Sunday, March 5, 2017

Dispelling the mountain gloom

A new look at how the Alps were appreciated in past centuries

It’s always refreshing to see a young scholar laying into received opinion. That kind of frisson comes from reading “Rethinking mountain gloom” by Dawn Hollis in the latest edition of Alpinist magazine. Hollis takes her axe to the idea that, before people started to climb in the high Alps late in the eighteenth century, most Europeans disliked and avoided the mountains.

Thomas Burnet
As her first witness, Hollis summons an English churchman by the name of Thomas Burnet (1635?– 1715), who crossed the Simplon Pass from Switzerland to Italy in August 1672 in the company of the Earl of Wiltshire. Almost a decade later, Burnet published his ruminations on the Alps in a book entitled The Sacred Theory of the Earth. He concluded that mountains were not part of God’s original design, but instead resulted from the chaos unleashed by Noah’s flood.

A controversy ensued, perhaps like the one that erupted in our own times when Luis and Walter Alvarez proposed that a giant meteorite had snuffed out the dinosaurs. But what surprised Hollis, when she read the responses to Burnet’s theory, was that most took issue with Burnet’s negative view of mountains. Mountains, these opponents argued, were useful as well as beautiful: they were the source of rivers, the habitat of wild animals, and served to keep warring nations apart.

Title page of the Sacred Theory

Taking the hint that at least some people thought well of mountains in pre-modern times, Hollis sought out additional accounts of alpine positivity. And she found plenty. One example she cites is by John Chardin, a jewel trader, who claimed to have ascended Mt Caucasus in December 1672 and was struck by the clouds that “roll’d under my feet, as far as I could see, so that I could not but think of myself i’ the Air, though … I trod upon the ground.”

Map (detail) by Johannes Schalbetter showing Mons Silvius (aka the Matterhorn), 1545.

It may be that one can take revisionism too far. For, surely, something must have changed at the end of the eighteenth century. Take the Matterhorn, for instance. A mountain of its description, although not necessarily under its modern name, was marked on maps from perhaps 1545. Yet the first full-on portrait of the mountain dates from as recently as August 14, 1806. The watercolour in question was painted by Hans Conrad Escher von der Linth (1767-1823), who was on a tour to elucidate the geological structure of the Alps.

August 14, 1806: the Matterhorn sits for its first portrait

So it seems that, even if Europeans didn’t actually dislike mountains before the nineteenth century, few actively bothered to seek them out. Even so, Hollis is surely right to insist that it is misleading to consign all pre-modern attitudes to a “mountain gloom” bucket  – she borrows “mountain gloom” and “mountain glory” from Marjorie Hope Nicolson (1894–1981), a pioneer in this strand of literary research, who used them as shorthand for the pre-modern and modern attitudes to mountains. She, in turn, borrowed the terms from John Ruskin, who meant something completely different by them.

Conrad Gesner
Few of the witnesses summoned up by Hollis could be less gloomy than Conrad Gesner (1516-1565), the learned doctor and botanist of Zurich. In a letter of 1541, to a fellow scholar of nearby Glarus, Gesner set out a remarkably modern list of reasons for climbing mountains:-

Most learned Avienus – I have resolved for the future, so long as God grants me life, to ascend divers mountains every year, or at least one, in the season when vegetation is at its height, partly for botanical observation, partly for the worthy exercise of the body and recreation of the mind. 

What must be the pleasure, think you, what the delight of a mind rightly touched to gaze upon the huge mountain masses for one’s show and, as it were, lift one’s head into the clouds? The soul is strangely rapt with these astonishing heights, and carried off to the contemplation of the Supreme Architect …. 

Philosophers will always feast the eyes of the body and mind on the goodly things of this earthly paradise; and by no means least among these are the abruptly soaring summits, the trackless steeps, the vast slopes rising to the sky, the rugged rocks, the shady woods.

Yet, when Hollis presented her thesis at the Alpine Club in London, she made out in the gloom of the lecture theatre an array of pursed lips and frowning faces, together with just one doubtful, bemused smile. Her audience was unconvinced. Among the critiques she received was that Gesner & Co amounted to no more than a few exceptions, “many of them already well known”.

Well, it depends what you mean by a few exceptions. For Gesner was not alone in appreciating the Alps. Scanning the relevant chapter in an old Badminton Library book on mountaineering – surely the Alpine Club has a copy – we find mention of one J. Müller, also of Zurich, who wrote up an ascent of the Stockhorn in 1536 in Latin hexameters.

Then, Josias Simmler (1530–1576) published the first part of his treatise on the Alps in 1574 – it describes the use of ropes to protect against crevasse falls on glaciers – and, finally, in 1605, yet another Zürcher, Hans Rudolph Rebmann (1566-1605) published a verse dialogue between two mountains.
Albrecht von Haller

This work is described by the Badminton author as plausibly “the most rambling and tedious poem ever published in Europe”. Still, it resonated enough to leave echoes in the works of Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672–1733), a natural philosopher of, yes, Zurich, and even in Schiller's play, William Tell (1804).

And readers remained avid for poetry on elevated subjects. When Albrecht von Haller (1708–1777), a physician and botanist from Bern, obliged them with a verse paean to the Alps in 1742, it enjoyed an “immense reputation”, went through thirty editions in the author’s lifetime, and was translated into French, English, Italian and Latin. That must have been enough to keep popular interest in the Alps stoked until, a generation later, the philosopher and novelist Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) took up the baton of marketing them to the rest of Europe.

So, unless these Swiss authors were themselves no more than exceptions, there would seem to be ample material at hand to support Hollis’s case.  I look forward to the day when she converts her findings from a doctoral thesis into the kind of book that ordinary mountaineers can read. It should be refreshingly iconoclastic.


Dawn L. Hollis, "Rethinking mountain gloom", Alpinist 57, Spring 2017 edition.

C T Dent, Mountaineering, The Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes, Third edition, 1901.

Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory, The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite, 1959.

Jon Mathieu, "Ein «Gespräch zweyer alter Bergen»", Neue Zürich Zeitung, 25 October 2015.

No comments: