Are we confusing the past movement of people with our modern concept of borders?
Recently I have been researching the movement of the Anglo-Saxons into the British Isles. Aside from the usual debate of invasion vs. migration, which I have partially covered on the Anglo-Saxon page and also in an article, I started to think about the concept of borders. Borders are a concept that is ubiquitous in modern society. Humans, as a race, have a great love of dividing things up and putting things into neat little brackets. Historians and archaeologists have done this for years with typologies and eras. In the news almost constantly (here in the U.K anyway) we see the subject of border control come up again and again. guardian article on border checks BBC article on borders
While borders in the modern world have developed as kingdoms and nation states have solidified in the ancient world and even more recently in areas such as Africa during the 19th century this was not so. Borders were looser and often porous. Hadrians wall is one of the few good examples we have of a border with controls http://www.visithadrianswall.co.uk/hadrians-wall/life-on-hadrians-wall/border-control. While the edge of the Roman empire is often clearly defined, such as the Rhine frontier, Were these borders always as secure as we imagine them. Even in the modern world, as the above Schengen agreement link shows the borders in Europe aren’t hard and fast. We have the lines on maps but they don’t exist on the ground and can be crossed without much hassle.
When we look at the tribes that inhabited Europe they would have territories but very few clear boundaries. The edges of the territories they controlled moved frequently. Raiding was commonplace and as such we can conclude that while certain villages and farms were linked as part of a group the actual land itself wasn’t exactly owned as we view it now. This concept of owning land that is not being used is a little odd. Indeed, political philosophers on the left have often railed against land ownership even in our modern times.
Are we making a fatal mistake in the fundamentals? Are we being anachronistic when we talk of invasions by groups of people? Undoubtedly there were invasions such as those by the Huns or Bulgars are the smaller movements of tribes really invasions? Are they actually taking the land from anyone?
This may seem like a far left standpoint but is it? Are we again making a mistake by creating a border in our thoughts? Those thoughts need not be classed in such a way. We could describe the concept of tribal lands with blank areas as a left wing ideal if we wanted but the events we describe took place many decades and centuries before the concepts of right and left wing entered our consciousness.
How do we resolve this?
We should look at the facts.
If we take raiding parties as a starting point. The idea was often to steal livestock. There may be other moveable wealth stolen or slaves taken but, on the whole, it was frequently just a bit of cattle rustling. At times, the raids would get more vicious and villages and towns would be targetted. their people slaughtered. These accounts are often couched in terms of the people that were killed. It was a Roman settlement so they were Romans etc. While we often see ‘the lands of X’ we could suggest this just included the lands that were in use. We could, therefore, make a delineation between the two concepts. When the Saxons arrived on the coast of Britain they didn’t instantly spark wars with the tribes that we would consider as controlling the land. There was no clear they have invaded as they have passed this invisible line. If there were we would see plenty of battles in the archaeological record. We don’t. What we do see is the settlement of areas by small groups. There isn’t a concerted effort to carve out large kingdoms. Farmsteads crop up all over the place. Can we say that the areas that were settled in such a sparsely populated country were taken from anyone? Towns had been abandoned and were resettled by groups in an ad hoc fashion, some were left such as Silchester. It is only later that we see tribes coalesce into larger groups and kings emerge.
Even many years later, in the later medieval periods, we don’t have such nationalist terms such as countries. We have territories owned by knights, dukes, counts, barons and Kings. We have principalities and demesnes. Which ‘country’ you belonged to was often down to a certain level of ethnicity but even then we can see such a close link between French aristocracy and English aristocracy that that is still not a clear dividing line. King Richard the paragon of English virtue didn’t even speak English. He is famous for never really being in England. Yet he is hailed as an English king. So does ethnicity even play a large role?
What about fealty? Much of the intrigue in medieval courts was due to fealty. Who could command the most knights was the order of the day. It wasn’t the kings that directly controlled the land it was the landholders such as knights or barons that were the de facto owners. It was who they swore fealty to which set them up as on one side or the other. You could easily switch sides back and forth if a large army pressured you into kneeling to a new liege lord. With the parcels of land being divided up in such a manner, we could suggest that we still hadn’t left our tribal systems behind. we just grouped those tribes into larger groups. This would still mean it was a very similar state of affairs to the classical roman period. It isn’t until the rise of absolutism that we really see countries as controlling the lands that they nominally occupy.
All of this discussion centres around the forming of groups at the higher end of the hierarchy. What about those at the bottom end. Do the people in an Anglo-Saxon farmstead in Mercia in 850AD really see themselves as Mercians? Did they truly see Beorhtwulf as their monarch? Did they even think of themselves as Anglo-Saxons? It is almost certain they didn’t see themselves as English as that concept seems to have only really solidified in Wessex under Alfred. Perhaps they did or perhaps they are like an apathetic voter today. We see in some articles (Varsity article on voter apathy) figures as high as 59% of people who couldn’t name the prime minister. With communication and information at our fingertips in the modern age, we still have a large amount of apathy. We could suggest that a similar figure may be applicable to the Anglo-Saxon period. Why such a leap? Well, as mentioned above we have a considerably larger body of information to draw upon. There are more people so news can spread faster by word of mouth. Even then we have a channel dedicated to airing the goings on in parliament. With such widespread information, it is hard to fathom why people don’t know such a basic question. That is until we look at why. Perhaps it is because people just don’t care. The same article linked above suggests a large portion of the country are apathetic. What if the same was to be said for the average Anglo-Saxon? When you have a farmstead that is away from the main areas of raiding you would have little need to concern yourself with more than feeding your family. You may go to a nearby market to trade but who was wandering around with their werod smashing the place up wouldn’t matter to you. It wasn’t that information that was important. The weather, the failure of another family’s crops, a new ploughing technique. They are the things that are most important.
By now you may be wondering where this is going. First, I say we put our ideas of modern culture on the past and try to fit them in. I say this may be wrong. I then go ahead and seemingly do the same thing. The difference is what I am using to compare to the past. We can look at general trends of the average person’s views. These won’t change much over time. They still boil down to the essentials. To bring in enough that you can live comfortably and well fed in your own home. The particulars may be different but the concepts are the same. While we have a preoccupation with borders it isn’t an essential part of life. We could redraw most of the world’s borders five feet to one side or the other and it would have little noticeable effect. The difference is therefore that our modern notion of borders comes from our modern concepts of nation-states. If a society doesn’t have the concept of a nation then they wouldn’t have a concept of national borders.
This topic has so many facets and some aspects we will never truly know. I will be revisiting some of the questions that I have posed here. If you have any more or indeed if you have a different take please let me know.
(All images courtesy of creative commons)