The Transformation of Frontiers from Late Antiquity to the Carolingians

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

What did frontiers mean in the early Middle Ages? A simple and perhaps disappointing answer is found in Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae. He discusses frontiers in Book XV, De aedificiis et agris, under the heading De finibus agrorum. Here, he explains that the word finis is derived from funiculus, the measuring string; limes from lima, the threshold; and terminusfrom terrae mensura, the measurement of land.1 In Book IX, De linguis, gentibus, regnis, militia, civibus, affinitatibus, the concept of frontiers is not mentioned. The Burgundian Lex Romana, under the title De terminis transgressis et evulsis, provides for a death penalty against those who meddle with the boundaries of fields—they should meet their death, vitae terminum, by fire in the same place where the boundaries, termini, originally were.2 Frontiers, so it seems, were not a matter of states, but of carefully surveyed agricultural property—not the business of empires, but of agrimensores. In many regions of Europa, these boundaries, and the way they were established, hardly changed between Antiquity and the early Middle Ages although their lords often did. Even in regions where little else can be said in favour of Roman continuity, historians have often argued that the Roman field system has survived in many places. By contrast, contemporary texts usually devote little attention to the exact location of the frontiers between empires and kingdoms, and to the way they were established.

Why, then, has the topic been chosen for one of the three Plenary Conferences of the ESF project on “The Transformation of the Roman

1 Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae 15, 14. I would like to thank Herwig Wolfram, Ian
Wood, Brigitte Pohl-Resl and Helmut Reimitz for comments.

2Lex Romana Burgundionum 39: Quicumque terminos aut limites aut arbores terminales (…)
evellere aut abscidere et signa inpressa eradere forte temptaverit, convictus in eodem loco, ubi termini
fuerunt, vite terminum sub incendio sortiatur. Cf., for instance, Lex Visigothorum 8–10; Edictus
Rothari 236–38 and 240–41; Lex Alamannorum 81; Lex Baiuvariorum 12. R. Bauer, Die
ältesten Grenzbeschreibungen in Bayern und ihre Aussagen für Namenkunde und Geschichte, Die Flur-
namen Bayerns 8 (München, 1988), esp. pp. 244 ff.; R. Schneider, “Lineare Grenzen.
Vom frühen bis zum späten Mittelalter”, Grenzen und Grenzregionen, Frontières et régions
frontalières, eds. W. Haubrichs and R. Schneider (Saarbrücken, 1994), esp. pp. 56 f.


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The Transformation of Frontiers from Late Antiquity to the Carolingians


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