There has never been an isolated, insular “Little England”, with migrants arriving throughout the Middle Ages and influencing the nation’s language, culture and identity, according to a new history.
Economic migration was far more commonplace in medieval England than is traditionally thought, the authors suggest: it was not just invading armies and powerful, wealthy families of Europe who helped to shape England’s history and heritage.
“People often do not realise that migration is central to English history through time,” said Joanna Story, professor of early medieval history at the University of Leicester and co-editor of Migrants in Medieval England, c. 500- c.1500. “It’s viewed as a post-war phenomenon, and people from migrant backgrounds may think migration is new to British society. That’s just not fair or right. Britain has always been made up of layers and layers and layers of incomers.”
Migrants typically arrived in England – which was viewed, even in medieval times, as a wealthy country because of its maritime economy and rich natural resources – in small boats. Danes, Norse, Irish, Frisians, Lombards, Flemings, Francs and Normans came to find work, to trade goods or to be with relatives who had moved to the island, Story said.
In the 15th century, as in modern Britain, people were taxed differently if they were migrants. Anyone born outside the realm was an “alien” and forced to pay an “alien subsidy”.
Story and her co-authors – geneticists, historians, linguists, archeologists and specialists in medieval art and literature – demonstrate in the book, to be published this week, that migrants consistently arrived in England throughout the “medieval millennium”’, covering the sixth to the end of the 15th century.
“When you put everything together … you build up this picture showing that migration is simply a constant feature of England and its history, culture, people and language all the way through this period. It is far more normal, regular and frequent than is commonly understood to be the case.”
At the beginning of the medieval millennium, the nation of “England” did not even exist. “There was huge diversity – England was not a monolithic political entity,” said Story.
The traditional story of England’s origin – invaded in waves by the Romans, Vikings and Normans – has been accepted unquestioningly for far too long, Story argues. “Some of it comes straight out of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, which was written in the eighth century and retold through later narratives such as The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.”