Aliens, foreigners and strangers in medieval England, c. AD 500-1500

by Professor Mark Ormrod

17 Mar 2015

Immigration is a contentious topic with implications both for individual migrants and for donor and host communities. After World War II, political debate on the subject in the UK focused on migration from the former colonies of the Empire. More recently, the debate has shifted to the right of free movement within the European Union. But none of this is a new. Discussion of immigration is as old as the movement of people itself. And that phenomenon is a perpetual and persistent part of a very long history.

On 26 and 27 March 2015 the British Academy will host a major conference on Aliens, Foreigners and Strangers in Medieval England. The event provides an opportunity to reflect on the causes and consequences of migration to England over a long period of remembered and contested experience. The early Middle Ages is often represented chiefly as a series of ‘waves’ of settlement – by the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, and the Normans. Contrary to popular understandings, however, England never settled into a monoculture either before or after 1066, but continued to experience immigration as an inevitable consequence of its close interactions with other parts of the British Isles and Europe. The broad chronological framework for the conference deliberately absorbs the Norman Conquest within a longue durée in order to challenge the traditional dividing line between the early and the later Middle Ages in England.

The evidence for the groups and individuals who migrated to England is diverse, and varies widely across the medieval millennium. In order to understand the short- and long-term impact of immigrants in medieval England we need to deploy the critical rigour and analytical devices of many academic disciplines. And we have to analyse our evidence at both a micro- and at a macro-level: on the one hand, to understand the significance of traces left by an individual in a place-name, a grave, a poem, or a tax list; on the other, to extrapolate from these single instances models of behaviour that might apply to an entire population. The conference will bring together scholars working in history, literature, historical linguistics, manuscript studies, the archaeology of human remains and artefacts, the study of landscapes, and the sciences of genetics and statistics to bring fresh, interdisciplinary perspectives to the vital questions we have to ask of the evidence for medieval migration.

Most importantly, the conference aims to address the issue of how, and how pervasively, the movement of people into and within England helped to shape English society from AD 500 to 1500. This period embraces several centuries before the formation of ‘England’ as a coherent entity, and ends with the emergence of what some see as a fully-fledged English national sentiment. But the presence in each generation of new immigrants from other parts of Europe raises important questions about the apparently inexorable trend towards homogeneity. As well as exploring processes of assimilation and integration, the conference will consider the continuing diasporic relationship between migrants and their homelands. By analysing the legacy upon our both our biological and our cultural DNA, it will reveal the extraordinary impact that medieval mobility continues to have upon the identities of people living in England today.

Studying the Middle Ages is never straightforward, and medievalists are good at understanding the dangers of generalization. The idea that our ancestors comfortably united in wholehearted rejection of foreigners is one of the great myths of English history. In moments of high tension, social pressure could indeed lead to widespread xenophobia and to popular or officially-endorsed hate crimes. Yet opinions and policies were rarely consistent. Those who made their way to England in the Middle Ages came as settlers and travellers, as traders and refugees, as key professionals and as unskilled migrant workers. The idea that the indigenous population took one single and simple approach to the foreigners in their midst is seriously to underrate the sensitivity and flexibility of the debate about these incomers. Beyond the high-level rhetoric of hostility, moderation very often prevailed, and questions of economic utility often determined the degree to which incomers were, or were not, tolerated.

The conference brings together the fruits of three current research projects. The Impact of Diaspora on the Making of Britain: Evidence, Memories, Inventions (Professor Joanna Story: University of Leicester) employs a multi-disciplinary approach to analyse the long-term cultural impact of early medieval immigration within and to Britain, focusing primarily on interactions between peoples known to history as ‘Celts’, ‘Britons’, ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and ‘Vikings’. England’s Immigrants, 1350–1550: Resident Aliens in the Later Middle Ages (Professor Mark Ormrod, University of York) uses the extensive archives generated by the later medieval English. It reveals how, by the later Middle Ages, we can track the immigrant experience at the individual level, and learn about the place of origin and settlement, and the names, families and occupations of significant numbers of England’s inhabitants – perhaps one per cent of the total population – born outside the realm. The Centre for Medieval Literature (Professor Elizabeth Tyler: University of York in collaboration with the University of Southern Denmark) brings together a group of thirty scholars in Europe and North America. Situated at the meeting point of philology, literary criticism, linguistics, book history, manuscript studies and history, the project works to develop new, integrated European models for the study of medieval literature, and includes a major focus on the medieval literature of England (whether in Latin, English, French or Norse).

The past is a powerful force in shaping perceptions of and in the present. This conference has considerable relevance to current political debates on the scale and impact of migration today, and speaks to a range of contemporary discussions about ethnicity, multiculturalism and the evolution of national identity in Britain. It is complemented by a major public lecture from Professor Robin Fleming (Boston College), who is one of the leading US-based scholars on the history of early England and a major public intellectual in the field.

Mark Ormrod is Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Humanities, University of York and one of the convenors of the British Academy Conference Aliens, Foreigners and Strangers in Medieval England, c. AD 500-1500.

For more on the sponsoring projects, see:
The Impact of Diaspora on the Making of Britain
England’s Immigrants, 1330-1550
Centre for Medieval Literature

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