Back in the day the world was different

What is landscape? I’ve covered this quite a bit already, going through a number of articles which address what it is and what it does, but I haven’t really delved into its origins. So in this essay I’ll do just that. Now, the thing with landscape is that it’s an ordinary word and you’ll find it used far more often in everyday conversations than in academic texts. Much of the confusion of what it is has to do with its everyday use.

Starting from the nuts and bolts, landscape is a compound noun: ‘land’ + ‘scape’. It is clear from that already that landscape does refer to land but it isn’t synonymous with it. If it were, it wouldn’t make much sense, to be honest. That said, that’s just me talking. Taking a look at a dictionary like the Oxford English Dictionary is probably a better idea than just taking my word for it. It (OED, s.v. “landscape”, n.) is firstly defined as:

“A picture representing natural inland scenery, as distinguished from a sea picture, a portrait, etc.”

Secondly as:

“A view or prospect of natural inland scenery, such as can be taken in at a glance from one point of view; a piece of country scenery.”

Or as:

“A tract of land with its distinguishing characteristics and features, esp. considered as a product of modifying or shaping processes and agents (usually natural).”

Thirdly, building on the previous definitions, as:

“In generalized sense … : Inland natural scenery, or its representation in painting.”

Fourthly as:

“In various transf. and fig. uses.”

None the dictionary definitions of landscape (OED, s.v. “landscape”, n.) refer to the land itself, by itself. Instead landscape is defined as a visual representation or description of it, how it is characterized by its features or used figuratively. The closest definition referring to land is the third overall definition offered here. Judging by the examples provided, that sense of the word has to do with geology and geomorphology, as well as geography in general, emerging in the late 19th century. Those familiar with early landscape research should notice that one of the examples provided under that definition is actually from Carl Sauer’s ‘The Morphology of Landscape’ (37):

“The works of man express themselves in the cultural landscape. There may be a succession of these landscapes with a succession of cultures. They are derived in each case from the natural landscape, man expressing his place in nature as a distinct agent of modification.”

Dictionaries, such as the OED, give us an overview of how the word is generally understood. Kenneth Olwig is probably the most informative landscape researcher when it comes to the origins of the word, so, in addition to the dictionary, I’ll be relying on his work to further illustrate the word with emphasis on the origins. He examines the word in his article titled ‘Representation and Alienation in the Political Land-scape’. He (20) starts by breaking the word apart to its stem ‘land’ and the following suffix ‘-scape’. The stem ‘land’ (OED, s.v. “land”, n.1) has a large number of definitions, but it primarily refers to a portion or tract of earth’s surface, ground or soil, territorial possession or property. In ‘The Word Itself’, itself a part of the ‘Discovering the Vernacular Landscape’, J. B. Jackson (6) states that in the medieval era ‘land’ was used to denote a delimited area, such as a plot of farmland. Turning attention to the suffix ‘-scape’ (-schap in Dutch) functions as the English suffix ‘-ship’ in the compound noun landscape (OED, s.v. “landscape”, n.). The definition of suffix ‘-ship’ (-scipe in Old English) denotes a state or a condition of being of something, such as hardship, friendship, fellowship and scholarship (OED, s.v. “-ship”, suffix). Olwig (20-21) states that the suffix creates abstraction of concrete beings. For example, hardship could be understood as the abstraction of something hard, such as a number of hard experiences. So, rather than saying that you’ve endured a number of hard experiences, you say you’ve endured hardship. Similarly, friendship could be stated as the abstraction of the collective condition of people who are friends with another. Those of you, or us, into sports might be able to grasp this through German. For example, ‘Die Mannschaft‘ does not merely refer to a number of players that represent a team. The team is more than that. If we take that to refer to the German national football team, it should be even clearer that the team does not merely consist of a number of players. There’s clearly more to it. Anyway, Olwig (19) emphasizes that the way it works does not indicate scale of things or beings it describes. Therefore, hardship is not simply a large number of hard experiences, nor is friendship a large number of friends. The actual number of things or beings is not relevant. You do need more than one, for sure, but it’s rather the essence of the state or condition that is relevant. Moving on, the suffix ‘-ship’ (OED, s.v. “-ship”, suffix) is derived from the verb ‘-shape’, meaning to appoint, create or ordain, and related to the nowadays in this sense obsolete English noun ‘-shaft’, meaning a creation, creature, constitution or condition. Olwig (21) argues that the abstraction of land makes it easier to comprehend it both socially and materially and to facilitate the process of shaping it. In summary, the word landscape does not merely refer to a mere delimited area, but rather an abstraction of it.

