Drawing Lines on a Map

In 886, having defeated the Danish leader Guthrum at the Battle of Eddington (878), King Alfred of Wessex and his advisors drew a line across England, roughly north-west to south-east.  North and east of this line was the Danelaw, the area inhabited by descendants of the Viking raiders, speaking Danish and ruled by Danish law; to the west and south was Anglo-Saxon territory, Christian like Alfred himself, ruled by English law, and speaking an Anglo-Saxon language in the process of becoming Old English.

Or so the story goes.

Map of Great Britain ca. 878 depicting the Dan...

Map of Great Britain ca. 878 depicting the Danelaw territory (yellow) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In fact, in the 9th century nobody had the surveying technology to draw a line on a map of England in this way, or the military technology to enforce it.  Instead there must have been a ‘zone of chaos’ – a term I first heard used to describe the borderlands between the Siamese and Khmer Empires during (as it happens) much the same period.

We can see some of the evidence of that chaotic borderland in place names in contested areas such as Lincolnshire or the Yorkshire Dales.

Place names in Lincolnshire

Place names in Lincolnshire, from Sam Turner, ‘Aspects of the development of public assembly in the Danelaw’

In Yorkshire the immigrant Danes settled in the richer lowlands, and their farms and villages often have Norse placenames, such as Thwaite or Askrigg.  The Anglo-Saxons were pushed out into the poorer uplands, where the soil was poorer and the living harder.  Their placenames often have a -by or -ton ending. On a map, these names seem to be scattered almost randomly (though Norse names predominate to the north), but move to 3D and an ancient power struggle is revealed.

This pattern has been repeated many times, when people with different ethnic or religious background live near each other, but in separate settlements. Up and down Mount Lebanon, for instance, there are Maronite and Druze villages at different elevations. A 1-dimensional line on a 2-dimensional map does not accurately reflect this 3-dimensional reality.

Rulers far away draw lines on a map, but the people living there experience life on the frontier in very different ways.  The idea of nations with clear-cut territorial boundaries only developed slowly, but as Robert Frost knew, ‘Good fences make good neighbours’.

But where to draw that line?

The most arbitrary lines are straight, usually a sign that the map makers are a long way from the action, and not very interested in the views of the people on the ground – or simply don’t recognise the existence of those people at all.  Not surprisingly, they are common in ex-colonial situations.

Geographic features have sometimes been used to draw a frontier.  Rivers are sometimes used – the Rio Grande between the United States and Mexico, the Murray between Victoria and New South Wales, the Danube between Bulgaria and Romania – but rivers connect people rather than dividing them.

What about mountains? In 1555, the Treaty of Cateau Cambresis brought an end to a long war between France and Spain.  The peacemakers drew up a frontier along the Pyrenees, following a line of watersheds, so that the French-Spanish border still roughly follows the highest points of the mountains.  Hard luck on the Basques, who did and still do straddle this border.

This is, I think, the oldest use of watersheds to define a border, but it has been used many times since.  It was used to define the border east of the Great Lakes between Canada and the US, and again to separate Queensland from New South Wales.

In fact when Queensland separated from New South Wales in 1859, surveyors used all 3 methods.  They drew a straight line in the ‘uninhabited’ west, where no European settlers were there to argue the case.  Further east, where pastoralists were taking up Crown Leases, the Dumeresq River became the border.  And through the Border Ranges and down to the coast, surveyors drew a line that divided the watersheds of the Tweed and Richmond Rivers, to the south, from the Condamine and Logan Rivers running north.

This division paid no attention to the cultural links between people north and south of the frontier.  Aboriginal people from as far south as the Richmond River area had always travelled north to the Bunya Mountains during the traditional tribal gatherings that took place during the bunya nut season each summer.  By 1859 those gatherings were declining.  Drawing a frontier across their traditional pathways just hastened the end.

It’s not only people who are affected by arbitrary borders.  In Western Australia, emus die in large numbers when their migration patterns are disrupted by the rabbit-proof fence, now known as the State Barrier Fence.

Unable to migrate, emus starve to death along the WA barrier fence

Unable to migrate, emus starve to death along the WA barrier fence

Frontiers can be useful though, too. During the 20th century, ETA, the Basque separatist organisation, used the French-Spanish border strategically, moving from one side to the other to keep out of reach of the law.  In the same way in the late 19th and early 20th century, Aboriginal people often crossed the border between Queensland into New South Wales to avoid the restrictions of the Aboriginal Protection … Act (1897) in Queensland.

In McMafia: Crime without Frontiers (2008), Misha Glenny quotes a Bulgarian political scientist on the ambiguous nature of frontiers:

Our territory has always nestled between huge ideologies, between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, between Islam and Christianity, between capitalism and communism. Empires riddled with hostility and suspicion for one another, but home, nonetheless, to many people who want to trade across the prohibited boundaries. In the Balkans, we know how to make those boundaries disappear. We can cross the roughest sea and traverse the most forbidding mountain. We know every secret pass and, failing that, the price of every border guard.

