Mountain Scholarship and Personal Experience: A Conversation

In this podcast, Dawn talks to Chloe Bray (University of Heidelberg) about the relationship between scholarship and personal experiences of the mountain landscape. Is it possible to move beyond our own preconceptions of mountain experiences to understand those of the past? Or is a personal experience of the physical experience of mountain landscapes in fact vital to understanding how people engaged with them in different ways throughout history?


Isolated mountains

Dawn shares examples from early modern literature presenting mountains as spaces of isolation, and reflects on whether the future of mountain engagement might learn valuable lessons from the past.

In the middle of March, before the UK even went into lockdown, the Everest climbing season was cancelled. Base camp might be strangely empty this year, but just a few days ago China Mobile announced that they had installed 5G coverage on the mountain. Climbers in future years, when the mountain opens back up, will be better connected than most of the Scottish Highlands as high as 5,800m, if not higher: work is currently apace hauling networking equipment up to Advanced Base Camp at 6,500m.

Both this and the current crisis of infection and isolation put me in mind of Thomas Churchyard’s ‘discourse of Mountaynes’, included in his 1587 Worthines[s] of Wales. This poetic encomium lays out the numerous advantages offered by the mountain landscape. One standing atop a mountain may ‘Hath halfe a world, in compasse of his eye’, or can stoop to collect the ‘sweetest fruit in deede’. Most notably, however, the mountain stands above the valleys and apart from civilisation.

Churchyard first presents the mountain as an environment safe from physical infection:

[whilst] noysome smels, and savours breede below:
The Hill stands cleere, and cleane from filthie smell,
They find not so, that doth in Valley dwell.
[…] No ayre so pure, and wholesome as the Hill…

The concept of valleys or low places being subject to unhealthy miasmas, and of high places being correspondingly healthy and clean, was common in early modern Britain. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English travellers to Edinburgh, though they frequently had ripe comments to make regarding the Scottish character, were enchanted with the city built on a hill, and the corresponding purity of its air.

For Churchyard, the contrast between mountain and valley was marked not just in air quality but also in morality. The heavily-populated valleys were ‘A den of drosse, oft tymes more foule than fayre’, in which wealth bred strife, gluttony, pride, and ‘vice in every part’. By contrast, the mountains, though ‘poore and bare’, housed ‘more love… more happy days’ for the simple people who dwelt on their slopes. The seventeenth-century poet Charles Cotton expressed similar sentiments regarding his beloved Peak District home in ‘The Retirement’:

Farewell thou busie World, and may
We never meet again:
here I can eat, and sleep, and pray,
And do more good in one short day,
Than he who his whole Age out-wears
Upon thy most conspicuous theatres,
Where nought but Vice and Vanity do reign.

Cotton, instead of delighting in worldly pleasures, sings to his ‘beloved Rocks! that rise / To awe the Earth, and brave the Skies’. He ends his poem with a plea for, well, self-isolation: ‘Lord! would men let me alone… in this desart place, / Which most men by their voice disgrace’. Thus, within a landscape that only a few people truly appreciated, he might ‘Contented live, and then contented die’.

Cotton’s closing lines capture the ongoing paradox of the mountain environment: these far-above, far-apart spaces can only retain the qualities that make them beloved if relatively few people frequent them. It is far from novel to declare that Everest, for example, is no longer the place it once was, that its lofty removal from the world is the very thing being threatened – if not already destroyed – by the hordes of visitors that its ‘wildness’ attracts. The desire to experience a landscape for oneself, when held by too many people, threatens to destroy the qualities which make it worth experiencing.

Enter coronavirus, one of the strangest responses to environmental emergency that any of us could have imagined. With flights grounded, carbon dioxide levels are falling, and observers say that Mount Everest is experiencing a much-needed ‘detox’. There are no guarantees that once restrictions are lifted we won’t all go back to our bad old, environmentally-damaging ways, but I hope not. At the very least, lockdown has resulted in an awful lot of meetings and conferences that might otherwise have necessitated travel – between cities, countries, and continents – taking place in virtual space instead. Will organisations and individuals be quite so keen to dedicate time, money, and carbon emissions to in-person gatherings that could take place through the click of a few buttons instead? Probably not, and the benefit to the environment does come with the need to accept the loss of things we previously took for granted – I know that I for one have certainly enjoyed the ‘excuse’ that academic conferences have offered to visit parts of the world I otherwise wouldn’t have seen.

I wonder whether we need to accept similar change, and similar loss, in how we expect to engage with fragile landscapes such as the mountains – particularly those that require long-distance travel. In the period I focus on (1500-1700), mountain tourism didn’t exist in the form it does now, not because people weren’t interested in visiting mountains, but because the travel required to explore the landscape in the way we do now was accessible to a far narrower slice of the overall population. In the same period, however, published travel narratives abounded, with lavish descriptions and detailed woodcuts standing in for being able to experience a foreign landscape for oneself. Today, despite the far greater potential for photographs and videos to virtually ‘transport’ people around the world, we still want to go to remote, untouched landscapes, to touch them for ourselves and fill them up with our physical presence. Which is precisely how somewhere like Everest Base Camp has come to represent the very opposite of ideal ‘mountain space’. The last place to isolate either from physical infection or from the distractions of civilisation.

