I was recording a conversation with Wendy for the Flavor of Italy podcast. It started out like a normal conversation.
“So, do you know where the name of the Italian region Le Marche comes from?” Wendy asked.
I hesitated. Sweat poured off my ample forehead. “Um, well, no..”
“The Marches.” Wendy said.
I hesitated. I was good at hesitating. I should write an instruction manual.
“So, what does ‘the Marches’ mean in English?” I blurted.
There was a long silence, a plethora of hesitancy. This is not an auspicious beginning for a podcast. You could hear our gears turning but our wheels were stuck in the mud.
We went on. No doubt the fatal opening would be banished from the podcast-o-sphere and we’d just continue.
Then, after a day had passed I used my best can opener to slash the top on a can of worms.
I would find out what the marches were, and I was pretty sure it would only have a little to do with men in funny uniforms carrying guns (and perhaps brass musical instruments) while marching in lockstep towards their common destiny.
In medieval Europe, a march or mark was, in broad terms, any kind of borderland, as opposed to a national “heartland”. More specifically, a march was a border between realms, and/or a neutral/buffer zone under joint control of two states, in which different laws might apply. In both of these senses, marches served a political purpose, such as providing warning of military incursions, or regulating cross-border trade, or both. — March.
So now ya know. Sort of.
But here’s the thing; why name a whole region after a borderland or buffer zone?
It turn out that the region we call Le Marche had three historic marches. It was the zebra of borderlands.
From the Carolingian period onwards the name marca begins to appear in Italy, first the Marca Fermana for the mountainous part of Picenum, the Marca Camerinese for the district farther north, including a part of Umbria, and the Marca Anconitana for the former Pentapolis (Ancona). So the area around Piceno, an area a little north, and Ancona.
But why? Well, once these marches came under control of the Papal states, as I understand it, they used the borderlands to keep those pesky southerners at bay.
But where do the marches come together with our modern concept of marches? Well, in Medieval times they tell me, a march was the distance an army could move in a day. So that, perhaps is the minimum width you’d want your march to be.
Borderlands and the Traveler
The idea of visiting “the homeland” of a country is easily eclipsed in my mind by the idea of exploring a borderland. It’s where cultures collide, or might collide at any moment. It’s where the tension is, and tension is the source of those great feelings you get when you read a story or see a great movie.
This is what drives me toward the hinterlands. Le Marche is a different Italy in much the same way as the Molise is. The people are friendly toward the curious traveler, and the secrets that open doors are more apparent, even when language insists on thowing up barriers to understanding.
Do you know what Le March is like? If you’re a visual person, perhaps you’d like to see the latest introduction video I’ve cobbled together: Le Marche Introduction Video