England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 Resident Aliens in the Late Middle Ages

‘Your said oratrice … cannot speak nor understand English’: Working for a Venetian Merchant in Fifteenth-Century England

In late fifteenth-century London one Maria Moriana was arrested and imprisoned on the grounds that she owed her master, a Venetian merchant, twenty pounds. Maria petitioned the Court of Chancery for help as she had been tricked into signing a bond stating that she owed him that amount, which meant that she was likely to be found guilty in the sheriffs’ court of London. The bill explains that Maria ‘cannot speak nor understand English’ and so she did not know what she was signing.

From the Chancery bill we learn Maria’s version of events, translated into English by whomever was helping her with the case. She had been in service with the merchant Philip Syne (an anglicisation of Filippo Cini) for more than twenty years. She had not been paid any wages but had been provided with food, drink and clothing. However, Filippo fell into poverty and could no longer support himself, his wife and Maria and so he offered to sell Maria to a Genoese merchant for £20. Maria would not consent to the sale. Filippo then told Maria that various people owed him money and he would sign those debts over to her as recompense for all her years of service. She accompanied him to the notary so that he could put this agreement in writing. There Filippo took advantage of her lack of English and Latin to have the notary instead draw up a document stating that she owed him £20, which she agreed to seal. This was the document he used to sue her in the sheriffs’ court of London. The Chancery bill is endorsed with a date, 29 May, at which her case was to be heard but we do not know what happened thereafter.

We know more about Filippo Cini, alias Philip Syne, because he was a wealthy merchant who was involved in trade in Southampton. He is listed in the alien subsidies, residing in Southampton, from 1463 to 1469 (where his surname appears variously as Tyny, Syny and Deny), and was assessed at 40s. He was already resident in Southampton in 1461 as, together with another Venetian merchant, he petitioned the Chancellor of England for help recovering a large amount of imported wine which had been confiscated by the mayor of Southampton, John Payne, despite their payment of customs to the town. When they found themselves in a similar situation in 1463, they had documentary evidence. Less than three months later, Payne was removed from office on the king’s orders.

But it is possible to speculate further about Maria Moriana. First, she had likely been living in Southampton for some time. Although it is difficult to date her bill to Chancery, its address to the Archbishop of Canterbury as Chancellor means that it must date to one of two periods: 1486-93 and 1504-15. From what we know about her master, the former dates seem more likely. If she had been Filippo Cini’s servant for at least twenty years she probably lived in his household in Southampton, where we know he was in the 1460s, perhaps until her arrest in London. Many Italian merchants at this date traded from a base in Southampton while dealing with customers in London, perhaps because the former was seen as more welcoming after anti-immigrant riots in London in 1455-6.

Secondly, Maria Moriana’s name suggests that she might well have entered Filippo Cini’s household as a slave. Morian was a French borrowing for ‘moor’, with Moriana as the feminine form. Europeans applied the term ‘moor’ to Muslim Europeans, Arabs and North African Berbers; and at least from the sixteenth century, if not earlier, ‘moorish’ was used to describe someone with darker skin. The slave trade in Italy was just one part of a broader trade in the Mediterranean, with Catalan and Portugese merchants dominant, but it was at its peak in the fifteenth century. Italian merchants, particularly from Venice and Genoa, supplied Muslim and Christian markets with slaves captured outside of the Latin West. While most slaves came from Eastern Europe and Central Asia, there were some black Africans. Christians were not meant to take other Christians as slaves, but they would often baptize their slaves and give them Christian names: Maria (anglicised as Mary) is one such name. Those who were bought within Italy tended to be young and female and were used for domestic work. By the late fifteenth century in Italy it was becoming more common to pay for servants than to buy slaves, as the work that the two did was often comparable, so it is possible that Maria was a manumitted slave.

Third, it might not have been merely a legal device to claim that Maria did not speak or understand English. For contrast, a bill from the mid-fifteenth century, pertaining to a Flemish woman who lived in Norwich, Katherine Asker (otherwise Asger), claimed that she was tricked out of substantial sums of money by her late husband’s attorneys because of her ‘little English, neither speak nor understand’. If Maria worked in Filippo Cini’s household she might have been able to get by conversing in Italian. Her bill reveals that he spoke to her ‘in his country tongue’. In 1537 Diego Sanchez, a Spanish resident in London, made his wife, Eleanor, executor of his will but appointed an overseer, ‘because my wife is old and a stranger and cannot understand the speech of the country’. Diego also left his wife his slave, Johan, for two years (after that Johan could go free). Eleanor was asked to look after the two ‘wenches’ he had had with Johan, until they came of age.

While we have little evidence regarding the life of Maria Moriana, it seems likely that the lives of the dependants of wealthy immigrant merchants were different from the more documented lives of the merchants themselves. When Filippo Cini had his own struggles with the anti-immigrant mayor of Southampton, John Payne, he successfully invoked a parliamentary statute of 1363 in his appeal to Chancery. Maria Moriana also petitioned Chancery; but all documentary evidence was against her, given her lack of English and Latin. Part of the difference between the groups might have been a less pressing need for dependants, like Maria, Katherine and Eleanor, to learn English, given their reliance on more public-facing men. In these examples the difference is also a gendered one.

Cordelia Beattie


Kew, The National Archives, C 1/14/18, C 1/27/416, C 1/29/150, C 1/30/67, C 1/32/52, C 1/148/67.

London Consistory Court Wills, 1492-1547, ed. Ida Darlington (London, 1967).

Alwyn A. Ruddock, Italian Merchants and Shipping in Southampton, 1270-1600 (Southampton, 1951).

Sally McKee, “Domestic Slavery in Renaissance Italy”, Slavery & Abolition, 29:3 (2008), 305-26.

Imtiaz Habib, Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible (Farnham, 2008).

Cite this page:

England’s Immigrants 1330 – 1550 (www.englandsimmigrants.com, version 1.0, 9 December 2022), http://www.englandsimmigrants.com/page/individual-studies/working-for-a-venetian-merchant-in-fifteenth-century-england