New exhibition explores the long history of Anglo-Dutch relations from 1066 to 1688

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New exhibition explores the long history of Anglo-Dutch relations from 1066 to 1688
Map of Oxfordshire, with inset street map of Oxford. The map was engraved by Jodocus Hondius in Amsterdam. The copper plate was then sent to London for use in John Speed’s ‘The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine’ (1612). Oxford, Bodleian Library, J. Maps 224 [10], recto. Image credit: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

OXFORD.- North Sea Crossings, a new exhibition at the Bodleian Libraries, traces the long history of Anglo-Dutch relations. The exhibition is a pioneering collaborative project with the University of Bristol and the University of Cambridge, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Focusing on the period from the Norman Conquest in 1066 to the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, items from the Bodleian Libraries’ collections illustrate the ways in which these exchanges have shaped literature, book production and institutions such as the Bodleian itself, on either side of the North Sea, inviting visitors to reflect on the way this cultural exchange still impacts British and Dutch societies today.

From medieval manuscript books, to the birth of the printing press and the introduction of movable type in Europe, to maps that show the proximity of England and the Netherlands and the rapid spread of news between the two countries, North Sea Crossings demonstrates the crucial role of collaboration and communication between these two nations. Curated by Sjoerd Levelt, Senior Research Associate, and Ad Putter, Professor of Medieval English, both at the University of Bristol, and Anne Louise Avery, director of the children's educational outreach organisation Flash of Splendour, the exhibition tells the story of Anglo-Dutch exchanges through manuscripts, early prints, maps, and other treasures from the Bodleian’s collections. Items on display include ‘Hebban olla vogala’, the oldest surviving fragment of Dutch secular literature from the 11th century; the Coutrai Chest, an intricately carved 14th-century casket inspired by the same battle in Flanders that is the subject of the early Middle English poem The Flemish Insurrection; and a 17th-century woodcut of Holland’s Leaguer, an Anglo-Dutch brothel, which King James I reportedly frequented.

As well as celebrating the development of this cross-cultural partnership, the exhibition reflects on the hostility that was directed at Dutch migrant communities. Objects such as ‘The Dutch Church Libel’ poem, which was pinned to the wall of a London church in 1593 and threatened Dutch settlers, many of whom were refugees of religious persecution, with lethal violence, as well as an account of the Great Fire of London which tells how suspicion for starting the fire fell on a Dutch baker, illustrate the suspicion and intolerance that, on occasion, characterised relations between the Netherlands and England during this time.

The character of Reynard the Fox, which exemplifies the shared Anglo-Dutch literary culture, is also explored in the exhibition. Appearing in the margins of manuscripts produced in medieval Flanders for the English markets, the character continues into the age of print with William Caxton’s 1481 English translation of ‘The History of Reynard the Fox’, which reinterprets the tale of this charismatic trickster. The exhibition also features a display of puppets, inspired by the Reynard story, created by Katie Williams in collaboration with young people with special educational needs and disabilities. These puppets will be featured in a film produced by Aardman Animations, which will be launched in Spring 2022 as part of North Sea Crossings.

North Sea Crossings Curator, Ad Putter said: “It has been an absolute joy for our team to research the literature we owe to the interactions of Dutch and English speakers in the past, and I am delighted to see this same collaboration happening in the present and bearing fruit in an exhibition that is very close to my heart.”

Richard Ovenden OBE, Bodley's Librarian, added: “The Bodleian is proud to have one of the most important collections of Anglo-Dutch material in the world, including the earliest example of secular Dutch writing. We are delighted to be showcasing these compelling materials as part of this important project, which we hope will deepen international collaboration and academic research. At a time when travel abroad has been constrained, North Sea Crossings reminds us how deeply interconnected Britain has been with the Netherlands for more than a thousand years, and how much we gain as a society from those connections.”

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