In writing about the social and cultural geographies of the past, we frequently reinforce notions of difference by using neatly delineated ethnic terms of reference that often superscribe the complexities of reality on the ground. Referring to ‘Gaels' and ‘Galls', demarcating ‘native' and ‘foreign' worlds in late medieval Ireland, is but one example. We often exaggerate, too, the boundedness of geographical space by speaking more of frontiers and less of overlapping territories. Using the context of late medieval Ireland, I propose in this paper the application and broadening of the concept of the contact zone—prevalent in postcolonial studies for a number of years—to address this specific issue of overstating social and cultural geographical cohesion and separation in the past. The use of the concept of the contact zone in geography has been largely confined to the modern period, which in the extant literature has received priority for various reasons, not least of which is the wider availability of source material. However, in this paper, I suggest that its relevance to the study of the medieval period is equally as strong, and perhaps its application can serve to deflect our imaginings of earlier geographical worlds as somehow more static and less complicated, and instead open the possibility of reading the fluidity and interconnections of the more distant past.
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