Of course, it’s very easy to say that, once travel is once again permitted, we should look at the mountain landscape but not touch it, that we should read about remote places but not visit them. Indeed, for many people it would likely be a much harder sacrifice than giving up on international conferences and in-person business meetings. That said, many changes that seemed unimaginable a few months ago have now taken place. Moreover, whilst complete self-denial is an extreme ‘option’, history demonstrates that our current mode of landscape engagement is extreme in its own way. It might also hold the potential to provide insights into alternative modes for ‘experiencing’ and appreciating mountain scenery.

Illustrations: Mount Everest from Gokyo Ri by phobus, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Portion of a fold-out plate from The Travels of John Chardin into Persia and the East-Indies (1686).

‘Pagan’ classics, Christians, and a Late Antique world-mountain

In our first guest post, Douglas Whalin explores the sixth-century Christian author Kosmas Indicopleustes and his cosmological model of the world as, literally, a mountain. Douglas is a social historian of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (approx. 4th to 9th centuries CE). He has a chapter forthcoming in our Mountain Dialogues volume on late antique mountains.

The mountains of Greece and the Aegean connect us as much with Classical Antiquity as with other points in time. A tourist visiting Sparta will find Mt. Taygetos dominating the southern horizon just as it did when the city was the hegemon of all of Greece. But in visiting its hillside, the tourist can equally find bronze-age Mycenean tombs as well as the medieval city (and UNESCO World Heritage Site) of Mystras. In both the real world and in the literary imagination, mountains provide a canvas on which we can track societies carrying out an ever-ongoing conversation with and about their cultural heritage. This is certainly true of the period which my research specializes in, Late Antiquity.

Late Antiquity (approximately the fourth through seventh centuries AD) saw Christianity rapidly expand to become the dominant religious group across the Mediterranean world. Christians lived alongside non-Christians, and both groups engaged one another about the relationship between – or irreconcilability of – Christianity and the literary/cultural tradition inherited from Ancient Greece. Greek-speaking Christians still lived in once-‘pagan’ urban spaces; the literate elite read, admired, emulated, and transmitted on the ‘pagan’ classics to future generations; and saints performed miracles in a countryside still dotted with ‘pagan’ mountain-top shrines. The process of reconciling a new faith with an established cultural tradition played out in the use of space, the forms of architecture, the structure of social hierarchies, the content of education, and, of course, the literary treatment of mountains.

Before going on, a quick note on terminology is necessary to contextualize a large and complex historical issue, and explain why Christian concern for ‘paganism’ was partially a debate about the inheritance and transmission of classical culture. The English word ‘pagan’ comes from Latin, paganus, which could be translated as ‘rustic’ or ‘bumpkin,’ but our Latin-derived terminology obscures all that’s going on with this concept. In Greek – the common language of St Paul and the early Church Fathers as much as of Homer and Aristotle – the signifier for ‘pagan’ was hellene. This word means ‘Greek’ as much with respect to language as culture, education, and world-view. As paganus implicates the ill-informed superstition and the practice of the common folk, hellene implicates a learned and official religion and culture, in other words our ‘classical tradition.’

The struggle to reconcile Christian and pre-Christian traditions and knowledge occurred across the breadth of literary genres, including the ‘sciences’ of astrology and astronomy, branches of natural philosophy which were undifferentiated at this time (Bernard 2018). For Kosmas Indicopleustes, who wrote the Christian Topography in the sixth century, the ‘pagan’ works on the earth and the sky clearly contradicted the Bible. Kosmas composed an alternative, Christian model for the world based on his reading of the Old Testament.

For Kosmas, mountains were core structures for explaining the relationship between and functions of the earth and the celestial bodies. Rejecting the Ptolemaic model, which placed earth as the centremost of a series of cosmic spheres, Kosmas proposed a flat-earth model based on biblical descriptions.

The whole world is a square, as I wrote previously. The highest part of its middle and the summit, namely the north and the western part, we have marked here, being drawn out exactly so. The middle is situated here with the ocean all around, and around that in turn an opposite shore, with the stars encircling it. The cone is able to produce a shadow toward those outside it, and thus, according to this scheme, it is able to produce the eclipses of the moon and night and day [δύνανται καὶ αἱ ἐκλείψεις τῆς σελήνης ἀποτελεῖσθαι καὶ νύκτες καὶ ἡμέραι]. What’s more, divine scripture attests this truth, saying: ‘The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course,’ [Eccl. 1, 5-6] the air, as it were, circling back into the place where it returns.

(Kosmas Indicopleustes, Christian Topography, IV.11. Ed. Wolska-Conus 1968, 550-551. Trans. by me; illustration below)

Image: Public domain | Wikimedia Commons. Two versions of Kosmas’ tabernacle. The stylized coast of the Mediterranean at the foot of the word-mountain can be seen in both, although it is easier to make out in the black-and-white version. The colour illustration, from Vat.Gr.699, allows us to more clearly make out the sun, labelled ἥλιος, which is depicted twice in the sky behind the mountain.

Illustrations like this one accompany Kosmas’ work in manuscripts such as the ninth-century example digitised by the Vatican Library Vat.Gr.699, and certainly help make sense of what he was attempting to describe. Kosmas based his model [schema] on a devout and strict literalist reading of scripture: all of creation was literally a mountain, with days and nights created by the sun being obscured by its summit.

