::The Culture of the Fence: Artifacts and Meanings

By Christina Kotchemidova

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Roman law affected medieval Europe. Burgundian law of 12th century stipulates that even the lands given by the king to his servants should be marked off by definite boundaries. “These boundaries are sacred and any one who removes them shall lose his hand." Boundaries constituted an improvement on the land and went with it in the deed of gift or sale: charters written in Gaul contain the phrase cum omni termino suo or cum omni marca sua. So tight was the link between boundary and property that the word "mark" came to mean real estate. Thus, in a deed of 711, the German Prince Ermanrad gives away in perpetuity "thirty acres which he owns in the marca Munefred," that is, in the Munefred real estate.

In England, the Laws of Ine, King of Wessex (7th century), added to the function of the fence the business of protecting crops from cattle. "A ceorl's homestead must be fenced winter and summer. If it is not fenced and his neighbour's cattle get in through his own gap, he has no right to anything from that cattle; he is to drive it out and suffer the damage." The fence thus came to signify commitment to the land, proprietor’s self-regard and responsibility.

Theoretical framework

Based on these briefly reviewed uses of fences, a question arises: Did cultures employ the fence to bar access to land, or did they use it to mark the land, i.e., to convey ideas - of property, control, commitment, responsibility, legitimate occupancy, unwanted presence and so forth. The fence problematizes the habitual dichotomy between the physical and the mental reality. On the first glance it is a physical barrier. But whenever it serves only as a notification – i.e., is not an insurmountable wall we are trying to climb – it triggers “meaning-making” in Postman and Weingartner’s sense, or it works primarily as a sign that we interpret with our minds, rather than as a physical object we experience with our body. Considering human propensity for symbolic transformation that Langer pointed out, the practical purpose of the fence immediately extends into symbolic function. But going just one step further, we can speculate that even a cow that sees a fence and chooses to pull away from it instead of bumping into it – is already making some meaning of the fence as a sign that says “You can’t go there.” This problematizes further the definition of sentient beings and the boundary between the mode of thinking and the mode of perception. Or, the fence demonstrates how the physical and the mental meet on the level of the senses where intelligent activity begins.

Artifacts trigger thought and use of artifacts fosters cultures. The fence played a role, for example, in building the culture of the family. Since fences were used to divide families from each other but not to divide the members of a family from one another, nor to divide one neighborhood from another, they continuously sent out the message that the family was a more important social unit than the individual or any other social group. The medium implied an idea that was continuously emphasized by the care and effort invested in the medium thus facilitating the institutionalization of the idea as a cultural value.

Second order meaning of fences

Affecting us in our physical reality, or the way we live, technologies inevitably affect us in our mental reality, or the way we perceive the world and behave rationally. Stone fences built in the Bronze Age in Cornwall established the pattern of fields to this day when they are still in use, particularly in the Penwith peninsula. Thus the material used in the construction of a technology often determines the duration of its culture. We can suppose that if the fences had been made of wood, the boundaries of the fields might have changed a long time ago. But the material of stone added a curious time bias to this largely space-biased medium - by Innis - enhancing a tradition of valuing the past and fostering conservative behavior.

The Anglo-Saxons, who grew hedges, produced a significant ecological effect providing a natural habitat for many species, preventing soil erosion and softening the microclimate for the growth of early vegetables. The first settlers in America made the so-called Virginia worm fence – a zigzagging structure of rough wooden rails crossed at an angle, which did not require driving posts into the ground and was particularly labor- and cost-effective. European travelers marveled at the invention. Being sturdy, rough in appearance, ingeniously built and implying abundant resources, the worm fence became one of the first iconic symbols of America in the European mind.

Playing with shapes and materials, fence-builders have added various connotational meanings to the fence throughout time. Victorian houses display a lacework of wrought iron grids and garlands ending in scrolls, leaf-ends or fishtails, offering a paradox of solidity and daintiness. In the Victorian code, ironwork sent out the message of a significant social power - confident in its stronghold, parading expensive artwork with a view of its property behind.

Throughout history fences have been used as a tool both of defense and conquest. Early colonial Jamestown of 1610 had a palisade of planks and posts anchored to the ground. Interestingly enough, the Native Americans used high stockades around their compounds too. However, it had never occurred to them to enclose the land – which was what the colonists did. John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, justified his enclosure policy saying: "That which lies common, and hath never beene replenished or subdued is free to any that possess and improve it."

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