When, two posts ago, I recounted what still seemed worth recounting of the first three days of the 2016 International Medieval Congress at Leeds, you may have noticed that because of now being employed by the host university, I was involved in a lot more sessions as moderator than in previous years. This is the deal I get as staff, effectively; I can go to the Congress for free, because they can hardly charge me for coming to work, but they expect me to do my bit to keep it running. So my timetable for the Congress is now a lot more preset than you’d ordinarily expect. But on the last day of the 2016 edition, though my timetable was entirely fixed, it was down to me, because that was when the sessions I’d organised for my Rethinking the Medieval Frontier project happened, and since that was my doing and I was in them all it seemed worth giving them their own post.
1510. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, I: Control and Authority in the Iberian Peninsula, 5th–10th Centuries
There are only three regular sessions on the last day of the Congress, and none of them are the slots you’d choose; the first one is early morning after the dance, so attendance is weaker and more woebegone than usual, and by the third, which is after lunch, most people have already set out for home. The second one is better than those, but still thinly populated. I couldn’t have planned for this, except out of bloody-minded certainty that I’d get the hangover slot, which has happened to me at a quarter of my IMCs (I have just counted) and two-thirds of my Kalamazoos, but as it happened I put the most Iberian-focused of my three sessions first, with me in it, and so hangover slot again it was but at least I had there most of the people I actually wanted to hear it. The more-or-less-willing participants and their titles were these:
- Sam Ottewill-Soulsby, “The Long Frontier: The Ebro Valley from the 5th to the 9th Centuries”
- Jonathan Jarrett, “Heartland and Frontier from the Perspective of the Banū Qāsī”
- Albert Pratdesaba, “Battlefront Ter-Llobregat: Traces of Carolingian Forward Operating Bases in Catalonia”
Sam started us off with the intelligent argument that the Christian-Muslim frontier on the Ebro valley from the eighth to eleventh centuries has an obvious, religious, dynamic to it but actually the area had been a frontier space for long before that, repeatedly in rebellion against the rest of the Visigothic kingdom when that was going, in rebellion against its own Muslim superiors when Charlemagne first led an army into it, and before long also in rebellion against his son Louis the Pious. There was something about the space that made it a unit that was hard to control from a distance, and Sam saw this as a brake on bigger changes that might want to affect it. I would have liked more on the last bit, but the main point was a sharp one that I have continued to think with.
This paper’s task was firstly to synthesize in English the quite large amount of recent scholarship there has been about the archetypal Muslim frontier warlord family, the Banū Qāsī, which was slightly embarrassing as the man who’d written much of that was in the audience to hear me repeating him back to himself.1 Its point in the session was that the Banū Qāsī, with a position in that same hard-to-control space from which the Umayyad Muslim régime couldn’t easily displace them, so that they could only control it through them, and strong links to the nascent Basque kingdom at Pamplona which made the Banū Qāsī the sole agents of peace on that northern frontier, meant that they could choose where the frontier was—on the northern border of Pamplona when they were working for the régime, and on the south of the Ebro zone when they weren’t, switchable with a simple agreement. Their own frontier status was what made them powerful, and in the end, I argued, while the central régime wisely promoted an alternative family step by step into an alternative option for them, they also displaced the Banū Qāsī by aggressively marking the frontier to their south; once the family were placed outside, they lost their position as brokers for their northern allies and thus any value they could bring southwards.
Lastly in this first session, Albert, whom I’d met on my then-recent trip to l’Esquerda where he was then digging, got us down to the ground of this frontier we were all three discussing, looking for place-names of fortification on the Carolingian edge and matching those that have been dug up to any wider patterns going. At all of l’Esquerda, Roca del Pujol and Savellana they’ve found post-holes that could have supported a wooden guard-tower, such as which they have subsequently attempted to reconstruct at l’Esquerda.2 The initial Carolingian line of defence is now quite closely mappable, if these places are indeed on it, and while there’s a danger of circularity here the more places they dig and find stuff that matches, the less dangerous that guess will get.
