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  • Writer's picturej. matthew thomas

Beating the Bounds

Updated: Oct 19, 2019

Where map making meets performance art. Before maps where used extensively to demonstrate property lines, church parishes would make annual ‘beating the bounds’ ceremonial walks or perambulations. Literally ‘beating’ their way around the ‘boundaries’ of the property line, this annual event would recall the property lines, and help keep an ‘oral tradition’ of the defined lands owned by the parish.

Young boys were typically employed to execute the walk, along with a priest and local churchwardens. Younger participants allowed for the generational passing along of the knowledge. And beating was actually taken quite literal. “…Armed with green boughs, usually birch or willow, (participants would) beat the parish boundary markers with them. Sometimes the boys were themselves whipped or even violently bumped on the boundary-stones to make them remember.” – a warning of the dangers of stepping over into foreign country. 

Violence used even in the reinforcement of one’s own land and boundaries.

This ceremony could take days to perform and would be repeated every three to five years. Hymns and prayers would be made during these processions – with some performed specifically for this ceremony. Today, the modern day ‘metes and bounds’ serves as the written version of these actions.

In England this tradition dates back as far as the year 410 – during the Anglo-Saxon period. “It is thought that it may have been derived from the Roman Terminalia, a festival celebrated on February 22 in honor of Terminus, the god of landmarks, to whom cakes and wine were offered while sports and dancing took place at the boundaries. Similar practices, of pagan origin, were brought by the Norsemen.” Over time it had religious connotations of harvest and feasts, rituals, and other processions would be accompanying this ancient form of mapping.

While contemporary practices eliminate the need for these traditions, there are still some annual perambulations that take place, more so for custom and community building. Communities in Corwall, England and Germany, as well as some towns in Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire continue this practice.

“The laws of Vermont and New Hampshire require the attorneys general of those states to meet once every seven years to perambulate the boundary between the two states. They do not walk 275 miles along the Connecticut River, but they meet at the boundary and formally reaffirm their mutual understanding of the precise location of the boundary. The location had been disputed in the United States Supreme Court in the case of Vermont v. New Hampshire, decided in 1933.”

Boundary making as performance. Movement as line making.

What are the rituals of mapping? What are the contemporary practices of perambulation and physically marking property lines? What is the connection of violence and boundaries?

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