Early atlantic history and immigration

Benjamin Hudson is professor of History and Medieval Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. He visited the University of Bristol for a month in 2019 as Benjamin Meaker Distinguished Visiting Professor for his work on history and population movement of the Atlantic Ocean in antiquity and the Middle Ages.

When my wife Aileen and I arrived in Bristol on a rainy midnight, we had little idea of the splendid residency that awaited us. My nomination had been made by Professor Helen Fulton, with whom I am a member of the Borders and Borderlands network. Her consideration and good offices on my behalf were fantastic, while colleagues at the Centre for Medieval Studies made me very welcome.

The Atlantic Ocean has been the ‘elephant in the room’ of ancient and medieval history. The importance of the ocean for food, travel or exploration only occasionally receives any attention. Earlier research on the history of the Atlantic Province yielded collected collaborations such as Studies in the Medieval Atlantic and Familia and Household in the Medieval Atlantic World. The honor of being awarded the Benjamin Meaker Distinguished Visiting Professorship allowed me to work on a new aspect of the early Atlantic world; population movement. This project takes a holistic view with events in the western hemisphere included with those of the east.

In addition to carrying out research on Atlantic history, I conducted a postgraduate seminar on source materials for the history of the Irish Sea (another of my research areas) and a public lecture on immigration round the Atlantic. The audiences brought forward many questions and new directions for investigation.

In addition to discussing possible areas for collaborative grant applications on the part of the University of Bristol and Penn State, Professor Fulton and I also had the opportunity to chat about other areas of mutual interest, such as prophecy. The topics of foreknowledge and borderlands are closer than one imagines. ‘Prophets’ such as Merlin were usually presented as inhabitants of wild and remote regions.

For this new project on population movement, the resources available at Bristol are impressive and conversations with scholars such as Professor Brendan Smith helped me to give shape to some nebulous ideas. There are three main questions: why did people move, how did they integrate into the new society, and what contributions did they make? These questions were as pertinent for settlers from Norway who settled in Ireland as (on the other side of the Atlantic) for the movement of the Thule Inuit round Baffin Bay. They are difficult to answer about movement today and are even more so a thousand years distant. Motivations are not always apparent, while outcomes are often elusive. Furthermore, the type of data that is used today in discussions on population movement is rarely available for an earlier period.

I thank Robert Crowe and Samantha Barlow of the Institute for Advanced Studies who did so much to facilitate our visit, Professor Fulton for her nomination of my project, and the University of Bristol for the award of the Benjamin Meaker Distinguished Visiting Professorship. We had a splendid visit and a productive stay.

Benjamin Hudson