Anyone coming to the study of frontiers in history for the first time will be struck immediately by the diversity of the subject. Indeed, its geographical and chronological limits seem hardly less broad than those of History itself. Within a particular field of historical research, historians may have written about geographical, political, cultural, economic, linguistic, racial, or gender frontiers, to name only some of the more popular types.1 The perceptive student may well ask three basic questions. Firstly, why do there appear to be so many different types of frontiers in historical writing? After all, at first glance a frontier appears to be a very mundane phenomenon. Secondly, how valid are comparisons between different frontiers, whether from the same or different periods of history? For much of the attraction to historians of the idea of ‘frontiers’ rests on the assumption that frontiers can be compared profitably with one another; yet some historians write of frontiers as political divisions between states, whereas to others a frontier is the margin of settled land in a wilderness, or is an entirely cultural division between peoples. Thirdly, how did people view frontiers and frontier societies in the past? Like all historical phenomena, contemporary and subsequent views of the frontier often diverge widely; but the ways in which people envisaged frontiers can tell us much about their concepts of identity and political control.
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