Emotions Left Behind: Other Narratives of Early Modern Migration

Sebastian Vrancx, Soldiers plundering a farmhouse, ca. 1600. Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin.

By Susan Broomhall, The University of Western Australia

In National Refugee Week (19–26 June 2016), it seems fitting to consider the emotional experiences of early modern migrations. In my research on Huguenot refugees in the sixteenth century, I’ve looked at the way the fledgling sixteenth-century French community at Threadneedle Street in London tried to support its members financially, socially and emotionally in its initial formation, as parishioners and elders looked to manage the provision of charity and the community’s social relations both internally and with the wider London population.[1] These were challenging and complex issues, and the documentary sources of the Church express frustrations, anger and fears, both those of the elders who expected parishioners to conform to particular moral, sexual and social behaviours, and those who did not willingly accept the Church’s role in regulating their lives in such ways.

But what of those who did or could not flee persecution, or live where they could practise their faith freely? What of those who remained behind in their homelands? What were their hopes and fears? How did they experience dislocation from families and friends and the disintegration of communities? To help explore these questions, I’m currently analysing a set of documents that may help to reveal the emotions such individuals expressed to those abroad, found among the files of the Council of Troubles (1567–1574), a special tribunal designed to investigate those involved in the religious and political turmoil within the Habsburg Netherlands.[2]

On Sunday 26 February 1570, Henry Fléel and his ten-year-old companion Jean Desmadry were stopped by the Captain of the Fort and Château of Hénuin in a small boat as they were making their way to Calais. Despite Fléel’s initial claims that he was simply a poor man looking to earn his living in the fields near Marck, it was soon discovered that he was an adherent to the ‘new religion’ and that his basket filled with cheese, jams and onions contained a false bottom with an additional compartment holding 79 letters. Fléel confessed that he had been asked to deliver these letters to an individual at the Three Kings tavern in Calais. He claimed that he did not know any of the authors of the letters, which had been given to him by a certain du Buis on the road between Hondschoote (in present-day France) and Reningelst (today, in Belgium).

Simon Frisius, Duke of Alba presiding over the Council of Troubles, 1616 engraving.

These letters, written in French and Dutch, by both men and women, are a rare resource with which to analyse the gendered and emotional experiences of Huguenot persecution, and both expectations and experiences of exile in the later sixteenth century. For, through them, we see the heavy practical and emotional expectations placed on friends and families who had become part of the Huguenot diaspora in London, Norwich and Southampton, for example. The vast majority of the letter writers appeared to be relatives of the intended recipients — fathers, wives, siblings, most commonly — but also uncles, nieces and nephews as well as in-laws. Some authors appear to be business colleagues and friends. About 30 per cent were female but only 13 per cent of the recipients were women, reflecting a common pattern of men establishing work and support networks before families followed.

These letters, as objects and texts, produced social identities and constituted feelings. They were emotional and social transactions that managed sentiments and fostered intimacy, and a socio-material assemblage that situated individuals within a community.

Materialising Family and Faith Communities

The authors of the letters came from a range of towns, including Valenciennes, Tournai, Lannoy, Nieuwkerke, Armentières and Ypres. They wrote in French and Flemish. Some letters had been scribed by a third party on behalf of their senders and they had passed through a series of carriers before they were placed in Fléel’s basket. These diverse individuals shared textual expressions of their faith, however. A large number of the letters commenced with a religious salutation of some sort: ‘Greetings with Jesus Christ our Lord’, ‘Praise be to God’ and so on. A few framed their news in religious terms, as did Marie Lengilon announcing the death of her mother-in-law to her husband:

since it is His will, we must not complain. She is very happy, for we have only bread in this valley of misery, whereas when the Lord God calls us close to Him and we are drawn from this vale of misery, we will be at peace.

These documents were products of a network with faith, social and emotional dimensions, both in their articulations and discussions of others (family, neighbours and friends) and as they were prepared, scribed and carried.

Feelings in Circulation

A third ended with some reference to being written ‘in haste’, ‘in very great haste’ or ‘because the messenger is hurrying’. As such, these were not necessarily polished or considered missives, but written as the opportunity arose for covert communication. What then were the most important things to say in such moments?

Authors of both sexes expressed a strong sense of loss and longing for their loved ones, generally as members of the immediate family unit: mothers, fathers, wives, brother and sisters. Thomas Le Den wrote to his sister Anne of their mother’s desire for her daughter to return, ‘for since the hour and day that you went, her eye has never been dry and she is always crying, praying to God to return you to her’. If he had received the letter, Martin du Val would have learned that:

as to your father and mother, they pray most affectionately that you send home some news as soon as possible, for, because they have had no news of you, it seems to them that you are dead, even though all they desire is to be given news of you to know of your state and how you are, in doing so you will give them joy and jubilation.

