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Gregory the Great’s Rivers: Environment and Hagiography in Sixth Century Italy
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Gregory the Great has been the focus of many studies that discuss the transition of Italy from late antiquity to a medieval period. He was witness to the dissolution of the infrastructure of empire in the Italian peninsula, shifting and redistribution of populations after the Lombard invasion, and the increased need for the pastoral care of bishops in these new settlements. Hemispheric climate change and the first plague pandemic also stressed the population of Italy. It is under this social and environmental upheaval that Gregory writes his hagiography collection, the Dialogues. In this thesis I argue that Gregory’s ecological literature is reflective not only of the seemingly apocalyptic environment that Gregory lives through, but of a current of cultural change as well. In looking at the destruction of natural world through Gregory’s fluvial literature and relevant palaeoclimatological records, this study identifies how Gregory’s landscape changes when human agents (bishops) and natural agents (rivers) come into conflict, and how that may be reflective of the peninsula’s historical climate changes in the sixth century. Gregory identifies the natural world, in this case rivers, as a powerful force of change that is challenged by bishops and their responsibility to protect the communities they serve. These conflicts between bishops and their local rivers are central to Gregory’s attempt at depicting how pre-Christian and Christian elements function in an environment under such social, political, and climatological stressors.