Because I was in it I don’t have notes on the discussion, which is sad. My memory is that all went well, but that the audience was definitely larger for the second, late-morning session.
1610. Rethinking the Medieval Frontier II: Defining and Dissolving Borders in the Late Roman and Byzantine Empires
Although my own frontier of reference is indubitably in the Iberian Peninsula, the ones that have arguably generated the most thinking other than those of modern nation-states are those of the Roman Empire.3 When it became clear we had three papers offered, all of which were about how people in the Empire, in its Roman or later, ‘Byzantine’, phases, understood and strove to define its borders, it was obvious that they belonged together. These were they:
- Thomas Kitchen, “Fatal Permeability: the Roman Frontier in Late Antiquity”
- Rebecca Darley, “Trading with the Enemy across the Byzantine-Sasanian Frontier”
- Alexander Sarantis, “The Lower Danube Frontier Zone, 441-602”
Tom, a friend of mine from back in Cambridge, had been coaxed into returning to the academic sphere for this paper and completely justified my certainty that this would be good by laying out for us a subtle thesis in which Roman borders, geopolitical or social both, were usually very clear but meant to be permeable, with legitimate ways for people and ideas to cross them and be accepted on the more Roman side, even if they retained roles and origins from outside. Tom’s argument was that it’s visible in the writings of contemporaries that this permeability exposed the Empire to identities and sources of status alternative to its own hierarchies with which it became less and less able to compete, often embraced on a temporary basis to survive a certain crisis but never again adequately rivalled by what survived of the older Roman patterns. The most emblematic one of those changes is the adoption of kings where an emperor had once ruled, but it wasn’t the only one and might have been one of the last. The writers of our sources still saw the empire around them, as they walked the same streets and did business in the same buildings, but we can see in their works the changes they wanted to ignore. This was one of those papers that set the audience all thinking whether their own teaching versions of this story could exist alongside this one or needed changing; it seemed clear to everyone that he must be at least sort of right. I was very pleased by this outcome.
This paper had grown out of Rebecca’s persistent encounter with an idea that the Persian Empire was deeply invested in controlling and profiting from international trade.4 She went after the best-documented border, that with the Roman/Byzantine Empire, and argued that the sources we have, especially the treaties between the powers reported in Byzantine histories, saw this border as closed and trade across it as a problem, which might feed either of resource or information to a mistrusted enemy. Even the most optimistic communications between the two empires don’t discuss trade as an outcome of their peace, and there isn’t actually any proof that either state took toll at its borders with the other. Highly-placed people whom they could track, like ambassadors, were allowed to do some business on the side, but otherwise they wanted trade happening in certain places under careful watch, if at all. It could always be dispensed with, though: Rebecca pointed to Emperor Justinian I’s blockade of Lazica as an effective sanction on a place that relied on imports, but one which had arisen because of a Persian conquest that was itself possible because of an imperial governor having previously established a monopoly on several of those imports, i. e. excluding the operation of other traders, apparently using state power but to private ends.5 Trade was, in other words, not worth it for the state even where, as here, there was literally a captive market, and so it was done on the side even when the state did it. Rebecca argued that we should see these empires as more or less suspicious of and hostile to commerce, rather than reading modern global capitalism back onto their operations.
On the other side of the same Empire, meanwhile, and touching also on Tom’s paper, came Alex Sarantis, looking at the Byzantine border along, and sometimes across, the Danube. He viewed this border in a way that sat between the two other speakers, being a site of local interaction around fortresses but not moving much across it any distance, though some, and being home to a highly militarised, somewhat less civil, Roman culture that nonetheless still stopped at the actual front-line, with roads and cities behind and decentralised rural settlement before. This border was a space with a hard line at one edge, therefore, and a fuzzy one at the other, and as far as they could do so the Romans aimed to soak up and stop movement, both military and commercial, within the space between those lines rather than letting it escape into the Empire. And this more or less worked! The barbarian groups who arrived there all went west in the end, because the border was closed to them.
