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Migrants in Medieval England, c. 500-c. 1500$

W. Mark Ormrod, Joanna Story, and Elizabeth M. Tyler

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266724

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: January 2021

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266724.001.0001

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Framing Migration in Medieval England

Framing Migration in Medieval England

(p.1) 1 Framing Migration in Medieval England
Migrants in Medieval England, c. 500-c. 1500
Joanna Story, W. Mark Ormrod, Elizabeth M. Tyler
British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter frames the study of migration in medieval England in terms of origin myths concerning the formation of the English peoples and tropes of ancestral migration to the island. It argues for the relevance of ‘England’ as a unit for studying migration and mobility over the longue durée, and discusses the emergence of ‘the English’ as a concept and the kingdom of England as a geo-political entity before the Norman Conquest. The terminology used in English medieval sources—such as ‘alien’, ‘foreigner’, ‘stranger’—to describe people who were thought to have come from afar is reviewed, and how these terms, as well as the quantity and quality of the contemporary sources, change over time. It explains and contextualises the approaches taken in the chapters that follow, and argues for openness about prior assumptions and about the methodological limitations of different scholarly approaches, as well as a recognition that medieval sources may hold answers to some but not all of our questions.

Keywords:   Origin myths, Terminology, Anglo-Saxon, England, Alien, Foreigner, Stranger


THIS BOOK CONCERNS one aspect of the history of the peopling of Britain during the ‘medieval millennium’, a broad period stretching from approximately the early sixth century until the end of the fifteenth, c. 500–c. 1500 AD. It focuses specifically on the regions of lowland Britain that by the end of this period defined the kingdom of England, and it evaluates different genres of evidence for the migration of people into and within this space over that long period. Migration is a leitmotif in present times. But, as this book shows, it has always been thus: migration is etched into the historical, archaeological, linguistic, artistic, literary, and biological evidence for the peopling of the islands of Britain, revealing not only the movements of real people from over the sea, within Britain, and within England, but also the ways that groups and individuals in those centuries remembered, borrowed, invented, or, indeed, forgot stories of ancestral migration and mobility when crafting their own contemporary identities.

Origin Myths and the Idea of England

The painting reproduced as the frontispiece to this book is a case in point; it depicts six boats carrying armed men rowing across open water towards a round island.1 Bright blue seas, filled with fish, surround the island where a fortified building flanked by trees stands on ochre-rich earth and verdant pasture. In this full-page manuscript illumination, a medieval artist imagines the journey of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes to the island of Britain many centuries before. This was a familiar tale by (p.2) the mid-twelfth century when this image was painted. By then it had become part of an origin story for an English people, having been retold and reworked many times, by artists as well as scholars who wrote in Latin or in the English vernacular.

The most influential early source for the story of the migration of people into early medieval Britain had been written by Bede, a Northumbrian monk (d. 735), who drew heavily on an earlier text by a British cleric named Gildas.2 In the first part of his five-book Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede recounted how, two or three centuries before his own day, Germanic-speaking invaders and their descendants had displaced the inhabitants of lowland Britain. His work did much to create a shared past for ‘the English’ and his account of the role of migration in the formation of the earliest English kingdoms remains influential to the present day. As is evident in this volume, even twenty-first-century scrutiny of medieval evidence still contends with Bede, and his vision of Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and other groups as well arriving from Germania.3 Bede’s work formed the backbone of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which began to be compiled in the late ninth century, and the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman historians held up his text as a model. The persistent popularity of Bede’s History is evidenced by the large number of medieval copies (164) that still survive, of which 59 were made in the twelfth century and 58 more in the period 1200–1500, demonstrating the continued interest in and relevance of Bede’s History for later medieval readers.4

The reach of Bede’s Latin text was widened via translation into English, initially in the later ninth century or early tenth century, at around the time when King Alfred (871–99) encouraged the translation of key texts from Latin into Old English which he considered ‘the most necessary for all men to know’.5 Here the text of Bede’s History was radically trimmed, leaving a distilled version that focused on the arrival, conversion, and Christianisation of English people whose geo-political identity was being transformed in the ninth century under the pressure of attacks by Viking warbands.6 At around the same time, the History served as an important source for the early part of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, also in Old English, which was widely disseminated to bishoprics. This vernacular text helped to popularise, rework, and spread as received wisdom the story of migrant origins of the English peoples. Many centuries later, in 1565, Bede’s History was again translated into English by a recusant priest, Thomas Stapleton, then in exile in the Low Countries. (p.3) He dedicated the book to Elizabeth I (1558–1603) in an attempt to elicit her favour for the Catholic cause, hoping that she would see ‘in how many weighty pointes the pretended reformers of the Church in your dominions have departed from the patern of that sounde and Catholike faith planted first among Englishmen by holy S. Augustin, our Apostle, and his vertuous company’.7 The stories of Anglian, Saxon, and Jutish immigrants to Britain and their conversion to Christianity were thus drawn into the sixteenth-century disputation between Catholic and ‘Anglican’ theologians, who perceived in the pages of Bede’s History an English Church untainted by later controversies.

The potency of the same underlying story of migration from the near continent, and the corollary of kinship with those who still lived there, is also apparent in the stories told about missionary endeavours of men and women from the early English kingdoms who, beginning in the late seventh century, travelled to north-eastern and eastern Francia, and who sometimes framed their own efforts in terms of a ‘remembered history’ of ancestral origin on the continent.8 Bede said that one Northumbrian hoped to make the journey because ‘he knew that there were very many peoples in Germany from whom the Angles and Saxons, who now live in Britain, derive their origin. Hence even to this day they are by corruption called Garmani by their neighbours, the Britons.’9 The West Saxon missionary, Boniface (d. 754), who left England for Francia in 718 and rose within the ranks of the Frankish Church to become archbishop of Mainz, wrote a letter back to the Church leaders there and ‘all God-fearing Christians in general from the stock and lineage of the English [ de stirpe et prosapia Anglorum]’, asking them to pray that the ‘hearts of the pagan Saxons’ might be turned. ‘Take pity on them’, he said, ‘for they themselves are saying that, “We are of one blood and one bone with you”.’ In another letter, probably sent in reply to this one, Torthelm, the bishop of Leicester, responded, ‘Who would not exult and be glad at such achievements, whereby those of our own people (gens nostra) are coming to believe in Christ, the Almighty God !’10

