Water as Medieval Intellectual Entity

Hello All,

I hope that this finds you well. I am certainly feeling pleased, having submitted my thesis for examination on Friday. Although I currently have no new thoughts to put up on Fluid Imaginings, I thought I would end the last phase of my life by posting the abstract and acknowledgements from my thesis. I am taking this opportunity to show you all what I have been working on and how it turned out. More importantly, this is my opportunity to publicly thank the many organisations and individuals who have made this research possible.

More soon, but for now, my thesis:

Water as Medieval Intellectual Entity: Case Studies in Twelfth-Century Western Monasticism

James L. Smith

The University of Western Australia

School of Humanities


In this thesis, the imagery of water serves as a point of focus for an inquiry into the composition of medieval abstract space. As a ubiquitous element of human life with distinct properties and connotations across time, water touches, and has ever touched upon, both what is historically and culturally unique and what is ongoing within environmental imagination. This study examines the significance and the deployment of environmental imagery in the composition, narration, and recollection of organised thought in the Middle Ages. I argue that images of environment in systematic ecological arrangement perform a key role in revealing medieval spaces of thought.

The intellectual and imaginative uses of water in medieval thought merge mind and environment, and bind intellection and phenomenon within the spaces of the inner world. This thesis suggests that the medieval logic of these patterned spaces links us intimately to the internal structures of sense-making in a distinct intellectual milieu—that of monastic, twelfth-century, Northern European Christendom—and to the understanding of environment that it implied, be it cultural, religious, or quotidian.

In this thesis, I analyse the imagery and the rhetoric of water in various texts as a means to explore the potential meanings of water as an abstract entity in medieval thought. Through literary case studies of water in various expressive forms—diagrammatic representation, poetry, landscape narrative, and epistolary communication—I trace its existence as a thought system within the history of ideas that is both uniquely medieval and suggestive of broader sense-making patterns.

The thesis opens with the interpretation of water as complex metaphor, both in terms of its longue durée and generalised use, and in a specifically medieval context. The second chapter delves deeper into the medieval properties of water metaphor through an exploration of three key themes: the role of water metaphor in the metaphysical, salvific and intellectual world of Western Christendom, the elemental properties of water and their metaphorical resonances, and the role of water metaphor in the shaping of rhetoric.

The third chapter focuses on the diagrammatic representation of Pierpont Morgan M. 982, a manuscript leaf depicting Lady Philosophia nourishing the Seven Liberal Arts with streams of knowledge. In this diagram, it is the thematics of water that give the representation a flow of energy and a sense of motion within an imagined hydrological cycle.

The fourth chapter comprises a reading of the Fons Philosophiae, a didactic poem by the Regular Canon Godfrey of Saint-Victor. In the poem, a river system pouring fourth from a lofty mountain flows across the plains of knowledge, providing a space for the poet’s pilgrim-like persona to pass through and parse the Seven Liberal Arts, assessing the respective qualities of their rivers in a quest for their head waters in theology.

The fifth chapter interprets the epistolary style of the Benedictine Abbot Peter of Celle, a notable letter writer and Churchman. Within Peter’s letters, small parables and metaphorical flourishes demonstrate the compressed power of complex water metaphor by intermingling scripture and aqueous imagery to enliven the moral message, using the properties of water as an aide. Furthermore, the use of aqueous metaphor suggests a hydrological imagining of intellectual and epistolary community.

The sixth and final chapter explores the anonymous Description of Clairvaux, a ‘mirror’ of monastic life in which moral and salvific meanings are imbued in a quotidian account. Descriptions of the landscape, hydrological practices and moral mission of Cistercianism merge within a seemingly simple scene of paradisal locus amoenus and virtuous labour, making water the channel connecting daily experience and a grander metaphysical purpose.

This thesis provides a contribution to a new understanding of environmental imagination and knowledge visualisation in twelfth-century monasticism, coupled with insights of wider relevance to the study of relationships between water and intellectual culture. By revealing links between the shaping of inner space and the composition of word and image, it enables a reading of primary sources and textual media rooted in the imaginative processes of their creators. The intellectual entity of water, through metaphor, becomes an image of the vital principle, the vis naturae or élan vital, in intellectual life. Furthermore, this intellectual life is ordered through a fundamental pattern of organised distribution, a flow of life source to its manifold manifestations.



