I have been interested in the reception of Italian literature in medieval Britain for some time, especially in the context of urban culture and the spread of humanistic values across Europe. When Michele Campopiano suggested that we hold a conference at the University of York to bring Italian medieval scholars together with British scholars working on Italian reception, it seemed to be the perfect opportunity to share our research agendas and to start some new conversations about the two-way dialogue between Britain and Italy in the late Middle Ages.
From this conference, we selected eight papers to form a volume which illuminates various aspects of cultural interactions between the two nations – not just literary exchanges but also political and commercial interactions, including important new historical studies of the fortunes of Italian migrants in Britain during the Middle Ages.
Our contributors were able to make use of the excellent database assembled by Mark Ormrod and his team, ‘England’s Immigrants, 1330–1550’, funded by the AHRC. This database enables researchers to find individual immigrants by name, nationality, or occupation, building up a picture of multicultural England during the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. Of the 1,600 immigrants from Italy during that period, many specified their city of origin – Genoa, Venice, Florence – indicating the dominance of sea trade links as the magnet and conduit of immigration.
Something that the book conveys particularly well, I think, is the variety of contexts in which Anglo-Italian cultural exchanges took place – not just through trade and banking, as Ignazio Del Punta, Bart Lambert, and Helen Bradley describe in such rich detail, but also through diplomatic, political, and literary connections. Carolyn Collette’s article on Richard de Bury opened up, to me, some new insights into Petrarch’s friendships with influential Englishmen and how these might have acted as channels of cultural exchange. Michele Campopiano’s article on Italian law manuscripts in the Minster Library at York provides an important reminder that London may have been the centre of medieval trade but did not have a monopoly on knowledge transfer and cultural production. Victoria Flood’s article on the spread of political prophecy from Italy in the thirteenth century suggests the role of popular culture in moving ideas and modes of expression from one country to another. My own article, on the influence of Italian urban histories in medieval Britain, and Margaret Bridges’s article on the representation of Italy in Higden’s Polychronicon, both point to the significance of Italian humanism in shaping medieval historiography and the emergence of an urban identity in Britain.
If there is one theme that brings together these different contexts of cultural exchange it is the rise of the city and a commercialized economy in Britain from the late thirteenth century. With its powerful city-states, Italy had led the way in modelling the political structures of urbanization and arguably played a crucial role in bringing Britain into the European mercantile arena. By setting out the variety of contexts in which British and Italian cultural practices were in dialogue with each other and how they helped to shape the medieval worldview at a time of urban economic growth, we hope to have started some new conversations about transnational exchanges in the medieval world.
Professor of Medieval Literature at the University of Bristol
Helen Bradley, Margaret Bridges, Michele Campopiano, Carolyn Collette, Victoria Flood, Helen Fulton, Bart Lambert, Ignazio del Punta