The trope of ancestral migration to the island was used again by Alcuin (d. 804), a Northumbrian deacon who worked for Charlemagne in Francia, at the end of the eighth century, and later by Wulfstan (d. 1023), bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York, in the early eleventh. Both times, the context was the perceived (p.4) threat to the established order from Viking attacks. In 793, the monastery on the Northumbrian tidal island of Lindisfarne, where St Cuthbert (d. 689) had been bishop, was ransacked by heathen raiders. Alcuin wrote to Archbishop Æthelheard of Canterbury (792–805) in the aftermath, recalling that, ‘our fathers, although they were pagan, gained this country through war’. How humiliating, he went on, that we should lose the land which pagans had once won. ‘I say this,’ he said (revealing a keen grasp of Bede’s chronology), ‘because of the scourge which recently fell on parts of our island, where our ancestors have been living for nearly three hundred and fifty years.’ Alcuin recalled that the Britons had lost their patria through their own misdeeds: ‘let us beware,’ he said, lest the same thing happen again. In times of strife, grasping at the collective experiences of nebulous ancestors presented a means of binding Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon, and Kentishmen in solidarity against a new threat to ‘our island’. This very passage was underlined carefully in a copy of Alcuin’s letters that was probably made for and used by Archbishop Wulfstan in the early eleventh century.11 As archbishop of York from 1002, Wulfstan had to navigate the regime change that followed the expulsion in 1013 of Æthelred II (the Unready) (980–1013, 1014–16) and the advent of rule by Danish kings, first Swein Forkbeard (1013–14) and then his son, Cnut (1016–35). In 1014 Wulfstan wrote a tract, in English, commonly known by its Latin title Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (‘Sermon of the Wolf to the English’), in which he excoriated the English for their failings in the face of external threat. Like Alcuin before him, he quoted Gildas as an authority, reminding his listeners how ‘finally, [God] allowed the army of the English to conquer their land and to destroy the host of the Britons entirely’.12

Migration, and story-telling about migration, was not confined to the so-called ‘Migration Period’ (a traditional label which used commonly to be applied to the late Roman and early medieval centuries in western Europe) but was a reality of life in Britain as elsewhere in Europe throughout the Middle Ages.13 In England, Scandinavian Viking raids began to be registered at the end of the eighth century and escalated through the ninth century to a point in the 860s and 870s when raiders began to settle.14 In the eleventh century, two conquests subjected England to rule by foreign kings and their retinues, first the Danish kings Swein and Cnut, and then Norman rulers, led by William I (1066–87).

English politics, ecclesiastical life, and culture were also influenced by the movement of high-or relatively high-status people: clerics, craftspeople, merchants, (p.5) and aristocrats, as well as royalty. These individuals, always present, become more visible in the surviving evidence as the use of writing expanded in the later Middle Ages and new systems emerged to regulate what was considered to be the ‘alien’ population within the country.15 In the later Middle Ages, too, mobility within England was a major phenomenon, especially after the Black Death when there was a widespread movement from the countryside into towns.16

It is important to remember also that at the beginning of the medieval millennium ‘England’ did not exist, and nor did the ‘English’, as an identifiable group of people with a clear identity and geo-political coherence. The emergence of a unified kingdom of England was neither foreseeable nor inevitable, and its evolution across the centuries before the Norman Conquest is traceable only with hindsight.17 One person often considered influential in the invention of the English—in concept if not in reality—was Pope Gregory the Great (590–604), who sent missionaries from Rome to Britain. They arrived there in AD 597 carrying letters addressing the king of Kent, who was at the time the most powerful ruler in southern Britain, as rex Anglorum (‘king of the English’). This label was an outsider’s view, created on the basis of a combination of eschatological theology and received wisdom derived from contemporary Frankish information and old Roman knowledge.18 The power of papal authority meant that Bede took up the term, and used gens Anglorum (‘the people of the English’) as a generic label in the opening and closing sections of his History. Despite the singularity of this term, Bede nonetheless made it absolutely clear that in his own day political groupings and ethnic identities were highly diverse and mutable both within Britain as a whole and among the gens Anglorum whose ecclesiastical history he set out to describe.

It is not until the later ninth and earlier tenth centuries, under Alfred (871–99), his son Edward the Elder (899–924), daughter Æthelflaed (d. 918), and grandson Æthelstan (924–39), that the hybridised adjective ‘Anglo-Saxon’ began to be used in the style of royal address, in preference to ‘king of the West Saxons’. Alfred’s biographer, Asser, called him angul saxonum rex, and one explanation of this change is that the expression was developed at his court following the extension of his rule into areas previously controlled by Mercian kings.19 The choice may have been influenced by older, continental terminology, since ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is a phrase first recorded in the later eighth century in texts by writers from Italy and Francia.20 (p.6) A document written in the name of Bishop George (incumbent of the suburbicarian see of Rome at Ostia and the Frankish bishopric at Amiens) that was sent to the pope, described a synod held in Anglorum Saxnia in the autumn of 786. A few years later, Paul the Deacon, following his return to Italy from the Frankish court, employed the same phrase more than once in his ‘History of the Lombards’. Providing an account of the journey of Ceadwalla (d. 689) from England to Rome via the Lombard court, Paul described him as rex Anglorum Saxonum, rather than rex Occidentalium Saxonum (‘king of the West Saxons’) as Bede had done previously.21

