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.
Even on a more local level, it was not terribly uncommon for commoners throughout Europe to travel dozens of miles to visit churches thought to perform healing miracles or to celebrate feasts in honor of favored saints. To accommodate these travelers, elaborate systems of hospitality developed (held over, in some ways, from the ancient world) to welcome new arrivals and shepherd them safely on their way to their final destination.
None of this, of course, means that these travelers weren’t moving between things. They certainly understood that. It’s just that those “things” travelers moved between were temporary, sometimes even ephemeral, and often simply didn’t seem to matter a whole lot.
Communities throughout pre-modern Europe were predominantly defined by people, not geography. The Latin word imperium, for example, is often translated as “empire” but it’s more accurate to say it means “authority” or “power.” In other words, “empire” in the Middle Ages was simply the people over whom the emperor exerted power. That power (at least in theory) moved with the people into different geographic spaces and lasted until those subjects attached themselves to another person in power.
This wasn’t required, and sometimes it wasn’t possible. Pilgrims could go and come back, still being a Frank or a Lombard or a Saxon. Italian cities such as Venice set up trading quarters in foreign cities that were effectively governed by their own laws. Religious identity (Christian, heretic, Jew, or Muslim) often trumped any other and determined who was in charge of who.
But others moved, stayed, and became something else, adding a new identity to their old one, becoming someone different. A 7th-century warrior from the Mediterranean could move to northern Europe and become one of the Alemanni, for example.
And this is maybe the most interesting part of all this – the one that defies many of our expectations about the Middle Ages. It isn’t that people moved but rather how often those people were welcomed. What might be the most interesting thing about all this is how imaginary those black lines on our maps actually were.