Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
22.12.02 Damen/Overlaet (eds.), Constructing and Representing Territory in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe

22.12.02 Damen/Overlaet (eds.), Constructing and Representing Territory in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe

Although the older conception of territory as an unquestioned precondition of a history of state power and as a kind of container for societies and power structures has hardly been explicitly advocated in cultural studies since the spatial turn, James Agnew’s warning against the territorial trap remains relevant. He reminds us that before the cartographic revolution of the sixteenth century, it was not so much territorial boundaries as personal relations that defined regional or group identities. Still, even studies in the tradition of German regional history rarely specifically address how space is structured through the interaction of individuals and groups. This collection of essays, the result of a research project undertaken at the University of Amsterdam on “Imagining a Territory: Constructions and Representations of Late Medieval Brabant,” addresses this task in a dozen case studies from late medieval and early modern Europe, with a clear geographical focus on the Netherlands and Brabant in particular.

The common starting point of the reflections in the twelve articles is the conviction that an analysis of the concept of “territory” in the pre-modern period is only possible by examining the practices through which people and power are related to space. The editors thus refer to the theses of the historical geographer Stuart Elden, who in his 2013 book The Birth of Territory presented a conceptual history inspired by Michel Foucault, in which he treated territory as word, concept, and practice at the same time. [1] His sources were primarily works of political theory and he focused his argumentation on the legal and technical factors of the construction of territory, such as land surveying and cartography.

Although Elden postulated the full formation of the concept--needless to say, one might argue as a medievalist--only in the course of the modern era, the volume under review is not concerned with proving that it was already fully formed in the Middle Ages. Rather, the authors productively take up the suggestions in order to apply the concept to the fiscal, administrative, cartographic, or historiographic sources that can be used to examine the relationships of people, power and spaces in pre-modern contexts.

The first part is devoted to the role of up-to-now-neglected political actors in the construction of territories: the non-princely nobility, cities, and the clergy. In his essay, Duncan Hardy asks whether there was such a thing as “territories” at all in the German lands of the Holy Roman Empire of the late Middle Ages. He shows that the numerous conflicts that arose between regional elites as a result of the frequently overlapping and interwoven rights of rule were negotiated at ad hoc meetings called “days.” The use of spatial categories in the negotiation processes, especially the term “land,” was only one of many rhetorical strategies. More important, therefore, was the common reference to the empire as an overarching and legitimising political entity, without which the princes, nobles, and cities claiming a quasi-sovereign position were not capable of acting as political actors at all. Similarly, Jim van der Meulen argues in his study of the role of the noble lordships for the territorial integrity of the Duchy of Guelders that these intermediary powers served as buffer zones against neighbouring territories and thus contributed to the preservation of territorial integrity. Luca Zenobi also sees the urban municipalities of northern Italy as essential drivers of territorialisation. Bram van den Hoven van Genderen directs attention to clerics and ecclesiastical institutions that created the most spatially stable and long-lasting territories in the Middle Ages. Major factors in this were parishes and dioceses as long-standing spatially organised units with clear boundaries, within which important administrative practices such as the levying of taxes structured the space.

The contributions in the second part deal with the processes of construction, control, and competition for spaces. Arend E. Oostindiër and Rombert Stapel use the example of the household census in the Duchy of Brabant, which first took place in 1437, to explore the potential of this technique for intensifying governmental control of spaces. Although originally introduced only to increase tax revenue, the knowledge gained in the census led to several changes in the Burgundian dukes’ rule over the land. For example, the subjects lost considerable bargaining power vis-à-vis the ruler and his commissioners, because the tax assessment no longer followed political but socio-economic criteria. At the same time, the ruler’s grip on the process of tax collection was strengthened because the central power could act as an arbitrator between the quarrelling local power elites. Thus, the so-called hearth censuses contributed significantly to transforming the Brabant territory into a political space that the dukes could control more efficiently than before.

Sander Govaerts searches for the beginnings of the legal concept of foreign military service in the late Middle Ages, which he believes to be already to be found in provisions of fourteenth-century military contracts. Neil Murphy looks at the use of cartography by the English King Henry VIII in the conquest of the Boullonais. King Henry used maps not only for military conquest but also for subsequent peace negotiations. In doing so, he tried to create a territory with continuous linear borders without any enclaves of French rule. Yannick De Meulder’s essay deals with the itinerant rule of the Burgundian regents Margaret of Austria and Mary of Brabant. Through their stays in residences associated with the Burgundian dukes from the House of Valois, they managed to represent the absent rulers and legitimise Habsburg rule.

In the third part, the forms of perception and representation of territories in heraldry, maps, narrative and pictorial sources are addressed. In their material-rich essay, Mario Damen and Marcus Meer show that heraldic signs in the late Middle Ages were not only ubiquitous phenomena of visual culture, but were well suited to communicate princely claims to territories. Moreover, coats of arms could perform this function in various media: in manuscripts of armorial books and historiographical works; on monuments, buildings or in coloured stained glass windows; but also in ephemeral forms such as tableaux vivants at festive entries of rulers. Especially for dominions composed of several territories, the combination of their own coat of arms with those of newly acquired territories lent itself to making a complex visual sign for the entirety of the dominion. In their contribution, Bram Caers and Robert Stein show how noble families inscribed themselves in the dominant narrative of Brabant historiography, which was determined by a triad of dynasty, ducal title, and territory. Lisa Demets draws attention to a significant shift in the regional identity of Flanders, in which the focus shifted from the count’s dynasty more towards the large cities, which also found expression in the institutionalisation of the “Four Limbs of Flanders” (Bruges, Ghent, Ypres and the Brugse Vrije). In terms of content, chronology and geography, the concluding contribution by Marianne Ritsema van Eck is somewhat out of the ordinary. Using the example of Franciscan maps of the Holy Land, she interprets maps as primarily social artefacts that can only be understood in their respective contexts of origin and use.

The collection of essays is convincing due to its very high degree of coherence, which is manifested in the consistent discussion of Stuart Elden’s theses despite all the breadth and diversity of topics. The authors do not make the mistake of opposing the thesis of the emergence of territory as a political concept in modern times with the assertion that it already existed in pre-modern times. Rather, all essays use the thesis as a tool to question a variety of administrative, literary, and material sources in terms of how political actors in the late Middle Ages and early modern period related people, power, and space to each other.



1. Stuart Elden, The Birth of Territory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).