In the late 920s Æthelstan established himself as ruler north of the Humber, in the Anglo-Scandinavian kingdom of York. After this, his charter scribes began to experiment with the label rex Anglorum and sometimes even described him as rex totius Britanniae. Instability followed his death, and it was only really under Edgar (959–75) that, by working with leading clerics, a plan for ‘one (monastic) rule and one country’ began to take shape, with pragmatic implications for the governance of the kingdom.22 The relative peace of the mid-tenth century and absence of external attack was a factor in these political developments; it was only in the late tenth century, in the face of renewed Scandinavian assaults, that the authors of the vernacular Anglo-Saxon Chronicle began to become invested in English identity.23


The key words in medieval sources used to describe someone who was not local are—in modern English—‘alien’, ‘foreigner’, and ‘stranger’. These nouns were often used as synonyms, and yet each also carried a meaning that could be discrete and context-specific. Their etymologies hinge on movement into or away from a place of origin, and it is this physical dislocation—the coming in or the going out—that rendered someone a migrant ‘other’ from the perspective of those who were describing them.24

The English noun ‘alien’ derives from the Latin alienigena, which literally meant someone who had been ‘born (genitus) of a distant people’; an alienigena was thus to be contrasted with an indigenus (whence, ‘indigenous’) who was ‘born there’. In seventh-century Spain, Isidore of Seville had glossed this meaning by (p.7) adding that an alien was someone ‘who is born of another people, and who is not where they are, but is away’.25 To Isidore, and the many readers of his Etymologiae in early and later medieval England, an alien was someone who was no longer in the place where or with the people among whom they were born. A glossary copied in early ninth-century England concurred and put the emphasis on place of origin as the defining feature; an alien was someone who was born in a foreign land (‘qui in aliena terra nascitur’).26

In England in the later Middle Ages, this meaning came to have very specific legal implications in terms of restricting an individual’s rights in relation to the common law, as well as a separate and distinct fiscal application after the introduction of direct taxes. By the latter part of the medieval millennium the territory that belonged to the English crown extended far beyond the kingdom itself, and eventually incorporated parts of Wales and Ireland, and areas of western France as far south as Gascony. But people from these overseas dominions were treated and described as different from what some sources in the fourteenth century call the ‘pure English’; by then, being subject to the English crown did not make one English.27 From 1440, the English parliament ordered taxes on people who had been born outside the realm, and the resulting ‘census’ of 1440 provides data on c. 16,000 individuals who became liable for the taxes raised by this ‘alien subsidy’, including people from the dependent territories in Ireland, the Channel Islands, Normandy, and Gascony. These central government records provide rich resources for analysing the movement of migrants into England in the fifteenth century, and their presence chiefly in the major urban areas but also in many rural communities.28

The English word ‘foreigner’ is of French extraction and was absorbed into Middle English in the fifteenth century; it captures something of the medieval Latin word forinsecus/foranus/foraneus that was used in sources written in England very occasionally before the twelfth century but more commonly afterwards, meaning someone from another town or jurisdiction. Middle English also has a noun ‘outlander’ and adjective ‘outlandish’ to describe people who had came from another land, and the same word is found in Icelandic: utlendir.

The noun ‘stranger’ was used widely in medieval English, derived from French (estranger) and Latin (extraneus), to denote both a person from another country and anyone from beyond the immediate locality; a stranger might thus just as well be from another part of England as from overseas. It had the former sense when used by Bede as an adjective describing the armies of the South Saxon kingdom (p.8) that invaded the kingdom of Kent in the late 680s.29 But the Latin noun is first recorded in England in Domesday Book (1086) to explain that in Oxford the property of an extraneus who died without heirs would revert to the king.30 It is not clear, however, from how far away that ‘stranger’ in Oxford had come.

In the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible, commonly used in the English Church from the eighth century, the noun used for ‘stranger’ is usually advena, whose etymology stresses the act of travelling towards a place. A stranger is defined thus as a person who has arrived ‘here’ from far away. A list of Latin words in an early ninth-century glossary provides interpretations of biblical and Greek words.31 It used the word aduena to gloss the name of Hagar, whose story was told in the book of Genesis where she is said to have been the second wife of Abraham and mother of Ishmael.32 She had come as a slave from Egypt, but it was her status as an outsider who had been brought to Abraham from far away, rather than her role as a mate or mother, or her servility per se, which was distilled into this singular proxy for her name. Bede’s use of the word was similar; he talked of the increasing multitude of ‘strangers’ (here, the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes) whose presence on the island of Britain terrified the indigeni who had asked them to come.33 This sense of otherness and strangeness is thus bound up, literally, with the aduentus Anglorum in Brittaniam (the ‘arrival of the English in Britain’).34

In the earlier Middle Ages, the injunction to care for the stranger is commonplace in legal sources and other types of normative text, such as monastic rules, council proceedings, or collections of canon law which collated instructions emanating from Church synods or papal letters. It occurs in these types of sources in contexts which show that the instruction is derived ultimately from the Old Testament which tells men of power not to oppress ‘widows and orphans, the poor and strangers’ and to distribute part of their tithes to them.35 These binary pairs—widows and orphans, poor and strangers—become almost formulaic in the early medieval sources that discuss the duty of a king or a church. These are the social groups who are universally vulnerable because they have neither a husband, nor a father, nor a lord to protect them, and who depend for their security on the benefaction of a local man of power. A righteous lord thus had a duty of care to people who had come into his lands and under his jurisdiction.

(p.9) Occasionally it is possible to see such normative principles at work in practice. In early 796, for example, the Frankish king Charlemagne (768–814) wrote to Offa (757–96), who was then king of the Mercians and the dominant ruler in southern Britain, about a series of issues that had arisen concerning both kingdoms. Charlemagne raised the treatment of English men and women who were in Francia and who, therefore, fell under his direct protection since they were strangers in his realm. The first of these groups were pilgrims journeying to Rome through Francia. Charlemagne granted them permission ‘as of old’ to travel through his lands without being harassed as they travelled. But he complained to Offa that some were taking advantage of this right, and were in fact doing business en route and dodging the payment of tolls. The second group of travellers were genuine merchants (negotiatores). These men also had ‘full protection and legal defence … according to ancient custom’ while they were in Charlemagne’s kingdom. So too, Charlemagne reminded Offa, should the Frankish merchants be treated within Mercia. The Franks who came to England to trade must fall under the protection of the Mercian king, just as ‘ancient practices’ demanded.

