Looking Back on a Ferment of Frontier Ideas

I am on holiday today, more or less at the order of my top boss, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds who has mandated two extra days’ leave for all of us because of the hell-year we may at some point be able to say we survived. Let us not right now look at the implications of reducing the working days of a workforce whose work is itself not diminished, but instead let me take the chance between bouts of much-delayed house-cleaning to see if I can’t knock out another backlogged blog post. Looking through my old papers, I find that if we stick to the programme of events from 2017, pretty much the next thing that I did of importance after the trip to Lleida was the first of a series of events connected with the two grants I was then holding, and in particular a workshop from my Rethinking the Medieval Frontier project. This was tremendous fun, but it’s also something I already wrote about at the time, as part of the publicity work for the project itself. So there is already not just a blog post for you to read about it, but the actual digest of the meeting I sent round the group afterwards; and if you are yourself deeply concerned about frontiers I think those are still worth a read. But, I could also say something here that catches some of the interesting ideas that didn’t make it into the other post or the digest, so I will.

Sant Bartomeu del Grau viewed from Sant Andreu de Gurb

The masthead of the Rethinking the Medieval Frontier website, one of my Catalan photos showing, as it happens, Sant Bartomeu del Grau viewed from Sant Andreu de Gurb

Before I do that, rather than make you read a whole separate blog post to find out what this one’s about, it seems reasonable at least to describe the nature of the event. Basically, it was the classic academic talking shop: get the best people you can think of to discuss a theme into a room together with coffee and pastries, having first given them a prompt to think with in the form of an agenda document, and let rip. When things flag, add lunch, then more coffee and carry on. Finally, take the survivors out for Thai food, bid them goodbye and take all their ideas home to cackle over and plot with! My notes from this are an interesting thing to try and decode, because I knew I was going to have to sum up and try to bring the group into consensus about what to do next in the second part: as well as some kind of record of what was being said, they have my spider-trails of connections between asterisked points, which I must have been adding live, and additional marginal scribbles in capitals of things I wanted to throw back into the discussion later. And, as I say, there are things in there which didn’t get taken forward but which are still worth laying out to look at. But first, I should identify the speakers. In order of appearance in my notes, we were:

  1. Dr Alex Metcalfe, University of Lancaster, specialist especially in Muslim and Norman Sicily, thinks a boundary is a space between spaces whose definition differs between cultures;
  2. Dr Andy Seaman, Christ Church Canterbury University, specialist especially in the archaeology of post-Roman Britain, more interested in the spaces lying between other things that aren’t demarcated at all;
  3. Dr Luca Zavagno, Bilkent University, specialist especially in the islands of the Byzantine Mediterranean and thus most interested in islands as frontier interspaces;
  4. Dr Hajnalka Herold, then of the Unversität Wien but now the University of Exeter, specialist in Avar archaeology and archaeometry, interested especially in the edges of nomadic empires and the language of frontiers;
  5. Dr Jonathan Jarrett, University of Leeds, about whom you probably already have your ideas;
  6. Professor Naomi Standen, University of Birmingham, specialist especially in ninth- and tenth-century China and the polities on its edges that contended for inclusion or exclusion from the Sinosphere, and keenest to stress the human agency of the populations who live in ’em in making frontiers real or meaningful;
  7. Dr Alan Murray, University of Leeds, specialist especially in the Crusades in the Baltic and the Holy Land, and interested especially in the way the edges of Christendom were expanded, claimed and labelled in such efforts;
  8. Dr Emma Cavell, University of Swansea, specialist especially in the Anglo-Norman Welsh Marches and most interested in the space they and other frontiers gave to women to act in unusual and powerful ways;1
  9. Dr Álvaro Carvajal Castro, of the Universidad del País Vasco, participating via Skype until it became impossible and a specialist in state formation and the use of history in ninth- and tenth-century Asturias-León, although also in other places, and for whom local-level boundaries were the specific hook for us.

So that was the team: what did we all come up with? Well, for the summary of that I can best direct you to the other post and the digest, but here’s what you might call the bonus tracks. Had you ever thought about these questions and ideas?

  • Is the sea a frontier or a space between them? If it’s a frontier, is it one of the ‘no-man’s land’ unclaimed zones which we all seemed to have in our patches at times, or does its maritime nature make it different? (Credit: Alex and Luca)
  • How important is the difference between a border between two roughly equal powers, a symmetrical frontier, and an asysmmetric one where one side is the dominant party? Is there a smooth transition between these states or a scale difference, and if the latter, where does it tip? (Credit: me and Emma in dialogue and Alex musing on it later.)
  • Control of frontier zones does not only extend horizontally: as well as modern claims to airspace, fishing rights, salvage, mining and treasure trove all involve claims on what is downwards… (Alex).
  • What would have happened if rather than the binaries that dominated much of our discussion, and in the end my digest, we had followed Naomi’s prompt to think in trinaries, geographical or political or cultural, barrier or bridge or locality, open or closed or permeable? My notes add in brackets, “a line that doesn’t exist but which you can still be on the wrong side of”, but this doesn’t seem to relate to Naomi’s point so either I was tiring or I can’t now reconstruct the exact spark-plug here; I still quite like that formulation, but Naomi’s prompt seems to go to other and more useful places…

Given the number of ways these and the other questions we were working with could be answered, I both do and don’t understand one of the other things which kept coming up in these discussions, to wit the question of whether we as historians (and archaeologists) could do what I’d declared as the mission of the project and actually generate ‘theory’. I was by a long way the most optimistic about this, but I don’t see why. Obviously we had a lot of difference both in questions and answers, but if by some awful situation we’d been compelled to come up with a 5,000 word-statement of our agreed findings, it was pretty clear what it would have contained; that’s where the digest came from. Isn’t that theory, then, given that it was not empirical findings about any one place alone?

