The Saintly Female Body and the Landscape of Foundation in Anglo-Saxon Barking
By Lisa M.C. Weston
Medieval Feminist Forum, Vol. 43 (2007)
Introduction: Toward the end of the seventh century an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman named Ethelburga became the first abbess of a new monastery. Her foundation of what would become known as Barking Abbey – and especially the abbey’s subsequent development around her tomb – effectively transformed the landscape of the Greater London area and western Essex.
As numerous cultural geographers have argued, landscape is an inherently social rather than a natural phenomenon. That is, a landscape is created by those who live in and move through it. It acquires cultural meaning as it is deployed by a community to express shared ways of being in the world, shared perceptions of bodies in time and space. Replete with the symbolism of “natural” reference points such as rivers and hillsides, and enriched by the memories that accrete to humanconstructed habitations and monuments, a landscape becomes, in turn, the stage for the performance of religious, dynastic, and gendered identities. It also becomes the site of narratives both past and future: reciprocally shaping and being shaped by myth and memory, institution and identity, a landscape is inherently invested with historical narrative. Indeed, according to Christopher Tilley, even the names given to places constitute “an act of construction of landscape,” since names, like other more elaborate narratives of place, incorporate the experience of the events that have taken place there.