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Starting points


[There is some work to do for me in working out how to do line breaks and paragraph separation in this CSS template. But I'm not doing it now, so sorry about the weird formatting...]

Now that we're actually up and running, I have a blog to maintain again. It's been a while since I could do that, but I thought I should probably start with a short account of this project's genesis and why, basically, I've set out to (convince others to) do it.

The Parkinson Building, University of Leeds

The Parkinson Building, University of Leeds, home of my humble office

In an important sense, the point where this started was when the University of Leeds, in their wisdom, decided to take me on as Lecturer in Early Medieval History in mid-2015, because this project was one of the things I'd said I would do in my application. Leeds is a good place to do this because we have several people with frontier interests, among whom my Iberian-peninsula research focus made good sense. That's important, because obviously I couldn't have done it without the help of the Leeds Humanities Research Institute in shepherding the funding bid through their processes and the backing of my department in it, as well as the willingness of Alan Murray to take part. But obviously that's not the beginning of the story.

The frontage of the Queen's College, Oxford

The frontage of the Queen's College, Oxford, with my differently-humble then-office just visible at top left. By Kaihsu Tai, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

So OK, let's go back a few years to I think 2012, when I was in the last year of a temporary job at Oxford, which I'd very much enjoyed but out of which I'd struggled to create a new research direction. By this time I was clearly identifying myself as a scholar of frontiers, because of the Christians and Muslims fighting each other (or sometimes getting on with each other) across my area of study, and so was the similarly-employed Emma Cavell, of this parish, because of her similar situation with Welsh and English, and at some point we got into a long and ranty conversation about how people working on frontiers didn't compare with each other and that rather than listen to each other they interpreted their own patches in the light of anachronistic theories from elsewhere, like seventies social anthropology or Classics or even older modern history. I won't lie, there was probably beer involved in this conversation. But on the back of it I wrote a distilled version of the rant that later became the agenda paper for this project (which you can download here if you like), and Emma and I agreed to try and do something about getting people comparing in the way we wanted. Then job circumstances swept us apart and it was only once one of us found a secure professional footing that this could actually happen, as it now is. So that's where it starts in at least some sense.

But you could go further back, and that would take you to 2009 and a blog post I then wrote fresh after reading a really-good chapter by Ronnie Elleblum, now Professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.1 In it I found this extract:

One could live according to the customs of a province without coming under the jurisdiction of its prince. Every person knew what the border of his property was and what belonged to his neighbour. But such a property could have been divided between two or more rulers. The owner of the property knew to whom he was obliged to pay taxes and offer gifts on religious holidays, who would try him if he committed a heinous offence and who would try him if he committed a lesser offence. In the event of war, he usually knew where danger lay and on whose side he should be in order to fulfil his auxilium duties. But all these spheres did not necessarily overlap.

As I would later say to Emma, what theory of frontiers would this situation not break? This was what convinced me that medievalists should maybe generate some theory rather than trying to make ones from simpler or more legalistically-defined situations fit over our more complex ones. So that's an important moment of genesis, the point where the idea behind this project crystallised.

Cover of Frontiers in Question: Eurasian Borderlands, 700–1700, ed. by Daniel Power and Naomi Standen

Cover of Frontiers in Question: Eurasian Borderlands, 700–1700, ed. by Daniel Power and Naomi Standen (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1999)

Now obviously this could go back even further. I was reading the volume of essays in which you can find that statement because that volume also contained an excellent chapter by Ann Christys about my area, but I was reading the whole volume because I already believed in the potential of comparison. And that was because of having previously read, during my Ph.D., another book more open to those possibilities, edited by Daniel Power and Naomi Standen, with the latter of whom I subsequently had the pleasure to work at Birmingham and now to collaborate on this very project.2 And I was reading that because it had a chapter in by Eduardo Manzano Moreno and the introduction was really useful to think with (and still is) and told me that reading the other chapters would enrich my understanding of any of them, and I believed this (and it was true).3 And I was reading the Manzano chapter because of a similar earlier one I'd read as an undergraduate which was, in some ways, the thing that convinced me that the frontier zone of early medieval Iberia was fascinating, even if as it turns out Professor Manzano had already said a lot of what could be said about it.4 And I'm not sure how much further I could go than that! So maybe he is to blame, or the person who set him to me, along with Naomi, Oxford, Emma, Birmingham, Leeds and all the other people I've met and talked to along the way... Mapping academic formation is like mapping early medieval jurisdiction, in short, there are too many overlapping ways to do it for any kind of clarity. But if you were mapping where this project came from, these would be points you'd want on that map!

1. Ronnie Ellenblum, "Were there borders and borderlines in the Middle Ages? The example of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem" in Medieval Frontiers: Concepts and Practices, ed. by David Abulafia and Nora Berend (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), pp. 105-118.

2. Respectively Christys, "Crossing the Frontier of Ninth-Century Hispania", ibid., pp. 35-53, and Frontiers in Question: Eurasian Borderlands, 700–1700, ed. by Daniel Power and Naomi Standen (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1999).

3. Eduardo Manzano Moreno, "The Creation of a Medieval Frontier: Islam and Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula, eighth to twelfth centuries", ibid., pp. 32-52; Daniel Power, "Introduction A: frontiers, terms, conceptions, and the historians of medieval and early modern Europe", ibid., pp. 1-13; Naomi Standen, "Introduction B: nine case studies of pre-modern frontiers", ibid., pp. 13-27.

4. Manzano, "Christian-Muslim Frontier in al-Andalus: idea and reality", in The Arab Influence in Mediaeval Europe, ed. by Dionisius Agius and Richard Hitchcock (Reading: Ithaca, 1994), pp. 83-96. I later tried to say something similar in Jonathan Jarrett, "Centurions, Alcalas and Christiani perversi: Organisation of Society in the pre-Catalan 'Terra de NingĂș'" in Early Medieval Spain: A Symposium, ed. by †Alan Deyermond and Martin Ryan, Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar 63 (London: Queen Mary University of London 2010), pp. 97-127, and that originated in a conference in 2008, so there is another point that could be on this map...