Sjoerd Levelt and Ad Putter, eds. North Sea Crossings: The Literary Heritage of Anglo-Dutch Relations 1066–1688. University of Chicago Press, 2022. 304 pages, cloth hardcover $60 USD, ISBN: 9781851245543.
by Dr. Samuel McLean
During my PhD, I read Lisa Jardine’s Going Dutch, which completely altered my understanding of the nature of the Glorious Revolution through its description of many decades of Anglo-Dutch interactions. North Sea Crossings: The Literary Heritage of Anglo-Dutch Relations 1066-1688 moves this story of Anglo-Dutch connections back another 600 years to the Norman Conquest. Everything about this book—including the cover design—reinforces just how geographically and economically close the Atlantic Archipelago and the Low Countries are, and have been. It goes further to show that the gradient of cultural, economic and philosophical exchange has been in both directions. This book is a collaborative effort, the culmination of two connected projects. One is a pioneering project of the same name funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund about the Anglo-Dutch literary exchange, with a particular focus on young people with special educational needs and disabilities. This outreach project was mated with the ‘Literary Heritage of Anglo-Dutch relations, 1050-1600’, founded by Leverhulme Trust, which was exhibited at the Bodleian Library. This volume is the collaborative output. Sjoerd Level and Ad Putter are listed as the project leads, with contributions by Robyn Adams, Moreed Arbabzadah, Anne Louise Avery, Jack Avery, Edward Holberton, Elisabeth van Houts and Kathleen E. Kennedy. Looking at the Table of Contents, it is clear that these were certainly substantial contributions.
There are five chapters, entitled ‘Histories’, ‘Manuscripts’, ‘Printed Books’, ‘Maps’, ‘People’ and ‘Reynard the Fox’, with each chapter examining the period 1066-1688. However, they are hardly distinct, and many of the same individuals, families, and texts show up through multiple chapters to bind them together into a multi-stranded complex narrative. The authors and editors weave explanations of concepts and ideas right into the text, and do so very clearly.
Following ‘Histories’, the chapter ‘Manuscripts’ moves the the discussion back firmly into the medieval period to show in further depth the connections that were discussed in the first chapter. I very much appreciated the shifting language here which furthered my understanding of the geopolitical complexities of the period, for example dealing with Burgundy and the Anglo-Burgundian alliance, and cultural connections there. This chapter also beautifully shows some images as large as possible, the best possible representation of the kinds of materials that moved between Flanders and England in the medieval era.
The next chapter, ‘Printed Books’ begins with the statement that that is the area where the connections are the most ‘conspicuous’ (Levelt and Putter’s language), and it clearly demonstrates that there was a step up. Not just the movement of books, but of people. This chapter highlights William Caxton, for instance, and his lengthy career printing in Germany and the Low Countries. Then, how parts of his catalogue are then taken up by Dutch printers for continued sale to English markets. Further, it shows how Caxton brought along Wynken de Worde and others from the Low Countries back to Westminster. The full complexities are brought to the fore in discussions about the printing of religious books in the Netherlands, both as protestant books for an English audience, but also some for the Dutch Reformed books were printed in places like Norwich and London. This chapter really emphasizes the continued personal connections between the printing communities and merchants and the close connections between the industries and the markets on both sides of the North Sea.
In the following chapter, the detail and quality of Ortelius’s maps of Wales and the Low Countries are spectacular, as is the discussion of the Ortelius family’s connections on both sides of the North Sea. I appreciate how the editors were willing to use multiple pages to show panorama drawings in great detail. In ‘People’, the chapter very much focuses on Dutch people in England, and reactions to them, such as the Dutch Church Libel of 1593. Individuals like Emanuel Van Meteren, whose father’s trade in important Protestant books to England, was discussed in a previous chapter. This section explores the movement in artists, such as Peter Lely. I wish there had been more discussion of English people who moved to the Low Countries and responses to them, but the relative absence is perfectly understandable given this project’s focus on the Bodleian’s collection. The final chapter ‘Reynard the Fox’ brings everything together in an example of “Literature with a capital L.” This chapter brings together all the various aspects of the results and significance of movement back and forth across the North Sea.
There is a lot to very much to enjoy and appreciate in this book. First, there is a timeline providing important events at the beginning, and provides crucial chronological context for readers. The clarity of the introductions and the specificity of why certain images and illustrations were selected (focusing on what was displayed in the exhibit) was also helpful and informative. This book largely explores trans-North Sea movement through the collections at the Bodleian, with a few things from a few other collections. The authors and editors define their important terms and provide the framework of their interdisciplinary approach and their aims. Yes, this is a book that is a companion to an exhibit, but it is also a spectacular academic work and it should be widely read by students and gifted to grad students and all kinds of enthusiasts. This is the kind of work that deserves to win awards.