Images, Incunabula, Papers

The ‘Libelle of Englyshe Polycye’: An English view of Europe in the Fifteenth Century

It can be useful to take a non-linear approach to events – to look back and see our present reflected in the past. The debates filling newspapers and website about the forms British trade with Europe could or should take have made me cast my mind back to the subject of a paper I gave in 2014, in which I looked at the portrayal of merchant life in London in the late Middle Ages. My attention was caught by an anonymous poem which appeared in the middle of the fifteenth century. It was called the Libelle of Englyshe Polycye.

It can’t have been fun, being a foreign merchant in late-medieval England. There were frequent attempts to control the merchant population by ever-increasing taxes, by restricting them from carrying more than half of their income out of England – that is to say that they had to spend half of what they made in England and, briefly, in the middle of the fifteenth century, there was an ordinance which stated that while they were in England, they had to live with a host. In Robert Bale’s Chronicle of London, we read: ‘In the which parliament was ordeyned that the lumbardes shuld goo to host for VII yer’. That is to say that for the next seven years, any Lombards entering the country had to stay with an English sponsor. He also reports that that ‘all maner alienes enherite in the land shuld yerely pay a tribute to the kyng’ (p. 114).

But it’s the Libelle of Englyshe Polycye which is really of interest to me here, and I’d like to pull out a few sample quotations. Its opening, for example, is as follows:

Here beginneth the Prologe of the processe of the Libelle of Englyshe polycye, exhortynge alle Englande to kepe the see [sea] enviroun and namelye the narowe see [the Channel], shewynge whate profete commeth thereof and also whate worshype and salvacione to Englande and to all Englyshe menne

Sixteenth-century map by the Dutch cartographer, Christiaan Sgroten. Source: Wikipedia.

The poet goes on to recommend bluntly (and in a rather repetitive manner) ‘that we bee maysteres of the narowe see’. Towards the end, he describes the sea as:

the rounde wall,
As thoughe England were lykened to a cite
And the wall environ were the see.
Kepe than the see, that is the wall of Englond,
And than is Englond kepte by Goddes sonde

In addition to promoting keeping tight control over the Channel, the poet also lists the various commodities of foreign merchants, and how to take advantage of them. The poet is particularly unflattering about Florentine and Venetian merchants, who – so he says – bring nothing of value into the country, but remove many costly goods in exchange. Perhaps this was a way around being required to spend half their earnings in England. Their imports are, apparently:

Nifles, trifles, that litell have availed
And thynges with whiche they fetely blere oure eye,
Wyth thynges not endurynge that we bye

The goods which they take away, however are another matter. The Italians:

bere hens oure beste chaffare
Clothe, woll and tynne, whiche, as I seyde beforne,
Oute of this londe werste might be forborne

The poet then provides a substantial amount of text outlining what he considers to be deceitful behaviour on the part of the Florentines and Venetians. They are not, though, the only objects of the poet’s ire. He treats as many nations as possible in a similar fashion – including Scotland:

Therefor if we wolde manly take on honde
To kepe thys see fro Flaundres and fro Spayne
And fro Scotelonde lych as fro Pety Bretayne,
Wee schulde ryght sone have pease for all here bostes,
For they muste nede passe by oure Englysshe costes

This rather negates his later recommendation that, with England’s ‘wall’ secured:

thus shuld everi lande, one with another,
Entrecomon as brother wyth his brother,
And live togedre werreles in unite
Wythoute rancoure in verry charite

He is, however, careful to follow these pious wishes with a reiteration of his opening lines:

Here endithe the trewe processe of the libelle of Englysshe policie, exhortynge all Englande to kepe the see environ and namely the narowe see, shewynge whate worshipe, profite and salvacione commeth thereof to the reigne of Englonde, etc

The message is clear: peaceful coexistence means interacting as little as possible with your neighbours.

