Skip to main content

The Return of Rethinking the Medieval Frontier (to the Leeds IMC)

Thinking with frontiers

Well, it has happened: Rethinking the Medieval Frontier has returned to action at the International Medieval Congress, after being defrayed by a pandemic, the digital pivot and the IMC's own understandable modifications to its programme to keep things running sort of as planned. But if you want to talk about borders we want to be there, and so on 4th July we took over a room in the shiny new Esther Simpson Building for the afternoon and overcame all these problems! Well, nearly all; all except the pandemic, because your humble correspondent, despite staying masked up, managed to catch Covid-19 himself during the sessions.1 Thankfully I seem to have been almost the only one (though it's done a number amongst my Leeds colleagues), and I'm now most of the way recovered, but still, it's a sacrifice for the discipline I'd been hoping not to have to make...

But I only worked out I was ill on Wednesday, so we can still look at Monday as a complete triumph. Here's what we offered, all told:

I: Living in the Frontier

  • Dr Luca Zavagno, in person, with Cities on edge: Complementing the History of Urbanism along the Early Medieval Mediterranean Frontiers;
  • Mme Margault Coste, remotely, with Norms, Practices, and Actors of the Cross-Border Trade between Fenouilledes and Roussillon, 14th - Mid-15th Century;
  • Dr Marisa Bueno, in person, with Punishment from the Grave: Islamisation and Heterodoxy in Funeral Practices in Rural Areas in the Middle Frontier of al-Andalus.

II: Making (Up) the Frontier

III: Considering Frontiers - A Round Table Discussion

So, what was it all about? Well...

  1. Luca looked at the Mediterranean ports of Commacchio, Amalfi and Salamis in the roughly fifth to eighth centuries in comparison, all of which wound up in that time at the border of their original home polities with a new one, Byzantium vs. Lombardy, Amalfi itself vs. Byzantine Naples or Carolingian Italy and Salamis the actual border between Byzantine and Islamic zones in Cyprus, and the point was that this was mostly good for these cities, which grew and grew on the trade which therefore had to pass through them. How Amalfi managed it might be a separate question; as Luca said, it was more of a company than a city. But this started us off with frontiers as gateways, and in discussion raised some important questions about how well the idea of centre-vs.-periphery works in such outlying contexts.
  2. Piazza del duomo, Amalfi

    Though rather later than Luca's study period, most of what you can here see in the Piazza del Duomo of Amalfi is medieval, so I'll count it. Image from Annamaria Parlato, Antica Repubblica marinara: Amalfi tra storia, arte e gastronomia, 2Ingredienti, 9 March 2016 <>, licensed under CC BY NO.

  3. Margault, once we finally got the hybrid tech working, had a story similar in some aspects to tell of the French-Aragonese frontier of around eight centuries later, with many gateway points whose traffic we actually have reasonably well recorded, along with the low-level and high-level difficulties it caused which had to be resolved; the relevant economies were of different scales, and Margault's gateways were through mountain ranges not the sea, but nonetheless these two papers obviously talked well to each other. It's like we planned it, isn't it?
  4. Marisa, meanwhile, had been looking for ritual differences in burial practice across an internal frontier within the Muslim-ruled territory of the early medieval Iberian Peninsula, and had found instead ritual variation across quite a wide range, including very old, like, Iron Age, practices surviving under Islam next to then-modern Malikī burial customs. What was going on remains to be deduced, but the social marking this all represents wasn't a frontier practice in the geopolitical sense. But with burial, as I've suggested in previous sessions, perhaps the operative frontier is between worlds, not between temporal jurisdictions...
  5. Vassilios's paper, as its title suggested, looked at how Northern France, specifically in Champagne, used customs and tolls to affect and indeed create its border with Flanders. Here again there were obvious parallels with Margault's paper, and I suppose I should in retrospect maybe have swapped this and Marisa's one; but on the other hand this kept a good mix of people in the audience, maybe? The main difference one could draw out is that in the northern case, the system got pushed to and beyond capacity by the development of the Hanse on one side and the famous Champagne Fairs on the other, all leading to much more traffic wanting passage and corporations to represent for favourable terms than the original system had ever been meant to deal with. In all of it, though, France's priority was to retain the ability to make the border into a hard one using tolls, and for Vassilios the situation never prevented that at times of tension.
  6. Impression in a 19th-century engraving of the medieval Fair of Champagne

    A 19th-century imagining of the Fair of Champagne, from Album historique, ed. Ernest Lavisse (Paris: Armand Colin & Cie, 1898), p. 58, public domain via Wikimedia Commons. There are various colourised versions of this on the wider web but I can't establish that they're copyright-free

