By Joachim Henning
Borders, Barriers, and Ethnogenesis, edited by Florin Curta (Brepols, 2005)
Introduction: The north-eastern frontier between the Christian Franksih Empire and the pagan Saxons existing in the seventh and eighth centuries until Charlemagne’s conquest of Saxony is commonly regarded as a boundary separating the Frankish heirs of the late antique civilized world from the Saxon tribes, whose primitive ways of life epitomize paganism. A similar situation has been postulated for the later frontier at a distance of one hundred years, at the time the Ottonians begin pushing the borders of their empire to the east. By then, the already converted Saxons had become ‘civilized’, and had begun styling themselves as defenders, if not heirs, of the antique traditions, as they watched over a line of political demarcation, but also of sharp cultural contrast with the Slavs on the other side, whose backwardness and primitive ways of life had meanwhile become the new epitome of stubborn paganism.
However, this picture is nothing else than a stereotype rooted in the militant character of available written sources, all of which were concerned primarily with the struggle against pagans. Recent archaeological studies of Carolingian and Ottonian fortifications from two border areas suggest that the presumably sharp cultural difference marked by frontier lines was not evident as previously though. In fact, it became clear that in many ways the situation on the north-eastern and eastern frontier of the Carolingian and Ottonian empires is an early medieval replica of phenomena associated with the frontiers of the Later Roman Empire. Cultural differences between the core areas of the ‘civilized’ world, such as the Paris basin or the Rhine lands during the early Middle Ages, and the peripheral regions of Hessia and Bavaria to the east, as well as Brittany to the west, were much more important than contrasts supposedly created by the implementation of frontier lines. The economic and social resources and social resources available at the time were not sufficient for supporting cultural uniformity across the entire area under direct control of the Carolingians or the Ottonians. On the other hand, and despite the bloody military confrontations taking place in borderlands, political frontiers were not walls separating groups of people, but areas of cultural exchange, a melting pot of cultures, economies and societies.