Images, Papers

Fortunatus: A German view of Italians in London

I promised a sequel to my last post, in which I looked at what the Libelle of Englyshe Polyce has to say about English attitudes to foreign merchants operating in the country in the late Middle Ages. This time, I’m looking at how those relationships feed into a non-English view of the situation by offering you an episode of the German proto-novel Fortunatus. I’m taking the opportunity to post this now, as term is about to start, and I don’t expect to have much time for blogging.

But first, an introduction. Fortunatus was first published in Augsburg (a centre of German vernacular printing) in 1509, and it draws upon various travel narratives which were circulating at the time, including John Mandeville and Bernhard von Breydenbach, whose book I’ve written about here. This reliance on older texts means that, for example, Fortunatus finds himself in what appears to be a pre-1453 Constantinople (i.e. before the Fall), visiting

Sant Sophia kirchen/ darinnen gar ain schöne kappel ist/ geweicht in der eer unser lieben frawen

[the Hagia Sophia, in which there is a lovely chapel dedicated to Our Lady]

The storyline, briefly, follows Fortunatus and his sons. While travelling through the woods, Fortunatus meets Lady Fortune, who gives him a purse full of money, which can never run out. He later supplements this by stealing a magic hat from the sultan in Alexandria – a hat which has the power to transport its wearer wherever he wishes. But Fortunatus begins his travels long before. Early in the narrative, he finds himself in London. There is a second London episode, involving Fortunatus’s son, Andalosia, but it’s only Fortunatus’s time London I want to talk about here. As Jurij Striedler has pointed out (quoted in the Reclam edition of Fortunatus), only this first episode has to be set in London. In the Andalosia episode, the location plays ‘so gut wie gar keine Rolle’: the action could take place anywhere.

Not so for the first London episode! As Striedler points out, the author seems to be pretty well informed about the city, and it’s portrayed as more than just a harbour and a commercial city. There’s a moment in which I’d like to think that the author is adding a bit of local colour: Fortunatus goes for a drink, and we read

Sy sprach zu ir magt / “gang bring ym ain pint bier”

[She said to her maid, “Go and bring a pint of beer”]

The word ‘pint’ is glossed as ‘Kanne’, and it does appear in Lexer as ein flüssigkeitsmass (a measurement of liquid), but there aren’t many references given.

But I think it’s important not to stretch Striedler’s latter point: London is primarily represented in the text as a centre of trade. The first thing we hear about it is that it’s the capital of England and,

da nun von allen orten der welt kauffleüt ligend und da iren gewerb tribent

[where merchants from all over the world carry out their business]

Although Fortunatus doesn’t specifically go to London to involve himself in the mercantile world, London as a centre of trade enables pretty much everything in this section of the narrative. The very first people he meets have been sent there for commercial purposes:

zwen jung die reich vätter in Cipern hetten / die sy ayff der Galee auch gen Lunden sandten und ynen vil kostliche kauffmannschatz bevolhen / sy waren auch vor nyemer auß gewesen und  wißten nut vil wie man sich regieren und halten solt in frembden landen / dann sovil sy von iren vätern gehört / in guote underweisung gegeben / hetten sy in gevolget

[two young men with rich fathers in Cyprus who had sent them to London on a galley, and entrusted them with a lot of valuable merchandise. They had never travelled abroad before and knew only what they had heard from their fathers about how to conduct themselves and behave in foreign countries. It was good advice, if only they had followed it]

We already have a sense that London is not safe for non-locals. Fortunatus then goes to the mercantile hub of Lombard Street to find a job – small details like this bear out the author’s knowledge of London – and he is taken on by a wealthy Florentine merchant, Jeronimus Roberti. But things soon go wrong. Another Florentine in London, a wicked young man named Andrean is asked by Jeronimus to secure the release of an imprisoned nobleman. He takes the nobleman back to Jeronimus’s house, and murders him, hoping to steal his jewels. He then tells everyone in the house that the nobleman had tried to kill him, and that he had acted in self-defence; stuffs his body down Jeronimus’s privy; and escapes to Alexandria, where – for good measure – he renounces Christianity.

Disposing of the body. 1509 Augsburg woodcut, as reproduced in 2007 Reclam edition.

Fortunatus is not in London when Andrean commits murder, and disposes of the corpse, and the reason is historically plausible.

Als sich nun die sach verloffen hett / do was Fortunatus nit tzu Lunden Sonder er was in seines herren dienst in ain statt gefarenn genant Sanduwick / da er seim herren guot in ain schif geladen het

[When these things were happening, Fortunatus was not in London, but had travelled on his master’s business to a town called Sandwich, where he was loading his master’s goods onto a ship]

As Caroline Barron explains, Florentine and Genoese merchant ships did dock in Sandwich, but Venetian ones didn’t.

