Europe in England's Medieval Mirror

Nigel Saul looks at the two-way traffic between medieval Britain and the Continent

Over the past two years the pace of change in Europe has been quicker than at any time since the end of the Second World War. Familiar themes have re-emerged to haunt us – themes such as nationalism, separatism and the balance of power. So far from history coming to an end, as Francis Fukuyama supposed, the opposite has been the case; history has started again; it has resumed its old and familiar patterns.

In Britain arguments about the relationship of the present to the past have been lent added force by recent developments in the European Community – in particular by the debates about political and economic union. Questions have been asked about the country's role in the world and about the background to her relations with Europe. How close were those relations in the past? To what extent was England's historical development peculiar to herself? To what extent has the Channel been a barrier between the British Isles and Europe – 'a moat defensive to a house', as John of Gaunt put it? Has it hindered or assisted communications between the two?

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