His model places the ‘inhabited world’ [oikoumene] of the Eurasian and African continents at the base of a massive cone, around which lies the Ocean, the body of water which the ancients knew surrounded the land. Kosmas’ mountain rose into a heavenly tabernacle – a box, basically, made up of the sky and celestial objects like the sun, moon and planets.

If you find it hard to imagine how anyone could be persuaded by this idea, don’t worry, neither could most of Kosmas’ contemporaries. It should be made clear here that Kosmas’ view was comprehensively rejected even in his own time, and received scathing rebuke from contemporary and later philosophers and theologians alike, who overwhelmingly accepted that the earth was spherical throughout the middle ages (Lindberg 2007. Villey 2014, 122-123). Even the illustrator of Vat.Gr.699 included a picture of the Ptolemaic spherical model alongside Kosmas’ tabernacle.

Reading Kosmas in the context of a workshop inspired, at least nominally, by the half-centenary of Nicholson’s Mountain Gloom Mountain Glory proves to be an interesting test case. If ‘glory’ characterizes the ancient Greek (that is, Hellenic) view of mountains, and was recovered after the Renaissance by reconnecting with their authentic cultural vision, then ‘gloom’ is, in its way, anti-classical, a rejection of that Hellenic inheritance. If we’re expecting to find ‘mountain gloom’ as an opposition to a classically-inspired ‘mountain glory,’ surely a Late Antique Christian who radically rejected ‘pagan’ learning should be a good place to start?

Maybe not so much, it turns out. In the first place, the widespread rejection of Kosmas’ tabernacle-model among even his fellow Christians helps to illustrate how Late Antique process of Christianization was not a broad social rejection of everything classical but one of adaptation and reconciliation of cultural forms, attitudes, and truths from the ‘pagan’ and Biblical traditions. Second, Kosmas’ model points to a degree of anti-classical comfort with mountains – at least in the abstract. After all, Kosmas understood that his world-mountain was created by God, and a divinely ordered plan can hardly be too bad.

Works cited

Bernard, A. (2018) ‘Greek Mathematics and Astronomy in Late Antiquity’, in Keyser, P. T., Scarborough, J., and Bernard, A. (eds) Oxford Handbook of Science and Medicine in the Classical World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kosmas Indicopleustes (1968) Topográphie chrétienne. Edited by W. Wolska-Conus. Paris: Éditions du Cerf (Sources chrétiennes ; no 141, etc).

Lindberg, D. C. (2007) The beginnings of western science: the European scientific tradition in philosophical, religious, and institutional context, prehistory to A.D. 1450. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Villey, É. (2014) Les sciences en syriaque. Paris: Geuthner (Études syriaques ; 11).



Mountain Dialogues from Antiquity to Modernity

We are very pleased to announce plans for our edited volume Mountain Dialogues from Antiquity to Modernity, now complete in full draft and due to be on the shelves in 2021. Draft chapters were trialled at a workshop in December 2018.

Many of the chapters look at classical traditions of writing about mountains and the way in which later writers have responded to them; in other cases we aim to bring ancient and modern responses to mountains into dialogue with each other in a comparative perspective.

Our aim is cover a very wide chronological span, with chapters on ancient authors like Euripides and Jerome, through to Conrad Gessner, Thomas Burnet and William Coolidge among many others.

We’re also planning over the next few months a series of guest posts here, some of them by contributors to the volume. Watch this space!

Illustration: Vesuvius and Naples. By Livioandronico2013 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

William Golding at Thermopylae

Jason explores the long history of representing the mountains around Thermopylae in both ancient and modern texts.

I have just been reading William’s Golding’s essay ‘The Hot Gates’, published in 1965 (that title translates the Greek name Thermopylae). It has made me want to go back and look a lot more closely at some of the ancient writing on Thermopylae as a site of conflict. Thermopylae has been the site of many battles both in antiquity and in subsequent centuries, most recently in 1941, when Allied Forces defended a position there against advancing German forces before withdrawing to the south. But what Golding is interested in, and what most modern readers and tourists have heard of, is the first battle there, in 480 BCE, between a tiny Greek force and the huge invading Persian army.

The story of that original battle is in part a story about the mountain that stands above Thermopylae. The famous image is of the stand of Leonidas and his 300 Spartans holding off the vast force of the Persians down at sea level, in the narrow neck of land with the sea on one side and the cliffs on the other. But the decisive act came at a much higher altitude, when a detachment of Persians finally made their way over a pass through the mountains, the Anopaia path over Mt Kallidromos, guided by the Greek Ephialtes: they brushed aside the Phocian troops stationed there to defend it, and outflanked the Spartans, attacking them from behind. That Persian victory was won by their control over mountain territory, achieved in this case through their access to local knowledge.

That theme of control and loss of control in the mountains is a very common one in ancient historiography: mountain territories are typically very difficult to interpret; those generals who succeed tend to be represented as exceptional figures. And yet the real glory in this battle is usually ascribed to the Greeks. The Persian manoeuvre, for all its success, is represented by Herodotus and others as one in a series of hybristic and ultimately self-destructive attempts to dominate the landscape. By contrast it is Leonidas’s resistance which is most often celebrated: almost as though the pass down at sea-level is viewed by later writers and tourists as more hostile, more heroic, in a sense more mountainous terrain than the gentle path taken by the Persians up above. I have only realised recently that for a long time, before I read Herodotus closely as an undergraduate, my mental image was of the Greeks holding a narrow pass at high altitude.