Twenty-First-Century Contexts

Of all the issues that have dominated popular politics and political culture in the nation states of the twenty-first century, migration is one of the most controversial and vexatious. Governments have come under intense pressure to control and limit immigration across international borders, whether as a consequence of large-scale forced migration of refugees from man-made and natural disasters, of economic migration by those in search of improved standards of living, or (in Europe) of the ‘free movement’ of labour that is a cardinal principle of the European Union. In addressing these issues, politicians face both ideological and practical challenges. On the one hand, they have to accommodate the arguments of those who assert that flows of workforces over international boundaries and claims of asylum seekers and refugees are corollaries of economic and cultural globalisation; while on the other hand, they have to acknowledge the revival of nationalism and regionalism and the associated belief that the function of the state is to prioritise the rights and livelihoods of those born in (or already naturalised within) its borders. In practical terms, too, those same borders have become sites of conflict, as governments grapple with their ability to prevent those people seen as ‘illegal’ or ‘undesirable’ immigrants from entering, and to organise customs systems that both fit their own fiscal needs and mediate the international trade that facilitates their citizens’ prosperity.

Migration within the bounds of a single country can also be a matter of pressing economic, social, and cultural concern. Urbanisation and the increasing phenomenon of the mega-city result in a shift of the ratio between town and country dwellers, resulting in potentially serious inequalities in the provision of health, education, (p.10) housing, and transport systems. Large-scale migration, both across borders and within them, has produced huge challenges for civil society in the modern world. It is the task of all scholars who work on the historical past to understand the degrees to which such issues were present in the various periods that they study, and what impact they had on the societies of the day. Migration is not just a modern phenomenon.

It is the contention of this volume that migration in the modern world, and its reverberations, cannot be completely understood without taking a broad historical perspective on the topic. England in particular offers the opportunity for studying migration and migrants over the longue durée, partly because it has been a recognisable political unit for more than a millennium and partly (and just as importantly) because a particular wealth of source material has survived, whether that be in linguistic, onomastic, documentary, historical, literary, archaeological, or artistic forms. Most obviously, England in a constitutional and cultural sense is in many ways a consequence of repeated processes of migration. (Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, which have come under rule from England at various stages since the twelfth century, all have their own distinct and contrasting migration histories, which need to be elucidated elsewhere.) In the Middle Ages, which is the focus of this book, that migration came, as today, in two forms: from outside the boundaries of the kingdom (or what would now be deemed ‘international’ movement, and which tends to be taken as the primary meaning of the word ‘immigration’); and between localities and regions. The ability of people to move, as Christopher Dyer and Sarah Rees Jones show here, even over short distances into a new society where they had no kin and few contacts, coupled with the very practical problems arising from profound differences in regional dialects, meant that incomers born within England could seem every bit as ‘foreign’ as those arriving from distant parts of Europe, Africa, and the East.36

Studying England’s Medieval Migrants

Our chronological focus on the Middle Ages, and on the evidence from the parts of Britain that became known as England, reflects current and recent research. The borders of the later medieval kingdom and the time-slice selected here are meaningful for many scholars who work on evidence that is chronologically defined or geographically bounded. For others, they are artificial constraints. Even so, these temporal and chronological boundaries enable archaeologists and geneticists to point a spotlight on data that sit within a much longer and wider narrative arc that can reflect population-scale trends across a lengthy time span as well as an individual’s biography at a particular moment.37 It is critical mass which creates meaning at a population level to which individual data-points contribute, and those (p.11) that lie outside the normal range become statistically less significant within the macro-narrative that emerges. Linguistic analysis can also contribute to the ‘big picture’ of the longue durée by revealing significant shifts in language use that are best understood in contexts where mobility and migration exposed, over time, the speakers of one language to those who used another; the types of language change identified provide one clue to understanding both the scale of such migration events, large or small, and their social and cultural contexts, and long-term effects.38 Other types of evidence can be much more context-specific. The name of a person as recorded on a mid-fifth-century cremation urn, on a late eighth-century charter, in Domesday Book in 1086, in a late twelfth-century writ, or in an early fourteenth-century tax roll can reveal much about an individual’s social and cultural background as well as their lived experience and how others saw them.39

Migration has long been a dominant theme in the study of early medieval England, in common with historiography on this period of the broader European past.40 The near absence of written records for the earliest centuries encouraged eighteenth- and nineteenth-century antiquarians in England (as well as scholars in the early decades of the twentieth century) to project backwards the retrospective narratives of writers such as Bede on to the physical evidence that was being recovered from cemeteries and settlements tentatively dated to this period.41 Driven by principles of comparative analysis as well as historically derived chronologies, early scholarship endeavoured to analyse the cultural attributes of artefacts and, by extension, the societies that had made and used them.42 Whereas the academic study of the Old English language had grown out of the dispersal of monastic libraries following the Reformation, the rate of recovery and scholarly interpretation of non-manuscript artefacts from early medieval England rapidly increased in the nineteenth century. Political turmoil abroad, which made the European Grand Tour difficult, encouraged greater inspection of the domestic past, and industrial imperatives stimulated the building of railway lines that cut swathes through the English countryside, sometimes revealing rich cemeteries that were thought to date to pagan Anglo-Saxon times. The recovery of objects from inhumations that could be ostensibly dated and contextualised by cross reference to text-based chronologies encouraged some scholars to apply assumptions about objects to the people (p.12) with whom they were buried, using historically derived narratives of migration and conquest to explain the distribution and morphology of human as well as artefact remains. In contexts where beliefs about British imperial supremacy were normal, such discussions were often expressed using the language of racial dominance and subjection.43

The manifest toxicity of scientific racism in the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century encouraged both a move away from migration as an explanation for large-scale cultural change, as well as acute anxiety about analysing human remains to understand past population histories.44 Recent advances in genetics and other forms of biochemical analyses pose additional challenges as well as considerable novel opportunities. Such methods can provide data that are disarmingly robust and apparently objective, but—as Mark Jobling and Andrew Millard explore here—the interpretation of these data and the hypotheses that they are designed to test are still too often framed by old debates and contested assumptions; such evidence is best handled in multidisciplinary dialogue. Current thinking on linguistic, archaeological, and biological evidence supports, in general terms, arguments for episodes of intense, chain-style migration in the fifth century from parts of the near continent to highly localised areas in eastern England, especially around the Wash and Thames, followed by phases of adaptation, assimilation, and cultural change to modes of living and burial in the sixth century that are increasingly visible in the archaeological record and, from the seventh century, in the written record as well.45 Fragmentary linguistic evidence, explored here by Martin Findell and Philip A. Shaw, and by Jayne Carroll, can be used to elucidate complex questions of scale, regionality, and the sociological circumstances of language use and language change in these times.

