“Alien” Encounters in the Maritime World of Medieval England
By Maryanne Kowaleski
Medieval Encounters, vol. 13:1 (2007)
Abstract: There is little evidence that ethnic or national differences caused significant problems among mixed crews on English ships, in part because foreign sailors represented a small minority on these vessels. Even so, other aspects of life aboard English ships also encouraged cooperation, including strict shipboard discipline, adherence to a maritime law code recognized by sailors throughout the Atlantic and northern seas, the use of French as the lingua franca of maritime law, and the universal currency supplied by recourse to commonly recognized gestures and sounds to denote shipboard tasks and maritime actions. Ashore, foreign mariners in England faced more problems, particularly if they were subjects or allies of the king of France during periods of Anglo-French conflict. Seamen victimized by shipwrecks, changing truces, privateering, and piracy were also vulnerable, though there were more instances of peaceful coexistence than hostility and violence. The long periods of conflict between England and France, moreover, gave birth to special ransoming arrangements for mariners between individual port towns on both sides of the English Channel, thus pointing to how the esprit de corps of mariners could help overcome national differences.
In medieval England, those born outside the country were termed “aliens” (alienigeni in Latin). Statutes and ordinances defining this group of people and their rights in England began to appear in the second half of the thirteenth century and became more common in the late fourteenth century, perhaps fueled in part by the xenophobia surrounding the Hundred Years’ War. The growing control exercised over aliens gave rise to a rich documentation of statute legislation, denization licenses, customs accounts, hosting accounts, and alien subsidy tax returns that scholars have fruitfully exploited to write the history of aliens in medieval England. These records, however, focus almost exclusively on merchant and resident aliens and have little to say about transient shipmasters and mariners from overseas. Almost nothing has been written about contacts between foreign seamen and local English residents or about the relationships between mixed crews on English ships. Yet such encounters must have been frequent in the port towns and on the ships of medieval England, an island nation heavily dependent on sea transport.