In another article, ‘The Landscape of ‘Customary’ Law Versus That of ‘Natural’ Law’, Olwig argues in favor of understanding landscape as a concept of customary law, just as the title already suggests. As I’ve already stated a number of times in the previous essays, in the medieval era ownership of land was generally a privilege restricted to nobility and for others land was defined by use rights granted by a noble, determined by customs and feudal obligations to the noble, as also noted by Olwig (633) in his titled ‘ Recovering the Substantive Nature of Landscape’. He (633) states that customs, rooted in practice, were set in a legal system as deliberated in meetings then known in Germanic areas as ‘things’ or ‘moots’. In the ‘Representation and Alienation in the Political Land-scape’ article he (22) notes that gatherings of people abstracted the land as res publica, a matter of public deliberation, a polity, which was landscape in its various Germanic forms of the word, such as landschap in Dutch, Landschaft in German, landskap in Swedish and landscipe in Old English. So, the land was thus defined bottom-up by the people enfranchised to participate in the deliberations of customary law rather than top-down, demarcated by a liege based on his territorial holdings, as argued by Olwig (17-18) in ‘Landscape, Nature and the Body Politic: From Britain’s Renaissance to America’s New World’. That said, I think it should be noted that the bottom-up participation was hardly open to every commoner, but rather typically restricted to a number of representatives, a council of estates, as noted by Michael Bollig (3) in ‘Visions of Landscape: An Introduction’, as included ‘African Landscapes: Interdisciplinary Approaches’. In summary, in modern terms, landscape was a political and legal concept in medieval Europe, not a mere delimited area.

In ‘Landscape, Nature and the Body Politic: From Britain’s Renaissance to America’s New World’ Olwig (43-61) states that in the English context the nouns ‘country’ and ‘county’, both originating from Old French (cuntree and cunté) with an Anglo-Norman connection (contré and conté) (OED s.vv. “country”, “county” n.1), function similarly as landscape did in the pre-Renaissance era continental Europe. He (45) indicates that the nouns were used interchangeably for a long period of time before ‘country’ became associated with the representative system, the English Parliament and more specifically the House of Commons. He (46-48) clarifies that ‘country’ was a polysemous noun that could refer to the administrative unit of the county, a neighborhood, or the entire commonwealth, as represented by the members of the Parliament as serving both their county and their locale.

Moving on, in ‘Recovering the Substantive Nature of Landscape’ Olwig (637) traces the introduction of landscape as scenery into the English language to the early 17th century, during the reign of James VI and I. In ‘Landscape, Nature and the Body Politic: From Britain’s Renaissance to America’s New World’ Olwig (7) indicates that Queen Anne, the wife of James I and a known patroness of arts, was influential in introducing theater to the Stuart court. In ‘Recovering the substantive nature of landscape’ Olwig (637-638) notes that under her tutelage, Inigo Jones, a surveyor and an architect, was pivotal in staging masques, a spectacular form of courtly entertainment that combined acting, dancing and music, in which the stage functioned as the landscape, the scenery. He (638) states that the purpose was not to represent landscape as actual scenery, but rather an ideal scene that matched the king’s vision. That said, Olwig (639-640) adds that this did not come to being until after the 17th century, after the (Glorious) Revolution of 1688, and that, as a result, it did not end up being adopted to serve the king, nor the commons, but the gentry who sought to erase landscape as polity. This coincided with the enclosure movement, a process in which small landholdings were consolidated into large estates, that began in the 13th century and marked the 18th and 19th centuries, as elaborated by, for example, Christopher Dyer in his article ‘Conflict in the Landscape: The Enclosure Movement in England, 1220–1349’ and Ann Bermingham in ‘Landscape and Ideology: the English Rustic Tradition, 1740-1860’. Olwig (640-641) argues that, inspired by the Palladian villas and gardens of Renaissance Venice, the gentry transformed these once common lands into enclosed landscape parks under the rubric of ‘improvement’, as examined by Stephen Daniels and Susanne Seymour in ‘Landscape Design and the Idea of Improvement 1730–1900’, as included in ‘An Historical Geography of England and Wales’. As a result, a landscape, such as a landscape park is as real or as imaginary as the depictions of it, such as landscape paintings and poems, as argued by Stephen Daniels and Denis Cosgrove (1) in the introduction of the ‘The Iconography of Landscape: Essays on the symbolic representation, design and use of past environments’. In other words, the representations depicted on canvas influenced people to the extent that the land was shaped, or landscaped, to match the idealized depictions, blurring what’s real and what’s a mere depiction of real to the extent that it was no longer possible to see the difference. So, landscape art not only depicted landscapes, but landscapes depicted landscape art.

