Academic journal article Explorations in Renaissance Culture

"Une Chose Fort a Craindre et Bien Mal Aisee a Descouvrir": The Transgression of Borders in Sixteenth-Century France

Academic journal article Explorations in Renaissance Culture

"Une Chose Fort a Craindre et Bien Mal Aisee a Descouvrir": The Transgression of Borders in Sixteenth-Century France

Article excerpt

[D]eux Francois et Anglois qui sont d'une mesme religion ont plus d'affection et d'amitie entr'eux que deux citoyens d'une mesme ville, sujets a un mesme seigneur, qui seroient de diverses religions ... ce qui eslongne le sujet de porter obeissance a son roy et qui engendre les rebellions.

L'Hopital, "Harangue prononcee a l'ouverture dc la session des Etats gencrauxa Orleans le 13 decembre 1560," 83-84. (1)

So declared Michel de L'Hopital, Chancellor of France, best known for his advocacy of a royal policy of religious toleration, during a speech to the Estates-General in 1560. Suspicion of Protestant activities and, particularly, of contacts with their coreligionists abroad, was a constant theme of Catholic invective during the French religious wars. This observation by a moderate figure such as L'Hopital, regarding the rebellious potential of religious division, further demonstrates how widely held such views were. For those policing the frontier regions and strategic entry-points of France, such as ports and provincial capitals, religious tension was a matter of repeated concern and need for vigilance. For much of the 1560s, relations with England were particularly tense, especially after the seizure of the Norman port of Le Havre by English troops with Huguenot connivance in 1562-63. Although this was an old enmity, it was exacerbated by the confessional gulf which now separated the two countries and heightened anxiety about interference in each other's affairs in support of a religious minority, often encouraged by confessional exiles. Maritime activity was one concern, but so too, was the evidence of intelligence-gathering and illicit correspondence. Commercial and other routine transactions could be seen as a cover for something more sinister. Thus, merchants and other regular travellers were carefully observed, and foreigners were subject to suspicion. Returning refugees were particularly suspect, as were the activities of high-ranking Huguenot exiles at the English court. Yet, while the Channel was perceived by some as a frontier and a barrier between nations, others embraced it as an interface for confessional, economic and diplomatic exchange (Morieux 24-28, 111-15, 127-29).

In many circumstances, frontiers and borders ("lieux limitrophes et de frontiere") prove fluid and permeable, and historians have long emphasized their liminal and changeable status. (2) However, they were also very "real" to those responsible for policing them, as well as for those caught up in jurisdictional disputes. Definitions of, and distinctions between, frontiers, borders and boundaries have been fruitful for our understanding of both the states who governed them and the people who lived there (Altink and Gemie 5-8; Cruz and van Tuyll; Febvre). Yet, they also point to a surprising diversity of experience and perception. (3) Thus, while the Anglo-French frontier could not be described as a "place where cultures with previously unique and isolated histories meet," it did experience "long periods of balanced cultural accommodation" (Jones 1-2).

Border studies has become an interdisciplinary field in its own right with a well-developed historiography too extensive to be fully rehearsed here (Altink and Gemie 1-18; Kaiser; Morieux 17-27; Nordman; Sahlins 4-7; Wilson and Donnan). It intersects with recent discussions about the relationship between centre and periphery and the burgeoning area of global studies, but has a longer pedigree going back at least to the Annales School (Febvre). This field is concerned as much with the cultural memory of difference and notions of identity as with the clear demarcation of physical boundaries and jurisdictional conflicts. Boundaries are often conventional as well as geopolitical, forming structured areas with their own dynamic social relations. Frontier zones or border regions, we are told, are where national and local interests overlap and mutually reinforce each other in a story of communal agency and appropriation rather than of central imposition and control, as used to be thought (Sahlins 8-9; Greengrass 6-7, 19-20; Potter, 19). …

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