England's Medieval Immigrants, or a Different Kind of Beach Reading


After a year with six new course preps, I've been having a lot of fun this summer sinking my toes into the historical sand: catching up on books I haven't yet read (on tap right now is Josh Rodda's Public Religious Disputation in England, 1558-1626), rereading some classics, and skimming through the new digital history projects that published this year.

I'm hip-deep in England's Immigrants, 1330-1550 at the moment. An AHRC project led by the Universities of York and Sheffield, as well as the National Archives, England's Immigrants has created a searchable database of nearly 65,000 immigrants to England over the course of the late medieval period.

Intuitively navigable, it's also great fun. Playing around with it before my coffee kicked in, I got at least one bleary-eyed snort out of the list of social statuses in the advanced search: "almsman, bastard, burgess, countess of Kent..."

I am particularly impressed by the on-tap visualizations provided by the database, which allow you to create instant charts and graphs based on your search functions. This includes a map visualization, whereby you can paint the data for a particular group (all French immigrants, all servants, all women) on a map of England.

Comparisons are thus possible to make at lightning speed. Some make intuitive sense: Italians and Germans are overwhelmingly clustered in London, while the Dutch and Belgians are spread fairly evenly between the greater London area and Norfolk/Suffolk. But what are we to make of the fact that London attracted about 30% of recorded immigrants--and far more if you add in the greater London area--but only 6% of recorded French immigrants (with more than twice as many, it seems, moving to Wiltshire)? The French aversion to London seems to be shared by Icelanders and the Irish, which is probably a conference paper just waiting to happen. Change over time matters as well. In 1440, the French live primarily in Wiltshire, Devon, and Kent. In 1540, it's Dorset, Sussex, and London.

(It's worth noting that the designations above are by modern state, with the French numbers slightly skewed by the overwhelming allergy of those listed as 'Normans' to the greater London area. Keeping the control as modern states helps to overcome terminology issues that might change with geopolitical shifts. It's also worth noting that the national origin data is limited to a statistically difficult point--about 30% of total records)

It's not just geography and nationality, either. I'm provoked by the question of why the crest of mercantile records came two decades after that of both the general population and those listed as servants. The gendered distribution of origin is intriguing, even though the overwhelmingly unknown origin of women in the records leaves plenty of wiggle room for statistical uncertainty.

I'm sure a medievalist could tell me more, and I'm quite (American quite) curious to see what publications and findings come out of the project in years to come.

#geography #medievalists #summer #digitalhumanities #AHRC #immigration

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