Masters of Mobility


3.1 Mobility Capital and Transmigration

Geographical mobility and translocal networks were of crucial importance for the entrepreneurial success of early modern artists and publishers all over Europe.1 However, the nexus between mobility and career building is rather complex when it comes to later generation migrants. While the impact of (forced) migration during the Dutch Revolt has been addressed extensively, the question of how older migrant networks remained intact and how newer members transformed them has remained largely unexplored. In many cases, migrant families initially left due to religious persecution and the threat of war and violence and later stayed highly mobile and maintained their old networks over large geographical distances.

To study such forms of long-term mobility among early modern cultural entrepreneurs and its impact on cultural transfer, it is helpful to borrow a set of concepts and approaches from contemporary mobility and migration studies. Scholars in these fields have developed models that allow us to understand how transnational networks are maintained over long distances and how they impact both the host societies of migrants and their countries of origin. Needless to say, the transfer of theoretical concepts from these fields requires a careful application to an age with a different technological infrastructure and comparably limited possibilities to communicate effectively over longer geographical distances. In an early modern context, it is obvious that direct contacts to distant places played a crucial role and that the maintenance of networks through letter writing and traveling required more efforts than today.

To address the mechanisms that help individuals and groups benefit from mobile lifestyles, scholars who study contemporary elite and student mobility have coined the concept of ‘mobility capital’. As Vincent Kaufmann, Manfred Bergmann and Dominique Joye put it, ‘spatial mobility is not an interstice or liaison between a point of departure and a destination. It is a structuring dimension of social life’.2 According to these theorists, assets such as access to transnational networks as well as relevant international skills and knowledge can be conceptualized as a form of social capital. Elizabeth Murphy-Lejeune who applied these considerations to contemporary student mobility defines mobility capital as ‘a subcomponent of human capital, enabling individuals to enhance their skills because of the richness of their international experience gained by living abroad’.3 As her findings suggest, mobility capital is acquired by previous experiences abroad or an upbringing in an international surrounding – thus, the past mobility of parents can play a crucial role for future generations. These ideas sound familiar when we apply them to an early modern context, in which mobility experiences such as grand tours were seen as indispensable for young adults in the higher social strata, and apprenticeships abroad were an essential feature of the training of merchants, artists or artisans.

While migration in early modern Europe often had drastic implications for families and individuals, as it disrupted local communities and social bonds, it could also offer opportunities in professions that depended on translocal knowledge and access to long-distance networks. Merchants, artists and other cultural entrepreneurs often benefitted from their migration in the long term. Focusing on translators and publishers, Peter Burke has argued that even forced migration could provide individuals and families with great opportunities and often allowed them to build ‘a career out of displacement’.4 As ‘Renaissance go-betweens’, they were able to use their migrant background as a form of cultural capital as they possessed linguistic, cultural and artistic knowledge that could be of interest to their host societies. These observations have not yet been applied to the following migrant generations who were often more successful as cultural brokers between European regions and for whom the benefits of mobility were even greater than for the first migrant generation.

To understand the potential advantage of later generation migrants as cultural brokers between the Low Countries and the Holy Roman Empire, it is important to address the question of how families and individuals remained in connection with their ancestors’ places of origin and networks. Since the 1990s, migration scholars have emphasized that migration is not a unilinear process that ends with relocation from one place to another. Instead of moving away and leaving their connections to the former homeland behind, migrants rather maintain ‘multiple linkages to their homeland’ even when they are solidly established in their new host societies.5 In many cases, migrant families continue to move back and forth between their old and their new homes and connect both cultural spheres.

Building on their research on contemporary migration between the United States, the Philippines and other South Asian and Central American countries, Nina Glick Schiller and others have coined the term ‘transmigrant’ to describe the conditions of groups and individuals who live such ‘transborder lives’.6 According to Glick Schiller and others, such forms of ‘transmigration’ are rather recent phenomena and depend on modern communication technologies that enable migrants to maintain connections over long distances. Even though the differences between modern and pre-modern forms of communication should not go unnoticed, a closer look at the mobility patterns of early modern migrants, especially among the elites, seems to justify a characterization of these groups as transmigrants. Netherlandish artists, publishers and merchants in the diaspora did not just leave their old hometowns behind but remained oriented towards the Low Countries. Many families travelled back and forth between Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Frankenthal and Nuremberg but even those who stayed maintained their old connections. Especially merchant families were able to benefit from their diaspora abroad: the Thijs (or Thysius) family, for example, originally from Antwerp, was dispersed between Danzig, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and La Rochelle, which enabled them to build a reliable network of commercial agents between these places.7 Even though the initial reason to leave Antwerp was not primarily motivated by the idea of building such a network, the outcomes were immensely beneficial.8

While the specific economic benefits of mobility were different for artists, translocal knowledge and connectedness as a key to artistic and entrepreneurial success were equally important. A diachronic perspective that takes several generations into account helps us understand the specific benefits of mobility for professions in the cultural industries. In comparison to the first generation, the descendants of migrants understood their parents’ host societies better, and yet, they remained connected to the older migrant networks that provided them with knowledge and skills from which they could benefit in their new homes. Through these two coinciding factors, they were able to act on both local and translocal levels, which gave them an advantage as cultural mediators.


1 On mobility in Italian artistic circles: Spear/Sohm 2010, esp. p. 261-262. For an examination of discourses and rhetorical tropes of geographical mobility in Italian art treatises: Young Kim 2014.

2 Kaufmann/Bergmann/Joye 2004, p. 754.

3 Murphy-Lejeune 2002, p. 51.

4 Burke 2005, p. 11; Burke 2005A, p. 17–31.

5 Glick Schiller/Basch/Szanton Blanc 1995, p. 48-63, esp. p. 48.

6 Glick Schiller/Basch/Szanton Blanc 1995, p. 48ff.; Stephen 2007.

7 Gelderblom 2000, p. 58, 165-168.

8 Müller 2016, p. 60-64; 150-154.

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