Certainly the valley of the river Asopos through which the Persians passed is an unusual place. The historian A.R. Burn wrote two remarkable short articles in the 1950s on high-altitude routes in the Greek mountains which have been used repeatedly in both ancient and modern warfare to move large bodies of soldiers quickly and secretly. He describes the valley as follows:

The upper Asopos valley runs along the top of the Anopaia or Kallidromos mountain, with the ridge of Liathitsa rising in gentle, grassy slopes on its north or right bank, and a lower parallel ridge, rising only just enough to make the place a valley at all, on the south. Between the two runs the valley, a furlong wide, flat-bottomed, full of silt, a couple of miles long (with a kink half-way, where you walk round the corner of the steep rocks of Liathitsa summit); so nearly level from end to end that the stream has cut itself deep meanders as though in an English meadow; and in April, when the snow is just melting, so full of white and purple crocuses that it is impossible to walk otherwise than on them. (Burn, ‘Helikon in history’ 315.)

I felt when I went there that I had entered a space which was strangely protected from the heat and ruggedness of the cliffs below.

There are wild horses and wide stretches of meadow. It feels, oddly, less mountainous and more benign, despite being higher. In that sense at least it is less suited to the notions of heroism within a rough landscape which are so familiar from ancient historiography and from modern writing about mountains too.

William Golding never made it up there. ‘The Hot Gates’ is a brilliant account of the mismatch between ancient evidence and modern landscape, and of the power of the imagination to overcome it. The mismatch is notoriously acute for Thermopylae, where the coastline has receded so far to the north that the narrow pass between cliffs and sea is now very hard to envisage. Golding sets out to follow the Persians upwards, but finds he cannot do it:

I moved back and peered up at the cliffs. The traitor had led a Persian force over those cliffs at night, so that with day they would appear in the rear of the seven thousand in the pass. For years I had promised myself that I would follow that track….I set myself to climb. The cliffs had a brutal grandeur. They were unexpectedly plainless and looked little like the smooth contours I had pored over on the map…I clambered up a slope between thorn bushes that bore glossy leaves. Their scent was pungent and strange. I found myself in a jumble of rocks cemented with thin soil…The blinding sea, the snow mountains of Euboea were at my back, and the cliffs leaned out over me. I began to grope and slither down again…So much for the map, pored over in the lamplight of an English winter. I was not very high up, but I was high enough. I stayed there, clinging to a rock until the fierce hardness of its surface close to my eye had become familiar. Suddenly, the years and the reading fused with the thing. I was clinging to Greece herself. Obscurely, and in part, I understood what it had meant to Leonidas when he looked up at these cliffs in the dawn light and saw that their fledgling of pines was not thick enough to hide the glitter of arms.

In the end, Golding’s imagination stays below with Leonidas. He gains inspiration here from the physical reality of Greece as so many other nineteenth- and twentieth-century travellers had before him: from the rough beauty of the rocks and cliffs which you can reach out and touch, or as he puts it ‘by the double power of the imagination and the touch of the rock’. This moment of epiphany involves an understanding of Leonidas’ motivation: his desire to make a plea, by the manner of his defence and his death, for unity among the Greeks in their defence of Greece—this ‘real’ Greece that Golding can still reach out and touch. In that sense he portrays Leonidas as a figure rooted, as Golding temporarily is himself, in the landscape, and Thermopylae itself as a battle played out within the rocks and mountains: not perhaps in the way he had anticipated, as an event decided by the easy movement of the Persians over that path across the summit, which seems so accessible when you look at a map and try to imagine it, but rather as a more claustrophobic experience, fought out within a space of struggle, hemmed in by the ‘brutal grandeur’ of the cliffs. To be in the mountains in Greece, on that view, you don’t always need to be very high. Golding puts Leonidas, rather than the Persians, in the long line of military heroes celebrated in ancient historiography for their hard-won mastery over mountainous terrain.

Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Genealogy of an Idea

Dawn shares a link to her latest article, unpicking the myth that Europeans feared and disliked mountains before the advent of modernity.

Although the blog has been quiet, quite a lot has happened with the mountains project over the past few months. Book proposals have been submitted (watch this space), articles published… and a new arrival born! I’m briefly sticking my head above the parapet of maternity leave to do a bit of shameless self-promotion of something which took me a lot longer than 9 months to produce: ‘Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Genealogy of an Idea’, aptly published in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment on my most recent birthday. If you have institutional access to the journal, you can read the published version here, or you can download an earlier version of the article here.

‘The Genealogy of an Idea’ represents a much-revised version of the final chapter of my PhD thesis. My thesis explored early modern attitudes towards mountains, through the medium of travel literature, poetry, and natural philosophical debates (the stories and responses I uncovered in these sources form the anticipated content of one of the proposed books mentioned above). I found, contrary to the accepted narrative of ‘mountain gloom’, that pre-modern Europeans were in fact frequently enthusiastic about mountains. This left me with a big question, which that final chapter sought to answer: where did the idea that Europeans despised mountains before the advent of modernity come from?