I would like to begin by acknowledging everyone who has given me the inspiration and advice to finish this PhD thesis. I would like to thank my mother Diane for her unceasing support and patience during these last four years, and my family in Australia and the United Kingdom. This thesis is also dedicated to the memory of my grandmother Margaret and my aunt Carolyn, long supportive of my academic career but sadly no longer with us. I would like to thank my girlfriend Debs for cheering me up and for believing in me. It was during the course of this thesis that we came together, and it was through her kindness, humour, and advice that it was completed.

The list of friends that I have made, enjoyed the company of, worked with, argued with, built with, and experienced PhD life with is too great to list in full here. They span the globe, and have made my life, and my thesis, richer. I would especially like to thank (in no particular order) Chris Lin, Rebecca Rey, Colin Yeo, Phil Kierle, Brett Hirsch, Ruth Morgan, Aisling Blackmore, Imogen Forbes-Macphail, Charmaine Fernandez, Andrew Broertjes, Danau Tanu, and Jo Hawkins of UWA for enriching my academic and personal life during my PhD. I would also like to thank Jane Héloïse-Nancarrow and Kats Handel in particular for their friendship, both individually and together with their fellow PhD students at the University of York. Finally, I owe a great debt of gratitude to my school friends from Helena College for keeping me in touch with the comings and goings beyond the academic world.

The encouragement, advice, and inspiration that have shaped and nourished both this thesis and its author came from many, for which I am eternally grateful. I offer special thanks to my supervisors Professors Philippa Maddern and Andrew Lynch for their generous advice, careful reading, rigorous interrogation of drafts, and personal support. I offer my thanks to the staff and students of the school of Humanities at the University of Western Australia for their assistance in matters personal, professional, and practical.

I offer particular thanks to the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, the Perth Medieval and Renaissance Group, the Australian Research Council Centre for the History of Emotion, the Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, the Postgraduate Student Association, and the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Western Australia for providing frequent and well-conceived opportunities for inspiration and training. I would like to thank all of those who have generously supported my doctorate and career, with special thanks to the Australian Research Council. I would like to thank the Graduate Research School, the School of Humanities, and Convocation at UWA for travel funding. I also would like to thank the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, the Centre for the History of Emotion, the New Chaucer Society, and the George Washington Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute for conference support.

Finally, I am pleased to thank the many overseas members of the academic community who have enriched this thesis over the years. I offer thanks to the staff and students of the university of York for their hospitality and support for the duration of my 2011 Worldwide Universities Network exchange to the United Kingdom. I also offer thanks to new friends from the medievalist community of the United States for their insights, collegiality and hospitality during three conference visits to Kalamazoo, Portland, and Washington, D.C. in 2012 and 2013.

Thank you, one and all.


Fluid: An Ecology of the Inhuman

Hello All,

I have returned to London from Washington, D.C. after an enjoyable, thought provoking, and lively day at the George Washington Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute (GW MEMSI) symposium on the topic of Ecologies of the Inhuman. I would like to thank all involved for making the day so enjoyable, and to thank Jeffrey Cohen and the wonderful people at MEMSI for being such excellent hosts. Thank you also to Ian Bogost for participating and providing a fresh and enlivening object-oriented perspective that was greatly appreciated.

As well as providing a vastly complex and scintillating insight into just what it can mean to think ecologically outside of an anthropocentric frame of reference, the symposium provided some troubling and often disturbing insights into the violence, dislocation, horror (as one audience member put it) and problematics of ecology. An enmeshed and interwoven world solves many problems that impede us, and yet raise new quandaries. In a world rendered fluid, riven, socially troubling, potentially dissolute, and intermediate by ecological thought (the dark ecology of Timothy Morton), how can an acceptance of this reality enable action, and what kind of action should it enable?

