Where did colonialism come from? In this talk, University of Toronto Professor Sebastian Sobecki looks to The Libelle of Englyshe Polycye, a poem written in 1436, to identify the beginnings of English colonial thinking. As a milestone work in the history of medieval travel writing, the poem appeared in anthologies of travel writing for centuries and eventually found its way to the writings of Richard Hakluyt. This talk argues that the Libelle serves as the blueprint for Hakluyt’s Discourse Concerning Western Planting (1584), one of the founding documents of English settler colonialism.


Sebastian Sobecki is Professor of Later Medieval English Literature, University of Toronto, St. George. Before coming to Toronto, he taught for two years at Bochum University in Germany, three years at McGill University, and twelve years at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. He is a recipient of the John Hurt Fisher Prize from the John Gower Society, and he has received research funding from SSHRC, the British Academy, Cambridge University, Québec's FQRSC, the German Research Foundation (DFG), and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). His visiting fellowships include All Souls College (Oxford), the Huntington Library, Magdalen College (Oxford), and Yale University. He is the Morton W. Bloomfield Fellow for 2023 at Harvard University’s English Department.


His research extends to a wide area of late medieval literary culture, especially law, travel, politics, authorship, manuscripts, and palaeography. He is particularly interested in Gower, Chaucer, Hoccleve, Kempe, Lydgate, and Skelton. His work has been covered widely by international media, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian, the BBC, the TLS, The New Republic, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and many others. His articles have appeared in Speculum, The Review of English Studies, The Chaucer Review, English Literary History, Studies in the Age of Chaucer, Renaissance Studies, and The English Historical Review among others. He has just finished editing all the medieval texts printed by the early modern travel writer Richard Hakluyt in his Principal Navigations (Oxford UP, in two volumes). He has also completed the edited collection Global Medieval Travel Writing: A Literary History (Cambridge UP) and is preparing The Oxford Handbook of Middle English Prose (Oxford UP) with Emily Steiner, and, with Jennifer Richards, the first volume of the Cambridge History of London Literature (Cambridge UP). In addition to writing a general-audience book on early global travel writers, he is working on two monographs: The Invention of Colonialism: Richard Hakluyt and Medieval Travel Writing (Cambridge UP, Elements series), and a study of the handwriting and literary culture of London's bureaucratic clerks. His board memberships include The Journal of the Early Book Society, the Index of Middle English Prose, Maritime Humanities 1400-1800: Cultures of the Sea (Routledge), and Texts and Transitions: Studies in the History of Manuscripts and Printed Books (Brepols). He is a former trustee of the Hakluyt Society and, together with Michelle Karnes, edits the journal Studies in the Age of Chaucer.

  • Eve Wolynes
  • Ayah Wakkad
  • Nina Sarros

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