03.03.21, Abulafia, Berend, eds., Medieval Frontiers

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Florin Curta

The Medieval Review baj9928.0303.021


Abulafia, David, Nora Berend, eds.. Medieval Frontiers: Concepts and Practices. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002. Pp. xv, 291. ISBN: 0-7546-0522-1.

Reviewed by:
Florin Curta
Univ. of Florida

Medieval Frontiers, a collection of papers by authors based, with just two exceptions, in European universities, began with a colloquium organized in Cambridge in 1998 by one of the book's editors. The scope is broad, taking the reader from ninth-century Spain to Mazovia in the 1500s. In a move that links this anthology with a number of others produced by scholars currently working on borders and boundaries in the Middle Ages [[1]] the focus on frontiers expands to include ethnic and religious identity in borderlands (such as Cyprus, Caffa, and Estonia). In the words of the other editor, "if the essays in this volume prove anything, it is that the 'medieval frontier' poses difficult problems of definition" (1).

Part of the problem may be the unusual popularity of Turner's thesis among medievalists. In her introduction, Nora Berend explains that American medievalists were quick in appropriating Turner's ideas, with J. W. Thompson applying them to medieval German history as early as 1913 (x). By contrast, the problem to David Abulafia is one of conceptual incongruence, not historiography: twenty-first century historians operate with concepts that are completely different from those in use in the Middle Ages (1). According to Abulafia, "the 'medieval frontier' was not so much an identifiable phenomenon, a hard fact, as it is a conceptual tool used by historians in a wide variety of ways to make sense of social and political developments in those areas of medieval Europe where the predominant values and assumptions of Latin Christendom encountered (or indeed collided with) the values and assumptions of other societies" (5). In an academic age obsessed with the cultural construction of almost everything out there and marked by a deep distrust of "reality," Abulafia's attempt to place the frontier in the head(s), not on the ground, comes as no surprise. What is surprising, however, and could easily be identified as a serious contradiction of this book is that Abulafia locates the frontier in the head of the modern, not the medieval observer ("historians"). Despite rejecting "elaborate conceptual frameworks rich in jargon (at worst the jargon of postmodernists) which often serve to obfuscate rather than to enlighten," Abulafia believes that the "attention to contemporary ways of thought cannot always be achieved" (6).

Instead, he recommends almost against his own injunctions that we pay more attention to the Wallersteinian conceptual pair "core" and "periphery" (6-10); to claims to universal authority that transcended political frontiers as described on historical maps (e.g., Obolensky's "Byzantine Commonwealth," 10-16); to the fuzzy boundaries of "enclaves and anomalies" (16-19); to languages (20-24), mentalités (24-29), and religion (29-33). In short, "we need to think of the frontier as a state of mind" (34). In sharp contrast, the other editor recommends that we "look at medieval concepts and ideas as well as practices in order to understand medieval frontiers" (xiv). Against almost all other papers gathered in the book she co-edited, Nora Berend argues that "on a conceptual level, even if not in a practical institutional sense, the frontiers of the kingdom could be, and in some contexts were, conceived of as linear in the Middle Ages" (201).

Despite the apparent contradiction between the methodologies employed by both editors in their respective works, the thirteen published papers (to which one should add David Abulafia's lengthy "Introduction") present stimulating, at times deliberately provocative, answers to three main questions: 1) "What was perceived as a frontier during the Middle Ages?" 2) "How did medieval people create frontiers to delimit areas?" 3) "To what extant did medieval observers see a frontier between themselves and other groups?" (xiv). Although not all of the essays included in this anthology participate equally in either Abulafia's concern with the frontier as a state of mind or Berend's re-discovered concept of linear frontiers, all offer some useful ways of thinking about the construction of medieval frontiers. Whether concentrating on the story of Mahmud ibn 'Abd al-Jabbar of Mérida, on Byzantine chronicles and literary texts, the Escorial Taktikon, William of Tyre, Philip of Novara, Lamberto di Sambuceto's deeds, the Rhymed Chronicle of Livonia, Saxo Grammaticus, Hungarian and Polish charters, or on Boccaccio's De Canaria, the authors provide high level of sophistication in their explorations of frontier history.