There is, by the very definition of the context in which the day took place, no definitive answer. A definitive answer would be undesirable, for it would give the illusion of permanent matrices for choice to be made. Any yet, through inspiration, I feel that there are many worlds of action waiting to unfold in co-composition with actors large and small.  I would like to offer a copy of my paper below as stimulus, to feed rumination for those who were present and engagement for those that were absent:

 *** Fluid ***

To flow is to strive against inertia, to spread forth, to become diluted by the myriad eddies of life, to become enriched by new influx. To flow is to be lost, to rush through life, to be dashed upon unfamiliar resistance, to feel turmoil within. These dynamics form a bond of historical specificities merged with material certainties across time, for the fluidity of creativity, composition and dynamism must ever inspire and unsettle in equal measure. This is something to be desired and to be feared, something that surrounds us in ecology of temporal and material motion that can no more be escaped than effect can escape cause. This paper, in its second iteration, flows through the fluid anxieties of medieval moral life, and empties itself into modern vicissitudes.

In a medieval intellectual world encapsulated by a shifting and swirling maelstrom, matter had a disturbing agency. As Augustine put it in De Doctrina Christiana, the world was to be used as a vehicle of travel, not to be enjoyed.[1] It was somewhat disturbing when the world used you. Through myriad pushings and pullings, buffetings and fluxes, the motions of the medieval world propelled not only human life, but the mobile cosmos on a grand scale. And yet while the crystalline spheres moved with reassuring and geometric grace above, the temporal world overflowed with ever combining forces.

Fundamental patterns of vital motion, the very forces that drove the cosmos, were the same forces that epitomised the flaws of temporality. The response within the human heart? Anguish. “Why do we love you, O World, as you flee from us?” entreated Alcuin of York in his poem O Mea Cella.[2] Alcuin’s ardent allegoresis of the world as addressable dissolves instantly into a torrent of inhuman motion. The answer? Contempt. In the twelfth century, Hugh of Saint-Victor described the temporal world, with all that is in it, as “flood water sweeping past, whose inundations and changing currents -whether we compare them to a flood that covers everything or to a mighty sea- are very like reality.”[3] Regarding the human heart, Hugh admonishes the reader to remember that “All things pass and flow and not a thing subsists under the sun, so that the sentence is fulfilled: vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”[4]

With flight of the world came a strong sense of anxiety, for it was inexorable and non-human. The alienating conatus of a passing world, the very stuff of mundane life in process, was a constant reminder of temporality in unfavourable comparison with the unblemished empyrean heavens. In his twelfth century De Contemptu Mundi, Bernard of Cluny evoked the trope of the fugitive world in a powerful display of spiritual pathos. “See how the whirling courses of things hasten away, like streams of water. The world’s glory has fallen and fled and vanished in the cycle of days…Its position is unfixed, its status is unstable. It goes and it returns, like the sea, now bad and tomorrow even worse.”[5]

What of we moderns, caught as we are in a sea of our own? As our institutions crumble, our cultures intermingle, our grasp on the triumphant anthropocentrism of the Enlightenment fades, what must we do? Alcuin and Hugh sought order in the intricacies of spiritual edifice, and yet even our minds flow away before us, leading to destinations tantalising and terrible. Flow is both our greatest distraction, and our most vibrant opportunity. Tim Ingold eloquently captures this when he argues the “ocean of materiality” humanity inhabits “is not the bland homogeneity of different shades of matter but a flux in which materials of the most diverse kinds, through processes of admixture and distillation, of coagulation and dispersal, and of evaporation and precipitation, undergo continual generation and transformation.”[6]

We can synthesise, we can build and we can strengthen, but we must allow ourselves the flexibility to flow with the forces that roil around us. To quote Jeffrey Cohen and Lowell Duckert, “catastrophes precede and follow any stability; failures inevitably arrive. In such moments of perturbation we behold the web of interrelationships that constitutes and sustains our own worldedness. Cataclysms inevitably shatter such ecological meshworks, but failure is an invitation to dwell more carefully, fashion more capacious perspectives, and do better.[7] Perhaps, in imitation of our medieval forebears, we can invest ourselves in cultivating our observer position in the heart of ecology so that we too might seek that which is worthy of lasting affective engagement. Our response? Fluid.

[1]    De Doctrina Christiana, Book 1, Chapters 3-5. For an online edition, see: <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/12021.htm>

[2]    “cur te fugitivum, mundus, amamus?” For Latin text, see: <http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/alcuin/cella.shtml>

[3]    Noah’s Ark III, ‘De Vanitate Mundi’, in Hugh of St. Victor, Selected Spiritual Writings / Translated by a Religious of C.S.M.V., with an Introduction by Aelred Squire, O.P. (London: Faber, 1962), pp. 175-176.