Notes from the Rethinking the Medieval Frontier workshop

My trying to keep track in a way that would give most graphologists some cause of worry

The most I could push my learned colleagues to was that we might generate some models, but what is theory but an assemblage, not even a very big one, of models? When I think of the really big-name sociologists and anthropologists whom medievalists like to use, very few of them, if any, worked collaboratively and they usually didn’t have more than one study population (although, while maybe only Pierre Bourdieu was explicit about also using his own society as a comparator, I think they all did that as well).2 We had about ten different study populations across eight centuries and most of the Northern Hemisphere, and were collaborating to establish commonality and usefulness; that looks like a better basis for theorisation to me! We’ll cheerfully steal those people’s ideas, or those founded on nothing but white male intellectual self-reflection, but we don’t believe we can make our own.3 And yet, look at the other blog post and the above. A roughly consensus set of answers to some of those questions would be theory all right, surely. And that is still what this project, if I get to pick it up again, is aiming to produce: some actual theory about how frontiers work in non-state, non-industrial, low-tech contexts that might be surprisingly applicable in other places, maybe even the ones we’re in now…


1. For example, the noble spymistresses located in Emma Cavell, “Intelligence and intrigue in the March of Wales: noblewomen and the fall of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, 1274-82” in Historical Research Vol. 88 (Oxford 2014), pp. 1–19, about a version of which you can read here.

2. I suppose I am mainly here thinking of Pierre Bourdieu, ‘The Forms of Capital’, trans. Richard Nice in Marxists Internet Archive, 2016 online here, but for more on the relevant theme, see Richard Harker, “Bourdieu – Education and Reproduction” in Richard K. Harker, Cheleen Mahar and Chris Wilkes (edd.), An Introduction to the Work of Pierre Bourdieu: the practice of theory (Basingstoke 1990), pp. 86–108. What little I myself have done with Bourdieu has at least been frontiers-related, in the form of Jonathan Jarrett, “Engaging Élites: counts, capital and frontier communities in the ninth and tenth centuries, in Catalonia and elsewhere” in Networks and Neighbours Vol. 2 (Binghamton 2014), pp. 202–230, about which you can read and maybe already have read here.

3. Not that there isn’t stuff to be done even with Derrida’s most self-polarised thinking, as witness Sarah Stanbury, “Derrida’s Cat and Nicholas’s Study” in New Medieval Literatures Vol. 12 (Turnhout 2010), pp. 155–167, about a version of which you can read here, but when I think how much I see done by medievalists with Derrida, as opposed to say, the Chicana female socially-based reflection of Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands / la Frontera: the new Mestiza, 4th edn (San Francisco 2012), I do wonder whether the fuss is just about his genius and maybe not at least slightly because he ‘seems’ like a secular intellectual authority figure whereas she ‘seems’ like a marginalisable spiritualised anti-racist protestor. Maybe even ‘shrill‘. Anyway. Probably I have a lot to learn. In fact, certainly. Whether it’s about this, we’ll maybe someday see.

4 responses to “Looking Back on a Ferment of Frontier Ideas

  1. Was Hadrian’s Wall a boundary or did it just mark the southern extreme of a boundary zone?

    (Genuine question: is there a generally accepted answer?)

    • I think that the generally accepted answer for the moment is that it’s a barrier, rather than a boundary, towards the centre of a zone extending both southwards and northwards of it. It served to channel and restrict movement within the zone and be a base for operations within it. However, the use did change over time. Originally there were forts to the north of it as well; for a while the Antonine Wall was beyond those (and I don’t know if that is thought to have worked the same way) and then in the end it was the northern edge of structural investment, but not of operations or, therefore, control, even if not the same kind of control before as there was behind it. In any case, I think it is considered that the Wall was always a means of projecting power north, even if not always on the same strategy. So it doesn’t really make sense to draw the edge of jurisdiction there. The Arabian limes may not have worked the same way, however—I know you didn’t ask, but I’m thinking aloud, sorry—because there was an equally powerful empire on the other side of that; I suspect that instead there was usually a desert no-man’s land between their power zones, which was ominously filled up in campaigning time. In Mauretania the limes might have been more like Northern Britain, but the Rhine probably sometimes was an actual boundary, over which Roman power was often projected, but beyond which jurisdiction was acknowledged as normally belonging to non-Romans. So even in the Roman world, I think frontiers varied. Christopher Whittaker is the classic name on this subject, but a shorter and more recent study would be Peter Heather, “Holding the Line: Frontier Defence and the Later Roman Empire” in Victor Davis Hanson (ed.), Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome (Princeton NJ 2010), pp. 227–246.

  2. Pingback: Fomenting New Islands Ideas | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  3. Pingback: A frontier comparison no-one’s made | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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