Setting sail in late-medieval Europe (from Fortunatus). Source:

About fifteen years after the Libelle of Englyshe Polycye, in 1456, there were riots in London against the Italian merchants. These were recorded in William Gregory’s Chronicle of London as ‘the rysynge and wanton reule of þe mayre and the mercers of London a-gayne the Lombardys’, which resulted in many Italian merchants leaving London. Many were incarcerated, and Gregory comments that ‘the comyn talkynge and noyse was that they shulde nevyr be delyveryd butt contynue in perpetualle preson’ (p. 199). Robert Bale describes the aftermath of the riots – Londoners were punished for their parts in riots, but this only led to more discontent (pp. 143-144):

And the Saterday folowyng were endited of ffelony a sherman dwelling at algate and a noþer man of the citee and a lordes man for a rising and riflyng that was made upon lumbardes and þen after they wer hanged. Wherwith the peple sore grucched

Caroline Barron suggests a couple of possible reasons for these riots: partly the fact that Italian merchants were doing well, and this made them easy targets, and partly the fact that they had previously disappeared from London in the fourteenth century, ‘and their re-emergence provoked resentment’(p. 113). Words reflect, or are reflected in, contemporary sentiments and actions.

I’m writing this post with a sequel in mind. I first discovered the Libelle of Englyshe Polycye when I was reading the German Fortunatus of 1509. The narrative tells of a young man who travels far and wide, eventually acquiring a purse which is constantly refilled with money. Early on, he falls in with merchants in London, with near disastrous consequences. In my next post, I’ll take a quick look at that episode – it seems that an English reputation for mistreating foreigners had by this point taken root in popular imagination.

The Libelle of Englyshe Polycye – online text
Caroline M. Barron, London in the Later Middle Ages : Government and People, 1200-1500 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)
Ralph Flenley (ed.), Six Town Chronicles of England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911)
James Gairdner (ed.), The Historical Collections of a Citizen of London in the Fifteenth Century (London: Camden Society, 1876)
George Warner (ed.), The libelle of Englyshe Polycye: A Poem on the Use of Sea-Power (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926)

Images, Incunabula, Manuscripts

Bernhard von Breydenbach and the Finished Book?

I haven’t updated this blog for some time, having focused on my viva (which I have passed!) and Teaching the Codex, which took place on Saturday 6th February, and about which I will post shortly. For my return, I’d like to blog about another one of the texts on which I wrote my DPhil thesis: Bernhard von Breydenbach’s Peregrinatio in terram sanctam.

Breydenbach was Domherr (canon) at Mainz Cathedral from around 1450, when he was probably still a child – he is thought to have been born around the year 1440. He was, therefore, already in post when Gutenberg’s Bible was printed. Certainly, he was exposed to print culture in his formative years, which may be part of the reason that he had such grand designs for the account he produced of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

In 1482, Breydenbach set off for the Holy Land. He joined an illustrious group of pilgrims, not least among them Felix Fabri. The German Wikipedia page gives more of an indication of Fabri’s reputation than the English. On his return, Breydenbach produced an immense account of his travels, which appeared in early 1486 in Latin, and only a few months later in German. He euphemistically described it as a:

little book [containing] the holy journey to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and onwards to the highly honoured virgin and martyr, St Katherine

buchlyn [containing] die heyligen reyßen gen Jhersalem zů dem heiligen grab vnd furbaß zů der hochgelobten jungfauwen (sic) vnd mertreryn sant Katheryn

This book, which would be better described as immense than little, also contains extensive description of, and polemic about, the inhabitants of the Holy Land (Christian, Jewish, and Muslim), instructions to would-be pilgrims, and detailed woodcuts of lands and people encountered on the way – often reductively described as maps. These images are often omitted from later editions. It is these images I would like to highlight in this post. The Bodleian owns several copies of the work, including the Latin and Flemish versions. The pictures I am including are from Bodleian Library Inc.c.G1.1486.1 (Latin, 1486).

