Get access

Sacred Topography and Social Memory: Religious Change and the Landscape in Early Modern Britain and Ireland


Alexandra Walsham is a Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Trinity College.


This article analyses the relationship between the tumultuous religious changes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the landscape of the British Isles. It examines the immediate impact and long-term cultural repercussions of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations on perceptions of and practices associated with the natural world and physical environment, as well as the influence exerted by intellectual and cultural trends associated with developments in science, medicine, and antiquarianism. Reformed theology fundamentally undermined traditional assumptions about the presence of the sacred in the material universe, but the religious ruptures of the era were tempered and complicated by elements of continuity and movements of counter-reaction. Springs, trees, stones, and other notable topographical landmarks retained powerful religious resonances after the Reformation. Potent reminders of the pre-Reformation past, they also provided a stimulus to the making of new myths and legends and acted as catalysts of the transformation of social memory.