*As I expected, I need to go over what I have on Rogue Magic, before I can go on. In the meantime, enjoy a guest post from Alma Boykin, our very own TXRed. I’m going to be right here catching up on posts for PJM and writing Through Fire. Also, it’s younger son’s birthday, so after he’s done spending time with his friends, I should block some time for hanging out. Oh, Alma’s post is on Frontiers, and I want to add that working in indie is very much Life On The Wild Frontier, with circumstances changing and different things learned every week. For instance, I have in my hands (well on the desk, I don’t have an extra set of fingers to type with) the first book I’ve designed — a trade paperback copy of Death of a Musketeer. The surprising thing is how professional it looks — considering I designed it with word and a ten year old version of JASC paintshop, particularly (I chose clunkier methods over ramp up time.) The other surprising thing is how much of a dits I can be. For instance, the cover is great except on the blurb I got attacked by Sudden capitalization Syndrome, so it will have to be redone. And inside one of the section breaks seems to have given way, leaving the filler pages numbered. So I have to do that to, again. But if you’d told me three years ago I could design and have a book printed… I’d have laughed. Now, it seems entirely “matter of course”.*
Frontiers, New, Final, and Otherwise
by Alma Boykin
[Author’s note: This is a bit of a ramble and discussion piece as much as history bit.]
Frontier is an odd word, and probably an Odd word as well. It has fallen out of fashion with historians of the US West because of too many Davy Crockett and cowboy associations (thank you, House of Mouse). And then there’s the “high frontier” and “frontiers in medicine,” and “the final frontier” (space or Alaska, take your choice) to further muddy the wordy waters. Since we (historians) are supposed to be getting past the Euro-American-as-good-guy idea of western history, frontier is out and borderlands, cultural transition zone, and other such terms are in. Unless you are a geographer, or look at world history, which is what I’d like to do.
The word, its root, and its sense of “something past/beyond other things” go back to Indo-European. Latin gives us frons-frontes, meaning an eyebrow, a façade of a building, and the idea of something projecting out of something else. From there Latin added a military meaning, which became the Old French frontier meaning the front rank of an army or the prow of a ship (or of a fortification). The usage passed into English and by the 15th century there are references to a borderland being a frontier. North America got its frontier in the 1670s, according to etymological sources and sites.
Prior to graduate school I’d never given much thought to frontiers. Then I decided that I needed the word. To cultural geographers, a frontier is a place where peoples and cultures interact, often exchanging ideas and practices in the process. Terry G. Jordan’s great book, The North American Cattle-Raising Frontiers, is one of the best examples of the geographical frontier, and provided the model I used in my non-fiction work. So a frontier can be anywhere that two different cultures intersect for long enough that information transfers occur. Those transfers often cause changes in behavior, as you would imagine.
Historians of Russia occasionally refer to the Russia’s far-eastern frontier, and point out surficial similarities between the Wild East and Wild West (fur-based extractive economy, contested lands, native peoples integrated by conquest, hostile physical environment.) There’s a sense of weak government presence and control and that the frontier is where real cultures meet before official culture arrives.
Did Europe have frontiers? Yes, several. The area east of the Elbe River formed a frontier for several centuries, as pagan (and later Catholic and Orthodox) Slavs collided with Catholic and Protestant Germans. Later, the plains of Hungary, Transylvania, and the Balkans fit the idea of frontier, as the Ottomans and Tartars battled with the Hapsburgs, Russians, and Poles, passing control back and forth for five hundred years. There are stories of heroism and depravity, of high honor and low treason, of cultural exchanges and ferocious rejections of the other side. As Andrew Wheatcroft points out in the introduction to his book about the Siege of Vienna and its aftermath, Hapsburg/ Austro-Hungarian policies take on a different cast when seen as efforts to secure and defend an eastern frontier. One reason Wilhelmine Germany/Prussia came to define citizenship by blood rather than by birthplace stemmed from the ongoing conflicts with Slavs who refused to assimilate. Brandenburg-Prussia and East Prussia faced an eastern frontier that lingered long after the end of the Teutonic Knights’ kingdom.
Southern Europe, most notably Spain and Portugal, were frontiers for 700 years. One reason why Spain never had quite the same feudal system as France and England stemmed from that frontier. Spanish Christians had to carry arms in order to fend off the Moors (and mercenaries). The Spaniards’ right and duty of self-defense made it a lot harder for the crown and nobles to impose control over the common people, no matter what early modern governments might have wanted to do. Geography played a large role as well, and explains why the conquistadores (many from Extremadura) reached the American Southwest and shrugged instead of blanching with dismay like Anglo-Americans did. And why they called the descendants of converted Indians genizarios, or janissaries.
Fredrick Jackson Turner, in his seminal essay about the frontier in American history, used the US Census definition of frontier as a place with less than 10 people per square mile. The Census Bureau declared the frontier closed in 1890. Turner thought this would have deleterious effects for the country, since it turned off a social relief valve of sorts. His frontier became the next generation’s Wild West. In the 1970s, New Western historians announced that “frontier” no longer served a purpose, because the idea had been shaped and defined by Anglo-American perceptions and ideology. Hispanos and Native Americans recognized no such place (wellllll, mostly didn’t recognize). At the same time popular culture latched onto it even harder, giving us the variations mentioned at the start of this ramble.
Some people talk about frontier values, either as good or as bad things. The frontiers I’ve looked at share some commonalities. Physical strength remains critical to survival, or the ability to use tools to give the advantages of greater strength. Men need to be strong, stable, willing to work hard and to fight to protect their holdings and families. Women have a somewhat separate area of work, concentrated on the home or on a home territory, but still need to be able to take care of themselves and their children/dependents when the fertilizer hits the impeller. Honor, trustworthiness, wary respect for others, and a willingness to learn from and about the “other” even as you fight/work against them are important, and appear again and again in legend and in practice. I’d note that the “other” can be the environment in some cases as well as other people.
So, is the frontier dead or just sleeping? Cultural collision points still exist, notably the Balkans, the Caucasus Mountains, and (potentially) the Himalayas. By Fredrick Jackson Turner’s definition, large swaths of the western US are once more frontiers, as the population has shifted and concentrated in towns and cities. Several readers of this blog have talked about space and extra-solar settlement as the next frontier, the next place of exploration, settlement, and possible cultural contact. Robert Ballard probably looks at deep oceans as a frontier, since they have less than ten people per square mile and large swaths remain only semi-explored and mapped. (Note that the population definition only includes humans and not Great Old Ones.)
It strikes me that Americans, including those who are Americans by spirit instead of by place-of-birth, need frontiers, need places “lost beyond the ranges.” They can be mental, cultural, or environmental, but some Odds are going to roam, and society benefits from a certain degree of self-reliance, a sense of identity, and the willingness to say “I protect my people” and “this I will not do.” Frontiers have shaped humans for ages, and I doubt they’ll disappear within my lifetime. No matter what some people might prefer.