Migrants in Medieval England c.500-c.1500

One of the more impressive aspects of this book – the outcome of a British Academy Conference held in 2015 – is the range of evidence that is marshalled to trace migrants in the medieval past. As might be expected, there is a very good summary of the genetic and isotopic evidence for migration, and there are contributions too on the evidence from language and historical accounts. Much more surprising are essays on the evidence for migrants in personal and place-names, and in art and architecture.

Early papers focus on identifying migrants: the biological markers, impacts on the sound and grammar of language, their existence in ethonyms (place-names referring to specific ethnic identities such as ‘Frisians’) or distinctive personal names, like Abraham and Sancho, as well as bynames, like de Spaigne or de Amiens. Later chapters get closer to tackling the motivations for migration. To judge from the archaeological evidence, warfare offered opportunities: success could garner prestige and wealth, but also opened up possibilities to settle and marry. In this and other sources, we learn that more entrepreneurial migrants brought specialist skills, be they goldsmiths, lawyers, or traders. Some such migrants gravitated towards powerful patrons; in the later Middle Ages, many pursued career opportunities in towns. In the extreme case of the Norman Conquest, they ended up in charge.

The overall picture that emerges emphasises how migration was a constant feature in medieval England, but also that it came in many forms. There is evidence here for the large-scale movement of significant numbers of people, but also for the migration of numerically small, but politically or religiously influential ones. The distances they travelled varied, too. While today the term ‘migrant’ is used mainly to describe those from foreign shores, to a medieval Londoner there was little difference between an immigrant from Brugge or one from Birmingham. This meant that, even towards the end of this period when the concept of outsiders became conflated with notions of national identity, foreigners were not conceived as an ‘other’. They were just ‘such-and-such’ from ‘there’, and very much part of everyday English life.

Migrants in Medieval England c.500-c.1500 (Proceedings of the British Academy), W Mark Ormrod, Joanna Story, and Elizabeth M Tyler (eds), Oxford University Press, £80, ISBN 978-0197266724.
Review by Stuart Brookes.