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.
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.
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.
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.