tremendous literary output of early medieval Christianity and the cult of saints) with an eye towards nature, we will not only learn more about the roots of (and potential new directions for) our own environmental thought, but also about the beliefs and culture of the Middle Ages. This is clearly a pretty big question, even without the whole world peace thing, and so I chose some limits, based mainly on my own expertise and interests. I am looking at Late Antique and early medieval Gaul (roughly France, Germany, and parts of the Low Countries), and will be focusing on several clusters of writers and sources.
It's a big task, and so I'm starting with a more bite-sized portion--the poems, letters, and religious writings of three men who were all active writers and also political and religious figures during their lives: Ausonius, Sidonius Apollinaris, and Venantius Fortunatus. They were all members of what we now call the "Gallo-Roman elite," and lived in the fascinating and complex period in which Roman culture was gradually and radically transformed by Christianity and contact with the Germanic peoples. All of three of these men lived for much or most of their adult lives in Gaul, and all found themselves at least partially pulled between the culture of distant Rome and the immediacy, vibrancy, and beauty of Gaul--the "New Frontier" of Late Antiquity. But of even more interest to me, all three wrote poems, letters, and other works that explicitly describe, discuss, and praise the natural and built environments of Gaul, and all do some really interesting things with rivers and springs--both in the abstract and with specific rivers like the Mosel and the Rhine.
These authors are all well-known and may of their individual works (esp the long poem on the Mosel that I mentioned in my last post) have been worked on, but I'm interested in reading all three of the authors together (they date from the 4th-6th centuries) and comparing the way they talk about nature, river travel, the dangers of river floods and droughts, leisure and play on rivers, and the way that they differentiate individual river from each other "the chill Mosel" or the "foaming Rhine" for example.
A few things that I've already noticed and am mulling over--there's a strong sense of ethnic and political identity tied into rivers, and so there's also some clear attempts to rank and compare rivers. Yet at the same time many of the authors are also interested in the merging of rivers, and in the mixed identities of Gaul. I'm thinking there are some interesting things to say here about Gallo-Roman identity. I have started learning about the Garonne River, which is a frequent subject of discussion for these authors but that I would have never put on my list of rivers to look at. Finally, there are also many poems and letters that try to lure or entice visitors through descriptions of the beauty of landscapes and great food. Have I mentioned I'm in Munich where there is snow and beer and castles? :)