  7. Anniket, for his part, was working to test the common idea that the Mughal Empire created a situation within which there was governmental integration and beyond which there was patchwork decentralization, with the transition between one and the other achieved by forcible suppression of local élites in the without space until it became within. That makes sense to me as a paradigm, but I have found it not to be how things actually worked on the frontiers I study, though the relevant states were rather less powerful than the Mughals; so it was interesting to me that Anniket thinks that isn't how the Mughals did it either.2 Firstly, some of the states on the other side – he looked especially at Koch-Bihar – were fairly powerful in their own rights, and the Mughals initially engaged with them as allies who could pretend to be equal. It was only when Koch-Bihar entered a succession crisis that the Mughal rulers had the chance to provoke fragmentation which let them push one side of the struggle into a client relationship; there was no conquest, but even this was enough to provoke a series of rebellions, and in general Anniket thought we needed to look at social levels other than the élite to understand what was going on here, though methodologically that's not easy to do. But this is where one might humbly hope that paradigms derived from elsewhere (like mine!) could help, and predictably I spent much of the discussion trying to do just that.
  8. But first I had to speak myself, and I had set myself the challenge of actually doing what the project is for and trying to abstract some meaningful theory from what, after all this time running these things, I know about frontiers. So I set myself up to look for how the border was created and enacted in my preferred Iberian spaces – because if it's not enacted it's arguably not there – and tested, and dismissed, castles (because they were everywhere, not just on borders) or settlement density (also quite thin in places behind the border sometimes and not necessarily absent on it). Instead I defended the idea that borders here were imposed by practice: ambassadors got escorted, traders got tolled, ordinary people (like the monastic polemicist Eulogius) could wander across them without anyone much caring; and the escorting and tolling also happened inside territories, not just at their edges.3 And yet border there obviously was; it just maybe wasn't that obvious if you were actually there... And therefore maybe the changes we see when these places were incorporated into growing states were actually a matter of connection to other networks more than one of breaking down local solidarities which are actually very hard to detect – converting space from frontier to borderland, if you like. I obviously haven't finished thinking with this but at least (despite the Covid) I'm still making progress with this after all these years...
  9. This left Catarina the job of responding to all this, which of course she did tremendously, wondering whether I should have tried churches and monasteries as one of my bordering structures, reminding us of the rhetoric of othering which arguably created borders in the first place – if it's not different beyond, then there ain't one, amirite – and thus pushing towards an idea that frontiers may be most visible at a distance, and rather harder to detect (or impose) close up.
  10. Catarina's success here was evident in that, other than some category-bashing over who ruled in Koch-Bihar, the following discussion more or less followed her lead, and as you can see I'm still thinking with what she said as well.

But of course we weren't finished then, because for the hard-core there was still the evening round-table. I won't deny that our audience was smaller for this – in fact it was Luca, Margault and Marisa who really packed the room – but it had been set up to be fun even if no-one else came, whereas actually we benefitted from extensive contributions from Vassilios, who had kindly stuck with us, and Professor Karen Pinto, tuning in on the ether. But we began with set-pieces, and they were shaped like this.

  1. Firstly Catarina, wondering whether religious architecture was a reasonable index for frontier spaces, if only between competing religious development presences;
  2. then Professor Power, dusting off his frontier gloves and saying that while much had changed in the field since he started in it, the problem of terminology seemed still to be critical, as is how rarely our sources actually come from the zones we want to discover; but we understand identity much better now and are beginning to think harder about mapping, so we have at least got somewhere! Still, if what he meant was that his essay volume with Naomi Standen, and especially their joint introduction to it, are hard to beat as frontier scholarship still, then I have to admit he does present us with a serious challenge!4
  3. Andrea Mariani picked up my point about castles as markers, and argued that they are frontier markers, but of social difference made manifest by power, rather than territorial ones, and often based in quite local contexts rather than big state policies; and fair enough, the latter is often assumed in my favoured spaces but actually, the political authority is only ever one of the castle-builders...5
  4. Sam, meanwhile, broke out a comparison with the Sioux of America, as recently studied by Pekka Hämäläinen in a book we all apparently need to read, and suggested that in cases like that, border populations on either side of a genuine cultural divide actually got along by understanding each other badly, since their actual terms of society varied too much to be compatible if really engaged between; I'm not sure the Sioux in the 19th century look like a society "getting on" with its neighbour, but the idea has medieval echoes and certainly might be worth exploring more.6
  5. And lastly, I did a very short state-of-the-field review which mainly lamented the fact that we all still use Frederick Jackson Turner as if he was current (you've seen me on this horse, I guess) and that certain fields of borders studies are only interested in them as media of transmission, not of blockage, and never consider that they could in fact be oppositional rather than just exciting zones of hybridisation.
  6. And then the actual discussion!

