The Research Group Early Modern History at the University of Leuven takes a special interest in transregional history and border studies. This might be so because Henri Pirenne once claimed that Belgium always constituted un état frontière. More likely however, our research interest stems from an ever more globalized world in which migration and mobility affect the way we look at borders and states. An early modern perspective to these questions can offer insights on how people in the past engaged into crossborder movements and exchange. Hence, research results in this field can overcome the state- or nation-bias in historiography, and a hodiecentric stance in society.
We argue that the method of transregional history offers a valuable new tool for studying early modern territorial borders. Where existing research strands do not always suffice to accommodate the complexity of such boundaries, this new concept can serve as an alternative. Firstly, transregional history points out that early modern boundaries were not the outcome of actions that were pursued at one spatial level, be it local, regional, national, transnational, or global, but existed at multiple negotiated levels at once. Secondly, the method prompts historians: a) to not predefine “the” singular border of the region under scrutiny, but to follow historical actors as they shifted from one course of action to another in dealing with these multiple borders; and b) to question what transcended the boundaries of a region instead of highlighting how they separated one “unique” area from the next. In doing so, transregional history helps to reformulate questions about territorial boundaries, to make novel heuristic choices in research where and when borders matter, and, hence, to improve our understanding of transboundary historical change.
As such, transregional history first and foremost serves as a tool that historians can add to their already extensive conceptual and methodological repertoire. Earlier and certainly still useful tools include global history, transnational history, transcultural history, “traditional” border studies, and the notion of transregional history draws explicitly on all of them. What we therefore aim to do with our concept and method is complement the research conducted in these fields by pointing historians specifically to the complicated nature of early modern borders, and demonstrate how these separations differed markedly from our still staunchly “modernistic” idea of what a border constituted. Transregional history indeed derives from the observation that early modern borders have not yet been studied to their full potential, mainly because much of the existing research either limited itself to one spatial level (the state, the province, the town, the parish, etc.), and historians have thus forgotten about the connective role a border played, or conversely focused so much on exchange that the early modern world became essentially borderless.
Serving as a sort of middle ground and meso-level, transregional history points out that pre-modern borders certainly did separate one territory from the other, but that they at the same time were overlapping and layered, almost representing Russian nesting dolls whereby each spatial level is part of a larger whole. Turned into practice, this observation implies two important methodological shifts. One is that, in order to fully grasp how early modern borders “worked,” historians should question how the contemporary actors themselves constructed the particular boundary their research encounters. If the scale of a particular research project is no longer predefined but adapts itself according to the different individuals, groups and institutions encountered, it will quickly become apparent that a separation that might look primarily “national” or “local” from our perspective might in fact have been both for one early modern actor and neither for another. As a second shift, a transregional methodology also asks exactly what the notion itself signifies: to cross and transcend the multilayered boundaries encountered, and to examine the historical transitions resulting from this process, such as the possible switches in codes and cultural values historical actors used to deal with such borders. Although historians certainly can still focus on one entity (the Holy Roman Empire, Cambrai, Mexico-City, etc.), doing transregional history means: a) recognizing that the borders of these entities were not merely situated at a “national,” “regional,” or “local” scale, but at all of these at the same time; and b) questioning how the exchanges along and across these layered boundaries impacted all sorts of aspects of “life at the border.”
Interested to find out what the concept and methodology of transregional history look like in practice? Check out our projects. Want to know more about who is doing this research? Find out more about our academic collaborators. And if you want a better grasp of the whole idea? Read our forthcoming article in the Journal of Early Modern History.