On Myths and Landscapes of Catalonia
by Francesc Roma i Casanovas
In these pages I present some of the ideas discussed more fully in my two doctoral dissertations on the Catalonian landscape. The on-line versions can be accessed through my website at:
The main aim of the work was to analyze relations between Catalonian people and their sorroundings, before and after the conception of the landscape relationship.
Further information about the subject may be found in the following books and articles I have written:
- Del paradís a la nació. La muntanya a Catalunya. Segles XV-XX. Valls, Cossetània, 2004.
- “L’excursionisme català i l’estima de les muntanyes” in El canvi ambiental i l’excursionisme. Barcelona, Edt. Pòrtic, 2002.
- Llegendes de la natura. Itineraris pel nostre patrimoni cultural. Tarragona, Edicions El Mèdol, 2002.
- El paradís indicible. La representació de Montserrat a l’edat moderna. Manresa, Centre Excursionista Comarca de Bages, 2002.
- Els Pirineus maleïts. Natura, cultura i economia moral en les societats dites tradicionals. Barcelona, Alta Fulla, 2000.
Your comments and criticism on this work will be greatly appreciated; please address them to:[email protected] or [email protected]
The main goal in writing this article is to show the historical changes in the representation of Nature, specially in contemporary Catalan society . The suggested epistemological point of view is the Médiance theory proposed by French geographer Augustin Berque (1990, 2000). Médiance theory states that reality is, at the same time, ecological and symbolical. As Berque proposes, the reality is thus, eco-symbolical. The cultural geography that Berque proposes is an essay of putting together and at the same time subjective and objective perspectives in the study of geographical reality. From this point of view, landscape -- and the mythscape that I propose in my researches-- is both an idea (a symbol) and a series of physical facts (the ecological processes). Ideas on landscape, through a phenomenological way, shape Nature; but, at the same time, they are constructed through Nature’s elements.
Using this epistemological approach, in 1997 I started studying the Nature-humanity relationships in traditional Catalan society. In order to get some information about the representation of Nature in popular Catalan classes during modern ages, I studied the folklore information on a series of places especially in the Pyrenees (Roma, 2000). For some time, I looked for legends which, at the same time, were geographically placed and their moral messages were of social and economical interest. My aim was to prove that Nature and Culture, instead of being opposite questions, are complementary concepts. In my opinion, the Nature does not exist in a virgin way; it always is a culture-represented reality (Roger, 1978).
 This article is an abstract of my two doctoral theses - see: (Roma, 2001) and (Roma, 2001b).
Hermita de la Santisima Trinidad
(with a landscape of Montserrat in the
image from:Compendio Historical (1978)
My first work was an study about a series of legends repeated all over Western Europe, but concretized in French, Spanish and Andorran Pyrenees (Roma, 2000). In Catalonia -and in general in the Pyrenees- there are some legends that narrate that, once upon a time, a poor man arrives at a village or a house asking for food or for a place to spend the night. He is not helped till he arrives to the last house. There, he gets some food and a bed. In the morning, he announces to those who helped him that they must to go away because the rest of people (the avaricious one) will be punished soon.
The geographical interest of this legend lies in the fact that normally the punishment is done by water: a big storm begins and floods the place. In that way a lake is created: the Montcortès lake, the Engolasters lake, and so on. But there is a more important thing: until recently, people said that they could hear voices coming from the bottom of the lake. And the voices said, and this is very important: “You have to help poor people”. Sometimes, through the water of the lake, as the belief goes, you could see the scene that the legend tells, as it were a kind of film. Somehow, when you know the legendary history that the place is remembering, you have to be able to catch the moral ideas that lie in it.
Landscape as text and as discourse
According to Barnes & Duncan (1992), those legends could be seen as a kind of discourse: though the legend, environment is spoken. Thus, it could be considered as a discourse in the sense of “frameworks that embrace particular combinations of narratives, concepts, ideologies and signifying practices, each relevant to a particular realm of social action” (Barnes & Duncan, 1992; 8). In fact, environment is not only a discourse, because it continues being an ensemble of physical facts. The problem is that environment is at the same time an ecological reality and a subjective question. From this point of view, I am using the word environment to talk about the physical and ecological level of the reality. In order to express the symbolical dimensions of the reality other concepts have to be found. The more useful one is landscape, but this word sometimes becomes too narrow a concept to express the multiple representations of the environment. For instance, it is not useful to refer to it in the context of pre-modern societies, in which Nature is not yet considered a beautiful thing.
The importance of Barnes and Duncan approach is that it allows to make clear that, at the same time, those places are also a text that can be read: if you know the legend, you will see the lake and, at the same time, you will remember those legendary facts and, immediately, you will get some moral ideas about the relationships between people. From this point of view, a legendary place becomes a text, in a wider sense “(...) that includes other cultural productions such as paintings, maps and landscapes, as well as social, economic and political institutions. These should all be seen as signifying practices that are read, not passively, but, as it were, rewritten as they are read” (Barnes & Duncan, 1992; 5).
