Edges and Borders

In ecology and in various subsections of land management studies the term “ecotone” gets tossed around a great deal. It is a name for a sort of frontier, where two different communities of plants and animals lap into each other. Some ecotones are quite clearly marked, such as the treeline to tundra on many mountains in the Rocky Mountains or Alps. Others are more subtle or interwoven, like those in the Great Plains, where the eastern and riparian woodlands interleave with the true grasslands, forming an edge area with a high amount of species richness. Or to put it in English, there’s a large variety of woodland, grassland, and brush plants and animals in a relatively small area.

Cultural and geographic edge areas produce similar shadings of culture and history. Over the past decade or so I’ve been reading history with an eye on the edges, the borderlands and frontiers where different cultures and peoples meet, mix, and collide. As in biological ecotones, human frontiers shift back and forth as climate, culture, technology and other factors come into play. Sometimes a new group develops (ethnogenesis), more often the two or three groups define themselves more sharply, drawing clearer lines between them and us. When American historians talk about Borderlands history, we are speaking specifically about the Anglo-Hispano-Indian interactions in what would become the southwestern US, including California. Of the three, most people focus on Anglo-Hispanic collisions and combinations, shifting the older interactions into Native American or Spanish Colonial subfields rather than Borderlands. Anyone familiar with the region and the peoples involved is probably shaking their heads, because you can’t untangle the threads so easily in real life. But when you are trying to decide where the book goes in the LCC categorization system, or hiring faculty, the hairs tend to get split pretty fine.

One of the interesting areas is comparing literature and history of Europe with the North American experience, especially the Spanish and Native Americans with other edge situations. I’ve written before about how the Spanish easily transferred their experience with the Reconqista of Iberia to the New World, to the point of calling the Christianized Plains peoples who settled along the edge of the Rocky Mountains in New Mexico as genezarios, from the word janissary. One of the plaints of Spanish administrators in New Mexico was about Spaniards borrowing too much from the natives, or corrupting the Natives with drink and bad habits. Similar warnings could be found in Spain between 721 and 1492, and similar problems developed in Ottoman-held Europe. Laws and customs developed to separate Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Spain, and the Spanish in New Mexico discouraged their people from “going native,” probably with more success than the Habsburgs and Russians had in the Balkans.

The Balkans are probably the most complicated border I’ve looked at, and I tend to avoid it for that reason. Beneath the Celts, Romans, Slavs, Ottomans, and Habsburgs you have a mountain tribal tradition of raid and counter raid that makes the feuds of Appalachia and the South almost look like a Quaker picnic. While religion tied closely into politics after 1389 and especially after 1453, other customs lasted despite the Ottoman conquest. Hungary can be almost as complicated in some ways, from what I’ve read and seen, and I suspect the Ottomans, Hungarians, and Comanche would not really have blinked too hard had they even come into contact. The Comanche and the Tatar auxiliaries the Ottomans sent out as scouts and light cavalry raiders shared some similar philosophies about a good offense being the best defense, and about relieving sedentary peoples of their surpluses.

It is also easy to see too many parallels. Horse nomads the world over are horse nomads, and grassland cultures are shaped by their environments, be it the steppe of Eurasia or North America. But that does not mean the Mongols and Comanche are identical. To start with, their organizational systems were very different. The Comanche never had a Khan, and I suspect the very idea would not occur to them. They’d had horses for only a tiny sliver of years compared to the nomads of the Eurasian steppe. The North American grasslands also take up less space than do the Eurasian grasslands. Add in the lack of supporting species (sheep, cattle) and you get different cultures, although both were horse nomads. Ditto the Spanish vs. Comanche (or Navajo, or French) and the Habsburgs or Chinese vs the Ottomans or Mongols.

Certain parallels do ring true, though, in broad views. The Russian policy toward the steppe peoples, once the Russians had the technology and numbers to take and hold large areas of the steppe, greatly resembled some of the tactics used by the US against the Native Americans, playing groups off each other and trying to keep other powers out (like Mexico, Canada), and rewarding “loyal” chiefs with gifts and prestige while punishing others. Trade in fur played a large role in both the US and Russia, at least until fur failed in the US (beaver, then bison). Humans are very good at “let’s you and him fight” sorts of policies. Similar ecological problems affected the different groups as well. Drought on a grassland is drought on a grassland, forcing residents to relocate, reduce their herds, or irrigate (not feasible for pastoralists).

Another similarity is the strengthening definitions of the peoples involved. “We” are superior, civilized, belong to the true religion, are the better warriors, while “they” are weak, cowardly, heathen, corrupted by luxury, treacherous, miserly, and so on. Nomadic raiders around the world view farmers as weak prey to be used or raided as the situation warrants. That became the Ottoman tool of using Tatars against the farmers of Austria and Hungary, or the Polish kings bribing (“encouraging”) the Tatars to attack Russians and the Russians urging (“rewarding”) Tatars to harass Polish areas. Sometimes all that happened at the same time. While it was in progress (1240s-1880s), the settled peoples defined themselves in opposition to the nomads, and trying not to acknowledge how much cultural borrowing had taken place. One of the complaints, by people who were not there or by much later generations, was the very harsh treatment the Ottomans and Hungaro-Croats inflicted on each other. Who started it I leave to others, but both sides picked up terror tactics very quickly. Even Prince Eugen von Savoy, a cultured and cultivated man from France who found his place in the Habsburg Empire, generally ignored what his troopers did to Ottomans. Because the Ottomans did it to the Imperial troops, at least when the Ottomans won.

In many ways the Hungarians were a buffer people, originally steppe nomads themselves, then settled and converted to Catholicism, but with a few cultural memories going back to the Old Days. While firmly Not Ottoman, they adapted and improvised better than the Germans did (in some cases.)

Borderlands are fascinating things. What gets shared and adapted, what is rejected, why is there peaceful exchange here and not there, how are they alike, how do they differ . . . A very fertile field for fiction writers and historians alike. Because much of sci-fi and fantasy are borderlands stories, about cultures and species interacting in various ways.

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