As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, in early July I had the genuine pleasure of attending Leeds International Medieval Congress. Good academic conferences are identified not just by the questions they answer, but by the questions they don’t; that is to say, the problems they raise in your mind that you realise you don’t have the solution to. It was on the evening of the first day of the IMC that I crossed paths with one such problem. I was lucky enough to be taking part in a roundtable on ‘Rethinking the Medieval Frontier’ organised by the ever-wonderful Jonathan Jarrett (of A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe fame). It was a productive discussion, much of which was concerned with the geography of the medieval frontier, with an unexpectedly large dollop of Islamic cartography thrown in for good measure.
It was only as the session was wrapping up in anticipation of much needed sustenance that the question of periodisation suddenly came to my mind. We had been talking about medieval frontiers. What exactly was medieval about them? What characteristics could we use to identify a medieval frontier, beyond the raw fact of chronology? Sadly, we were heading out the door at this point, so I didn’t have the opportunity to throw this possibly pedantic puzzler to the room. But the question stayed with me.
On one level, this might be a slightly pointless problem. We could say that a medieval frontier is defined by being a frontier that existed in the medieval period. They form part of the medieval historian’s beat because they are accessed through our familiarity with the context, languages, sources, previous scholarship and allied disciplines. In that way and to that extent they can be ‘medieval’ without having to be otherwise distinguished. Further, insisting that everything from the era be in some essential way distinctive betrays a naïve understanding of the vagaries of our periodisation, that they reflect some deep property rather than being terms of art employed for convenience. This is particularly the case with scholarship of the medieval frontier, which has always drawn heavily on case studies from different eras, deriving ideas and insights from the Roman limes, Chinese frontiers and, most famously, the American West.
On another level however, I think it might be genuinely helpful to at least try to consider what might be distinctive about frontiers in the Middle Ages in order to inject a little more reflexivity in thinking about the subject. Partly I would like to have a means of sanity checking comparisons we may want to draw from reading about, say, European interactions with the peoples of the Americas or Qing relations with steppe nomads, by having a set of models about medieval frontiers. Doing this will also aid medieval scholars of the frontier in talking to each other. It is hard for any one historian alone to understand them in aggregate. But all too frequently, when medievalists gather together to discuss frontiers what we get is a ‘show-and-tell’ session where everyone shares their favourite frontier and nothing more coherent than a book with a collection of disparate case studies emerges. Having some sort of model of what makes a medieval frontier medieval might actually give us a means of holding more meaningful conversations.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a model of the medieval frontier, at least not today, and I suspect that if such a model can be made it will have to be by others. What instead I want to do now is propose a couple of hypotheses that I think can be used to distinguish medieval frontiers in Western Eurasia from those that came before and after. These will not be exhaustive and I’d welcome suggestions of other distinguishing marks. I would also call them tendencies rather than features. My sense is that all of the categories I’m about to discuss appear in all of the periods, but that they do so to a greater or lesser extent, and that variation in significance and strength is what I think is distinctive.
Frontiers of Faith
The first tendency that comes to my mind is one that I think separates the medieval from the earlier Hellenistic/Greco-Roman world, which is the role of faith in the making of the frontier. Roman borders were infused by the numinous and divine. Lares and other deities patrolled and protected boundaries both private and public. The city of Rome itself was defined by its sacred pomerium. Fustel de Coulanges famously argued that the classical city was constituted by its civic cults. Political authorities legislated on matters of piety and morality.
Nonetheless, the classical Roman world had a much more flexible relationship with the divine than in many later eras. Provided you followed the law, paid homage to the imperial cult and didn’t offend public decency, you were more or less left alone. It wasn’t perfect toleration, but it enabled religions from across the empire to spread and build a following. Gods from outside the Roman pantheon could be assimilated. Punic Melqart, Egyptian Amun and Celtic Sulis were discovered to be Hercules, Jupiter and Minerva in disguise. New cults were adopted at the imperial centre. There were limits to this freedom, such as the suppression of the druids in Gaul or the oppression of Christians who refused to acknowledge the imperial cult. The overall picture however is of a fluid world, where religion was not a particularly important dividing characteristic on the frontier.
The embrace of more exclusive faiths by imperial authorities such as Sasanian Zoroastrianism, Christianity in the Roman empire and its successor kingdoms and of course Islam and the Caliphate changes this. We can start seeing ‘religious’ frontiers. Sometimes these were spaces of conflict, where the pious would travel to serve the divine with the sword such as the rabats of ninth-century Cilicia, or thirteenth-century Prussia on the border of Lithuania. At other moments such frontiers could be spaces where people from different religions could meet and talk. Faith could become a marker of difference and you might know whether you had crossed a Christian-Muslim frontier by whether you heard the ringing of bells or the call of the muezzin.
While any student of the Middle Ages could tell you that inter-faith relations were complex, that almost all medieval polities had a mix of religions within their borders, and that people communicated, conducted business, allied and otherwise connected with the religious other, I think this does matter, albeit in complicated ways. Religion could harden the frontier, making the people on the other side more alien, less comprehensible and less moral, while creating reasons for conflict. It could also create contact across the frontier, through pilgrims travelling to holy sites or missionaries come to spread the truth of their faith. Elsewhere these faiths might undermine political boundaries by encouraging people to see themselves as members of a wider ummah or Christendom.