The most famous scholarly iteration of this concept can be found in Marjorie Hope Nicolson’s eponymous Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite, but as my new article relates, its roots go much deeper. Spoiler warning: strikingly, a narrative which credits Romanticism and modern mountaineering with realising a ‘true’ appreciation of mountains has its earliest expressions in the writings of the poet William Wordsworth, and the climber Leslie Stephen.

I won’t say more – go and read the article! Moving beyond the narrative that it critiques is an incredibly important step towards the more nuanced understanding of premodern mountain responses that our project aims to promote.


From ancient mountains to the Appalachians…

Dawn reports on yet another mountain trip, this time to the Appalachians.

As my post about attending Thinking Mountains 2018 in Banff, Canada, may have suggested, one of the real advantages of studying mountains is getting to visit them. A few months ago, our mountains project was privileged to be invited to participate in the International Mountain Studies Symposium hosted by Appalachian State University. I pulled the short straw (!) of representing the team and travelling to the beautiful mountains of North Carolina.

I was asked to give a keynote, so decided to go for a somewhat ambitious title to justify my position in the programme, speaking on A Mountains Manifesto? Toward the Historical Mountain Humanities. My proposal – riffing somewhat off Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s History Manifesto – was that a collaborative, longue dureé history of mountains had the potential to highlight far more diversity of experiences, and offer far more to contemporary debates, than the long-established sense that European appreciation of mountains only began a few hundred years ago. This received a warm hearing in a room of Appalachian scholars: somewhat akin to premodern mountain history, the mountain experiences and engagements of the Appalachian region have frequently been overlooked and stereotyped.

The symposium itself was a rich demonstration of the diversity of mountain studies in Appalachia: with parallel sessions representing around 80 speakers I was barely able to scratch the surface of topics on offer, but was variously moved, fascinated, and enlightened by the panels I did attend. This single day of learning and discussion would have made the trip worth making on its own, but Appalachia had more in store for me. The mastermind of the symposium, Katherine Ledford, had planned a series of field trips for the half dozen or so international guests of the event. The day after the symposium, we duly tumbled into a sturdy white minivan (‘borrowed from Geography’), and were treated to a whirlwind tour of North Carolina’s places and people. We headed up to the Swinging Bridge (which does not, alas, swing any more) on Grandfather Mountain, and learnt about the amazing work of the High Country Food Hub, Boone, which makes it easy for shoppers to buy local food from small farmers, and Appalachian Voices, which campaigns against mountaintop removal coal-mining. We visited the Appalachian Trail on Roan Mountain, where Katherine apologised for the wind and fog (which I felt was unecessary as it made me feel right at home – are you meant to see a view from a mountain?), and looked around the incredible Penland School of Crafts. Finally, we were treated to an evening of ‘oldtime’ music and a potluck supper at Bakersville Baptist Church – I’ve never seen a more generously-laden row of tables.

This may all seem quite a long way from the premodern history of mountains, but the aim of all this was to highlight the diversity of lived experiences of Appalachia, and to get beyond a university boardroom and into real communities. I found this incredibly thought-provoking. I was struck by how central the mountains were to the way people defined their daily lives: so many people I spoke to referred to themselves as ‘mountaineers’, not in the climbing sense but in the living-on-the-mountain sense, spoke of their music as ‘mountain music’, and took pride in offering warm mountain hospitality. Just like my premodern ‘mountaineers’, their relationship to the mountains was quite separate to the practices of climbing and heroic conquest which are paradigmatic of the modern engagement with the ‘wild’ landscape.

After all this food, music, and hiking, the minivan crew rounded off the week at the 42nd Annual Appalachian Studies Association Conference in Asheville. I found myself speaking to another ambitious title as part of a roundtable ‘Conversation Forging New International Connections in Mountain Studies’. In subsequent discussions, I somehow managed to volunteer to found a new International Journal in the Mountain Humanities: watch this space, I suppose! I even found time to visit the secondhand bookstore display in the exhibition hall, and so finally left North Carolina with my suitcase bursting with classic Appalachian mountain books, my brain brimming with new ideas, and, most importantly, having made a number of new and genuine academic friends. It turns out that trundling up mountains together in a minibus, and being fed to bursting by friendly churchgoers, is far more effective at forging ‘new international connections’ than any other kind of networking…

Illustrations: View from the Blue Ridge Mountain Parkway, and on Grandfather Mountain.

Augustus Hare on Mt Soracte

Augustus Hare liked looking at Mt Soracte.

Hare was born in 1834. He made a career out of writing biographies, an autobiography, and a string of guide books. He was renowned as a raconteur of ghost stories. His works were very popular (his biography of his godmother, who adopted him and brought him up, ran into eighteen editions), but it is not always easy for modern readers to see why: his biographical and autobiographical writing offers gentle but unspectacular portrayals of upper-middle-class English life in the country (they were criticised even by some contemporary reviewers for their prolixity), and his guide books feel formulaic by comparison with the more unpredictable thrill of exploring Greece and Italy with some of the earlier eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travel writers like Edward Dodwell. The difference is that Hare was writing for a growing culture of tourism, for readers who wanted practical information as well as scholarly detail and personal response. Within that context he broke new ground. In his Days Near Rome (published in two volumes in 1875) he urges his readers to go beyond the standard excursions and recounts his own travels to less frequented sites, full of colourful details about the local peasant populations unused to tourists, and practical travel advice on the practicalities and price of carriage and donkey hire, hotel rooms and train tickets.

