RHS Lecture – John Gallagher


‘Migrant Voices in the Multilingual City’

Dr John Gallagher

(University of Leeds)


Friday 15 September 2023
17.00 BST – in person at University College London


Watch the video of this lecture



Early modern London was multilingual, and early modern urban life was shaped by linguistic diversity. The reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) witnessed an important ‘migration moment’, with substantial numbers of migrants and refugees coming to England as a consequence of religious and political conflict on the continent. In London, a rapidly growing urban capital, the voices of migrants mingled audibly with the other languages of the city, shaping a multilingual oral culture which had to be navigated by strangers and Londoners alike.

This lecture draws on the multilingual archives of Elizabethan London’s ‘stranger churches’ – Protestant congregations which catered to the needs of French-, Dutch-, and Italian-speaking migrants (among others) at a moment of significant migration to England from continental Europe – to explore how linguistic diversity shaped social relations in the early modern city. These rich sources offer insights into the everyday multilingualism of the early modern city and the polyglot oral interactions at the heart of urban life. They lay bare the dynamics of polyglot households and workspaces, allow us to listen in as multilingual insults are exchanged in London’s streets, and invite questions about how precarious migrant communities found and defended their place in a rapidly changing urban society.

These polyglot archives demonstrate London’s migrant communities’ intense interest in what people said and why, and show how different languages and their speakers interacted on the streets and in the spaces of the early modern city. By charting how linguistic diversity was part of the lives of ordinary Londoners in this period, from the streets and fields of the capital to cosmopolitan locales like the Royal Exchange, this paper argues that the role of linguistic diversity in shaping early modern cities demands closer attention.

Speaker biography

John Gallagher is Associate Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Leeds. He is a cultural and social historian of early modern Britain and Europe, with a particular interest in language, migration, and education. His research crosses boundaries between British and European history and stretches from the sixteenth to the early eighteenth century.

John’s first book, Learning Languages in Early Modern England, was published by Oxford University Press in 2019. He is also Co-Editor of The Historical Journal, a major generalist history journal published by Cambridge University Press.