Mobiliora, nobiliora – “the more mobile, the more noble”. With this elegant wordplay, Sigmund von Birken, a well-known German man of letters, expressed his high esteem for the aristocratic art of travelling in his 1669 tract, Hochfürstlicher Brandenburgischer Ulysses. Ten years later, David Barthel, a student of the laws at Leipzig University, found an equally succinct phrase in his dissertation, Iura Vagabundorum: Vagam vitam exercere, per se delictum est – “to lead a vagrant life is a crime in itself”.

The two statements, completely contrary in their assessment of mobile individuals, illustrate the complexity of scholarly discourses and opinions on spatial mobility: Did a man’s true nobility find its most splendid expression on the road? Or was a life on the move reserved for beggars, cutthroats and similar lowlifes who were despised and marginalised by society?

Controversial debates on migration and migrants are a ubiquitous feature of present-day politics – but they are by no means a prerogative of modernity: Assuming that migrations have been a constant phenomenon throughout human history, we can be assured that man has also always reflected upon his mobile existence. Discourses on migration, our intellectual engagement with human mobility, are an integral part of our existence as homo migrans. Migrations are not only constituted by people on the move, but also by the significance given to these movements.

An Intellectual History of Migration

In contrast to the extensive research on migration as a socio-historical phenomenon, the history of migration as an idea has hitherto not been addressed in a systematic way. Historical migration studies have been primarily interested in retracing factual migration movements and assessing their social and economic impact. Importance and relevance of this approach are beyond question, yet it seems expedient to enter into a dialogue with scholars of previous centuries and listen to their thoughts and opinions on human mobility.

The project intends to establish the institutional and methodological foundations for a long-term research endeavour that will analyse migration as an artefact of historical discourse in the so-called “western” intellectual tradition. In its scope, the project deliberately encompasses different forms of spatial movements: migration in the strict sense of the word (as a movement with the intention to settle in a new place), temporary mobility (such as journeymen years) and semi-permanent mobility (such as pastoral nomadism). Present-day social theory classifies these practices of spatial mobility as profoundly different phenomena. While the project acknowledges these conceptual differences, it does not presuppose that the same distinctions were significant to pre-modern intellectuals and applicable to their discourses.

The timeframe spans from classical antiquity to ca. 1800, covering Greco-Roman and biblical writings, medieval and early modern scholarship up to the late Enlightenment era. During the nineteenth century, the fully developed nation state set historically unique and previously unknown parameters to migration – to the factual movements as well as to the debates and reflections on migration. This paradigm shift provides a logical conclusion for the project.

Unravelling Interconnected Debates

Comparatively few pre-modern scholars composed treatises exclusively and explicitly dedicated to the topics of migration and mobility – yet many of them included perspectives on human mobility in their writings, which are not immediately apparent at a cursory reading. Six different topics are in the focus of our research efforts. Each one of them constitutes a major agenda of scholarship and a central aspect of “western” intellectual thought, and each one of them pertains to the issue of human mobility:

Authors contributing to these different scholarly topics approached the migration and mobility from very different angles, and at a cursory glance there seems to be little, if any, connection between them. The project team, however, does not only assess the rich plurality of opinions, but also examines the corpus of source texts for possible interdependencies and mutual influences between the various discourses. Thereby, it will be possible to determine if any attitudes, opinions and theories on migration extended beyond specialised scholarly debates, and linked these different fields into an overarching, superordinate discourse on human mobility.

Origins of Present-day Debates

Common opinions on migration are no immutable, constant givens. Like all societal discourses, they have been shaped and determined by historical processes. Raising awareness for these historical processes refutes essentialist understandings of migration and enables the general public to reconsider and deconstruct common perceptions and stereotypes of migrants. As such, the project promises results which are of interest not only to specialists in the humanities, but also to policy makers and the general public, since our present-day perception of migration and the migrant individual can only be fully understood – and challenged – through an assessment of its historical genesis.

The project is funded by the Austrian Academy of Sciences' Innovation Fund “Research, Science and Society”.

Project Leader: Walter Pohl

Project Investigators: Stefan Donecker, Katharina Winckler