Mobile Emotions

Dr Katie Barclay won the Royal Historical Society’s 2018 David Berry Prize for her essay on love and friendship amongst lower order men in eighteenth-century Scotland. Here she reflects on the larger project that the essay emerged from and its insights for contemporary academic emotional economies.

barclay.jpgThis week, as well as writing this blogpost for the RHS, I am working on a book chapter on the emotional economies of migrant workers – the vagrants, chapbook wo/men, and door to door salespeople that were a feature of the early modern European landscape. Of interest to me is how an economy and ‘lifestyle’ that relied on the hospitality and charity of the wider community shaped the personal lives and relationships of this key group, and the ways that such mobility informed a particular understanding of the early modern self. It is a history that reflects on the capacity of individuals to find a ‘place’ on their journeys through time and space, but also of the emotional and practical labour involved in such placements. My work particularly focuses on Scotland, my homeland, but a home left behind in my own itinerant travels as a worker in the modern academic landscape.

The inspiration for this post was a request from the RHS blog editors to reflect on the research challenges of being a Scottish historian, currently based in Australia, and with a career that has required significant mobility as I – like much of the modern academy – has sought to find an institutional home. I suspect this may have been a request to reflect on the importance of a decent camera to enabling research to move swiftly on short trips back to archives located thousands of miles from your residence (very important – an iPhone won’t cut it), but, as a historian of emotion and mobility, I interpreted it as a moment to reflect on the themes that drive my research – of emotion, mobility, place, community.

I submitted my PhD in 2007, graduated in 2008. I was offered a permanent – continuing as Australian’s style it – contract in 2017, after ten years of post-qualification scholarly life. In many ways, it has been a remarkable career – ten years of full-time, well paid, research ‘only’ work, before finally moving into a standard teaching/research contract. Most of it has been supported by research fellowships that not only paid my wages but provided funds to enable travel between the place where I worked and that which held the source material for my research. I am very privileged. Yet, as I have noted elsewhere, even for those of us who find ourselves at the ‘top’ of the ladder, a decade of insecure work – work that relies on a process of constant achievement of the next paper, the next book, the next grant – has its own particular tolls on mental and bodily health. As part of a broader system of ‘precarity’ – economic insecurity – living on research fellowships acts as a slow wearing of the self, an erosion of the ability to find comfort and particularly to find place.

The converse of this, of course, is that humans are pretty good at finding place. Histories of mobility and migration have highlighted the ways that movement can be destabilising and that the labour involved in placing roots, finding familiarity, producing ‘home’ is real and significant. But it also highlights the success of migrant communities, their ability to adapt to new landscapes, environments and economies, to make connections with other migrants and local communities, not least ties of love and family. Mobile migrant workers are perhaps particularly interesting in this respect as a group who often tramp the same routes, stay with the same people, build relationships and friendships built on an openness to newcomers but bounded by strict rules of hospitality that encourage onward movement. Thus, even for the very mobile, some sort of ‘place’ was often enabled within these communities, if not for everyone.

For the modern academic – and in many other industries too – mobility is hailed as a social and economic good. The conservative impulses that tighten borders, limit visas, and restrict movement are regarded unfavourably, for lacking business sense as well as their racism. New scholars are not only warned that mobility will likely be vital if they wish to remain with the academy but are sold it as a research good – it will broaden their experiences, produce new research networks, deepen knowledge and understanding. (That the ability to move is a privilege that those bound to place and people cannot achieve is often ignored). And the benefits of moving are all true. One of the wonderful things about having worked in Scotland, England, Ireland, Australia and Denmark and experienced seven institutions is the relationships I have built, the insight I have gained into academic practices and cultures, and benefits these have brought to my research findings.

Yet, one of the challenges of mobility is also that building relationships takes significant labour and it produces real emotional connections – we might call them friendships – that are severed, if not entirely, with every move. Finding a place in a new institution also involves by necessity a period of unsettling and settling – those moments of trying to find your new routine, learn new faces, figure out your role in a new set of group dynamics, and ultimately build the bonds that enable communities to function. It is a process that is underpinned by an experience of being out of place and its attendant anxieties and over-thinking, a mental experience that can be likened to the muscle pains of trying a new set of exercises at the gym. Over time, you even learn to identify that experience – to know that this process of settling is what is involved in finding ‘place’ – but it doesn’t seem to make it any easier.

Like any bodily labour, it also has larger impacts on the self. With every move, the labour of finding place seems harder, the desire to do it again reduces. The longer you stay in one place the more comfortable you become and the more the idea of leaving impacts on your general wellbeing, on the sense of precarity produced by insecure labour. I am sure some may say that such a comfort produces complacency. And maybe it does. But bodies need time to rest and recover. They also need the security that being in ‘place’ and having community enables – a community that is generally not formed by long cultural beliefs about family obligation to its members – but through the emotional labour we do with those around us when we arrive. Thus mobility becomes a remarkable privilege, not accessible to all and with real benefits and pleasures, but also a form of work that contributes to the challenges of negotiating the precarious economy.