The growth of literacy that accompanied the conversion to Christianity and the gradual Christianisation of the English kingdoms through the seventh century meant that contemporary accounts record the advent of hostile Viking raids in the late eighth century. Despite a collapse in manuscript records for much of the ninth century, the impact of Viking armies on the coasts of the Britain, Ireland, and Francia was closely chronicled—albeit by their victims. These contemporary records, in combination with greater volumes of linguistic, archaeological, and biological evidence than are available for earlier centuries, mean that scholars have (p.13) been generally ready to accept arguments for relatively high levels of Scandinavian migration into parts of eastern and northern England, alongside evidence for elite regime change in York and East Anglia.46

The story told about migration into England in the eleventh century has long been dominated by the narrative of conquests.47 Both the Danish and Norman conquests brought not large-scale immigration but rather the displacement of the top level of English society and the incorporation of England into larger realms. Cnut (1016–35) ruled over Denmark, Norway, and England, while William I’s (1066–87) conquest brought the duchy of Normandy and kingdom of England together into one realm.48 Each of these conquests oriented England in a different direction: Cnut’s brought men from Scandinavia, while William’s followers included men from across the western reaches of northern France and Flanders, not just Normans. These men helped hold and rule the newly acquired kingdom and were rewarded with land and other wealth. From the reign of Henry II (1154–89) onwards, the focus of discussion of migration centres on how the shifting domains and alliances (including through marriage to foreign queens) of Angevin and early Plantagenet kings (who variously held and lost large parts of what is now western France) constructed new interconnectivities and resulted in small-scale movement of people.

Recent scholarship has focused on Jewish migration into England, which began with the movement of groups of people from Rouen in France after the Norman Conquest and became more numerous in the twelfth century.49 At their peak, Jewish communities in medieval England probably numbered about 3,000–4,000 individuals, and there are more documents written in Hebrew characters surviving from England than anywhere else in the medieval western world.50 The urban patterns of Jewish settlement, relationships with the crown, contributions to the economic and scholarly life of the kingdom, and experience of religious violence, culminating in the infamous expulsion of Jewish people from England in 1290, are now part of our understanding of the make-up of England in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In this volume, Sarah Rees Jones addresses the place of Jews within high and late (p.14) medieval English towns and cities, while Peter McClure provides further insights from the perspective of onomastics.51

The expansion of the written word in England, as in the rest of Latin Europe from the eleventh century onwards, changes the nature of the evidence for migration and thus the kinds of questions that can be asked. Domesday Book, an ambitious survey of landholdings begun at the end of William I’s reign, and the wider development of government records such as the pipe rolls (annual fiscal records of the crown), have enabled scholars to study the movement of individuals on a scale and with a level of detail impossible for the early Middle Ages.52 Peter McClure’s chapter in this volume, for example, uses these and other written records in his onomastic study of migration into medieval England.53

The relationship between migration and language remains a key topic in the study of the high Middle Ages as it was for earlier centuries, though the expanding use of the written word shapes different questions for this period. For literary scholars, the migration of Francophones in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest used to be seen as bringing an end to Old English literature.54 In recent decades, scholars have emphasised both the continuing vitality of written English through the twelfth century and the important role that English (unusually long established as a written language) played in catalysing the move of French into the written word. A picture has thus emerged of a complex trilingual post-Conquest England.55 This new narrative is pursued in the current volume by Elizabeth M. Tyler and George Younge, who follow the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle into the twelfth century, when various versions moved into Latin and French while others continued to be kept in English.56 A central tenet of recent work on high medieval English literature has been the need to set aside earlier nationalising approaches to literary history (developed in the nineteenth century) as inappropriate for the Middle Ages: this is advocated by transnational projects such as the Centre for Medieval Literature, ‘The French of England’, and ‘Medieval Francophone Literary Culture outside of France’, which take wider European perspectives on medieval literature and draw on perspectives from the study of the global Middle Ages.57 Julian Luxford’s (p.15) wide-ranging chapter on the artistic culture of England across the medieval millennium illustrates the importance of similar trends in how the discipline of Art History has accounted for the Norman Conquest.58

The later Middle Ages is usually cast in general histories of migration to England as a distinct and prolonged lull between the Norman settlement of the eleventh and twelfth centuries and the arrival of foreign religious refugees, the Huguenots and the ‘Dutch’, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.59 It was not until the archivist Montagu Giuseppi drew attention in 1895 to a major resource for the study of immigrants to late medieval England—the so-called alien subsidy rolls, recording a special tax on first-generation immigrants collected between 1440 and 1487—that historians began to appreciate the cumulative effect of small-scale immigration, generation after generation, and the patterns of chain-migration and settlement among those caught in the net of this highly unusual tax.60 And, apart from a pioneering article by Sylvia Thrupp published in 1957 and an edition of some of the London alien subsidy rolls by James Bolton in 1998, it was not until the development of digital resources and large-scale grants in the early twenty-first century that this material was made fully available both in an open source online database and in an extended monograph by W. Mark Ormrod, Bart Lambert, and Jonathan Mackman published in 2019.61 The difficult issues arising when one attempts to use this evidence to ascribe still extant physical remains and art forms to named aliens resident in England are, however, apparent in Julian Luxford’s contribution to this volume.62

