Lunchtime seminar series – 18th November: Dawn Jackson Williams (University of St. Andrews)

CHSTMSeminar Dawn Williams

High Altitude Adventures Before the Age of Alpinism? Early Modern Mountain Climbing and Mountain Activity

The story of human interaction with mountains in the modern era is well-known: from the first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1789 to the conquest of Everest in 1953, and from the Romantic musings of Wordsworth and Coleridge amid the Lake District hills to the current passion for landscape photography. But what came before? Many historians have stated that the modern sense of ‘mountain glory’ was preceded by a long era of ‘mountain gloom’, during which mountains were, at best, avoided and ignored, and at worst, actively feared and despised. This paper will challenge this narrative through a consideration of a number of sources attesting to significant early modern interaction with mountains. It will present a series of travel accounts in which individuals journeyed among and even up mountains, both small and great. It will explore evidence for the existence of mountaineering technology and techniques before the so-called ‘birth of Alpinism’, and consider the variety of motivations for early modern activity on mountains – economic, scientific, religious, and even aesthetic. Finally, it will analyse the relationship between physical experience of mountains and understandings of their origins.

This paper will tell the story of early modern crevasse rescues, of mountain tourists travelling to set eyes upon the very site where the Ark settled, and of theories of the origins of the form of the Earth. Above all, it will argue that the early modern reaction to mountains, far from being one of ‘mountain gloom’, was just as positive and complex as our own so-called modern sense of ‘mountain glory’.


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