Several of the papers are so rich that one hopes for their expansion to book length. Most notably worthy of extended treatment are Jonathan Shepard's excellent essay on emperors and expansionism in early and middle Byzantium and the fascinating paper by Brendan Smith about the frontiers of church reform in the British Isles (1170-1230). Shepard's paper considers the changes taking place in the 960s and 970s as the Byzantines adopted a new approach to problems of territorial expansion, favoring "more sweeping and full-scale conquests and permanent military occupation of territories on the empire's former eastern" frontiers (82). As the notion of military conquest became ingrained in civilian discourse and pamphleteering, expansionist policies began to resemble those discernible in the Principate during the first and second centuries. Shepard demonstrates that this attests to the existence of a "keen awareness among the ruling elite of the...illustrious feats of such early emperors as Trajan and Hadrian" (82). Since the latter defined their military policies in terms of "pushing out the frontiers of the empire," Shepard's analysis contributes to an expanding sense of the role heavily fortified frontiers played in constructing not only a "looser kind of hegemony" but also the model of "soldier emperor" associated with the Macedonian dynasty, particularly with Basil II. This conclusion is substantiated by Catherine Holmes's reconsideration of the Escorial Taktikon ("Byzantium's eastern frontier in the tenth and eleventh centuries") in the light of such narrative sources as Stephen of Taron, the Georgian Royal Annals, or the history of Yahya ibn Sa'id. Holmes notes that busy as they are at the beginning of the twenty-first century with questioning and dismantling "the eternal verities of the nation state, including the notion of strong borders," historians tend to overemphasize the fragmented and the zonal, as a reaction against the old tendency to stress the well-regulated and the linear (100). In the case of tenth- and eleventh-century Byzantium, frontiers were marked by garrisons concentrated at key points, with subsidiary forts being selectively occupied, destroyed, abandoned, or reoccupied, according to circumstance. "While Byzantium's frontier in the east was often peaceful, it remained a military construct within the long-term institutional memory of the empire's administrators in Constantinople. More important, it was a military construct that contemporaries were willing to revivify when occasion demanded" (104).

Brendan Smith's paper takes us to the British Isles in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century and helps us understand not only how frontiers were perceived by churchmen, but also how violent political upheavals highlighted frontiers between different secular powers, and between secular and religious authorities. He begins by looking at some of the most egregious cases, such as the assassination of David, bishop of Waterford, in 1209, or the murder of Adam, bishop of Caithness, in 1222. Without being exceptionally high by mainland European standards, the murder rate of bishops in the British Isles points to the establishment, ca. 1200, of new secular frontiers in the British Isles, at a time of consolidation of papal authority throughout the entire region. Church reformers insisted that the frontiers of Christendom were the only boundaries that should matter to Christians. "The thread of violence against churchmen that unites English, Scottish, and Irish history in the six decades between 1170 and 1230 illustrates the problems posed by such an assertion in this region, and draws attention to the contending priorities which clamored to be heard" (253).

While Europeans are currently busy discussing the draft of the constitution produced by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and calling for the creation of the United States of Europe, Ronnie Ellenblum ("Were there borders and borderlines in the Middle Ages? The example of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem") invites historians to reassess the linear cartographic natural of medieval borders. According to Ellenblum, "the idea of the medieval world being divided into political entities which had geographically defined borders was created during the nineteenth century in a world influenced by nation states and nationalistically-oriented historians" (118). While the reader will undoubtedly agree with the premise of this statement, Ellenblum seems to ignore the fact that in a modern, nineteenth-century, context, boundaries mattered because of citizenship with loyalty being defined and registered through passports and ID cards. The checkpoints abandoned at the former borders between France and Germany will soon move at the borders of the United States of Europe, most likely with more sophisticated detection equipment than the border patrol at El Paso. Moreover, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the European solution of dual citizenship clearly shows that borders, more or less linear, are not just a matter of cartography. As Keechang Kim demonstrates in a recent book [[2]] the definition of citizenship in the early modern period was based on a preliminary construction of the "alien" in the late Middle Ages, in itself the result of developping theories of royal sovereignty. In other words, fuzzy borders or even the absence of borderlines in the sense of national frontiers are a direct correlate of how membership in what Susan Reynolds called "the community of the realm" is represented legally. On the other hand, Benedict Anderson has demonstrated the role of the (historical) map in constructing the "imagined communities" of our modern world of nation-states. According to Ellenblum, when crossing the (imaginary) line drawn in the middle of the arrivals hall of an international airport , a modern traveler does indeed step into "a different world, full of political and nationalistic symbols: a different language, different monetary and fiscal systems, a different flag and uniforms, different customs regulations, a different criminal law, and different traffic laws" (108). At a closer look, however, almost all those elements could be easily found across medieval frontiers as well. In an effort to abolish the concept of border altogether (perhaps hoping to replace it with relatively defined frontiers) Ellenblum insists that "when we speak of the suzerainty of a medieval ruler, we cannot speak of a comprehensive boundary or comprehensive sovereignty" (109). But there is no doubt that the authority (if not the power) of a medieval ruler was perceived in territorial terms. And territories do have limits, margins, or borders, albeit fuzzy and inconstant. Ellenblum himself acknowledges the existence of boundary-lines in the chronicle of William of Tyre, for William "was personally engaged in a debated concerning the boundaries between the patriarchies of Antioch and Jerusalem, which he claimed to be wrongly demarcated" (110). This is in clear contradiction with Ellenblum's claim that "it was never obvious where a certain right ceased to be recognized, because the orientation was not linear but concentric, and it was definitely not homogeneous in space" (112). Equally questionable is the author's suggestion that the Muslim thagr "is the equivalent of a march or even to (sic!) Roman limes" (116). While modern research points out that the limes was not a frontier line, but a deep zone that included the supporting provinces, and in some cases, even the territories across the frontier [[3]], the notion of thagr is rather similar to the Byzantine kleisoura, which is substantially different from both limes and march.