(p.16) Meanwhile, the detailed records of mainstream taxes collected between the 1290s and the 1330s, in 1377–81, and again after 1485 have yielded a very large body of evidence for both place-names and personal names, and have led to detailed studies on the levels of local and regional migration that went on across the later Middle Ages; the prosopographical and onomastic analyses made of such records by Ellert Ekwall for London in 1951 and by Peter McClure for York in 1979 stand as pioneering scholarship in this regard.63 In his chapter in this volume, Peter McClure develops his work on personal names further to demonstrate both the pitfalls and the promise of personal-name studies in the high and later Middle Ages.64 Christopher Dyer and Sarah Rees Jones explore the evidence for short- and medium-distance mobility and migration in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.65 And, in their chapter, Bart Lambert and W. Mark Ormrod explore the pattern and meaning of the ‘nationality’ labels that fifteenth-century English jurors ascribed to the aliens whom they identified as living in their midst. Again, the large scale of the corpora available for such work makes their accessibility in digital form an urgent necessity: one very important desideratum in this respect would be a searchable electronic format of Caroline Fenwick’s exemplary edition of the poll tax returns of 1377–81, published between 1998 and 2005.66

As the preceding discussion of the historiography of the study of migration has illustrated, most research on medieval migration has been carried out over relatively short chronological ranges and within the boundaries of single disciplines. This book evaluates the capacity of different genres of evidence for addressing questions around migration and its effects on the identities of groups and individuals within medieval England, as well as methodological parameters and future research potential. The data vary unevenly in quality and quantity across these centuries, but become considerably more powerful through multidisciplinary approaches to data collection and interpretation. Such approaches, however, require openness about prior assumptions and about the methodological limitations of different scholarly approaches, as well as a recognition that medieval sources may hold answers to some but not all of our questions.

Collectively, this volume takes a multidisciplinary step forward in its consideration of the whole medieval millennium, the longue durée. Each of the contributors was invited to write a chapter which provides new research on migration into or within England during part of the Middle Ages, and to evaluate the capacity of their discipline (both its methodologies and the types and scales of evidence available to (p.17) it) to address questions around migration and its effects on the identities of groups and individuals within medieval England. Furthermore, they were asked to carry out this interrogation in dialogue with other disciplines. Many of the chapters were first presented at a British Academy conference in March 2015 and all were subsequently developed in collaborative discussions in Leicester and York. The result is a group of studies that are up to date in their understanding of the findings of other disciplines, are aware of the prior assumptions and methodological and evidential limitations of different scholarly approaches (including their own), and appreciate the points of connection and disconnection in how these disciplines study migration. They thus represent a contribution in moving the subject of medieval migration to the point where truly interdisciplinary research is possible.


A world map, produced in the second quarter of the eleventh century, perhaps at Canterbury, suggests at first glance that England, along with the rest of Britain and Ireland and together with Orkney, Man, and Iceland, was on the edge—islands, cut off from the connected Eurasian and African world (Figure 1.1).67 This mappa mundi (‘world map’) is the only graphic example to survive from early medieval England; it drew on classical descriptions (well known, for example, to Bede) that placed Britain and Ireland beyond the Ocean that encircled the known world, just as is shown here.68 But, just as the frontispiece depicting the arrival of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes into Britain—with which we started this introduction—illustrates, the North Sea (like the Mediterranean) connected rather than separated people in the Middle Ages. The Cotton mappa mundi was produced in the first half of a century when England was first part of a wide North Sea empire ruled by the Danish King Cnut and his sons, and then, with William I’s conquest, made part of a Norman world that extended to southern Italy, deep into the Mediterranean that is centrally placed in the mappa mundi. England’s connections to the wider medieval world are reflected in the way the map renders the coastline of north-western Europe with remarkable, real-world accuracy, undoubtedly reflecting familiarity with the transit routes between Denmark and England. This eleventh-century map makes a clear, graphic statement that medieval England, always open to the movement of people, was never isolated from the wider Afro-Eurasian world, and that mobility and migration was a perennial fact of life in all parts of the medieval West.69 (p.18)

Framing Migration in Medieval England

Figure 1.1 World map made in southern England, c. 1025. London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, fol. 56v.

Reproduced by permission of The British Library Board.


(1) New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M. 736, fol. 7r, made in England, c. 1130, at the abbey of Bury St Edmunds.

(2) B. Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (eds), Bede: The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1986) (hereafter HE, by book and chapter), citing Gildas’ De excidio Britanniae especially in Book I, Chapters 10–26.

(4) J. Westgard, ‘Bede and the Continent in the Carolingian Age and Beyond’, in S. DeGregorio (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Bede (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 201–15.

(5) From the preface to the vernacular translation of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care, in S. Keynes and M. Lapidge (trans.), Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources (London, Penguin, 1983), p. 126.

(6) S. Rowley, ‘Bede in Later Anglo-Saxon England’, in DeGregorio, Cambridge Companion to Bede, pp. 216–28.

(7) Thomas Stapleton, The History of the Church of Englande, compiled by Venerable Bede, Englishman (Antwerp, John Laet, 1565); M. O’Connell, ‘Stapleton, Thomas (1535–1598), Roman Catholic Theologian’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004), www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-26307 (accessed 17 October 2019); A. Frantzen, ‘The Englishness of Bede, From Then to Now’, in DeGregorio, Cambridge Companion to Bede, pp. 235–8.

(8) J. T. Palmer, Anglo-Saxons in a Frankish World, 690–900, Studies in the Early Middle Ages, 19 (Turnhout, Brepols, 2009).

(9) HE V.9.

(10) M. Tangl (ed.), Die Briefe des heiligen Bonifatius und Lullus, MGH, Epistolae Selectae, 1 (Munich, Weidmann, 1916), pp. 74–6, nos 46–7; E. Emerton (trans.), The Letters of Saint Boniface (New York, Columbia University Press, 1940), pp. 74–6.

