November 20, 2018

Borders Are a Modern Invention

“It’s not too much to say that the movement of peoples across borders has been a pressing political concern recently, both in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. That conversation is so prevalent now that it’s easy to think of this conversation as inevitable, immutable. The idea of the “nation” is one that’s bounded – it begins and it ends. We recognize that the limits/ borders of the nation might shift over time but out there somewhere is a line that separates “us” from “them.” And how people draw those borders effects how we even define “us” and “them” – how, or even if, “they” can become “us.”

But it hasn’t always been that way. In fact, throughout the period known as the European Middle Ages, there were no borders at all.

Most often when we picture the Middle Ages in our head, a map like the one above comes to mind. It looks like maps we draw of our own world – differently-shaded areas showing different political entities, with nice, solid black lines showing where one thing ended and another began. But the reality of the past was much messier.

People traveled constantly throughout the Middle Ages. Their mental world was large and was always more than just their locality. Merchants, such as the Jewish author Benjamin of Tudela, carried goods throughout the Mediterranean. Pilgrims, such as the Iberian Muslim Ibn Jubayr and the Frankish Christian Bernard the Monk, traveled thousands of miles back and forth between Islamic and Christian lands. Monks became refugees from Viking attacks, sometimes permanently settling in new locations for centuries.”

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