Constructed Landscapes and Social Memory; Tales of St. Samson in Early Medieval Cornwall
Harvey, Dr. David C. (Department of Geography, University of Exeter)
Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Vol. 20:2 (2002)
This article considers the historical geography of place and space within the context of medieval Britain. Through examining the geography invoked within a particular hagiographic account about the life of St. Samson, the paper explores how the medieval ‘natural’ world is both rendered understandable through its sacred symbolism, and also reified as a familiar ‘map’ of instruction and collective social memory. Following a general discussion of the meaning of medieval hagiographies (which are comprised of curious compilations of factual and imaginative material relating to the ‘lives’ of saints from an even earlier time), I focus on their role as mediators of cultural identity. It is the premise of this paper that hagiographies are profoundly geographical, shot through with environmental metaphors and references to spaces, places and landscapes. I examine how they both served as crucial tools of religious instruction, and also carried geographical co-ordinates that helped to establish a sense of place. Through instilling local identity and collective memory with reference to an imagined landscape of religious order, these saintly legends literally showed people how to experience the familiar landscape that they inhabited.