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Linear frontiers in the 9th century: Bulgaria and Wessex

18th century map of the Balkans

Linear frontiers in the 9th century: Bulgaria and Wessex

By Florin Curta

Quaestiones Medii Aevi Novae, Vol. 16 (2011)

18th century map of the Balkans

Introduction: Linear frontiers are not in fashion among historians. Forty years ago, Hans-Jürgen Karp maintained that linear frontiers first appeared not with large states, but with smaller territorial entities, and no earlier than the 12th century. By now, the idea has been widely accepted that linear frontiers as artificial markings on the ground by means of border posts or some other markers never existed before the modern age. In the Middle Ages, frontiers were supposedly not lines, but zones or regions, and therefore imprecise. According to Nora Berend, “on a conceptual level, even if not in a practical institutional sense,the frontiers of the kingdom [of Hungary] could be, and in some contexts were conceived of as linear in the Middle Ages”. While the debate is currently reduced to a rather scholastic distinction between “practical” and “conceived”frontiers, there has been almost no discussion of the reasons for which linear frontiers may have been introduced, if only occasionally. Equally absent is a re-assessment of the historical evidence for the early Middle Ages (ca. 500 to ca. 1000) in a comparative approach similar to that adopted by H.-J. Karp for the later period. He was particularly concerned with East Central Europe, but there is also evidence of linear frontiers in Western Europe at a relatively early age. Were linear frontiers – either “practical” or just “conceived” – used for similar purposes across early medieval Europe? What particular historical circumstances invited the introduction of linear frontiers and what implications did they have for political interactions within and across early medieval polities?

In this paper, I intend to answer some of those questions through a comparison between two famous, yet relatively neglected examples of imposition of “linear frontiers” onto the landscape of early medieval Europe, both dated to the 9th century: the frontier between Bulgaria and Byzantium established through the Thirty Year Peace of 816, and that separating the West Saxons from the Vikings as agreed in the peace treaty between Alfred the Great and Guthrumin the 880s. I will first discuss the written and (in the Bulgar–Byzantine case) archaeological evidence pertaining to those two frontiers, in order to delineate problems of interpretation specifically concerning frontier lines. I will then turn to other stipulations of those two peace treaties and compare their respective relations to the notion of linear frontier, in an attempt to explain the latter in the context of the conditions set up by the negotiations leading to the peace. My goal is to highlight the idea that linear frontiers were dictated by specific political contexts in which they played a precise and rather practical role. In that respect, early medieval (linear) frontiers were in fact neither imprecise, nor zonal.

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