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The Transformation of Frontiers from Late Antiquity to the Carolingians

By Walter Pohl; Ian Wood et al. | Go to book overview

INVISIBLE BOUNDARIES AND PLACES OF POWER:
NOTIONS OF LIMINALITY AND CENTRALITY IN THE
EARLY MIDDLE AGES

Dick Harrison

In discussions of boundaries, frontiers, centres and similar spatial concepts, the human mind has a tendency to focus on what is—or rather what appears to be—visibly apparent. Furthermore, if the participants of the discussion happen to be historians, they will in most cases go one step further, limiting their debates to speculations on cultural and geographical features that can be grasped within a political sphere of thinking, such as the famous walls of Hadrian, Aurelian, Shi Huangdi and Erich Honecker. The political facts would stand in the foreground of the debate and/or the study. What I would like to suggest is that we more carefully take into consideration what is meant by the spatial concepts themselves. In order to grasp the nature of a so-called frontier (or for that matter, a so-called centre), we must try to understand the very conceptualisation of space. Political, religious and economic thinking was mirrored in a specific kind of spatial consciousness.

Several fundamental categories of our world view are easily thought of as elements outside history, for instance emotions, impulses, dreams and other features of the mind. In this category we often include features of our social and geographical environment as well as purely psychological phenomena. However, as historians started investigating human mentality, it soon became clear that many of these elements are tied to specific periods and specific cultures. Conceptions of time, labour, law, individuality and wealth, to name but a few, are culturally and historically relative. The same is true of conceptions of space, both in terms of microspace (i.e., the empirically known world) and macrospace (i.e., the cosmological framework of the mind). Spatial categories are essentially functions of the social climate and may thus reflect changes in society. Space may also be gendered—it is clear that the spatial attitudes of women were in many ways different from those of men during the Middle Ages.1 Space is also socially relative: a king did not

1 I refer to ongoing research by Barbara Hanawalt (University of Minnesota, Min-
neapolis).

-83-

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