Nicola Whyte, ‘Landscape history from below’

[This is the third piece in the ‘Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Nicola Whyte is a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter whose research focuses on the interface of early modern social history and post medieval landscape studies. Her publications include Inhabiting the Landscape: Place, Custom and Memory, 1500-1800 (Oxford, 2009), and she is currently part of an interdisciplinary team studying ‘The Past in its Place’.]

The field of landscape history and archaeology in Britain is a divided one. Fault lines separate proponents of the traditional, ‘empirical school’ from those who advocate more theoretically informed landscape research. I want to argue that this division is unhelpful for not only does it reduce interpretation to a set of binaries (objective/subjective, physical/cognitive, economic/symbolic), it also detracts from the importance of landscape research in addressing current concerns about environmental change and sustainability, and how research can engage people outside the university. In this brief piece I want to advocate an interdisciplinary approach to ‘history from below’ from a landscape perspective, which takes on board recent theoretical scholarship but retains empirical research at its core.

Following the influential work of W.G. Hoskins, traditional approaches to landscape promote the practice of reading the landscape, achieved through spatial analysis, deciphering chronological sequences and tracking the long-term impact of human activity on the landscape, activities that were in turn shaped by particular environmental conditions.  In highlighting ongoing processes of adaptation and change such studies have been recognised for their valuable contribution to current debates on environmental issues. It is widely accepted that we need to take stock of past actions in order to make informed decisions and choices about future landscape preservation and resource management. But much of this work, particularly on the early modern and post medieval landscape, has prioritised economic explanations for change while neglecting to consider how decisions were made for a number of complex and contingent reasons and purposes. Embedded in social, cultural and political relations, decisions often had unintended consequences in altering the environment. Too often it seems the people are left out unless they were the elite individuals responsible for the wholesale transformation of the landscape.

Westbury Court house and gardens, 1720

The view ‘from above’? Westbury Court house and gardens: Leonard Knyff and Joannes Kip, Britannia illustrata (1720) with kind permission of the British Library.

The term ‘landscape’ itself originated in the seventeenth century as a particular way of seeing the world among elites. Wealthy landowners imagined and transformed their landscapes, designing them to be viewed as a work of art, to be looked upon like one would a painting. Research in the late 1980s and 90s emphasised interpretation and introduced the notion that the wealthy were themselves engaged in ‘reading the landscape’.1 This work was important for making explicit the connections between landscape, ideology and power.  Yet, in terms of understanding the relationship between people in the past and the material worlds they inhabited, this approach is too narrowly conceived. It prioritizes the perspectives of the elite and perpetuates the notion that the landscape was viewed as a surface upon which a particular set of cultural and political values were drawn to the exclusion of all other viewpoints.  This is in more ways than one a top-down approach. Barbara Bender compares traditional writing of landscape history to a process of colonisation; both rely upon technologies of appropriation and control, such as map-making, and have the ability to distance and objectify. She offers a critique of Western elitist notions of landscape as a static scene onto which an ‘imposing/imposed viewpoint’ is drawn.2

In recent years, landscape historians and archaeologists have developed more theoretically informed approaches that place emphasis on interpretation, subjectivity and multivocality. Phenomenological scholarship, and theories of inhabitation and dwelling, have proven to be fruitful for scholars working on prehistoric and contemporary modern periods, not only in investigating the ways people perceived the landscape in the past, but also in recognising at a personal level their subjective positioning as researchers and writers.3 Much exciting and innovative research has sought to recover everyday lived experiences and the complex, contradictory, messy processes that have shaped landscapes in the past. These approaches while varied cohere around the central premise that landscapes are created through human engagement, through movement embodied practices and day-to-day experiences; they are not created from some external vantage point.  Importantly they create space for alternative experiences among the marginalised and dispossessed, the rootless and unsettled, those whose histories, memories and perceptions of landscape fit uncomfortably within the grand narrative of progress, improvement and technological change.  Surprisingly this work has been slow to gain ground in studies of landscape in the early modern period. Yet, it offers a useful point of departure for thinking through the experiences and meanings of landscape ‘from below’.