Mt Soracte was one of those sites. Soracte stands about 30 miles north of Rome. It’s not a high mountain: only 691 metres—and not a long walk to the summit from the village of Sant-Oreste on its slopes. It is a spectacular place, and it is visible from a long way off: it stands up from the plane like a giant fin—there are no other hills anywhere near it.

But that in itself doesn’t explain the power it had over the imagination of classically educated northern European travellers like Hare.

The crucial factor was the famous Soracte ode by Horace, written in the late first century BCE, which was one of the best known and most loved of all Latin poems in Hare’s day; any classically educated person would have been familiar with it. The famous initial image is of the mountain covered in snow, followed by a description of drinking wine in front of a warm fire, and then a set of reflections on youth, old age and love: ‘You see how Soracte stands white with deep snow (vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte), and the labouring woods can no longer hold the weight, and the rivers have stopped from the sharp cold’ (Horace, Odes 1.9.1-4). After those four brief lines, the mountain fades from view: Soracte is not mentioned again in the poem.

It seems extraordinary that such a brief glimpse could have haunted the imagination of centuries of later readers. It was the opening line of this poem that Patrick Leigh Fermor’s German captive, General Kreipe, quoted to him in looking at the sunrise on Mt Ida in Crete in 1944; Leigh Fermor claims to have quoted the rest of the poem to him from memory in response, an incident which united the two men temporarily in their shared mastery of the classical heritage.

Hare’s descriptions of Mt Soracte are concentrated in his account of an excursion to the summit on 1 May 1874, but they are also spread out right through the text on either side of that section, and into his other works too. Travelling from the train station at Montorso to Farfa, he tells us that ‘we at once began to reach a new country, rich in vines and figs and olives, and with lovely views towards the noble, serrated outline of Soracte’. At the gorge of Civita Castellana, he tells us that ‘each turn is a picture more beautiful than the last, and ever and again beyond the rocky avenues, Soracte, steeped in violet shadows, appears rising out of the tender green of the plain’. On the day of the Soracte excursion, we hear that ‘no drive can be uninteresting with such an object as Soracte before one, ever becoming more defined’. Looking back on a later trip he sees ‘Volscian, Hernican, Sabine, and Alban hills, Soracte–nobly beautiful–rising out of the soft, quiet lines of the Campagna’, and then later in the day at Caprarola he admires the ‘whole glorious rainbow-tinted view, in which, as everywhere we have been, lion-like Soracte, couching over the plain, is the most conspicuous feature’. He even returns to Soracte in his mind’s eye later in his life. In his autobiography, The Story of My Life, he talks about a trip to Snowdon: ‘From Llanberis I ascended Snowdon, which in my recollection is—from its innate picturesqueness, not its views—the only mountain in Europe worth ascending, except Soracte’.

For Hare’s contemporaries, too, Soracte seems to have been special. A review of Days in Rome in the Spectator in 1875 singles out Hare’s account of Soracte for lengthy quotation (‘an eminence which to all readers of Horace holds a place of conspicuousness in their memories similar to that which the elevation itself possesses in relation to the Campagna’). Hare not only describes Soracte himself repeatedly; he also quotes over and over again from others who have done the same: in Days in Rome and the equivalent volume for excursions within the city, Walks in Rome (1871), he quotes at length from twelve different nineteenth-century authors (including novelists like Amelia Edwards, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charlotte Dempster, as well as travel writers and scholars) who had previously described the mountain.

The most telling of those is a famous passage from Byron’s Childe Harold. He too picks out the modestly sized Mt Soracte as an important place in his imaginary geography.

Athos, Olympus, Aetna, Atlas, made
These hills seem things of lesser dignity,
All, save the lone Soracte’s heights, displayed
Not now in snow, which asks the lyric Roman’s aid
For our remembrance, and from out the plain
Heaves like a long-swept wave about to break,
And on the crest hangs pausing.

Byron is here giving his impression of the Apennines, which in his view cannot match the grandeur of the Alps and of the mountains of Greece. Only Soracte can hold its own in that company.

The relationship these writers had with Horace isn’t always straightforwardly positive. Hare’s own account has a very un-Horatian quality in its emphasis on personal experience of climbing the mountain, and in his quotation of a huge range of other classical sources on the mountain in addition to Horace. That’s all the more the case for Byron, who uses an image of the mountain in explain his own inability to overcome the loathing for Horace’s poetry that he felt in the austere lessons of school days, even though he now understands intellectually the value of Horace’s poetry: ‘Then farewell Horace, whom I hated so…Yet fare thee well; upon Soracte’s ridge we part’.

But even in that negative judgement we can feel the remarkable attraction of Mt Soracte. Hare’s fascination with it, and the fascination of his contemporaries, is a good example of the dominance of the classical tradition, for nineteenth-century travellers, over their real-life encounters with the Italian landscape.