Ellenblum's paper is in sharp contrast with two other papers included in this volume, Nora Berend's "Hungary, 'the gate of Christendom'" and Grzegorz Mysliwski's "Boundaries and men in Poland from the twelfth to the sixteenth century: the case of Masovia." The former is an abbreviated version of Berend's book recently reviewed by Marta Font. As such, it displays all the problems and weaknesses exposed by that review. Most importantly, it is not true that Hungary was the frontier of Christendom, for the kingdom "was surrounded by Christian countries in almost every direction: in the west, the Holy Roman Empire, in the south, Byzantium, and, from the early thirteenth century on, by the Bulgarian and Serbian Christian kingdoms" [[4]]. Comparatively little interaction with the nomads took place on the eastern frontier, as Cumans settled in Hungary, not in Transylvania. The frontier identity developed in Hungary in the late medieval period in connection with and as a result of the Ottoman wars has nothing to do with the eastern frontiers of the kingdom (separating Hungary from Moldavia), since the Ottomans came from the south, across the Danube. Nor is it clear how Berend defines the indagines regni (known in Hungarian as gyepu), since at one point she claims that beyond them "there stretched an uninhabited territory" (199), at another she seems to imply that villages could be established beyond the gyepu (200). The evidence presented in this paper points instead to a striking parallel between Byzantine kleisourai and the clausura regni (Hungariae). Much as in ninth-century Cappadocia, frontier defense in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Hungary seems to have concentrated on entry and exit points, known as portae. One such porta still exists in the toponymy of Transylvania: Portile Mezesului, a narrow passage between the Vladeasa and Meses Mountains. Most importantly, Berend is an advocate of linear frontiers in almost perfect contradiction with Ellenblum's position: "The concept of linear frontiers separating large political units was born before the development of modern nation states. Already in the thirteenth century, the ideology was being used for political purposes, and the central power played a crucial role in the invention of frontiers. This happened on the conceptual level before a stable 'national' frontier was maintained in practice" (215). Berend's conclusion nicely dovetails with those of Grzegorz Mysliwski, who demonstrates that border-markers and artificial boundaries separating estates from each other appear in medieval Mazovia, as demarcation and delineation of property accompanied the colonization of previously sparsely inhabited lands. While the prevalent form of local boundary in Mazovia in the eleventh and twelfth century was "the zone, an amorphous space of various widths" (222), artificial boundary markers appeared in the late 1200s and the early 1300s together with abstract units of land measurement. In addition, Mazovia as a whole was perceived as marking the boundary of the Polish kingdom, as Mazovian landowners came to be known as granicznicy (boundary men) in the 1500s (235).

Unlike Ellenblum, Berend, and Mysliwski, who deal primarily with linear frontiers, three other papers are concerned with porous frontiers. Ann Christys ("Crossing the frontier of ninth-century Hispania") examines a case of crossing the Christian-Muslim frontier in the early 800s, while Rasa Mazeika ("Granting power to enemy gods in the chronicles of the Baltic crusades") deals with religious beliefs crossing the frontier between Christians and pagans. Finally, Kurt Villads Jensen ("The blue Baltic border of Denmark in the High Middle Ages: Danes, Wends, and Saxo Grammaticus") argues that despite Saxo's evidence of a sharp frontier separating Danes from their neighbors in the southeast, the Wends, during the eleventh and twelfth century a convivencia of sorts seems to have been in existence. "The great project of Saxo was to create a picture of 'us' and 'them', of Danes living in Denmark and Wends living in Wendish lands in northern Germany. Saxo wanted to create a sharp border between Danes and Wends in spite of the fact that Danes and Wends moved easily across the Baltic Sea" (191). While the presence of Slavic material culture (pottery) and place names in Denmark urges historians to reconsider Saxo's evidence, one wonders nevertheless whether or not the Danish-German border, so remarkably demarcated by the Danevirke, and the southern neighbors of the Danes, would not have been a better case for convivencia in spite of military conflict. The presence of Germans in Denmark during the Valdemarian Age is a case in point.

