On the frontiers of European history

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2010), Volume 18

‘Europe as Queen’, from Sebastian Munster’s Cosmographia (Basel, 1570).

‘Europe as Queen’, from Sebastian Munster’s Cosmographia (Basel, 1570).

Academics these days are encouraged to venture outside their limited ‘knowledge community’ (‘the ivory tower’) and engage more with the general public, presenting research findings to wider audiences, increasing participation and promoting ‘lifelong learning’. They must also attract outside funding for their universities to finance networks of the type discussed here, but funding is increasingly geared towards projects with an evident social value. Thus the challenge is to tailor one’s research to engage with this wider audience and to broaden participation without sacrificing academic integrity. One European history research group that has adapted to meet this changing academic climate is CLIOHRES.
CLIOHRES (Creating Links and Innovative Overviews for a New History Research Agenda for the Citizens of a Growing Europe) has 180 participants from 45 partner institutions (two staff and two doctoral students from each) in 31 countries. In the Sciences large collaborative research projects are normal, but in history, and many other Arts disciplines, the norm has been individual research in peer-reviewed articles or monographs that ‘add to the sum of knowledge’. How the general public should benefit from this was less clear, though some academics also wrote for wider audiences or participated in adult education. Naturally, the agenda for these international projects reflects those topics seen collectively as significant in this wider context. Ours is unashamedly European, focusing on topics like ‘European citizenship and identity’, ‘a Europe of the regions’ and ‘Europe: idea and context’. This provides the stimulus for looking at Ireland in unconventional ways—for instance, a discussion of whether, in origin, citizenship was acquired from parents (ius sanguinis) or birth within the state (ius soli), a topic relevant to the 2004 referendum here about the right of people born on the island of Ireland to Irish citizenship. There is, of course, the national agenda: each national tradition highlights a range of historical problems that are supposedly formative while ignoring others seen as historically neutral or retrograde. Thus, historical themes that are closely researched in one tradition—relations between region and nation, for instance—may not figure at all in another. In Ireland’s case, national developments that have a decidedly positive ring to them include cogadh Gaedheal re Gallaibh, the origins of an Irish identity, and the unification of the national territory. By contrast, empires, frontiers and regions are, at best, historically neutral, if not downright anti-national.
Closely related is the issue of language. Just as the national agenda reflects the particular preoccupations of the society in which it develops, so too does language. One of the project’s major strengths is the participation of leading historians whose work is almost unknown in the Anglophone world. Discussions may be in various languages, commonly also French and German, but these days English is overwhelmingly the lingua franca of publications. Continental academics are normally multi-lingual, with a good working knowledge of spoken English, but the conventions of written academic English are less widely understood and may vary significantly from traditions of academic argument in other languages. Many contributions therefore have to be ‘translated’—not just word for word but also according to English conventions.
Among the network’s six thematic work groups (TWGs) Ireland has figured prominently in TWG5: Frontiers and Identities. The starting point was to map the field, viz. to chart the range of writings on frontiers in different national traditions. And not just historical writings: TWG5 also includes sociologists and geographers. That frontiers are a relatively underdeveloped theme in Irish/British historiography is no surprise, but paradoxically English has a particularly rich vocabulary to describe frontiers of different kinds—border, bound(ary), confine, limit, march, mete, pale. TWG5 also studies the impact of frontiers on senses of identity. A common state-sponsored weapon of frontier defence, for instance, was to promote a rhetoric of difference, investing one’s own borderers with positive qualities that contrasted with ‘the other’: ‘civility’ versus ‘savagery’ concerning Ireland’s medieval two nations has parallels elsewhere. Besides territorial frontiers, other types of boundaries are explored, including the organisation of space in towns and cities (Jewish quarters, for instance, or ‘Irish towns’ in medieval Ireland) and divisions between town and country. These may also have strong political dimensions—witness Ireland’s English towns and their Gaelic hinterlands.
Yet, while specialists may contribute essays on different frontiers for thematic volumes, it is much more difficult to organise truly collaborative work opening up new topics. Few group members had known each other before the project started and it took some time to build up a rapport. The original idea was that the doctoral students would adapt to their own research the different approaches suggested in other historiographies, while staff members would provide expert guidance on work in the various national agendas. This aim has been partly realised: students from different countries have combined to do collaborative research. But students cannot afford to stray far from their own doctoral topics, and staff members have less time for new research.
