England’s Immigrants

I was pleased to sit in on a round table discussion at Kalamazoo on England’s Immigrants 1330-1550, “a fully-searchable database containing over 64,000 names of people known to have migrated to England during the period of the Hundred Years’ War and the Black Death, the Wars of the Roses and the Reformation.” Mark Ormrod made the interesting point that for this understudied period (that is, roughly between the expulsion of the Jews in 1290 and Cromwell’s decision to let them back in in the 1650s) fully 1% of residents of England were foreign born, and they were fairly evenly spread around the country in villages and small towns, where they were integrated into English community life; they weren’t necessarily huddled together in identifiable minority communities in large cities like London, Bristol or Norwich. I was pleased to meet Milan Pajic of the University of Ghent, who has done work on the Flemish in England (and who cited my own paper on the subject. Smiley face!)

Discussed afterwards (in largely negative terms) was the group Historians for Britain. David Abulafia, the author of the linked article, writes:

Why ‘Historians for Britain’? In many ways the organisation that I and several colleagues have been setting up over the last year could equally well have been entitled ‘Historians for Europe’, for we are not hostile to Europe and we believe that in an ideal world Britain would remain within a radically reformed European Union. We are a group of historians, both inside and outside the universities, who believe that a historical perspective on Britain’s relationship with Europe urgently needs to be supplied at a time when debate about that relationship has become not just lively but heated.  As an offshoot of the pressure group Business for Britain, our view is that the British public does need to be consulted about Britain’s membership of the European Union. At the same time, a referendum held tomorrow would leave no chance for the renegotiation of Britain’s position in the EU and an opportunity for that is vital. More than that: renegotiation has to include a commitment by the EU itself to reform its ways and, at the very least, to leave those countries that do not seek to be part of a ‘United States of Europe’ free to rely upon their own sovereign institutions without interference.

That might sound like a political manifesto rather than a series of historical arguments. Yet we hold political views that span the spectrum from the right to the left. We aim to show how the United Kingdom has developed in a distinctive way by comparison with its continental neighbours. This has resulted in the creation of a different legal system based on precedent, rather than Roman law or Napoleonic codes; the British Parliament embodies principles of political conduct that have their roots in the 13th century or earlier; ancient institutions, such as the monarchy and several universities, have survived (and evolved) with scarcely a break over many centuries. This degree of continuity is unparalleled in continental Europe. To some extent you can find it in parts of Spain; but even there, where parliamentary assembles go back well into the Middle Ages, radical constitutional change and civil war have broken many continuities. You cannot find it in France after the Revolution and the Napoleonic era, while Germany and Italy are 19th-century creations, whose political systems were almost entirely reconstructed after 1945. Portugal apart, national boundaries have fluctuated, often wildly, over the centuries; and even Britain has contracted, with the departure of most of Ireland. But – allowing for occasional coups d’état by Henry VII and William of Orange – Britain has not been torn apart by invasion since 1066. Nor has its public favoured the intense nationalism that has consumed many European countries, even allowing for the independence campaign in Scotland. Fascism and antisemitism never struck deep roots here, nor did Communism (except as a silly fad among student politicians). The British political temper has been milder than that in the larger European countries.

Insofar as the past ought to inform present policy, I confess that I agree with Abulafia here. England/Britain is different from the continent in many ways, and shoehorning it into the EU has caused a great deal of misery. I see no reason why the historical reasons for this difference can’t be publicized as a means of renegotiating the UK’s membership in the European project (as long as it isn’t a cover for something more sinister, as people were fearing). Studying immigration into England in the late Middle Ages is an interesting topic, and deserves investigation, but I’ve always been suspicious of scholarship where the conclusion is “and that’s why we must support immigration today,” something that I would characterize as a misuse of history. Not that any of the panelists made this claim explicitly.