Illustration: Monte Soratte visto da Civita Castellana by Croberto68, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Thinking Mountains 2018

 Dawn reports on a project trip to an international mountain studies conference in the snow-covered mountains of Banff National Park, Canada: it’s a hard life being a mountain historian.

Just last week, the mountains in ancient literature and culture project team had the pleasure and privilege of attending Thinking Mountains 2018, a four-day interdisciplinary summit in mountain studies. Of course, such an event couldn’t happen just anywhere: it was based at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, right in the midst of the Canadian Rockies. The conference opened with what the organisers swiftly termed ‘the snowpocalypse’, with 40cm of unseasonal October snowfall settling in the course of just a few hours. This made for a particularly eventful journey for Jason, whose bus from Calgary airport perfectly coincided with 7-hour long delays on the Trans-Canada Highway. (I had travelled in the day before, and felt ever so slightly guilty as I enjoyed the Banff Upper Hot Springs watching the troublesome snow come down).

Thinking Mountains is one of the many excellent results of the Mountain Research & Initiatives centre at the University of Alberta. Among other things, they also run a MOOC (massive open online course) titled ‘Mountains 101’, offering a 12-week overview covering everything from the geological development of mountains to their modern-day cultural impact. The 2018 meeting marked the third instance of Thinking Mountains: I attended the second summit, in 2015, mid-way through my doctorate, and to say it changed the course of my PhD would not be an understatement. Why? Because it offered me the first chance to stop trying to explain to historians of other subjects why mountains mattered, and instead to get feedback from an audience full of people studying mountains on why (or if) my particular historical perspective on them mattered. (In terms of memorability, it also helped that the 2015 meeting was in Jasper, another beautiful spot in the Rockies, and featured my first ever experience of walking on a glacier).

During my interview for the postdoctoral fellowship with the mountains project here in Classics at St Andrews, I flagged Thinking Mountains 2018 as something I specifically wanted to do if I were to get the position: I wondered from the outset what the anthropologists, sports scientists, and mountaineering historians I had met in 2015 would make of classical mountains. We were fortunate enough to be allocated a full panel session just to our project, enabling us to spend 45 minutes going into the details of our project and sharing a few case studies, and then giving over the final 45 minutes to general discussion and feedback. This was led by our three ’roundtable’ members, Carolin Roeder, who works on modern Alpinism from a transnational perspective, Dan Hooley, who works on classics and classical reception, and Sean Ireton, who is currently co-editing (with Caroline Schaumann) a frankly excellently-titled book, Mountains and the German Mind: Translations from Gessner to Messner, 1541-2009Their very astute comments were followed up by challenging questions and ideas from the wider audience. We left our session with a lot to think about.

Just as thought-provoking, however, was the rest of the conference, from the formal academic papers to the more laid-back evening events (this included an ‘evening of story and song’ with Sid Marty, an ex-park warden with plenty of eye-raising tales to tell about bears). When Thinking Mountains calls itself an ‘interdisciplinary’ summit, that isn’t just lip-service to the latest buzzword: it is what, at least from my perspective, the event is all about. ‘Mountains’, after all, can be studied from the point of view of geology, conservation, sport, film, history – and classics. Throughout the conference, different disciplines were challenged to think about how they ought to relate to each other within the field of mountain studies. We found ourselves challenged by the question of where our project fits in: which other disciplines should it be speaking to and, equally importantly, where do we draw the line in the sand regarding our own disciplinary distinctiveness? What is it about this project which gives it cross-disciplinary potential, and what is it about the approach of an early modernist and a classicist that gives it something unique?

Questions did not just swirl around the issue of disciplinary definition: both in our panel, and in several other papers which we attended, challenges were launched against terms such as ‘mountain literature’, ‘mountaineer’ and ‘mountaineering’. The latter two terms (and, frequently, the first as well) are all too often equated with the modern sport of mountaineering, and amidst debates about commercially-led expeditions the definition of ‘real’ mountaineering is constrained into ever narrower boundaries. If we expand these definitions – perhaps with a reversion to the pre-modern usage of referring to anyone dwelling on a mountain as a ‘mountaineer’ – would this make different stories, both present and past, more visible? Or, as one fellow mountain-thinker suggested, are these questions of definition really the most useful ones we can be asking? We hope to explore some of these questions in more depth – and other thoughts and ideas inspired by our week of Thinking Mountains! – in blog posts over the coming weeks and months.

Oh, and, of course – we climbed a (very small) mountain whilst we were there.

Illustrations: The view looking west from the Banff Centre, and on top of Tunnel Mountain (also known as Sacred Buffalo Guardian Mountain).

Scottish Mountains and the Classical Tradition

Not as unconnected as you might think: Jason traces some initial connections between classical literature and imagery and the mountains of Scotland. 

I have been trying to work out recently in some spare moments how far travellers’ accounts from Scotland from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are influenced by the classical tradition in their portrayal of mountains (and in that sense this post follows on from my previous one on Edward Dodwell and travel writing in Greece).


On the face of it the answer is ‘not very’. Samuel Johnson was famously unimpressed by the mountainous terrain of the Highlands during his visit in 1773. There are very few classical resonances in his descriptions of the landscape he travels through.

