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Conference explores immigration’s deep and complex history

Posted on 20 March 2015

Immigration, its causes and its consequences, may be a contentious topic in the 21st century, but it is by no means a new phenomenon.

The Seal of Enguerrand VII de Coucy (1340 - 1397), a French noble who became Earl of Bedford.

A major conference organised by scholars from the Universities of York and Leicester next week will examine the presence and treatment of foreigners in England between AD 500 and 1500.

Aliens, Foreigners and Strangers in Medieval England will provide historical and cultural context to contemporary discussions among policy-makers and the public about ethnicity, multiculturalism and the evolution of national identity in modern Britain.

The conference, at the British Academy in London on 26 and 27 March, will focus on three major academic studies focusing on aspects of immigration in the Medieval period. It will feature a major public lecture in which Professor Robin Fleming, of Boston College, will reveal new thinking about migration during the fifth and sixth centuries, exploring how people moved within Britain and the impact of these movements on Britain’s female population.

The conference, organised Professor Mark Ormrod and Professor Elizabeth Tyler, of the University York, and Professor Joanna Story, of the University of Leicester, will bring together scholars 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.

The event will aim to address the issue of how the movement of people into and within England helped to shape English society over the period from AD 500 to 1500.

The conference will explore the continuing relationship between migrants and their homelands and the extraordinary impact the legacy of medieval mobility continues to have on the identities of people living in England today.

Traders and barbarians

The people who made their way to England in the Middle Ages ranged from invaders and settlers to traders and travellers, from asylum-seekers and refugees to key professionals and unskilled migrant workers.

Beyond the high-level rhetoric of hostility, moderation often prevailed, and questions of economic usefulness often determined the degree to which the indigenous population tolerated incomers or not.

Professor Ormrod, who is Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at York, said: “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 modern Britain. By combining the very best of research on medieval England across a wide range of subjects in humanities, social sciences and sciences, it demonstrates the great importance and value of engaging with the past to inform issues in contemporary public life.”

Professor Story, who is professor of Early Medieval History at Leicester, added: “Our collective research shows that migration was a fact of life during the medieval millennium, and that migrants played a significant role in the economy and culture of Britain at that time. Identifying these people and the impact they had on contemporary society is a multidisciplinary challenge, and this conference will showcase the methods and insights of scholars from a variety of disciplines, to show what how much can be achieved by a multidisciplinary approach to the evidence of the deep time history of Britain.”

Further information:

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, in collaboration with the National Archives and the University of Sheffield) 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).

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