Breydenbach thought of himself as an innovator, commenting that his book was perhaps the first example his audience would have seen of this interplay between text and image – and he wasn’t boasting vainly. Felix Fabri himself was impressed by the innovative interaction of words and images in Breydenbach’s Peregrinatio (Kathryne Beebe, Pilgrim and Preacher, p. 91). It was certainly a luxury item – all of the editions are folio books – and it found its way into institutional libraries and private collections across the continent. It was frequently owned in England too, in its Latin form, and was translated in short order into French, Spanish, and – depending on whose linguistic analysis you believe – Low German or Flemish.

A book coming off the press in the later fifteenth century is not necessarily a finished item. The main question I am asking here is, what does it mean for a book to be finished? Peregrinatio was ‘unfinished’ in typical ways, such as in the absence of initials: those were to be completed later, by hand and, in this edition, they were:


Then there are the woodcuts. Breydenbach includes images of the groups of people who lived in Jerusalem (generally followed or preceded by criticism). Here, for example, we see a picture of the Abyssinians:


He also, very occasionally, includes other images. Here is the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This image shows something we don’t see nowadays: the church without the immovable ladder, which has been in place in place since the 18th century.


But, evidently, some of Breydenbach’s designs for the book changed after the layout had been fixed. This is not the only place we see space left for a woodcut which never filled it:


In later editions, these spaces were removed. Does this make the first edition unfinished?

Now for these ‘maps’. Here are the images of Crete (home, according to Breydenbach, of women with poisonous nails), Modon, and Corfu. I should say that this image of Crete is not fully unfolded, for its own protection.


Someone has begun to paint them, apparently only having access to green paint. I’m a particular fan of the green cabin at the back of the ship. This doesn’t look like the initials mentioned above, which may well have been paid for, and completed in a workshop, along with the rubrication. The Bodleian owns another Latin 1486 edition, in which the figures have been coloured in in colours which could not be described as naturalistic, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been filled entirely in one colour.

So what is going on? We can only speculate, and I am no art historian. What we can say is that owners interacted with their books in different ways. Here, for example, we see notes and a manicule from various points in time:


Colouring the images in books is not uncommon and, indeed, was often paid for. This is unlikely to have have been the case here (I, for one, would want my money back). But it raises interesting questions about what makes a book finished. Did someone think that the book would be more finished, if the images were coloured? Why did they stop? Did they only have green paint? Is it now less finished than it was before any colour was added? Or, as with the Tudor drawings I blogged about before, does adding your own markings to a book identify it as yours?

The British Library has two Latin Breydenbachs printed on vellum. I’ve had a look at one of them: G. 7202. The woodcuts in this, like both of the Bodleian’s, have been coloured, but with less regard for naturalism – the image of the Holy Sepulchre, for example, is painted almost entirely pink. As I can’t show you this book, or any images, I don’t want to dwell on it. I want to draw attention to it in order to think about the idea of ownership. The Breydenbach edition printed on paper is itself a valuable object. The Breydenbach printed on vellum is even more so. Every hole is sewn up carefully, every leaf is straight-edged. In both these cases, the owners have done what a modern owner would not dream of doing, particularly to such an expensive object: they have coloured it in, not realistically, and often not carefully. It’s fairly well-established that early printed books were often intended to look as much like manuscripts as possible. I’ll introduce one final image, from Bodley 972, a mid-sixteenth-century copy of the account of the pilgrimage of Arnold von Harff, and this marvellous picture of a crocodile. The colours are an integral part of the illustration.


It seems to me that the owners of these particular copies of Peregrinatio in terram sanctam might have been, in a sense, completing them by adding colour, and the fact of adding the colour themselves made a statement of ownership – by painting the images, they were the owner and the completer of the book.

* A version of this post was given as a paper at the Oxford Medieval German seminar in May 2015.

Further Reading:

Kathryne Beebe, Pilgrim & Preacher: The Audiences and Observant Spirituality of Friar Felix Fabri

Isolde Mozer, Bernhard von Breydenbach: Peregrinatio in terram sanctam