As members became better acquainted and more accustomed to the task in hand, it proved possible to identify new perspectives and to plan ahead. The decision to organise a volume on urban space suggested a follow-up look at rural space, specifically relations between regions and territorial frontiers. Viewed from a narrowly Irish perspective, this choice may seem surprising. Ireland has only ever had one territorial frontier since 1603, created by partition in 1920. And why Ireland has no developed tradition of regional history (the English Pale? the making of Ulster?) is, of course, a telling question. Revisionism’s recent unsuccessful challenge to Irish history’s ‘grand narrative’ also reinforced the dominance here of national history. But with the European Union, the replacement of a Europe of competing nation-states by an EU federation of states has transformed the context in which both territorial frontiers and regions are studied. The political role of history-writing in promoting national solidarity is well known, but a focus on what Europeans have in common should balance the ‘us against them’ of national historiographies if we are to build the new Europe. The development of European federalism thus affords an opportunity for historians to review how far inherited perspectives about a Europe of frontiers remain valid in a Europe of regions—with a single currency, and the dismantling of border controls through Schengen. It also raises the thorny question of what constitutes a historical region. Is it part of a larger state or national territory, or an ethnically defined territory (often a would-be nation), or is it a macro-region like the Balkans? These three definitions have in common the idea of their partiality (part of a larger unit), but beyond that the preferred definition in each national context reflects the national agenda. The EU’s vision of ‘a Europe of the regions’ aims to counteract aggressive and exclusive nationalisms, but the idea of commonality is a hard sell to populations conditioned to national distinctiveness.
This problem provides the starting point for TWG5’s fourth and latest volume, Frontiers, regions and identities in Europe (Pisa, 2009). As regards Ireland, regional perspectives underpin two chapters, on the English Pale as a Tudor frontier region (compared here with the Anglo-Welsh marches) and on the transformation in Irish historiography c. 1880–1920 (from Ireland as English regional history to Ireland as national history). Another chapter on Tudor regions and frontiers focuses on the English far north but implicitly offers a comparison with Ireland’s English Pale, applying insights drawn from Irish historiography. And a chapter on ‘Transylvania: between two national historiographies’ (showing how historians of Hungary and Romania have developed distinctive discourses on Transylvania, underpinning rival political claims to this disputed province) displays strong parallels with the rival discourses on Northern Ireland. The various agencies promoting the regional agenda in European history (e.g. history societies, political pressure groups, museums) are also considered comparatively. In Ireland their relative weakness may help to explain why, to date, regional history has had little impact, although local history—constructed, notably, around English counties—remains extremely popular.
The time-frame from start to final publication of volumes is just fifteen months: publication on-line in June 2010, paperback in August. To date, the network has published 32 volumes in four years. Anyone can download chapters or whole volumes for free. This on-line material is ideal for undergraduate teaching: it alerts students to the different European approaches to history. Participation in these large international projects is a sobering but highly rewarding experience. Not even basic concepts like periodisation can be assumed: when Isaac Newton died in 1727, Latvia remained in the Middle Ages, the early modern period was ending in Italy, and early modern Ireland stood somewhere between. The challenges posed also underline how far historians working within the one national historiography unthinkingly assimilate the shared convictions, orientations and predilections of that tradition, becoming in effect its prisoners. Collaborative work of this kind quickly exposes the various national agendas and the assumptions behind them. Looking at familiar problems from unfamiliar perspectives, and at some unfamiliar problems for the first time, stimulates fresh thinking. Rather than writing for a limited public in one national tradition, we need to display our wares to wider European audiences. The lessons of Irish history are too important to leave in local journals.

Steven Ellis is Head of History at NUI Galway.

Further reading:


CLIOHRES (www.cliohres.net), Network of Excellence.

CLIOHWorld (www.cliohworld.net), Erasmus Academic Network.


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