Perhaps fences only make good neighbours when they are built by the neighbours themselves, rather than by rulers far away.  In the Balkans in particular, lines drawn on maps in Constantinople or Vienna have exacerbated cultural and religious tensions.

Meanwhile, back in the Danelaw, place names remain as almost the only memory of a once bitter cultural divide.  One of the great chroniclers of the Yorkshire Dales was the veterinary surgeon, Alf Wight, much better known by his pen name of James Herriot.  He wrote about the area in a series of semi-autobiographical stories that were later adapted for television.  James Herriot lived in the fictional town of Darrowby; Alf Wight lived in Thirsk.  Darrowby has the Anglo-Saxon -by ending, whereas Thirsk is Norse. More than a thousand years after Alfred drew a line across a map, it no longer makes a blind bit of difference.

4 responses to “Drawing Lines on a Map

  1. Oh, what lovely stuff Marion! If only place name differences could be applied in the same helpful way to the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain. ‘Eccles’, indicates a pre-Saxon church, especially in West Yorkshire (a word that survives in modern Welsh as Eglwys and derives, I suppose, from Latin ecclesia.) There is lots of scholarship on dating the age of A-S settlements from place names. e.g. ‘ing’ and ‘ham’ are supposedly early, c.f. ‘by’. But not enough Brythonic/British place names survive in most of England to make your 3D mapping possible. I’m willing to bet that you’re right, though, and the ancient Britons were pushed uphill and onto lower quality farming land, as well as west into Wales and south into Brittany.

  2. Thanks Sally. I think it’s mainly a matter of might over right, with the weaker group pushed out into more marginal country, but it may also have something to do with technology. The heavy soils of the lowlands needed heavier ploughs to work them.

  3. Map-making is what I see as the new innovation for historians. This coincides with the new digital technologies. Certainly it has been an innovation before, but with the old books and paper charts it was difficult to appreciate the fine details of the maps reproduced. Google Earth and other mapping software changes all that. What strikes me about Marion’s astute observations about boundaries and cultural communities in 9th century Old England is a pattern that still exist at a different scale and a different era; such as the local history of Brisbane communities in the last 150 years or so. Are urban planners in recent history more attuned to the neighbouring needs of the communities, on the ground, in creating boundaries of the shires, councils and residential estates? Are the drawings of boundaries, as has been described, a hangover of colonisation, or is it the nature of governance that doesn’t change at difference era and scales?

    There are two ways of looking at this in local history, the boundaries between urban and rural communities, and the boundaries of new migrant communities. In the colonial era we associate certain towns and rural areas with the dispersal of recently-arrived cultural communities. For example, there is the German mission in Nundah, and their spread of German farming families in areas north of Brisbane. Later, there are the Scottish migrants as farming families in the Eight Mile Plains and Sunnybank districts. This is an interesting an example for me. What is particularly potent in the larger history is that, at end of the nineteenth century, the Chinese market gardeners in the districts were feared by the colonial Europeans for their competition in fruit and vegetable industry. Today there is the prosperous “Chinatown” in the McCullough Street-Mains Road centre of Sunnybank. Let this remark not be misunderstood. It is not about the economic success of one Australian community over another. It goes back to 9th century Old English example in the shifts of neighbouring cultural boundaries. We have a similar example at the recent local history level of place names going back to a particular cultural identification from one side of the colonisation. “Sunnybank” derives from “ Sunnybrae” the name of early property settled by one of the Scottish farmers. Several streets in Sunnybank Hills refer to Scottish place names.

    Another take on this is the boundaries of the urban bands – intercity, old suburb midlands, and outer suburban sprawl. Traditionally the intercity has been the site of new migrant ghettos. West End has been the area identified with the post-WWII Greek community, and later the post-1975 Vietnamese community. In the early 1970s I have memories of housing commission homes in Moorooka and small ethnic groupings. I had a primary school friend whose Irish Catholic family were escaping “The Troubles.” These are now suburbs that are home for large African communities. Again, I am not suggesting that is a problem. The observation is that something of boundaries and neighbouring cultural communities still operate, and unlike the 9th century Old English example, this works more on the urban scale than it does in the proto-nation state. As least that is something worth debating, and exploring as a cross-history exercise.

    In closing it is worth noting that myself, Janice Cooper, and Beryl Robert, three local historians, have developed the Mapping Brisbane Southside History Project. It is a very exciting project to map the history with new digital technologies and mapping software. We are working with Chris Burns, a spatial scientist (i.e. what we use to call a historical geographer), and we will be launching a website at the end of the year, with the Council’s funded work on three pilot study areas.

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