Modernity inherited much of the medieval world’s relationship with religion. A more interesting distinction that separates it from the medieval world to my mind is the absence of technology as a force for creating types of frontiers. To give you an example, the rise of effective gunpowder siege artillery in the middle of the fifteenth century created a period of about a century where European frontiers became very fluid very quickly, as demonstrated by Mehmed II blasting his way into Constantinople in 1453 or Charles VIII tearing into Italy in 1494. A number of frontier empires appear at this point, such as the Habsburgs and Ottomans dividing up Hungary between them in 1526, or the rapid expansion of Muscovy.
For another example, this time from outside of Europe, the arrival of horses and firearms in the eighteenth century dramatically changed the Great Plains, turning a population of sedentary agriculturalists into highly mobile peoples who depended upon buffalo for subsistence. The result was a much more fluid frontier, where Indigenous groups such as the Comanche and the Lakota built empires that depended upon the exploitation of agriculturalists and interaction with European traders and settlers for goods and markets.
These are distinctive frontier zones that emerged rapidly with the widespread adoption of a set of technologies which allowed people to interact with their environment or existing power structures in a different way in a manner perceptible over the course of a lifetime. I struggle to think of a good medieval analogy. The Vikings, with their shipborne mobility that allowed them to arrive in and connect new spaces may be a possibility, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily a new technology. The use of castles to control frontier zones comes close, particularly something like Edward I’s Ring of Iron across northern Wales in the late thirteenth century, but even here I’m not certain that this represented a dramatic escalation of pre-existing practices of fortification, or was particularly distinct from the use of castles elsewhere away from the frontier.*
I suspect that there are a couple of reasons for the change. Medieval Eurasia more or less encountered technological change at a similar pace, with ideas and innovations diffusing slowly across the continent. That means that you’re very unlikely to be hit by an entirely new technological package all at once, and your society and political organisation had time to adapt to it. By contrast, improvements in communication meant that people like the Apache and the Comanche might encounter a whole range of new technologies very quickly, with dramatic consequences, as they adapted to a world where they could get horses from the Spanish and guns from the British and create entirely new types of empires on the Plains.
A second factor is that everything counts in large amounts. One large cannon may have an impact, until it explodes or you run out of ammunition for it. But the likes of Mehmed II and Charles VIII could mobilise siege trains of artillery, with multiple big guns and the capacity to build more. This is long before the Industrial Revolution, but the combination of increasingly sophisticated manufacturing meeting states with growing resources allows technology to become more revolutionary because it was appearing on a much larger scale than before. Factors like these enabled technology to shape the frontier in the modern world in a way that it doesn’t in the medieval world.
This third and final tendency is the one I’ve hesitated most over, primarily because it involves piling into a whole range of historiographical landmines I’d prefer not to, but here we go. By the standards of the present, the Roman state and states in early modern Europe were adorably, laughably feeble. Even after Diocletian increased administration, the former was run on a tiny staff of which the emperor and his personal household were not a small percentage. The latter were often ramshackle affairs dependent upon independent contractors and private companies to project power. These states had limited information about their subjects and had to work with local elites on the ground to get anywhere at all.
I suspect that in terms of formal state organisation both of these examples comfortably outclass the administrations of most of western Europe until the thirteenth century. Over the course of the early medieval period, the capacity of states in western Europe to raise tax revenue waned. This had knock-on effects on their ability to maintain a standing army or fortifications. As I’ve specified, this is a process most pronounced in western Europe, but we also see analogous developments in Byzantium and the Caliphate on a slower timescale. It should be noted that there is nothing intrinsically bad about this. Strong states are not inherently good, nor are weak states inherently bad. Even from the perspective of a state, the good state is one that works and acclimatises to the resources and demands of the time. Just as a species of fish that has started inhabiting a lightless cave may lose its eyesight, so a state adapting to new realities may lose traits that were previously adaptive.
The relevance of all this for our purposes is the way this changes the frontier. A frontier staffed by a permanent standing army of professionals whose wages, food, accommodation and supplies are paid for and shipped in by taxes and which is run by career officers who may have served on other frontiers is going to look very different to one run by a military aristocrat whose legitimacy may come from royal appointment, but whose power is based on being the head of a family that has dominated the locality for generations, and who is supporting a retinue on the basis of their own land and grants of land to key subordinates.
The business of supplying the former is going to do exciting things for the economy as it redirects communication and commerce towards the frontier zone. The latter are much more likely to be embedded in the local landscape, unlike the deracinated professional forces. The military aristocrat probably has considerably more autonomy and less oversight. This might lead to them seizing opportunities to expand or plunder over the border. It might instead encourage them to identify with the people on the other side of the frontier with whom they have more in common. There is obviously huge variance here, and exactly how that cashes out I’m not sure, but I would be surprised if this wasn’t a factor.
Frontiers are where easy answers and neat categories go to die. The tendencies I’ve proposed here in this post are not exhaustive. They may not even be accurate. At the moment they represent the best answer I’ve got for this problem. This question came to me as a result of speaking with others and I suspect that that will be where any real answers ultimately emerge. Any attempt to define the medieval frontier will demand a deep understanding of frontiers across an enormous geography and chronology, one that can only be achieved through collaboration with other scholars. Nonetheless, I hope that this represents a contribution to the conversation, even if it only puts the same annoying question that has been buzzing around my head into those of others.
* [Ed.: I don’t usually comment on Sam’s posts, but reading this it occurred to me: if we separate thinking about frontiers from thinking about regnal borders, isn’t this pretty much incastallemento? That is, the model whereby in a few decades around the year 1000 a profusion of castle-building across Frankish Europe transforms the nature of sub-royal polities to create units of power such as, say, the counts of Grignon, dependent on fortresses divorced from Carolingian administrative units. This isn’t to endorse incastellemento as an accurate model of eleventh-century politics – but it’s interesting to think with in this regard…]