Problems of Place: Medieval Musings

I feel most at home at Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains. It is, perhaps, my favourite place in the world because of its mixture of breath-taking natural beauty and medieval ruins that date back to the ninth century. When I am there, I get to combine my two great loves: nature and history.

October through February are the best months to visit, because the weather can be mild even at that time of year, and there are very few visitors. Even if there is snow, a good pair of boots allows you to climb along the hiking trails that wind their way around the lakes and up away from the monastic settlement. The higher I climb in altitude, the further my cares feel removed from me. There is a freedom in nature that I cannot feel in the city, and the sense of history that Glendalough provides reminds me that life goes on no matter the circumstance.

I am at the end of my first year of doctoral research at the Trinity Centre for Environmental Humanities at Trinity College Dublin. Last August, I gave up a burgeoning career as an archaeologist in Oslo, Norway, which proved impossible to continue due to visa complications. While I miss excavating in the field, my PhD research has so far proved fulfilling. I still get to work with archaeological data, but now this information is rounded out by primary sources. My project, which chronologically catalogues all contemporary references to Norse activity in the Viking Age and maps them onto a corresponding GIS map, has a large digital component. I never expected to become so comfortable with database, mapping, and network software. My research is exciting and fulfilling, and I love my ability to move fluidly between fields as I study the early Middle Ages.

There are arguments against interdisciplinary study, namely that researching across multiple fields results, by necessity, in shallow research. An interdisciplinary thesis will thus lack a base of mature understanding of any one subject. Yet, I chose to conduct my research at TCEH because of its emphasis on interdisciplinary research. Sometimes I do feel that perhaps this is out of my depths. Sometimes I do lose focus. I doubt the merits of my analysis. I worry too that what I am studying isn’t important.

It is difficult to study the Middle Ages and still feel relevant. In May of 2019, the New York Times published an article that essentially stated that the those who study the Middle Ages have no wish to be relevant. A professor is quoted who claimed that all Medievalists want to do is study their manuscripts and hide away from the public like monks. In response, the hashtag #notamonk went viral. My initial reaction was to defend my field’s relevance. We are not monks! Our scholarship is political: we study women and gender, sexuality and identity, religion and ethnicity. There are medievalists, like me, who study the environment, and the changes in climate that came before, and how humans have reacted to climate change in the past. But, while details emerge that consider the tolls rising temperatures and climate change will have on the world, I admit that we historians still haven’t started a dialogue with the public about how humans have adapted in the past to differing climates and the prices that humanity has had to pay. Additionally, we as Medievalists also need to start making choices that protect the environment, and the world we are inhabiting in the present.

It is a struggle to find the balance, and I have been faced with accusations that environmental and medieval history are separate subjects, and indeed that environmental history is not even a subject in its own right. It is not a niche field; it is expansive and all encompassing. While I have many friends who identify as Medievalists, I remain faithful to the idea that I am an environmental historian that focuses on the Middle Ages. By studying the environment, it opens doors to different periods and allows for nuanced perspectives that directs research along new and exciting routes.

When I am out at Glendalough, I like to imagine what life was like for the monks of the early Middle Ages. I like to imagine them gardening or walking along the same trails that I am following. I like to imagine the monks and their manuscripts how they interacted with their world. When I look at the round tower with its second-floor entrance, I think about how harrying it would have been to be attacked by Viking invaders—or perhaps worse still, their fellow Irishmen. I think about how there were periods in which the climate got colder, and they struggled to produce enough food to feed themselves, and how there were periods of warmth and abundance. I think about the changes in the landscape across hundreds of years, and why the monastery was eventually abandoned. But I don’t need to wonder why the monks chose to build a monastic settlement in this beautiful valley. It is a remote and tranquil place. In the spring and summer, it is green and lush, and the oranges and purples of the autumn and winter give the valley a sense of majesty.

And when I am here, I am reminded that history is not separate from the environment. I am in the right place, studying what I love, and researching something important and necessary.