(11) London, British Library, Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, fol. 146r; C. Breay and J. Story (eds), Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War (London, British Library, 2018), no. 140. A digital facsimile of the complete manuscript is available online from the British Library.

(12) D. Bethurum, The Homilies of Wulfstan (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1957), pp. 267–75; M. Swanton (ed. and trans.), Anglo-Saxon Prose, Everyman’s Library, 809 (Gloucester, The Choir Press, 2016), pp. 201–8.

(13) See in this volume, Findell and Shaw, chapter 3, pp. 62–89.

(14) See in this volume, Carroll, chapter 4, pp. 90–119; Hadley, chapter 7, pp. 175–205.

(15) See in this volume, Lambert and Ormrod, chapter 11, pp. 298–325; Luxford, chapter 8, pp. 206–37.

(16) See in this volume, Dyer, chapter 9, pp. 238–64; Rees Jones, chapter 10, pp. 265–97.

(17) S. Keynes, ‘The Emergence of a Kingdom of England’, in Breay and Story, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 47–53.

(18) B. Yorke, ‘The Bretwaldas and the Origins of Overlordship in Anglo-Saxon England’, in S. Baxter et al. (eds), Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald, Studies in Early Medieval Britain (Aldershot, Ashgate, 2009), pp. 81–96.

(19) Breay and Story, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, no. 60; S. Keynes, ‘Edward, King of the Anglo-Saxons’, in D. Hill and N. J. Higham (eds), Edward the Elder (London, Routledge, 2001), pp. 40–66.

(20) E. Dümmler (ed.), Epistolae Karolini Ævi, II, MGH, Epistolarum, 4 (Berlin, Weidmann, 1895), pp. 19–29, no. 3.

(21) G. Waitz (ed.), Pauli. Historia Langobardorum, MGH, SRG (Hanover, Hahn, 1878), pp. 155, 201, 217 (Books IV.22, V.37, VI.15); R. Sharpe, ‘King Ceadwalla’s Roman Epitaph’, in K. O’Brien O’Keeffe and A. Orchard (eds), Latin Learning and English Lore: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Literature for Michael Lapidge, Toronto Old English Series, 14, 2 vols (Toronto, Toronto University Press, 2005), I, 171–93.

(22) As explored in the document known as the Regularis Concordia anglicae nationis monachorum sanctimonialiumque (‘Monastic agreement of the monks and nuns of the English nation’) prepared at a council held in Winchester in the early 970s. See Breay and Story, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 188–9, no. 113.

(23) See in this volume, Tyler and Younge, chapter 6, pp. 144–74.

(24) For what follows, see W. M. Ormrod, B. Lambert, and J. Mackman, Immigrant England, 1300–1550, Manchester Medieval Studies (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2019), pp. 7–9.

(25) S. A. Barney et al. (trans.), The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006), X. 15, p. 214, ‘Alienigena, qui ex alia gente genitus est, et non ex ea ubi est.’

(26) Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 144, fol. 7r, made in southern England in the first half of the ninth century. See Breay and Story, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, pp. 214–15, no. 76. A digital facsimile is available online via Parker-On-The-Web.

(27) See in this volume, Lambert and Ormrod, chapter 11, pp. 298–325.

(28) See in this volume Dyer, chapter 9, pp. 238–64; Rees Jones, chapter 10, pp. 265–97; Lambert and Ormrod, chapter 11, pp. 298–325.

(30) Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources, s.v. extraneus, cites Domesday Book, I, fol. 154v as the earliest use in a British source of this meaning: ‘si quis extraneus in Oxeneford … vitam finierit, rex habebit quicquid reliquerit’.

(31) Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 144, fols 2–5.

(32) Genesis 16:1–16.

(33) HE I.15, ‘grandescere populus coepit aduenarum, ita ut ipsis quoque qui eos aduocauerant indigenis essent terrori’.

(35) Zachariah 7:10; Psalms 145:9; Jeremiah 22:3.

(36) See in this volume, Dyer, chapter 9, pp. 238–64; Rees Jones, chapter 10, pp. 265–97.

(37) See in this volume, Jobling and Millard, chapter 2, pp. 19–61.

(38) See in this volume, Findell and Shaw, chapter 3, pp. 62–89; Carroll, chapter 4, pp. 90–119.

(39) See in this volume, McClure, chapter 5, pp. 120–43.

(40) The bibliography is extensive. For a useful summary, see H. Härke, ‘Kings and Warriors: Population and Landcape from Post-Roman to Norman Britain’, in P. Slack and R. Ward (eds), The Peopling of Britain: The Shaping of a Human Landscape, The Linacre Lectures 1999 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 145–76. On the nineteenth-century ‘discovery’ of the early Middle Ages and emergence of ideas of ethnogenesis, see P. Geary, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2003); I. N. Wood, The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013).

(41) See in this volume, Hadley, chapter 7, pp. 175–205.

(42) R. H. Sweet, Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain (London, Hambledon, 2004).

(43) See, for example, J. B. Davis and J. Thurnam, Crania Britannica: Delineations and Descriptions of the Skulls of the Aboriginal and Early Inhabitants of the British Islands, with Notices of their Other Remains, 2 vols (London, Printed for the Subscribers, 1865), with a discussion in J. Story and R. Bailey, ‘The Skull of Bede’, Antiquaries Journal, 95 (2015), 325–50.

(44) See, for example, C. J. Arnold, Roman Britain to Saxon England (London, Croom Helm, 1984); N. J. Higham, Rome, Britain and the Anglo-Saxons (London, Seaby, 1992); S. Oosthuizen, The Emergence of the English: Rethinking the Evidence (Kalamazoo, Arc Humanities Press, 2019).

(45) For example, C. Hills, The Origins of the English (London, Duckworth, 2003); C. Hills and S. Lucy, Spong Hill: Part IX. Chronology and Synthesis, McDonald Institute Monographs (Cambridge, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2013); T. F. Martin, The Cruciform Brooch and Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge, Boydell and Brewer, 2015).

