Beyond the ‘good’/’bad’ migrant dichotomy: ways forward for early modern and contemporary history

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In late 2022, the Early Modern Migration Reading Group received an RHS Workshop Grant to host a workshop: ‘Beyond the ‘good’/’bad’ migrant dichotomy: ways forward for early modern and contemporary history’. In convening this workshop, our intention was to critically assess and contribute to reshaping the ways early modern migration histories are written today.

The need for our workshop gradually became evident as a result of members of the Reading Group coming together to study migration histories and theory over the course of two years. As postgraduate and early-career researchers, we wanted to engage with this lively and growing field. However, we had increasingly come to feel that pre-modern migration history has been under-theorised. Moreover, we felt much contemporary scholarship insufficiently sought to focus upon how early modern migration — and perhaps more importantly, what is written about early modern migration — might inform discourses around contemporary migration.

We were pleased to welcome participants at all stages of their careers and from a range of institutions, researching different groups in different contexts.

Our starting point was to interrogate the use of terms such as ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ in early modern migration histories. We felt that researchers in this area often did not engage clearly with the choices they made in describing groups of people on the move in early modernity. Our goal was to formulate questions that might encourage scholars to approach the recovery and writing of migration histories with greater care and intention, particularly, but not exclusively, in early modernity. To achieve this, we developed a smaller and more participatory workshop, asking participants to read a selection of texts before attending. To facilitate discussion, we also furnished questions that we hoped to explore as a group. We were pleased to welcome participants at all stages of their careers and from a range of institutions, researching different groups in different contexts. We were grateful that participants in the workshop came prepared to listen and think together.

 

Emigration of the Huguenots 1566, by Jan Antoon Neuhuys – Wiki Commons

 

Our workshop took place in September 2023. In the first session of the day, we welcomed Dr Lucy Mayblin, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Sheffield. Lucy’s talk emphasised that the categories we use to describe migrants are socially constructed, shift over time and are culturally specific. In light of these complexities, how can we acknowledge the range of ways to define a group of migrants: social, legal, political, demographic or administrative? How do we undertake this work while acknowledging the autonomy and selfhood of migrants themselves? For those of us who study early modern migration, many of the words we use to describe those who move are rooted in a nation-state system and/or international treaties. To fully describe migration in our period, we need to consider whether we move away from words such as ‘refugee’. After the workshop, the group deliberated on the decisions they had made in their work and the challenges stemming from those decisions. They asked whether there is a coherent method to describe, analyse, and compare various migrations while acknowledging the complexities of categorisation.

This workshop was critical to helping the group think through the ethical implications of our work.

Our second session was led by Ally Swadling, Young Persons Development Worker, at Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, Leeds. In the context of attacks on migrants’ rights in Europe, we had become increasingly convinced historians should take responsibility for thinking about how their work engages with contemporary discourses. Ally gave us an overview of the complicated and hostile context for asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants in the UK today: the plethora of laws and policies, as well as the real impact this has on the lives of people on the move. As with historically constructed categories, the use of contemporary labels carries significant implications: racist immigration policy only functions when we give legitimacy to distinctions such as documented/undocumented or legal/illegal. This session was critical in helping the group think through the ethical implications of our work, in the best sense: not just our research and its relationship to the contemporary context, but also about how we can build solidarity both inside and outside the academy.

 

Extensive Landscape With Travellers on a Country Road, Jan Brueghel the Elder – 84-1996 – Saint Louis Art Museum – Wiki Commons

 

The afternoon featured workshops led by the Early Modern Migration Reading Group, starting with nomenclature: defining ‘bad’ migrants and ‘good’ refugees, led by Dan Rafiqi and Kathleen Commons. Researchers shared diverse migration contexts and periods, delving into the distinctions between travel and migration in contemporary and early modern settings. The group also explored the important question of whether it is possible to understand groups or individuals as migrants when they may have multiple identities that are used at different periods of mobility. We also touched on ‘border’ control in early modernity, reflecting on the extent to which these were considered ‘important’. As we had suspected, it was not possible to formulate a concrete answer, but together we explored the possibility of plotting migrant groups as points on axes, from ‘positive’ to ‘negative’ reception and depiction, in terms of two important factors of perception: mobility x stigmatisation.

The workshop emphasised the need to view historical figures holistically, especially when dealing with colonial archives.

The second afternoon session, led by Juliet Atkinson and Samantha Sint Nicolaas, focused on ‘Intersecting Histories of Migration: Race, Gender, Class, and Migration’. Their overarching aim was to explore how we might best analyse migrant experiences without making mobility or migrant status(es) the sole determinants of early modern migration and reception. This workshop emphasised the need to view historical figures holistically, especially when dealing with colonial archives. A further important topic of discussion was whether we can truly recover the agency of subaltern groups. The workshop prompted inquiries into how best to capture the multiplicity of individual identities and the question of whether an intersectional history of migration necessarily constitutes micro-history. Additionally, it emphasised the importance of understanding movement and migration within the context of embodied experience.

Our day workshop served as a vital starting point for further inquiry into the burgeoning field of early modern migration history. We left feeling excited and re-energised about the emergent possibilities for addressing these questions in our own research. We would like to thank the Royal Historical Society for their generous support, without which this workshop would not have been possible.

 


 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

 

Kathleen Commons is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield. Her work investigates the relationship between immigration and ideas of citizenship in seventeenth-century England, through the lens of the law and legal thinking around belonging, rights, and participation. Her research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through the White Rose College of Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH).

 

Dan Rafiqi is a doctoral candidate in History at King’s College London. He is interested in the religious and cultural history of early modern Europe, especially the British Isles, France and the United Provinces. Dan’s current research project examines the ways that Huguenot refugees depict their experience of persecution and resettlement in their autobiographical writings (1681-1760).

 

Juliet Atkinson is a PhD student in the School of History at the University of Leeds. Her research is focused on histories of gender, migration and mobility, and identity and identification in seventeenth-century London. Her research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through the White Rose College of Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH).

 

 

 

 

Samantha Sint Nicolaas is a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam and Leiden University. After a first degree at Durham, she completed her MA in Cultural History at Utrecht University in 2018. Between 2019 and 2020 she worked as a junior researcher at the IISH on the project ‘Exploring Slave Trade in Asia’. In 2020 she began working on her PhD project which looks at the position of migrants before the criminal justice court of early modern Amsterdam, as part of the NWO-funded project: ‘Tolerant Migrant Cities? The Case of Holland, 1600-1900.’

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