Two of the questions I had initially posed to the speakers of these sessions, in a sort of agenda document (which you can read here), were whether their borders of concern were open or closed, and whether people crossed them. The response in the two Byzantine cases here seemed clearly to be, ‘closed, but people crossed anyway even though it was risky, and the state could close them properly for short whiles’, whereas Tom had seen the Roman ones as ‘open, with limits’. Modernity suggests that it’s really hard for a state actually to close a border, but our Byzantine sources here are really thinking in terms of bulk trade, ships full of salt rather than a few chickens from a village on the ‘wrong’ side for grandma’s birthday—as so often, scale is a factor—and I can’t help feeling that if all three were right, the Byzantine Empire might here have learnt from its western progenitor’s errors.6 Anyway, there was clearly more to be got from getting these people talking to each other!
Then, after lunch, fell the slot that nobody wants, in which nonetheless I had three brave speakers and, actually, more audience than I’d feared, because several of the earlier speakers and some of the audience stayed to hear more. I guess we were doing something right! And the beneficiaries of this were these:
- Arkady Hodge, “The Idea of Aquitaine in the Early Middle Ages”
- Jakub Kabala, “Rewriting the Border in Carolingian and Ottonian Historiography”
- Niall Ó Súillheabáin, “Building Power on Feudal Frontiers: the Case of Landric of Nevers”
This was a longue durée study of an edge-space for a great many polities, running from the Phoenicians up to the Carolingians, and arguing that while there was quite possibly some consistent core identity here its edges were defined differently by each successive over-power that ruled it, and that its position on the edges of those powers let it alone to remain unchanged in ways that other more central provinces couldn’t. As is often the case with Arkady’s work, it drew on such a broad frame of reference that I wanted to check half a dozen things I’d never heard about before, but it certainly made comparison easier because of that breadth.
Kuba, our furthest-flung international guest star this time, arguing that borders are mainly mental constructions upon space, decided to look at the same border, the one of the East Frankish kingdom with Slavic-speaking polities, through two sets of eyes, one that of the Carolingian recorder of the Royal Frankish Annals and the other that of Thietmar of Merseburg.7 The Annals also have the advantage of going through progressive rewrites as they were adopted as the cores of other texts, and Kuba saw the border becoming clearer in each rewrite, a linear division in development. For the Ottonian writers, however, the border is indefinite, with even Germany only coalescing an edge when barbarians throw themselves against it. He thought that this might be because by then Poland, being on the way to Christianization, represented the outer edge in a way that the Carolingians hadn’t had available, but I thought it might be seen as an attempt to claim an open frontier, into which the Ottonians still hoped to expand as the Carolingians increasingly hadn’t.8
Lastly, after these two wide-ranging studies, we ended with a micro-study of an internal frontier, with the Nivernais sitting on the edges of both Burgundy, by the 980s more or less separate from the developing France, and of its old master kingdom in the west, but having also been held in subordination to Aquitaine against both in the recent past. Niall took us through the history of the area’s rulers and their contested loyalties until in the 990s our boy Landric became the first count of actual Nevers, a sort of independence with his own following of locals and a station of enough respect to broker deals between outsiders who thus accepted him as their equal. Nevers managed to become such a space because it could successfully be converted into a buffer everyone around it needed more than they needed the conflict that controlling it would have meant.