One rare exception is the following, from fairly early on in the work:

Of the hills many may be called with Homer’s Ida abundant in springs, but few can deserve the epithet which he bestows on Pelion by waving their leaves. They exhibit very little variety; being almost wholly covered with dark heath, and even that seems to be checked in its growth. What is not heath is nakedness, a little diversified by now and then a stream rushing down the steep. An eye accustomed to flowery pastures and waving harvests is astonished and repelled by this wide extent of hopeless sterility…It will very readily occur, that this uniformity of barrenness can afford very little amusement to the traveller… (A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland [1775], 84)

For Johnson the point of the Homeric quotations is their comical inappropriateness, not just in the point about treelessness, but also it also in the initial reference to abundance of springs: presumably we are meant to suspect that watery nature of Scottish mountains fall far short of the beauty and fertility of Mt Ida as it is envisaged in that Homeric epithet. (Johnson notoriously exaggerated the treelessness of Scotland in his description of St Andrews too: ‘from the bank of the Tweed to St Andrews I had never seen a single tree… At St Andrews Mr Boswell found only one, and recommended it to my notice’ (15-16); Boswell in his later version refers to the fact that Johnson’s account had been ‘violently abused’ on publication for that assertion and feels the need to defend his companion from criticism: ‘when Dr Johnson talks of trees, he means trees of good size’ (The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785) 67).


Byron is another interesting case. Unlike most of his fellow travellers in Greece in the first few decades of the nineteenth century, Byron was quite ambivalent about the antiquarian exercise of identifying classical sites and in some respects he seems to find the landscape of Albania exhilarating precisely because it is less encumbered by classical associations. Stephen Cheake talks about that phenomenon in his 2003 book Byron and Place, and about the way in which Byron represents Albania as ‘untrodden ground’ (Cheake p. 30). He also talks about the way in which Scotland is linked with Albania in Byron’s writing, and the way in which it stands in contrast with Greece in some respects (Cheake pp. 36-7).

One might therefore take the lack of classical reference points in Johnson’s account as typical, just as some have taken his lack of enthusiasm for Scottish mountain scenery as typical of pre-Romantic scorn for mountains more general. If we look a bit more closely, however, it becomes clear that that is an oversimplification: there are many examples of artists and tourists taking an interest in both Greek and Scottish landscape and even seeing the two as connected with each other.


Plain of Orochemnos from Livadia
Edinburgh from Arthur’s Seat

The work of H.W. Williams is a case in point. He was born in 1773. He visited Greece and Italy, returning in 1818, and was famous for his drawings of Greek landscape, especially in his publication Select Views in Greece a decade later, which earned him the nickname ‘Grecian Williams’. But he also published scenes of Scottish landscape which at least as far as I can see echo the style of his Greek images closely.


For a classically inclined example of late eighteenth-century travel-writing from Scotland one might look at the work of William Gilpin, especially his 1789 publication Observations, relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, made in the Year 1776, on several Parts of Great Britain, particularly the High-Lands of Scotland. Gilpin travelled the year after Johnson’s account was published. He was one of several writers who were intrigued by Johnson’s negative representation of the Scottish landscape and went in part to see whether they agreed. His experience was clearly rather different: he shares some of Johnson’s negativity, but he also sees the Scottish landscape as having ‘a peculiar power and poetry of its own’, as Malcolm Andrews puts it in volume 1 of his sourcebook, The Picturesque (1994) (p. 385). And it is striking that Gilpin includes fairly regular classical quotations, especially from Virgil.

At II, 123, for example, he discusses tree coverage (implicitly contradicting Johnson):

we met with many a plantation of pine, many a

      –––– plaga pinea montis;

mountains covered with fir, which when fully grown, and their uniformity a little destroyed by the axe, may hereafter have a fine effect.

The quotation here is from Virgil, Aeneid 11.320: ‘Let all this tract, with a pine-clad belt of mountain height, pass to the Trojans in friendship’. The Latin king Latinus is here proposing that a tract of land be offered to the Trojans; it is characterised as rough land that is difficult to work, but also associated positively with the beginnings of the city of Rome.

At II, 131, similarly, Gilpin tells us that the rivers of Scotland

Are in general very beautiful. They are all mountain-streams; and their channels, as we have seen in the course of this journey, commonly fretted in the rock. Their descent of course is rapid, and broken. They are true classical rivers,

                                    –– Decurso rapido de montibus altis

                                    Dant sonitum spumosi ––––––––

This quotation is from Aeneid 12.523-4: ‘as when in swift descent from mountain heights foaming rivers roar and race seaward, each leaving its own path waste: with no less fury the two, Aeneas and Turnus, sweep through the battle’. Here the image has destructive and intimidating connotations, but it is also linked with the grandeur and high status of the two great warriors of the poem.

There are many other examples: over and over again Gilpin reaches for classical reference-points (as well as frequent quotations from English poetry) to make sense of the forbidding but impressive landscape he encounters.


My impression, then, is that the Scottish mountains are not so cut off from the classical tradition as we might initially imagine. Those are my first thoughts, at any rate, but I should stress that a lot of this material is quite new to me, and I’m still finding my way through it. What else should I be looking at? If you have any suggestions I would love to know…

Illustrations: Plain of Orchomenos from Livadia, engraving by William Miller after H.W. Williams, 1829; Edinburgh from Arthur’s Seat, engraving by William Miller after H.W. Williams, 1826.