Firstly, Professor Power, agreeing with me about Turner, also recommended Hämäläinen and said that his ideas will also work on societies balanced across frontiers, which had indeed been my concern. Sam urged me to get on and replace Turner, then, which is a bit of a challenge! He also asked about the global turn and whether it enhanced the study of borders or erased them, and Rebecca, whose actual job this is, suggested that it was another field mainly interested in connections and that therefore frontiers studies might do it the world of good. Catarina and Andrea had a brief exchange about bishoprics as bordering institutions in Portugal; he thought they weren't, because the edges of their own territories weren't where the borders were being set up. And then Karen Pinto joined us and considered all of this through her own work on Islamic mapping, which features almost no political borders but lots of ecological ones, and wondered if they really saw borders either.7 And after a while, we had to end it there.

Medieval Islamic world map in the al-Iṣṭak̲h̲rī tradition

Medieval Islamic world map in the al-Iṣṭak̲h̲rī tradition, uncaptioned on Karen Pinto: An exploration of Medieval Islamic Maps, Boise State University: Department of History, 8 September 2015 <>.

But it had been good, good to be back in a room with people interested in the same things (though I do wish at least one more of them had been more careful with their personal biome) and good to be made to think harder about them because of it than I, than we, could have done without that. As usual, what this all comes to is not fully within our control, but this has all increased the sense of urgency that it must, because dammit all, what we are doing here is important and needs to be finished and known about, so that others can also then be made to think harder by it. If we could get enough out there to have people everywhere telling us we were wrong because we hadn't thought hard enough in ten years... I'd count that as a success, wouldn't you? And days like this still make me think we might!

1. You, the reader, will understand that my opinions are my own and not my employer's when I express my utter bewilderment that during an ongoing pandemic involving a respiratory disease spread through the atmosphere, my employer put up a shiny new hybrid teaching building whose windows don't open. The inadequate air conditioning broke down by the second of our sessions. I won't work in there again.

2. For my views, see Jonathan Jarrett, Engaging Élites: Counts, Capital and Frontier Communities in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries, in Catalonia and Elsewhere, Networks and Neighbours, 2.2 (2014), 202–30 <>.

3. Here I rest heavily on Ann Christys, Crossing the Frontier of Ninth-Century Hispania, in Medieval Frontiers: Concepts and Practices, ed. by David Abulafia and Nora Berend (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), pp. 35–53 <>.

4. In Professor Power's bibliography I think most immediately of Daniel Power, Frontiers: Terms, Concepts, and the Historians of Medieval and Early Modern Europe, in Frontiers in Question: Eurasian Borderlands, 700 - 1700, ed. by Daniel Power and Naomi Standen (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999), pp. 1–12, which is best read along with its partner piece, Naomi Standen, Nine Case Studies of Premodern Frontiers, ibid., pp. 13–31, but his work on these themes actually goes back further, which is why he was editing that volume at all: see Power, The Norman Frontier in the Twelfth and Early Thirteenth Centuries, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought 4th Series, 62 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) <>.

5. Andrea Mariani, Terminology on Defensive Structures in Portuguese Medieval Documents: Elements for a Comparative Approach to the Case of the Diocese of Oporto (11th-12th Century), in Juvenes – The Middle Ages Seen by Young Researchers, ed. by André Madruga Coelho and Silvana R. Vieira de Sousa, Biblioteca - Estudos & Colóquios (presented at ‘Space(s)’, 2nd International Congress for Young Researchers in Middle Ages, University of Évora, 13th-15th November 2019, Évora: Publicações do Cidehus, 2020) <>, therefore offers some challenges to some of my less well-considered thoughts in Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: Pathways of Power, Studies in History New Series (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer for the Royal Historical Society, 2010), for example at p. 108; and that's good, this is why I hang out with knowledgeable people.

6. The book everyone was discussing is Pekka Hämäläinen, Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019) <>.; I have to admit that I know him instead for Pekka Hämäläinen and Samuel Truett, On Borderlands, Journal of American History, 98.2 (2011), 338–61 <>.

7. For Karen's work see for a start Karen C. Pinto, Surat Bahr al-Rum (Picture of the Sea of Byzantium): Possible Meanings Underlying the Forms, in Eastern Mediterranean Cartographies, ed. by Giōrgos Tolias and Dēmētrēs Loupēs, Tetradia Ergasias 25/26 (presented at the International Conference on the History of Cartography, Athens, 11-16 July 1999, Athens: Institute for Neohellenic Research, 2004), pp. 223–41 <>.