Less justified in terms of the specific theme of this volume and, indeed, less anchored in frontier debates, are three papers whose general focus could best be described as medieval colonialism. Jonathan Riley-Smith ("Government and the indigenous in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem") argues that Muslims under Latin rule managed to acquire a status not much different from that of dhimmis under Muslim rule. Under Latin rule, the restraints of dhimma were only partially lifted for non-Latin Christians, as Orthodox Greeks and Syrians were given special courts (cours des Syriens), which had no rights of high justice or jurisdiction (much like any dhimma courts). "It may be that Western reform ideas on the separation of temporal powers from the spiritual were being imposed by the Latins on an indigenous Christian community" (130). Peter Edbury ("Latins and Greeks on Crusader Cyprus") presents instead a case of assimilation or even of emergence of what Gilles Grivaudhas termed "la nation chyproise," a colonial "middle nation" that is very similar to that identified by Sally McKee in Venetian Crete.[[5]] Finally, Michel Balard ("Genuensis civitas in extremo Europae: Caffa from the fourteenth to the fifteenth century") describes a similar process whereby "as in the other eastern colonies of Genoa, the elite [of Caffa] tended to orientalize" (146). David Abulafia's paper ("Neolithic meets medieval: first encounters in the Canary Islands") has much more to do with Renaissance ethnography than with medieval frontiers.

For this reviewer, this volume is a welcome reaffirmation of a belief long held: that the rightful place of medieval frontiers is within historical, not military studies. But I must confess to disappointment that many more specialists in such matters, especially archaeologists, [[6]] were not part of the Cambridge colloquium. On numerous occasions, the discussion contained in this book would have benefited greatly from the input of linguists. As Abulafia remarked, "frontiers also provided opportunities for cultural exchange, for religious conversion and for the borrowing of languages or at least of valuable vocabulary" (5). It is very much to be hoped that future symposia on medieval frontiers will reflect such avenues of research.


[[1]] Medieval Frontier Societies, ed. by R. Bartlett and A. MacKay (Oxford, 1989); Frontiers in Question: Eurasian Borderlands, 700-1700, ed. by D. Power and N. Standen (London, 1999); Grenzen und Grenzregionen. Frontières et régions frontalières. Borders and Border Regions, ed. by W. Haubrichs and R. Schneider (Saarbruecken, 1993); The Transformation of Frontiers. From Late Antiquity to the Carolingians, ed. by W. Pohl, I. Wood, and H. Reimitz (Leiden, 2001). The latter's review is available in TMR 02.03.14. At the last annual meeting of the American Historical Association (San Francisco, January 3-6, 2002), two sessions sponsored by the Medieval Academy and organized by the present reviewer were entitled "Overlapping frontiers: religion and ethnicity in the Middle Ages" and "Borders, barriers, and ethnogenesis: frontiers and ethnicity in the early Middle Ages," respectively.

[[2]] Keechang Kim, Aliens in Medieval Law: The Origins of Modern Citizenship. (Cambridge, 2000).

[[3]] Benjamin H. Isaac, The Limits of the Empire. The Roman Army in the East (Oxford, 1992); C. R. Whittaker, Frontiers of the Roman Empire. A Social and Economic Study (Baltimore, 1994). For thagr, see Eduardo Manzano Moreno, La frontera de al-Andalus en época de los Omeyas (Madrid, 1991).

[[4]] Marta Font, review of Nora Berend, At the Gate of Christendom: Jews, Muslims and Pagans in Medieval Hungary, c. 1000-c. 1300 (Cambridge, 2001), TMR 02.09.20.

[[5]] Sally McKee, Uncommon Dominion. Venetian Crete and the Myth of Ethnic Purity (Philadelphia, 2000).

[[6]] See, for example, The Archaeology of Frontiers and Boundaries, ed. by S.W. Green and St. M. Perlman (Orlando, 1985).

Article Details

Author Biography

Florin Curta

Univ. of Florida