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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Extraordinary Ordinary Landscapes

  • 09/04/2024
  • 18:00-19:30
  • online talk

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Extraordinary Ordinary Landscapes

A Folklore Society Online Talk, by Dr Susan Kilby (University of Nottingham)

Tuesday 9 April 2024, 18:00 BST

Situated at the heart of Castor’s early twelfth-century rural church in modern Cambridgeshire, a beautiful set of Romanesque capitals depicts an array of creatures, encompassing both the natural and supernatural worlds. This paper attempts to identify the inspiration behind elements of the scheme, to assess the myriad ways in which it might be interpreted, and to place it firmly within its contemporary landscape context. Traditional readings of the images are assessed alongside supplementary interpretations found within contemporary didactic texts on animal lore .

These readings are then set against the expectations and experiences of local people in the surrounding landscape, both during and preceding the time the capitals were constructed, as elucidated in contemporary written texts. Minor landscape names created by local peasants provide further evidence that the iconography was to some extent chosen to reflect its landscape setting. Taken together, the evidence allows us an insight into how one early twelfth-century rural community perceived its environment. It is suggested that elements of the scheme operate on a number of levels. It was – in part, at least – designed to remind locals that the demonic and ungodly could be found within commonplace spaces, and that those commonplace spaces were recognizable as the environment immediately outside the church door, in the fields, meadows and woodlands of medieval Castor.

Susan Kilby is a Research Associate at the Institute for Name-Studies at the University of Nottingham. Her work focuses on the complexity of peasants’ relationships with local landscape, ranging from their economic interests through to more culturally informed ideas, including conceptual notions of the landscape adopted by different community groups, the survival of cultural memory, and the landscape as a repository for local cultural capital. Her recent book, Peasant Perspectives on the Medieval Landscape, was published by University of Hertfordshire Press.

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Photo: Susan Kilby