The story of the murder, of course, comes out. Roberti and his entire household are condemned to death and taken to the new gallows which are:

zwüschen der statt und Vestminster / [where there] ist gar ain schöner pallast. ist darinne des künigs radthauß / und ain grosse schöne kirchen

[between the town and Westminster [where there] is a really beautiful palace, and inside is the king’s council chamber and a large and beautiful church]

Being led to the gallows. 1509 Augsburg woodcut, as reproduced in the 2007 Reclam edition.

Fortunatus is spared at the last minute. Ascending the gallows, Roberti’s cook, who:

was ain Englischer der schray mit lauter stym / das es maniglich höret / das Fortunatus nit umb die ding wißt

[was an Englishman, cried out loudly so that many people heard him, that Fortunatus didn’t know anything about it]

Now there is an argument that, in London, the chances are that it would be an English person who saves him, but the author didn’t have to emphasise Fortunatus’s saviour’s nationality. Indeed, by emphasising his nationality, we realise how few English people Fortunatus engages with in his time in England – we’re thinking about a really insular merchant community (no pun intended). And this is probably Fortunatus’s only positive interaction with an Englishman. After discussion with the judge, Fortunatus is saved from the gallows

so er auch nit ain Florentin / und unschuldig was

[since he was not a Florentine, and was innocent]

Both reasons seem to be of equal weight! He is nonetheless advised to leave the country because the (female) mob will kill him:

nu mach dich bald auß dem land / wann die frauwen der gassen werden dich zu tod schlagen

[Now get out of the land quickly, or the women in the alleys will beat you to death]

This is given weight by the king granting permission to sack Jeronimus’s house, and the reactions of the other Italians in London to this officially-sanctioned looting:

Do die andern Florentiner und Lambarder horten wie man also sackman gemacht het / do forchten sy sich übel / ires leibs und ires guots

[When the other Florentines and Lombards heard about the plundering, they were afraid for their lives and goods]

London would presumably have been well-known to Fortunatus’s German audience as a trading centre largely because of the presence of the Hanseatic League in the Steelyard – they had been in London since 1282. Relations between the League and England were complex, and particularly bad during 1470-74, in the Anglo-Hanseatic War. This ended with the Treaty of Utrecht (1474), which granted the League possession of the Steelyard. In 1493, though, a mob broke into the Steelyard and set fire to some of its buildings. This aspect of London’s trade, though, is entirely left out of the text – at least explicitly. What we do see, though, is something of a witch-hunt of people associated with a certain place: a Florentine household is implicated in a murder; every member of the household is executed; and the other Florentines and Lombards in London become afraid because the king’s men are plundering Jeronimus’s property.

It is through commercial London that the plot is moved on: by his trip to Lombard Street, a centre of international, mercantile London, where Fortunatus becomes involved with the Florentine merchant community. And it is the reality of how international trade worked in London that takes him to Sandwich – and means that he is ultimately freed from implication in the murder. After the miscarriage of justice which culminates in the execution of Jeronimus Roberti, Fortunatus is absolved of guilt essentially because he isn’t a Florentine. In Fortunatus, the bad treatment of foreign merchants trading in London is precipitated by Andrean’s murder of the nobleman, but – as we’ve seen – in the late Middle Ages, there was significant English resentment towards foreigners trading in London. The fact that Andrean is also a Florentine emphasises that, in many ways, the merchant community is being understood as a separate society within London, but the reactions of the other Italians show a familiar fear of the scapegoating of an entire group. Ralph Flenley writes that Italian merchants were the largest group of foreign merchants in England in the period, and the target of the most hostility. G.A. Holmes, in an article on Florentine merchants in England wrote: ‘One of the conspicuous features of the Lancastrian period was English hatred of the foreign merchant’. He refers to an Italian poem of the time by Frescobaldi, warning merchants travelling to England that they should wear dark clothes and keep away from men of the court.

If we think back to my previous post, which thought about foreign merchants in England from the English perspective, perhaps this episode in Fortunatus is not that surprising, and the fears of the Italian merchants who were not directly implicated in the murder committed by Andrean look perfectly reasonable. It seems that an English reputation for mistreating foreigners, and Italians in particular, had sunk into the popular imagination by the time that Fortunatus was written.

Fortunatus ed. by Hans-Gert Roloff (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2007)
Caroline M. Barron, London in the Later Middle Ages : Government and People, 1200-1500 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
Ralph Flenley, “London and Foreign Merchants in the Reign of Henry VI,” English Historical Review, 25 (1910), 644-55.
M.S. Giuseppi, ‘Alien Merchants in England in the Fifteenth Century’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 9 (1895), pp. 75-98.
A. Holmes, ‘Florentine Merchants in England, 1346-1436’, The Economic History Review, 13 (1960), 193-208.

If you don’t read German, you might be interested in Michael Haldane’s translation of Fortunatus, where you can also see all of the woodcuts.


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