Medieval Midlands 2018:
Boundaries and Frontiers in the Middle Ages
University of Nottingham, 4th-5th May 2018
Boundaries and frontiers are a constant in our everyday lives. To open up a newspaper or to login to twitter on any given day is to be bombarded with discussions and debates about the nuances of their navigation. From wide-reaching geopolitical issues such as US President Donald Trump’s proposed wall on the US-Mexico border or the “Brexit” negotiations which will determine the future relationship between the UK and the EU, to the personal boundaries we put into place which dictate our daily relationships with others. Boundaries infiltrate our most private acts. For some, they are a remnant of a bygone age, artificially fencing individuals and groups into boxes, and preventing progress. For others, boundaries are sacred safety nets that keep us, our identities, and our futures safe.
Preoccupation with boundaries has increased scholarly interest in historical frontiers. A major part of this is the rise of ‘Frontier Studies’. Works such as Daniel Power and Naomi Standen’s Frontiers in Question, David Abulafia and Nora Berend’s Medieval Frontiers: Concepts and Practices, and Jonathan Jarrett’s Before the Reconquista: frontier relations in medieval Iberia have explored the spaces between societies. They have considered whether kingdoms’ borders were simple linear boundaries, or large multifaceted zones where realms diffused into one another. Beyond this, they have considered how ‘boundaries’ impacted those that lived within them.
It was this historiographical growth that the 2018 Medieval Midlands Postgraduate Conference sought to engage with. In contrast to last year’s conference, which explored what united people through the concept of ‘identity’, we chose to consider how medieval people may have been divided by investigating boundaries and frontiers. What boundaries and frontiers did medieval people face? Where did they come from, and who were they imposed upon? And perhaps most importantly, how did medieval people respond to them? To exemplify the sheer breadth of research being undertaken in this field, the conference was not limited merely to traditionally understood political frontiers, if such things existed, but extended also into the realms of the social, professional, economic, physical, and religious.
We were overwhelmed by the variety of responses which thoroughly represented the often underappreciated complexity of the medieval world. These papers, both individually and as a collective, also embodied the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of medieval studies. No singular methodology was favoured with literature, archaeology, gender theory and emotionology all utilised to build an understanding of where the frontiers of medieval people’s lives lay. Over the course of the conference, these papers challenged and built upon one another’s understanding of boundaries and frontiers in the medieval world and, in doing so, they shed light upon the vague notions of boundaries and frontiers themselves.
In their simplest form, boundaries are frequently interpreted as concepts and structures that separate people from one another. This impermeable nature is explored in Julia O’Connell’s Emotional Boundaries in Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess. Using Geoffrey Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, O’Connell looks at two characters who represent fourteenth-century English communities with different understandings of emotions. The narrator character is a learned layman, whilst the Man in Black is in the community of courtly males. Consequently, when the characters meet the narrator misinterprets the Man in Black’s emotions, believing he is lovesick when in reality he is grieving. Thus, an emotional boundary prevents effective communication between these groups.
Conversely, other papers depicted boundaries as far more porous. How they could be crossed is the focus of Markus Eldegard Mindrebø’s ‘The cruel queen her thrall let slip’: Boundaries of female agency in the Ynglinga Saga. Turning to Scandinavia, Mindrebø uses saga literature to explore how women stepped beyond the limits of their power. In contrast to prevailing modern perceptions of historical female agency, he utilises several examples from the Ynglinga Saga to discuss high-ranking women who took control of their own fates. Although women faced restrictions on their power, Mindrebø argues these were behavioural, not sexual. Consequently, by exhibiting masculine behaviour Scandinavian women gained access to power that was denied to those who behaved in a feminine manner.
As well as how boundaries and frontiers were or were not crossed, the context within which they persisted, changed and emerged is important for deepening our understanding of both the middle ages and our modern world. These crucial issues are highlighted in Christopher Booth’s paper, Physician, Apothecary, or Surgeon? The medieval roots of professional boundaries in later medical practice. Booth begins with consideration of the laws of Henry VIII, which attempted to divide the English medical profession into three roles: Physicians, Apothecaries and Surgeons. However, the laws were not completely successful, with significant overlap between these roles persisting. To better understand the development of the early modern context he looks back at medicine in medieval England and other European societies. Booth stresses continuities between the periods, noting that a similar tripartite, but often contradictory, system existed in earlier centuries. Evidently, sometimes the boundaries imposed from above are less revolutionary than they appear on first glance.
Likewise, the strengthening of boundaries between polities is discussed by Callum Watson in ‘Their treason undid them’: Crossing the Boundary between Scottish and English in Barbour’s Bruce. The Bruce, a fourteenth century poem written by the Scottish writer John Barbour, emphasises the importance of loyalty, in response to growing Anglo-Scottish hostility. Fearing Scottish desertion to the wealthy English crown Barbour referenced chivalric values, such as loyalty to the king, in an effort to strengthen the boundary between Scottish and English. Thus, Watson presents boundaries as evolving during periods of change. Feeling insecure in a fluctuating world, Barbour sought to affirm boundaries in an effort to secure Scotland’s position.
Furthermore, boundaries are not simply no-man’s lands between peoples, societies and cultures, but multifaceted places where people could thrive in their own right. In Frontiers of Faith: The Impact of the Insular Frontier upon the Identity and Development of Furness Abbey, Christopher Tinmouth looks at how an abbey on the border of multiple polities and cultures managed to flourish. When it was established in 1127, Furness was in a tenuous position, on the peripheries of English control along the Cumbrian coast, far from its preoccupied patron Stephen of Blois (later King Stephen of England). Furness responded by adapting to the cultures and region that surrounded it. For instance, engaging with local families as well as the region’s prevailing Irish and Norse culture ensured Furness gained recognition and security. Rather than being squeezed between larger zones, this monastery made a home for itself by expressing a frontier identity.
Finally, a large number of the papers given innovatively used primary evidence and theories to challenge the clarity of boundaries and frontiers in the Middle Ages, arguing the dividing lines were not particularly clear cut. A prime example of this is Alex Feldman’s Bullion, Barter and Borders in the Rus’ Coinless Period, which uses archaeological evidence to investigate the medieval Rus’ boundaries. Many scholars have implicitly accepted the Rus’ position as the precursor to the modern Russian state, possessing a clearly defined territory. Entwined with this argument is Rus coinage, which has been used as evidence of Rus statehood. However, Feldman questions the ‘nationality’ of coinage, arguing that hoards containing coins from a variety of sources imply there was no division between foreign and domestic coins. He supports this view with consideration of silver ingots, known as grivny, and barter as instruments of exchange, contesting they too are universal. Feldman successfully divides ‘statehood’ and exchange into two different topics which should not be assumed to intercept. Instead, he concludes with the assertion that the medieval Rus was not comparable to a defined modern state, but was a dynastic kingship with centres of power built around certain towns, lacking clear frontiers.
The Medieval Midlands 2018 Postgraduate Conference provided an opportunity to negotiate the complex issues associated with historical boundaries and frontiers. This conference proceedings, although just a sample of the high-quality research presented by delegates, aims to provide a fresh perspective on how medieval peoples responded to, created, implemented, and sometimes flagrantly disregarded boundaries and frontiers. It is clear that we are not dealing with a simple phenomenon. However, this collection directly tackles this complexity, containing examples of where boundaries have come from, how they can be traversed, and when they have been misinterpreted. Perhaps the most useful reminder to take away is that the link between complexity, and boundaries and frontiers, is not exclusive to the modern world, but a concern which we have grappled with for millennia.