No Man's Land: A Brief History

A century after the First World War, No Man's Land continues to conjure an image of the turbulent wasteland of the Western Front - a landscape of metal, bodies and mud. But No Man's Lands have a near 1000-year history and continue to appear in our modern world. Here we chart their evolution and their journey from medieval Britain to the...

Nomansland Commons, Hertforshire (September 2015) by Elliot GravesDurham University

The spaces outside, beyond and 'in between'

No Man's Land makes its first appearance (as Nanesmaneslande) in the Domesday Book in 1086. By the 14th century there were multiple No Man's Lands across medieval England, the term having become synonymous with execution grounds, plague pits, and territories that fell between church parishes – spaces that were seemingly beyond the law.

Nomansland Common, Hertforshire (September 2015) by Elliot GravesDurham University

Nomansland Common in Hertfordshire (UK), pictured here, fell between the monasteries of St Albans and Westminster. Even after a jury decreed in 1429 that the grazing rights should be shared, Nomansland Common proved difficult to control, becoming a site of cattle rustling and a refuge for bandits.

It remains as uninhabited 'common' ground to this day.

Putting out a fire in No Man's Land (July 2, 1939) by UnknownDurham University

Echoing its use in medieval England, 'No Man's Land' was adopted to describe frontier territories not yet fully under US government control. This continued well into the 1930s.

No Man's Land, Illinois, 20km north of Chicago, became especially notorious. Largely lawless, the area was renowned as “a slot machine and keno sin center where college students were being debauched with beer, hard liquor and firecrackers”.

Fire destroys the Miralago ballroom in the "No Man's Land" unincorporated area be...HD Stock FootageDurham University

A devastating fire broke out in 1932. Neighbouring fire departments initially refused to offer assistance as No Man's Land was beyond their jurisdiction.

The enclave never fully recovered from the fire. The neighbouring community of Wilmette annexed No Man's Land in 1942, bringing an end to this lawless frontier.

Nicosia Buffer Zone Giga (2019) by Elliot GravesDurham University

War, politics and the cracks between states

No-man's lands are the product of war, conflict, diplomatic failure and sovereignty disputes. They represent some of the most intractable geopolitical challenges in the contemporary world. The UN-administered Cyprus Buffer Zone, pictured here, has proven particularly persistent, having divided the island of Cyprus for nearly 50 years.

Map of Bir Tawil, 1960 (1960) by Army Map Service, Corps of Engineers, U.S. ArmyDurham University

The desert territory of Bir Tawil is arguably the last unclaimed space left on Earth.

Wedged between the borders of Egypt and Sudan, Bir Tawil is politically-rejected by both its neighbours – an ungoverned crack between two modern nation states.

In recent years Bir Tawil has become a staging ground for some fantastical sovereignty claims. Most notably, Jeremiah Heaton, a farmer from Virginia, has attempted to claim the territory for his daughter and has renamed Bir Tawil, The Kingdom of North Sudan.

The Plan of the Debatable Plan between England and Scotland (1552) by Henry BullockDurham University

A similarly unclaimed and ungoverned enclave existed between the borders of Scotland and England for more than 350 years. The so called "Debatable Land" was the lawless home to cattle rustlers and cross-border raiders

Despite attempts to divide (and conquer) the Debatable Land between Scotland and England (including this map published in 1552), it resisted formal incorporation until the gradual emergence of a unified Great Britain in the 17th and early 18th century.

Pripyat (2006) by Phil CoomesDurham University

Catastrophic no-man's lands

Today, no-man’s lands continue to emerge as a result of war, conflict, diplomatic compromise, and environmental catastrophes. The 2600-sq-km exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor is one of the world’s largest no-man’s lands and looks set to remain so for the next 20,000 years - at which point the background radiation may have fallen to levels considered safe for human re-habitation.

Eurasian lynx (November 2012) by Chornobyl Center's automatic cameraDurham University

Nature has defied the radiation.

The exclusion zone—largely, although not entirely, emptied of human life—has become a peculiarly-polluted wildlife refuge and a rich site of biodiversity.

Weichwanze aus Pripjat, Ukraine (1990) by Cornelia Hesse-HonnigerDurham University

Life in the Chernobyl exclusion zone is not without risks or consequences for the plants and animals that take refuge there.

As Cornelia Hesse-Honniger explores in her work, the radiation released in 1986 acts at a microscopic level, invisibly and silently mutating the genes of living organisms.

Credits: Story

Author: Alasdair Pinkerton

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