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‘Transformation’ by Cistercian Rievaulx Abbey: change and complexity in a flood-prone landscape

HORSFIELD, FREYA (2020) ‘Transformation’ by Cistercian Rievaulx Abbey: change and complexity in a flood-prone landscape. Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

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Author-imposed embargo until 16 August 2024.


This study considers the first Cistercian abbey in northern Britain, Rievaulx Abbey, as an agent of change in the medieval landscape. A catchment-based approach was used to investigate landscape ‘transformation’ by the abbey. This was nested within a theoretical model of change, a complex system, in which people, belief, and the environment were treated as diverse, interconnected, interdependent and adaptive. Study areas were nested in physical terms within subareas of river catchment defined using geoscience and documentary evidence.

An acknowledgement of the inherent complexity of monastic landscapes offered a more nuanced perspective than many previous studies. This work cuts through disciplinary silos, integrating historical, environmental, and archaeological data. It treats a monastic landscape holistically, thus diverging from much existing scholarship which focusses on either the claustral complex, the precinct, or beyond the precinct. The complex system model was used to articulate the interconnection of factors which are traditionally considered separately, such as spiritual and pragmatic motivations of monastic patrons.

The study found that, contrary to older research, Rievaulx had not been the first to use the land in question. Along the course of the River Rye on which the monastic centre was founded, the monastery continued the developmental trajectory established by preceding Anglo-Scandinavian occupants. In the Vale of Pickering, long suggested to have been the location of an extensive primal marsh reclaimed by the Cistercian abbey, Rievaulx was found also to have continued the trajectory of Anglo-Scandinavian activities with only a limited area newly brought into agrarian use. In both locations studied, Rievaulx’s landscape inheritance from lay society was found to be significant. Overall, this work contributes to the growing body of revisionist research into the Cistercian order, and to broader debates on landscape stewardship.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Keywords:Transformation, archaeology, Cistercian, Rievaulx, Abbey, landscape, change, complexity, medieval, flood, risk, stewardship, management, water, monasticism, Yorkshire, England, Vale,Pickering, River, Rye, Derwent, catchment, taskscape, complex system, interdisciplinary, holistic, trajectory, revisionist, inheritance, marsh, canals
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Social Sciences and Health > Archaeology, Department of
Thesis Date:2020
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:01 Jun 2021 10:12

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