Nicola - Morley map (1629) edit

A living landscape. Excerpt from a map of Morley (Norfolk) showing a well-stocked common pasture (1629). Held at the Norfolk Record Office.

In my work on early modern court deposition evidence, I have found the experiential and subjective ‘turn’ in landscape studies particularly rewarding for offering new insights and ways of interpreting the oral testimonies given by men and women of non-elite status. While they are not to be taken at face value, and of course we cannot enter into the minds of people living in the past, these contemporary accounts of land and resources nonetheless offer valuable insights into the ways people interwove their own life-histories into a social narrative of landscape and place. They reveal for example relational networks of landmarks, names and places, as well as the material and cognitive boundaries that demarcated the ways people moved across the land. An important contextual framework is provided by understanding custom, knowledge practices, the rhythms of everyday life, movement, boundedness, spaces and places. Deposition evidence can reveal alternative, perhaps counter narratives of landscape and often oppositional viewpoints to that of the landed elites. But crucially they also reveal that alterations, interventions in the landscape were made not for purely economic reasons but rather a range of decisions stemming from socio-political and cultural relations from within the neighbourhood.

Dialogue and debate about different methodological and theoretical approaches needs to take  place if we are to realise the full potential and possibilities of interdisciplinary studies that speak to pressing modern concerns about environmental change. This requires the cross-fertilization of historical, literary and social science research with arts practice. But even within our own disciplines, greater attention needs to be paid to talking across conventional boundaries of research practice. In history, for example, studies of environment and landscape are often considered separate from social history. As I have mentioned environmental and landscape history often omit people. By contrast social historians have been concerned with class, race and gender, elucidating the experiences of ‘ordinary’ people, everyday experience and practices that are by their very nature multivocal, complex, contradictory and unequal.  Indeed, landscapes are not only differently experienced, their value is measured differently. Today value accords to a set of criteria implemented by institutional and funding bodies, the heritage sector and conservation groups, whose various preservation initiatives often serve only to reinforce the culture/nature dichotomy. Landscapes are appropriated for different ends; they are inherently political. There is an important intervention to be made in current historical research, in terms of both academic debate and public engagement, through the history of everyday life and reclaiming landscape history as peoples’ history.

Finally, to highlight just a few inspiring cross-disciplinary studies. Anne Whiston Sprin (landscape architect) talks vividly and eloquently about the need for all of us to learn the language of landscape if we are to act responsibly to safeguard the future environment.  She argues that disciplinary fragmentation has led to a lack of understanding of landscape as a continuous whole. In her words: ‘Absent, false, or partial readings lead to inarticulate expression’.4 Phenomenology has influenced other studies. Alex Loftus, (geographer) has recently argued that everyday subjectivity needs to be placed at the heart of debate, for it opens up potential for a revolutionary environmental politics.5 This, he argues, can be achieved by developing the Marxist theory of praxis – the critique of everyday practices – an understanding of ‘sensory engagement’ and, drawing on Gramsci and Levebvre, a realisation of the potential invested in the moment, leading to change in the world. In these works the everyday experiential, cultural and social landscape (Loftus doesn’t use this term preferring instead ‘socio-natural’, which I interpret as landscape) is foregrounded alongside an understanding of the politics of moving through and negotiating everyday landscapes. While Dolores Hayden (architecture and urbanism) seeks to connect marginalised individuals and ethnic groups through engagement with the history of their everyday landscapes. Her work further raises questions of rootedness and rootlessness, memory and identity given expression in marginal spaces and places. Integrated studies of landscape and social history, reveal plurality of meaning and experience, as well as highlighting political tensions and conflict across the long duree. Such cross-disciplinary, deeply contextualised studies, can foreground the constraints and inefficiencies of institutional governance and policy, ‘top-down’ interventions in managing resources and heritage sites.6