The final formal discussion, naturally, spent a while considering whether internal and external frontiers worked the same way, which our sources also seem to be unsure about, but for me mainly emphasised how our sources will tend, naturally enough, to redefine how a border worked according to their particular needs. That is only as much as to say that a critical approach to our texts is needed, and at the end of this session we were well equipped to provide that for each other. Thereafter the session decamped to the bar, where I think the informal discussion was even better. If Catalonia ever starts making whisky it will be because of us, take note…
So that was 2016, that was the second year of these sessions and by the end of it we’d had 15 papers on such issues, all quite good. The previous time I attempted anything like that there was a book of the papers out within two years of us finishing; you might ask what’s going on this time. Well, I have had some money for the project, but what I ain’t had is time, and I have also repeatedly had to put work on this aside for higher-profile publications. It is still my intent to get one or two volumes of essays out of Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, not least because some of the people on these panels both deserve and need the exposure, but I’ll have to get external money before that can happen. The rub is that to get that money I’d ideally have some results to show from the project so far… and there, the Catch-22 of modern academia. But, as future posts will occasionally note, the absence of results or even a decent research plan doesn’t preclude people getting quite large grants, so that will have to be the hope for now. Even if I don’t manage to get things up to date here, the project blog on the Leeds website will reflect it quickly when there is any such news to report, and there is more that has already happened that needs reporting here, but as with All That Glitters, something will have to change before I can do with these projects what should be done, i. e. publish them. I continue to work towards that change…
1. That being Jesús Lorenzo Jiménez, author of La dawla de los Banū Qasī: origen, auge y caída de una dinastía muladí en la frontera superior de al-Andalus, Estudios Árabes e Islámicos: Monografías 17 (Madrid 2010).
2. I. Ollich-Castanyer, A. Pratdesaba, M. de Rocafiguera, M. Ocaña, O. Amblàs, M. À. Pujol & D. Serrat, “The Experimental Building of a Wooden Watchtower in the Carolingian Southern Frontier”, Exarc.net, 25th February 2018, online here; for more on the site and area in English see now Imma Ollich-Castanyer, Montserrat Rocafiguera-Espona and Maria Ocaña-Subirana, “The Southern Carolingian Frontier in Marca Hispanica along the River Ter: Roda Civitas and the Archaeological Site of l’Esquerda (Catalonia)” in Neil Christie and Hajnalka Herold (edd.), Fortified Settlements in Early Medieval Europe: defended communities of the 8th-10th centuries (Oxford 2016), pp. 205–217.
3. I’m thinking here especially, as so often, of Edward Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, from the first century A.D. to the third 40th Anniversary edn. (Baltimore MD 2016), opposed by Charles R. Whittaker, Frontiers of the Roman Empire: a social and economic study (Baltimore MD 1994). As you can tell from that, sadly, Luttwak’s work has shown better holding power…
4. This seems more or less to begin with David Whitehouse and Andrew Williamson, “Sasanian Maritime Trade” in Iran Vol. 11 (London 1973), pp. 29–49.
5. The primary source here is Procopius, printed in Procopius, History of the Wars, Books I and II, transl. H. B. Dewing, Loeb Classical Library 61 (London 1914), online here, II.XV.
6. For modern cases, see for example Sahana Ghosh, “Cross-Border Activities in Everyday Life: the Bengal borderland” in Contemporary South Asia Vol. 19 (Abingdon 2011), pp. 49–60, or Margaret E. Dorsey and Miguel Diaz-Barraga, “Beyond Surveillance and Moonscapes: An Alternative Imaginary of the U.S.–Mexico Border Wall” in Visual Anthropology Review Vol. 26 (New York City NY 2010), pp. 128–135.
7. Translations in Bernhard Walter Scholz and Barbara Rogers (edd. & transl.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, Ann Arbor Paperback 186 (Ann Arbor MI 1972), online here, and Thietmar of Merseburg, Ottonian Germany: the chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg, transl. David Warner (Manchester 2001).
8. On such language the best recent thing seems to me to be Juan Carlos Arriaga-Rodríguez, “Tres tesis del concepto frontera en la historiografía” in Gerardo Gurza Lavalle (ed.), Tres miradas a la historia contemporánea (San Juan Mixcoac 2013), pp. 9–47.