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In The Beginning . . .

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or at least the late Middle Ages, the highest peak in the Alps was known as Mont Maudit, the Cursed Mountain. Yet by the time of its first acent in 1787, it had become Mont Blanc, the White Mountain. Historians of the Alps have long argued that the change involved more than a name.

Although many climbers imagine climbing as an eternal pursuit, most Europeans spent much of the last millennium alienated from high places. That distaste for mountains did not simply reflect the despair of farmers at the impossibility of growing crops on a glacier. Medieval and early modern Europeans had theological grounds for mistrusting high, craggy landscapes.

Why had a loving God imposed so many miles of icy stone on the very heart of Europe?

The Alps reminded pious Christians of God’s curse upon humanity. Cast out of the Garden of Eden, humans could measure their depravity in the Alps. The highest peak was not simply a worthless chunk of frozen granite, but a geological monument to original sin, haunted by dragons and the devil: “Mont Maudit.”
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Not until the eighteenth century would Mont Maudit become “Mont Blanc,” as European elites begin to imagine mountains as sites of natural wonder and moral uplift.

The change came suddenly. In little more than a century, English travelers forsook descriptions of mountains as warts, pimples and tumors for rapturous odes to alpine grandeur. In the late seventeenth century, one English gentleman so feared the alpine passes that he had himself blindfolded as he crossed (perhaps fortunately—he did not actually witness the large wolf that made off with his lapdog). By the early nineteenth century, Chamonix hoteliers fattened themselves upon the flocks of middle-class seekers after the sublime. Little wonder, then, that contemporaries and historians of the mountains have associated the taste for mountain spaces with the advent of the modern age.

The best account of that change remains Marjorie Hope Nicolson’s Mountain Gloom, Mountain Glory (1959), a book that traces the development of a new “aesthetics of the infinite” in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English theology, poetry and science. For Nicolson, Thomas Burnet’s Sacred Theory of the Earth (1686) served as the key transitional work, holding onto the older sense of mountains as awful and unlivable, while striking a poetic note that would appeal to later thinkers. The mountains, said Burnet, were “Ruins of a broken world.”

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After Sacred Theory of the Earth, the conversation drifted into places that would have horrified the devout Burnet. Reckonings of the age of the earth exploded from a scant few thousand years to countless eons. New and increasingly secular conceptions of the earth’s crust climbed hand in hand with a new romantic appreciation of monumental spaces. Geologists read evolution in ice, painters rendered historical strata in oils, and the poets scanned Switzerland. In these years, Nicolson argued, educated Europeans transposed, from God to nature, their sense of awe in the face of the infinite.

More recently, scholars like Nicolas Giudici, in his La philosophie du Mont Blanc (2000), have argued that the discovery of “verticality” was part and parcel of the emergence of a new, rational and secular Europe. Indeed, Martin Rudwick’s monumental history of the emergence of geological science, Bursting the Limits of Time (2005), opens with the Enlightenment philosophe Horace Benedict de Saussure ascending the glaciers above Chamonix.

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In these accounts, mountaineering was part of the creation of a modern world.

admin @ January 31, 2010

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