The sacred landscapes of medieval monasteries: an inter-disciplinary study of meaning embedded in space and production


The architectural sacred space of medieval monastic buildings is well studied, but little work has been done taking such interpretations out into the wider landscapes within which these structures sit. Indeed, the attention of historians and archaeologists working on such landscapes has been focussed on estate economies or on patterns of patronage represented by grants of land. It is clear from medieval literature and church dogma, however, that the created world was regarded as a reflection of the human relationship with the divine.

This project seeks to identify appropriate data and to develop methodologies which will reveal how the makers of individual monasteries, including the orders themselves, their patrons, artists and their wider communities, designed these institutions into the fabric of the world around them and how the world itself was adjusted physically to reflect the metaphysical. The project will seek both to understand the ways in which the monastery was laid out in relation to existing topographies and to explore the background and motivation for these actions. Such analyses will be set alongside the history, archaeology and geography of estate economy and political patronage. The project has selected two British regions for comparative purposes where work has already been initiated, Wales and central Lincolnshire, and has chosen a small number of monasteries within them for detailed attention.

The methodologies deployed arise from two existing major projects: one in an upland and resistant Welsh culture at Strata Florida in Ceredigion, Wales, where the Cistercian monastery of 1184 was designed into an existing sacred landscape dating back to the later Neolithic or early Bronze Age; and the other in a lowland and English feudal culture at Barlings in Lincolnshire, where similar long-term trajectories have been identified. Both these projects have identified an intimate and consciously designed relationship between monastic houses and pre-existing landscapes of sacred significance. Alterations have been noted that created space conforming with the practices, needs, cosmologies and dogmas of the contemporary orders, as well as local with social structures and agencies.