As the cultural geographer Mike Crang (1998; 27) proposes, landscapes may be read as texts illustrating people’s beliefs. The symbolical and physical shaping of the landscape is seen as expressing social ideologies, that are then perpetuated and supported through the environment and its representations.
Representations of Nature in Western History
It seems very clear that the vernacular representation of Nature that lies behind those kinds of legends is not a question of landscape. Landscape is a modern relationship between people (men and women) and their environment. On this kind of relationship, people project into Nature or environment some esthetical values. Taking this relationship in consideration, Nature is a beautiful thing, beautiful enough to be in a picture. The Western history of the arts shows that initially the landscape relationship was an elitist social construction and an historically specific product. Furthermore, Western history shows three important questions about this kind of relationship with Nature:
The first one is that the word landscape only appears in the Modern Age. For instance, in Catalan language it appears in 1696, in a book written by Joan Lacavalleria (1696) -it is a Latin-Catalan dictionary. This is a rather late date, even compared with Spanish language.
Then, during the largest part of the history of Catalonia, feelings on landscape were ignored or -perhaps better- did not exist. From this point of view, the history of the Catalan word paisatge (landscape) seems a good example: until 18th century it was not possible to speak of parts of Catalonia as landscapes simply because the word itself did not exist. Inasmuch as the word appears only in 1696, the landscape relationship is a question of 18th century onwards. Furthermore, at the beginning this concept was used to refer to a way of painting, not yet to refer to a representation of Nature. In Catalonia, this second moment does not arrive until the second half of 19th century (Roma, 2001).
Landscape paintings are another very important question that brings some crucial information to us. As we know, landscape pictures, in Western culture, do not exist until Renaissance (Fontbona, 1979; Cosgrove & Daniels, 1988; Clark, 1994). From this point of view and since the arts are often described as a way of visualizing the relationships with Nature, it can be said that Nature’s contemplation was ignored until 15-16th centuries. But if we see the arts as a way of artalisiating people’s gaze -as Roger (1997) has done-, we have to state that till this moment Western elites were not prepared to glance their environment and parts of it, as beautiful texts.
The third important question that can be mentioned is that landscape relations with Nature are a modern question in Western history. In the Catalan case we can even say that it is a contemporary question (Roma, 2001). As I said, it is not till the second half of 19th century that Nature is seen as a text provided with aesthetical qualities.
There are three periods in the relationship to Nature (Roma, 2001). At the beginning, Nature is conceived either as hostile or as indescribable. Only some marvelous places are outside of this general qualification. In a second period, some parts of the mountains become interesting and beautiful: the agrarian spaces and, as an exception, the Montserrat mountain. From Renaissance onwards, Montserrat will be seen as a beautiful place, but the word paisatge is not yet invented and the models of representing the natural beauty do not exist. Throughout this period, in order to refer to a beautiful place, Catalan elite will use the concept of paradise. Through the paradise idea, the mountain beauty will be expressed in the 18th century. In a third historical period, from the 19th century onwards, the word itself and the landscape relations that result are more prominent.
Elitist versus Popular Representations
In conclusion, landscape appears to be a relationship of the Modern period, typical of the so- called high western culture; the culture of the elite, as opposed to popular or folk culture. In this context the relationship is a way of seeing, although not the only way of seeing or representing the Nature. It is not the only way of seeing because before modernity and outside the social elite there had been other ecumenical relationships that had been forgotten until recently. Before modern ages, men and women who did not know written language (Latin or the post-Latin dialects) interpreted their environment in a very different way than the cultural elite did. In my French doctoral thesis (Roma, 2001b), I attempted to show that there are two kinds of relationship to Nature, one popular, the other, elitist.
The elitist representation was anchored on the information transmitted by Scripture and other printed sources. During modern age, the people, and the Church too, started to see Nature as a beautiful thing. But, at the same time, for rural Catalan popular classes, physical environment was like a text talking about legends in which the idea of natural justice was immanent. The problem is that, if the vernacular representation of Nature mentioned above is not a "landscape question", then we are facing another kind of relationship that has to be named.
The legend of the Engolasters’ lake -that I mentioned above- is part of a larger series that includes the case of Maladeta’s mountain, in the Spanish Pyrenees. This is the only case, in the Pyrenees, in which the action of "not helping poor people produces a glacier"; normally the punishment is by water, not by ice and/or snow. There, large stones, that we still can see, are believed to be images of shepherds with their animals, punished by God’s justice. This fact -the petrification- is repeated in almost all legends of the series. In fact, petrification is a metaphor of the eco-symbolical reality of geographical facts. A petrified man or woman is at the same time part of the Nature (environment) and part of the culture. It is a geographical fact that explains an explicit story, normally associated to a moral discourse.
In this particular case, it is not a question of landscape at all (in the sense of an esthetical representation of Nature). We know that travelers who went to Maladeta mountain, for instance, went to see a “mirror of God’s Justice” (Feliu, 1709), and not a landscape. It is not a "landscape, question" because the word landscape and this kind of relationship were not yet invented. Environment was not a beautiful thing but a souvenir of the kind of society that some people wanted, a society desired even by God itself.
