Andrew Beattie, A Cultural History of the Alps (review)

I bought this book because it came up in a Google Books search. That’s a first for me and, I think it was a mistake. Not that it’s a bad book, but it’s not the book I wanted. The search showed great promise — it returned a result showing that there was a chapter entitled “There be Dragons” and I expected more information on ancient and medieval perceptions of the high mountains.

I was attracted to sixteenth-century history because it was an era when records for studying normal people were relatively good, and yet it was far enough away that thought patterns are often surprising and illuminating. I first got really hooked by reading travelogues that spoke of people with blue skin or even faces in their chests and no heads. The further one got from Europe, the stranger people got in medieval travelogues like Mandeville’s Travels and in accounts from the Age of Exploration. Further reading led me to understand that all peripheral spaces gave free reign to the imagination, and that for most of European history, the mountains were among those peripheral spaces — places that stood outside the normal order and where anything was possible.

A Cultural History of the Alps is a far more general book, divided into three parts. The first part is essentially a political history of the Alps from antiquity to the present, from pre-history to Hannibal’s crossing, to the battles of World War I. The last part is mostly about tourism and travel in the Alps. The middle part is what I was after — a history of the perception of mountains. This section, however, breezes over the early history to arrive as quickly as possible at Rousseau, Wordsworth, Byron and Shelley. We know, of course, that Roussea and the Romantics in general were instrumental in effecting the birth of modern attitudes toward mountains and mountain people. Before the eighteenth century, the mountains were to be avoided. They were places of poverty, hardship, ignorance and, yes, dragons (and giants, wild men, werewolves and more). Mountain people were ignorant and heathen, knowing neither manners nor religion (as we have seen). The Enlightenment valorised rational, orderly gardens, not craggy peaks and wild spaces.

The Romantics, though, under the inspiration of Rousseau, saw the wild spaces of the mountains as sublime and a countervailing force to the corrupting influences of civilization. The people of the mountains became the local counterpart to the noble savage. Rousseau devotees like Shelley toured Europe with La Nouvelle Heloïse in their packs, revisiting the sacred, wild spaces mentioned by Rousseau. Beattie also spends a great deal of time on the Nazis and their perception of the mountains. Of course, for those of us who are mountaineers, we are well aware of the stories of the first ascent of the North Face of the Matterhorn by the Schmid brothers and the North Face of the Eiger by Heckmair, Harrer, Vörg and Kasperek. For historians, the story of the new thinking on mountains that came with Rousseau and Romanticism is also well-known. I had not realized the role that Wordsworth played in bringing attention to the Alps in Britain, but overall, I was disappointed to see this book dominated by well-known characters.

Again, this doesn’t make it a bad book, but it is not the book that I was looking for and it’s unlikely that it’s the book that most historians would be looking for. It is aimed more, I would say, at a popular audience both in content (focus on just the most major players and lots on Nazis) and in format (no footnotes, lightly sourced). Beattie recommends Robert MacFarlane’s Mountains of the Mind (Grant Books, 2003) as his source on “how mountains in all parts of the world have been perceived in different eras, from medieval times to the present.” That may be the book I’m looking for, but the description and reviews on Amazon make me think not. I imagine there must be something from a French or Swiss historian, but I don’t know it… yet.

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