[4]     ‘Hugh of Saint Victor: Theology and Interiority’, in Ineke van ’t Spijker, Fictions of the Inner Life: Religious Literature and Formation of the Self in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries. (Turnhout: Brepols, 2004), pp. 119-120.

[5]    Ronald E. Pepin (trans.), Scorn for the world: Bernard of Cluny’s De contemptu mundi : the Latin text with English translation and an introduction. (East Lansing MI: Michigan State University Colleagues Press, 1991), Book 1, p. 71.

[6]     Tim Ingold, Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge, and Description. (London: Routledge, 2011), p. 24.

[7]     Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, and Lowell Duckert, ‘Howl’, postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, 4 (2013),  p. 4.

Fluid Friday – Toroidal Vortices

Hello Readers,

This fluid friday finds me in London, getting acclimatised in time for some research and writing. I’m going to share a video of toroidal vortices with you today. These amazing vortices form in a blown smoke ring, are ejected from the airhole of aquatic mammals, allow helicopters to fly, and cause certain forms of heart attack when they form in the left ventricle. They’re quite hypnotic:

I am taking a hiatus from posting for a while longer until I am more settled, but I wish you a felicitous fluid friday!


Fluid Friday – Brinicles

Hello All,

So, tomorrow I fly out for the United Kingdom! Although I will be busy preparing to go away when you read this, today I am going to share the amazing phenomenon of the brinicle with you, in the words of David Attenborough! This image really reminds me how wondrous and diverse our watery world can be.

If you haven’t seen this video before, then I hope you have enjoyed it. I hope everyone in the US is having a good thanksgiving, and that the pre-christmas crazy season is not getting you down.

Pleasant Weekend!


Fluid Friday – Cenote Ikil, Chichén Itzá

I hope you are having a fantastic fluid friday!

Here is a video of the beautiful Cenote Ikil near Chichén Itzá on Mexico’s yucatan peninsula. This amazing space, formed by limestone erosion, has an otherworldly quality. Almost perfectly round, it looks like it was carved, not made by nature.

As i’ve said before, I want to go on a hydrotourism trip to South America, and this is definitely on my list!

Have flowing and bountiful weekend!

Fluid Friday – The Rivers of Emotion Project

The River Swan, courtesy of Wikimedia user nachoman-au via a CC Attribution Share Alike 3.0 license

Greetings to you on this Fluid Friday,

Today, rather than embedding content in my blog, i’d like to direct your attention to an amazing project. As any of you who saw my recent post will know, I am very attached to the river that flows through my home city of Perth in Western Australia, the Swan. I am not the only person who loves the Swan, and this collective love-kindled appropriately by the efforts of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotion-has given birth to a very wonderful website.

The Centre has funded Rivers of Emotion: An Emotional history of Derbarl Yerrigan and Dkarlgarro Bellier / the Swan and Canning Rivers, a beautifully executed collection of artwork, recordings, images, and stories surrounding the river. The site also contains a wonderful map mashup with layers of myth, history, narrative and experience embedded into the contours of the river. I recommend that you take a look immediately. One of the key reasons that the CHE was funded was its goal of expressing the emotional history of Australia, and it has done so admirably through this project.

I hope that you have a wonderful weekend, and may rivers of emotion flow through your life now and always.

Fluid Friday – Phantom Water

I bid you all a Fantastic Fluid Friday.

Today I am sharing with you a beautiful High Definition video by Chris Bryan taken on a Phantom HD gold camera with an underwater housing. I recommend expanding the video to full screen, because it is truly beautiful, its detail sensational. It depicts the motion of water, its material magnificence, its dynamism and its colour in every detail at a slow motion pace. Largely consisting of footage depicting the waves of the ocean and the human-aqueous interactions of the surfer, the video is hypnotic in its colour and vitality.

As you will see, quality cinematography and Bryan’s expert editing turns water into something else entirely. Like other images of nature in slow motion -flowers unfurling, a hummingbird beating its wings, or plants growing- we can see the material vibrancy of water that is often too fast for the human eye. By watching this magic at a slower pace, I hope that we can all now view the natural world with a new attentiveness enabled by some extremely deft camera work.

Enjoy a Fluid Weekend!