In 1997, to refer to this kind of relationship, I proposed the word mythscape. The mythscape is a way of representing Nature in which people see the world as a text that brings in social information. Through legend, mythscape gives sense to different places (lakes, mountains, fountains and so on). At the same time, these places made sense mainly to the people who participated of this culture and were able to decode those legends and their moral messages. Then, for popular rural Catalan classes, natural justice was a part of both Nature and Society. Justice was a symbolical idea and an ecological reality, at the same time present in people’s mind and outwards in the environment.
The series of legends about "punishment for not helping people" are not the only legends that are embedded into the environment (in fact, according to Van Gennep (1982), all legends are related to a Place). On the village of Vidrà, for instance, there is a big stone believed to have fallen down to kill a peasant that was going to dig his garden on a public holiday. In Sant Maurici’s National Park there are two petrified men that preferred going on hunting than resting at the time of Church mass. And so on.
At the same time, through a combination of natural and cultural elements, medieval and pre-modern Nature acquired a transcendental relationship with God and other sacred entities. The spaces that, following Eliade (1994), I consider sacred spaces were the important and selected places. From this point of view, the history of western representations of Nature is the history of a process of world’s disenchantment with the divine that transforms this transcendent and divine Nature into an ensemble of texts and discourses in which environment is beautiful, admirable and observable in itself.
The world's disenchantment process
The world's disenchantment process
The process of discovering the landscape is a process of world’s disenchantment (Roger, 1997) that, in Catalonia, is very clear. For instance, books about Montserrat monastery and mountain, at the beginning of 20th century, systematically change the qualification of visitors: the place of the earlier pelerines (pilgrims), changed later into the tourists (Roma, 2001). At the same time, some religious songs (the goigs) shows the same evolution: in them, landscape representations take the place of sacred sites. The changing of qualification of the pelerines is very important, because people walking for God’s sake were kindly received in the monasteries and not required to pay for lodging. On the contrary, people travelling to enjoy sceneries had to pay for accommodations and facilities. This differentiation converts poor people into some sort of second class guests ; not as warmly welcomed as the paying tourists.
In general, with the birth and acceptance of the landscape concept, Nature will be supposed not to be anymore a big repertory of symbols, but a immanent, natural and objective reality upon which other values will be projected. Ancient, traditional, rights of the poorer people, like that of being received as non-paying guests, went slowly into oblivion.
The Folklorization Process
Perhaps some people will think that this kind of Nature’s representation - landscape- is not related with the subject of folklore studies and the folklorisation process. On this point, my opinion is that progressive representations of Nature as landscapes went hand in hand with the erosion of popular identities. The folkorisation of the environment gaze converted Nature into a beautiful thing. With Modernity, environment representation moved unto an esthetical question. The same places that were earlier linked to social, economical or juridical ideas, after Modernity had to open to a world of aesthetic pleasures. If traditionally the perception of Engolasters lake brought people to the idea of natural justice, later on it had to bring them to a world of pleasure and sensual perceptions. Nature had to be a beautiful thing, not a social idea in the narrow sense of the word.
Before Modernity, Nature made part of economics and social structure: people depended on the weather for its crops; they had to earn their life fighting against the lack of fertility of garden plots... The results of a big storm could very well be that lots of people would have economical or feeding problems to survive; too much rain meant a reduction of the crops, an epidemic disease could suppose loosing the livestock, etc. (Wilson, 2000). Natural adversities converted normal people, especially proletarian people, on poor persons. To better understand and accept apparently capricious Nature behavior, agrarian societies personified some natural elements. This is, for instance, the case of witchcraft. As Wolfgang Behringer writes“(...) extended witch-hunts took place at the various peaks of the Little Ice Age because a part of society held the witches directly responsible for the high frequency of climatic anomalies and the impacts thereof” (Behringer, 1999). These kind of natural diseases supposed a danger for the social stability and some ideologies tried to explain the necessity of helping poor people. Alternatively, some ideologies tried to discover the witches that were supposed to be responsible for the county damages.
The medieval elites thought that poor people had to be helped, and poor people were aware of it. Besides liberal ideas, economy was a question related with the moral. As Thompson shows, it was a moral economy that implicated that poor people might (and had) to be helped, especially in a bad time. In my view, the environment -through the mythscape- had a role as a reminder of this obligation. In general, Catalan environment was full of places that reminded local dwellers what happened to the people who did not respect those moral obligations. Thus, places that today speak to us of aesthetic values, "talked" in earlier epochs about social and economic roles and of related values.
With the passing of time, the social elite -that, at the beginning, shared this way of seeing the world- started to see those same places in another way and, also, started to consider other places and to compare them. Then, discourses changed, and the "environment as a text changed too": from this moment, people had started to read it differently. We ought not to forget that, years ago, for rural popular classes, the discourses upon some places talked about a moral economy.