If you know me at all, you’ll know I draw a lot of maps. That’s actually how I make my living. I’ve seen dozens and dozens of them – from sketches that people send to me to maps I look up when I’m trying to learn a new style.
The thing I see an awful lot of? Borders. Often drawn through the middle of nowhere, with no landmarks in sight.
Of course, I’m not going to tell you this is wrong. I’ve done it in my own maps, after all. I just want to prompt you to think a little differently about how you do these things in your own fiction – you might find a way to stand out from the crowd a little more. And besides, I think the worldbuilding is more interesting this way.
The first piece of advice I have is simple: draw your borders along the edge of geographic features or landmarks if you can. In real life, this was how boundaries between lands were actually determined – there was usually a charter or deed somewhere which said something along the lines of “everywhere between this town and this mountain, up to the edge of the river ___, is the land of ____.” When you think about it, they had no other way of determining borders. And yes, as you can probably imagine, different people wrote different charters with different borders, and this could cause conflict – whether that was between two peasants fighting over a field or two kings deciding on a national boundary.
The second thing I want you to think about when deciding borders is this: authority matters. Especially in medieval states, where the state’s administrative power and general control over the population is weak, it was very easy for people to just ignore the law altogether unless they were coerced into following it. That power was wielded by the nobles, who in turn were kept in place by the king. All authority flowed down from him.
Medieval states weren’t countries in the way we think of them today, with national pride and identity and state structures like police forces and fire departments. They were effectively organised gangs, in which the powerful made everyone else behave the way they wanted. If a local lord, or even a king, lacked authority, they didn’t have power – and this was most clear in border areas. Sure, maybe your farm technically lies in so-and-so country, but if your king and his tax collectors haven’t been to visit for years because they’re off dealing with some crisis elsewhere, and another king’s men come along and tell you to swear fealty to him and start paying his tax instead (with veiled threats), where do you stand?
In this way, borders could be both meticulously defined in writing, and remarkably unstable too. And I think there’s some great potential for interesting stories in these facts – much more so than in a world where everyone just seems to accept a hard border as an immovable reality they never think about changing.