Phlegmatic Landscapes

Perceptions of Wetlands, 'Acedia', and Complexion Theory in Selected Later Medieval Allegorical Pilgrim Narratives


  • Elspeth Whitney University of Nevada, Las Vegas



landscapes, Middle Ages, wetlands, acedia, pilgrim narratives


Understanding medieval landscapes as sacred sites reveals underlying tensions in medieval thought between the placement of human beings outside of nature and a view that humans are in, and part of, the natural world. This article examines the relationship of landscape and human experience in late medieval allegorical dream visions of pilgrimage with particular attention to the descriptions of swamps or swamp-like environments and their effects. According to complexion theory, humoral makeup shaped natural entities, including human physiology and psychology. The phlegmatic person’s complexional coldness and moisture predisposed that person to the sin of acedia or spiritual despair, just as the stagnant swamp threatened to trap those who passed through it. The swamp and other wetland landscapes therefore appeared in these texts as an acknowledgment that the pilgrim/poet/narrator might suffer defeat through their own inability to move toward the good. This relationship was constitutive as well as metaphorical, as inhabiting a swamp induced phlegmatic characteristics.

Author Biography

Elspeth Whitney, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Elspeth Whitney, Department of History, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, USA.


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How to Cite

Whitney, E. (2019). Phlegmatic Landscapes: Perceptions of Wetlands, ’Acedia’, and Complexion Theory in Selected Later Medieval Allegorical Pilgrim Narratives. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 13(2), 157–180.



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