(46) See in this volume, Carroll, chapter 4, pp. 90–119; Hadley, chapter 7, pp. 175–205.

(47) See E. van Houts, ‘Invasion and Migration’, in J. Crick and E. van Houts (eds), A Social History of England, 900–1200 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 208–34.

(48) See T. Bolton, The Empire of Cnut the Great: Conquest and the Consolidation of Power in Northern Europe in the Early Eleventh Century, Northern World, 40 (Leiden, Brill, 2009); D. Bates, William the Conqueror (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2016).

(49) For an overview, see A. Sapir Abulafia, ‘The Jews’, in Crick and van Houts, A Social History of England, pp. 256–64.

(50) J. Olszowy-Schlanger and S. Collins, ‘Samuel of Norwich in the Marshlands of King’s Lynn: Economic Tribulations Reconstructed from a Newly Discovered Thirteenth-Century Hebrew Starr in Cambridge University Library’, Jewish Historical Studies, 50 (2018), 14–44. See especially, J. Olszowy-Schlanger (ed.), Hebrew and Hebrew–Latin Documents from Medieval England: A Diplomatic and Palaeographical Study, Monumenta Palaeographica Medii Aevi, Series Hebraica I, 2 vols (Turnhout, Brepols, 2015).

(51) See in this volume, Rees Jones, chapter 10, pp. 265–97; McClure, chapter 5, pp. 120–43.

(52) See M. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record, 3rd edn (Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013); E. Buringh, Medieval Manuscript Production in the Latin West, Global Economic History Series, 6 (Leiden, Brill, 2010); S. Baxter, ‘The Domesday Controversy: A Review and a New Interpretation’, Haskins Society Journal, 29 (2018 for 2017), 225–93.

(53) See in this volume, McClure, chapter 5, pp. 120–43.

(54) E. M. Tyler, ‘From Old English to Old French’, in J. Wogan-Browne (ed.), Language and Culture in Medieval Britain: The French of England, c. 1100–c. 1500 (Woodbridge, York Medieval Press, 2009), pp. 164–87.

(55) E. Treharne et al., The Production and Use of English Manuscripts, 1060–1220. Searchable as an open source online database—currently https://em1060.stanford.edu (accessed 17 October 2019). M. Swan and E. Treharne (eds), Rewriting Old English in the Twelfth Century, Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England, 30 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000).

(56) See in this volume, Tyler and Younge, chapter 6, pp. 144–74.

(57) These projects, their directors, and a representative publication are listed here. Centre for Medieval Literature (Lars Boje Mortensen, Elizabeth Tyler, and Christian Høgel): P. Borsa et al., ‘What is Medieval European Literature?’, Interfaces: A Journal of Medieval European Literatures, 1 (2015), 7–24. ‘The French of England’ (Thelma S. Fenster and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne): translations series published by Arizona Center for Medieval Studies, and J. Wogan-Browne, Language and Culture in Medieval Britain. ‘Medieval Francophone Literary Culture outside of France’ (Simon Gaunt, Jane Gilbert, and William Burgwinkle): J. Gilbert, S. Gaunt, and W. Burgwinkle, Medieval French Literary Culture Abroad (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2020).

(58) See in this volume, Luxford, chapter 8, pp. 206–37.

(59) See, most recently, R. Winder, Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Migration to Britain, rev. edn (London, Abacus, 2013).

(60) M. Giuseppi, ‘Alien Merchants in the Fifteenth Century’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, n.s., 9 (1895), 75–91. It is to be noted that the economic historian William Cunningham, in his Alien Immigrants to England (London, Swan Sonnenschein, 1897), pp. 65–134, made no mention of the existence of the alien subsidy rolls. The first effective use of the material in the scholarly literature came in E. Lipson, The Economic History of England, vol. I: The Middle Ages (London, A. and C. Black, 1915), pp. 451–2.

(61) See in this volume, Lambert and Ormrod, chapter 11, pp. 298–325. S. Thrupp, ‘A Survey of the Alien Population of England in 1440’, Speculum, 32 (1957), 262–73; The Alien Communities of London in the Fifteenth Century: The Subsidy Rolls of 1440 and 1483, ed. J. L. Bolton (Stamford, Richard III and Yorkist History Trust, 1998); Ormrod et al., Immigrant England; see also W. M. Ormrod, N. McDonald, and C. Taylor (eds), Resident Aliens in Later Medieval England, Studies in European Urban History (1100–1800), 42 (Turnhout, Brepols, 2017). The open source database is currently available at www.englandsimmigrants.com (accessed 17 October 2019).

(62) See in this volume, Luxford, chapter 8, pp. 206–37.

(63) E. Ekwall (ed.), Two Early London Subsidy Rolls, Skrifta utgivna av Kungl. Humanistiska vetenskapssamfundet i Lund, 48 (Lund, Gleerup, 1951); P. McClure, ‘Patterns of Migration in the Late Middle Ages: The Evidence of English Place-name Surnames’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 32 (1979), 167–82.

(64) See in this volume, McClure, chapter 5, pp. 120–43.

(65) See in this volume, Dyer, chapter 9, pp. 238–64; Rees Jones, chapter 10, pp. 265–97.

(66) See in this volume, Lambert and Ormrod, chapter 11, pp. 298–325; C. C. Fenwick (ed.), The Poll Taxes of 1377, 1379 and 1381, 3 vols, Records of Economic and Social History, n.s., 27, 29, 37 (London, British Academy, 1998–2005).

(67) London, British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, fol. 56v. See M. K. Foys, ‘The Virtual Reality of the Anglo-Saxon Mappamundi’, Literature Compass, 1 (2004), 1–14.

(68) HE I. 1. N. Howe, ‘An Angle on this Earth: Sense of Place in Anglo-Saxon England’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 82 (2000), 1–25.

(69) B. Cunliffe, By Steppe, Desert, Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015); N. Di Cosmo and M. Maas, Empires and Exchange in Eurasian Late Antiquity: Rome, China, Iran and the Steppe, ca. 250–750 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2018), especially pp. 133–268.