Having introduced this admittedly eclectic range of works, I hope to show that there remains a strong need for historical investigations into the meanings and experiences of landscape from below. In writing landscape and environmental history, linear narratives of progress and improvement, transformation and revolution have tended to take precedence over micro-historical analyses of the everyday, quotidian, and small-scale political transformations of spaces and places within everyday landscapes. As such these narratives of change disconnect and alienate people from the past. A great number of writers from the broad field of landscape studies have impressed upon their readership the interconnections between landscape, place, memory, identity, and notion that landscapes are not neutral but are contested and unequal. There is great potential for thinking about the dynamic, unstable, evolving relations between people and everyday landscapes across time and space, through which we may engage the public with the everyday historic landscape in more creative ways.


1 D. Cosgrove and S. Daniels (eds.) The Iconography of Landscape (1988)

2 B. Bender and M. Winer, (eds.) Contested Landscapes, Movement, Exile and Place (2001)

3 See for example, C. Tilley A Phenomenology of Landscape: Paths, Places and Monuments (1994)

4 A. Spirn, The Language of Landscape (1998), p. 22

5 A. Loftus, Everyday Environmentalism: Creating an Urban Political Ecology (2012)

6 C. Rogers, E Straughton, A. Winchester, M. Pieraccini, Contested Commonland (2011); B. Bender, Stonehenge: Making Space (1999)

5 thoughts on “Nicola Whyte, ‘Landscape history from below’

  1. Pingback: The future of ‘history from below’: an online symposium | the many-headed monster

  2. An excellent post here from Nicola Whyte. I have an observation and one big question. To each in turn.

    This passage from above, to me, strikes at the heart of how histories of landscape, and histories from (or for) below, should intertwine:

    “…create space for alternative experiences among the marginalised and dispossessed, the rootless and unsettled, those whose histories, memories and perceptions of landscape fit uncomfortably within the grand narrative of progress, improvement and technological change.”

    ‘uncomfortable fits’, to me, usually signify history being done ‘well’, discomfort is a state that I think should permeate the discipline. Shattering our notions of stable, singularly-possessed, ‘enclosed’ and domesticated past landscapes is absolutely something that needs to be done by historians.

    My big question is: how shall we do this?

    We have some very good examples: Nicola’s own work on depositional descriptions and understandings of landscape, for example. I would also point to Keith Snell’s very recently article length foray once more into the dark side of the landscape (Barrell’s famous book, of course), which is in the most recent Rural History issue.

    So we have art and certain manuscript sources as proven contributors to a de-stabilising early modern landscape, but I’m not sure that the ‘from below’ part is sufficient as yet. In my own work my instinct is to examine vagrant examinations and court cases for references to landscape, in manuscript, while following McRae and applying cultural geography to printed texts to assess the role of landscape in creating vagrant spaces.

    What other sources should we pursue ‘landscape from below’ in, and why?

    A good and thought-provoking post.

  3. An interesting post. It reminds me of the tensions literary scholars study in the popular prospect poem of the long eighteenth century, 1660-1830. A prospect poem is literally positioning the speaker “above” the landscape, often to make lofty philosophical comments that actually leave the literal topography behind. It’s interesting to trace the literal and social distance between Denham’s famous “Cooper’s Hill” vs. a “writing from below” voice, Mary Leapor and her humorous “Crumble Hall,” a poem working within the modes of satire and prospect. Leapor was a servant and often literally comments on the “below stairs” vs. those above stairs. There is also a great deal of play between literal landscapes and landscapes of the body, especially the female body. Alexander Pope’s Belinda in his famous _The Rape of the Lock_ takes us into the spleen in Canto 4, but the perspective adopts the language of the prospect (mock prospect?) alongside mock-epic (descent into the underworld of the female body). I think writers were very conscious of the above/below divisions in their elastic and sometimes ironic treatments of landscape.

  4. Pingback: Brodie Waddell, ‘History from below: today and tomorrow’ | the many-headed monster

  5. Pingback: A Walk in the Park: History from Below and the English Landscape | the many-headed monster

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