This essay is probably among the shorter ones I’ve written and, well, in practice not of great importance to my own research. That said, I think it’s important to understand what was before landscape became what it is, i.e., how people understand it as contemporarily. This should help people to understand that landscape is not what it was back in the day and what it is now understood as is a relatively new diagram or abstract machine, which should also help you realize that there is nothing inherently real, truthful or factual about it, beyond being a part of the regimes of truth. Landscape as understood now is indeed real, in the modern sense, but in the-premodern sense it isn’t. Back in the day it simply wasn’t. What was was a different sense of the world, a different type of reality. So, as I argued in the previous essay, landscape is not transcendent, superorganic, ideological etc., operating external to people, even if people take it as such. I think Olwig’s work helps to understand that. As always, I recommend reading his articles and books, even if they aren’t specifically relevant to your research. I for one found myself going off on a tangent while reading his works, ending up reading what King James VI and I wrote way back then and the correspondence with an, let’ say, rather uncooperative parliament that used arguably rather hilarious legalese in objection to His Majesty.


  • Bermingham, A. (1986). Landscape and Ideology: the English Rustic Tradition, 1740–1860. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Bollig, M. (2009). Visions of Landscapes: An Introduction. In M. Bollig and O. Bubenzer (Eds.), African Landscapes: Interdisciplinary Approaches (pp. 1–39). New York, NY: Springer.
  • Daniels, S. and D. E. Cosgrove (1988). Introduction: iconography and landscape. In D. E. Cosgrove and S. Daniels (Eds.), The iconography of landscape: Essays on the symbolic representation, design and use of past environments (pp. 1–10). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
  • Daniels, S., and S. Seymour (1990). Landscape Design and the Idea of Improvement 1730–1914. In R. A. Dodgshon and R. A. Butlin (Eds.), An Historical Geography of England and Wales (2nd ed.) (pp. 487–520). London, United Kingdom: Academic Press.
  • Dyer, C. (2012). Conflict in the Landscape: The Enclosure Movement in England, 1220–1349. Landscape History, 28 (1), 21–33.
  • Jackson, J. B. (1984). Discovering the Vernacular Landscape. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Olwig, K. R. (1986). Recovering the Substantive Nature of Landscape. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 86 (4), 630–653.
  • Olwig, K. R. (2002). Landscape, Nature and the Body Politic: From Britain’s Renaissance to America’s New World. Madison, WI:
  • Olwig, K. R. (2005). Representation and alienation in the political land-scape. cultural geographies, 12 (1), 19–40.
  • Olwig, K. R. (2005). The Landscape of ‘Customary’ Law Versus That of ‘Natural’ Law. Landscape Research, 30 (3), 299–320.
  • Oxford English Dictionary Online (n. d.). Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
  • Sauer, C. O. ([1925] 1929). The Morphology of Landscape. In C. O. Sauer (Ed.), University of California Publications in Geography, Vol. 2: 1919–1928 (pp. 19–54). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.