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The Role of Nature in the Definition of Sacred Space in Medieval Europe

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The subject of my contribution to this symposium, held in the magnificent and mysterious setting of Iceland, will be both historical and symbolic. I am going to focus on the role of nature in the definition of sacred space in medieval Europe. During this period of history, the relationship man enjoyed with nature was different in many respects from the relationship we have with the natural environment today. Nature was progessively domesticated during the Middle Ages but remained the haven for mankind on earth, and his attitude to nature was therefore one of profound respect. In general, the civilization of medieval Europe was profoundly rural. Towns, or more generally the urban phenomenon, would not develop until the second half of the Middle Ages, from the 12th and 13th centuries onwards. So it is fair to say that medieval man lived predominantly in the “country”, and that a large part of his activity took place in relation to nature, or at least in cultivated rural spaces. In addition, the economy of medieval Europe was largely dominated by agriculture, the primary resource during this period of history. Alongside this purely economic dimension, however, the natural environment was a key component of man's concept of the sacred at this time and had a highly symbolic significance, as I intend to illustrate here.

Medieval man venerated nature. Not only was it his living environment, it was also the “nourishing earth” he had to respect and learn to domesticate in order to reap all its benefits. During this period of history, man felt and showed a deep respect towards nature because it was the work of God. The essential spiritual reference for medieval mankind was the Bible. Culture and society were marked at every level by Chistianity, by its spirituality and its very ideology. We could even say that nature for medieval man was the same as man himself, since, like him, it had been created by God. The reference for man in his relationship with nature was the Creation in its entirety, as recounted in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. As we all know, the first few chapters of Genesis are devoted to God's creation of the universe, the elements and man. This text is essential for Christianity in general and for its medieval interpretation in particular, but there are many other biblical passages—mainly in the Old Testament—where nature appears simultaneously as a geographical, historical and symbolic reality. For example, it was usually in the desert that God revealed himself to Moses, to Abraham, and to his people, and it was in the desert that God educated his people by transmitting his divine laws. To a lesser extent, the New Testament also provides examples of the key role of the natural environment—again, it is often the desert—in its accounts of the story of Christ. In the first centuries of Christianity, the desert was perceived as the locus of a certain spiritual dimension, as evinced in numerous accounts of hermits who came to these arid places to seek and develop their spirituality. In the Middle Ages, the desert was still perceived as representing a threefold reality— geographical, biblical-historical and symbolic—just as naturally as in previous centuries. The geographical reality of medieval Europe offered a symbolic equivalent of the desert—the forest. In the Middle Ages man was surrounded by vast forests. They were sources of economic production but were also considered to be the essential loci of divine revelation, symbolism and the imagination. In other words, medieval man built on Early Christian tradition and considered desert and forest alike as focal points for the supernatural and its multiple forms of expression or revelation, as the places for all mystical encounters and spiritual experiences. However, in medieval culture the forest was not associated solely with the quest for God or the spiritual in general. It was also perceived as the place where all kinds of mortal danger lurked. In a remarkable article published in 1983, the great historian and medievalist Jacques Le Goff explained the close correlation between the symbolic roles of the forest and the desert throughout the Middle Ages in Europe. Le Goff based his argument on a variety of medieval documentary sources: biblical texts, hagiographies (accounts of the lives of saints), literary manuscripts and theological texts.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 January 2006

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