These authors grieved at the loss of family and friends in the very documents in which they were also enacting and maintaining these networks.[3]

Some authors, most commonly mothers, daughters or wives, lamented their impoverished circumstances and pleaded for help of some kind. ‘This is to let you know that Marinne has no income, because the king expects that wives will go to their husbands, and so His Majesty confiscates all their goods.’ If some were implicit in their need for assistance, other authors were vocal and not afraid to express their anger, as did the widow Jonneviel to Nicaise Frappes, about a debt between them:

I never received from you any response, it’s like a joke, Nicaise, for you can well imagine that I don’t have the thousand écus … You are the cause that my daughter cannot make a good marriage, for a good husband, even a prince, it is not possible to marry him, for the custom is such that one doesn’t ask for girls for their knowledge but for their money.

Fathers provided instruction to sons about finances, education and good living. One gave firm advice regarding his son’s conduct before God, to never abandon the Temple, and to keep away from bad company. Money ‘earned through hard work should never be uselessly dissipated’, he added. Gender, family roles and hierarchies shaped both emotional expression and the expectations of how recipients would respond.

Workshop of Sebastian Vrancx, A landscape with travellers ambushed outside a small town, oil on panel. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A number of authors mentioned loss of goods, properties and the hardships they had endured. Elisabeth Lot told her husband: ‘we don’t know how to receive anything, we suffer so much and others as well. So much so that we can’t help each other, and we are not the only ones in danger’. Philippe Caulier signalled the persecutions obliquely, ‘to write to you again of the ravishments, the pillaging, and the danger would take a long time’.

Others, though, prayed for better times. The father of Arnould wrote to his son of his hopes that ‘with time the princes will agree together so that the people can live in peace. We pray to God that He puts them in agreement’. And while some authors instructed their recipients to stay put, many others expressed their desire for loved ones to come home, and judged the situation to be improving. Jacques Desrumeaulx, for example, visualised the day of his brother’s return:


My very certainly and well loved brother Guillaume Desrumeaulx, we pray you find the means to return to the country. We would be most joyous, if you returned. You know that it is a long time since we saw one another and if you could find enough to return, for the country is at peace at the moment, if you wanted to return to visit or stay, you would be very welcome.

The wife of Martin Plennart reassured him of the situation in Valenciennes:

I beg you to not be melancholy for, at present, one says nothing in Valenciennes. You have heard it said that they confiscate the goods of some of the others, who were banished, but nothing is said about it at the moment. My desire is that you be near your wife and your children, for you would be as safe as the others who are coming back every day now.

Clearly, many imagined, or hoped at least, that the escape or migration of their loved ones was temporary and that they would one day be able to practise their faith where they lived. Few authors wrote of what they imagined those in exile were experiencing. They largely articulated their own feelings and assumed that their desire for reunion and return to homelands was shared.

This short exploration suggests the intense pressure on these documents to do emotion work in the absence of alternative forms of contact between many of their authors and recipients. As objects and as texts, these letters created strong sentiments. They materialised powerful feelings of their authors, who could not be sure that they did not put their lives at risk in composing their missives. Letters attested to, and indeed made, community for these individuals, and the marginality of that community both at home and abroad intensified emotional relations among its members. The selves that these documents could articulate harnessed explicit and gender-specific emotional expression to describe distressing experiences of individuals in dire need — authors who had been left behind in homelands and who placed high expectations on refugees and migrants to support them practically and emotionally.

Professor Susan Broomhall was a Foundation Chief Investigator in the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. She worked in the Shaping the Modern Program at The University of Western Australia.  Susan’s projects analysed medieval and early modern objects and emotions, particularly as they are presented in modern museum, heritage and tourism environments.  In October 2014, she became an Honorary Chief Investigator, having taken up an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship within the Centre.  Her new research project focuses on emotions and power in the correspondence of Catherine de Medici. This study of the leading female political protagonist of the era will provide new insights into early modern strategies of emotional expression, letter-writing and political power, and a new view of Catherine’s own activities.

[1] See, ‘From France to England: Huguenot Charity in London’, in Experiences of Charity, 1250-1650: Revisiting Religious Motivations in the Charitable Endeavour, ed. by Anne M. Scott (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015), and, ‘Authority in the French Church in Later Sixteenth-Century London’, In Authority, Gender and Emotions in Late Medieval and Early Modern England, ed. by Susan Broomhall (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

[2] This blog stems from my essay, ‘Channelled Affections: Pressure and Persuasion in Letters to Huguenot Refugees in England, 1569–1570’, in Feeling Exclusion: Religious Conflict, Exile and Emotions in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Giovanni Tarantino and Charles Zika (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming).

[3] This is a pattern that can also be observed in the correspondence of other communities in exile. See Susan Broomhall, ‘Tears on Silk: Cross-Cultural Emotional Performances Among Japanese-Born Christians in Seventeenth-Century Batavia’, Pakistan Journal of Historical Studies (Special Opening Issue: ‘Emotions and Marginalized Communities’), 1.1 (2016).


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