For highly mobile workforces, and many of the institutions I have been part of contain as many or more migrants as locals, the mobility of the academy also has implications for institutional cultures. The people you meet at work are not just colleagues but become your family, your support network, your safety net. If we currently complain that the expectations of the current academy are unsustainable for a life beyond it, mobility further dislocates you from the world outside – making bonds beyond are not impossible but the labour far harder, requiring more effort. At its best, it is a system where you find family at work, but at its worst, it reinforces the abuses of the dysfunctional home. Such emotional bonds complicate lines of power, heighten disagreements between colleagues, and lead to romantic connections in places where the ethically-minded might suggest they should not be. This too is what it means to find ‘place’ in the academy.

I return then to my eighteenth-century mobile workers and I wonder whether the rules of hospitality and charity that enabled such movement were any less fraught, less challenging, than they are today. I reflect on the ways that their emotional economies might have also produced precarious selves, exhausted not just by the journey but the emotional labour that it required en route. Yet, as I reflect on the relationships I have made in the institutions I call home, I also remember the rewards of such expansive networks, of ties and connections that cross borders, and of the charity and hospitality that are as vital to the functioning of university cultures, as the research.

Dr Katie Barclay is a Senior Lecturer in the ARC Centre for the History of Emotions and Department of History, University of Adelaide. You can follow her on Twitter @KatieEBarclay.


Top image: from R. R. McIan, Gaelic Gatherings; or The Highlanders at Home (1848).

Gladstone Rings a Bell

Dr Matthew Champion reflects on time and bells after hearing that he had won this year’s Gladstone Prize for his recent first book.


When I first heard that my book, The Fullness of Time: Temporalities of the Fifteenth-Century Low Countries, had won the Royal Historical Society’s Gladstone Prize, the first thing that came to mind was Gladstone St, Moonee Ponds, a street tucked behind the main shopping drag of my home suburb in Melbourne. I know I should have been thinking about the PM, but on actually receiving the prize, my mind kept turning even more stubbornly to this street, doubtless named after the Grand Old Man, but a million miles away from London.

Gladstone St isn’t really a beautiful place – if it ever was, that was destroyed when a massive new branch of the Australian Tax Office was built there in the 1990s (Gladstone PM might have been interested in that). From my family home a few blocks away, the new building changed the horizon to the west – you didn’t notice it much except at certain times – its hulk hunched over the sun in the west.

Buildings_in_Moonee_Ponds.JPGAustralian Taxation Office (1991). 6–20 Gladstone St, Moonee Ponds

At our house, every Sunday morning, the sound of the bells of the Greek Orthodox Church of St Dimitrios, opposite the Tax Office on Gladstone St, would reach us as we played in the garden. I’d take a rake, or old cricket bat, and hit the pole of the washing line to copy the changing patterns. It probably annoyed the hell out of our neighbours. When I go back to visit my parents, sometimes I hear those bells, and am taken to the feeling of a bright Sunday morning in a crisp Melbourne March.

I’m pretty sure that I didn’t end up writing a section of my book on the marking of time through bell-ringing in the fifteenth century as a direct result of hitting a washing line as a six-year-old. But there are few direct results of anything if we pay attention to time: our experiences loop back over each other; at particular times, moments from the past seem closer or more distant. Perhaps without those Gladstone St bells, I wouldn’t have been as interested in sounds when it came to writing my PhD at Queen Mary in London. Certainly, much of The Fullness of Time could be read as me whacking the rusty washing-line of the sources with a dented old cricket bat in an attempt to summon into being the times and sounds of the past.

Take, for example, the bells of the Premonstratensian Abbey of Park. This is a large monastery just outside the university city of Louvain, modern Belgium. It is the place where Erasmus would ‘discover’ a copy of Lorenzo Valla’s Annotationes on the New Testament, with radical results for the history of scholarship. There, in 1479, the reform-minded Abbot, Thierry van Thulden, installed a new clock. We know the clock played a melody – the Marian chant Inviolata et casta es Maria (You are inviolate and chaste, Mary). The melody can be found in Premonstratensian liturgical manuscripts from the region, and is particularly fit for ringing on bells, with repeated notes and a small range.

These bells were the perfect emblem of the kinds of time I was repeatedly finding in sources from across the region. They used the most up-to-date technology, often seen by earlier scholars as introducing a rupture in the fabric of sacred time, to sacralize time more precisely – to deploy precise measurement of time to tie time more precisely to eternity. By marking each hour with a chant which made present the past moment of Christ’s incarnation in Mary’s womb, the present moment of the bells’ sounds (and the evocation of the prayer-chant), and the future protection of the Virgin Mary over the monastery, time was filled out with sacred resonance. This was one of the kinds of fullnesses that I sought to think about in my book.

The other kind of fullness was a kind of historical practice which did not shut down conversations across different media, different disciplines, and different fields of historical analyses: a full history. Understanding the clock at Park, for example, requires the history of an object, an institution, of rituals and liturgy, of individuals like the Abbot, and of a melody. The melody ended up being connected to the political history of the Dukes of Burgundy and their particular deployment of Marian piety to forge their new territorial unit – the Burgundian Low Countries, a mishmash of territories with competing social and political structures, where symbol and ritual played a central role in communication between lords, cities and subjects.

The clock’s history is also a history of images and built environments. Its bells were installed in a new tower in the monastery church. A couple images of the old monastery survive in the works of seventeenth-century antiquarians.

M Champion Abbey of Park.JPGThe Abbey of Park, from J.B. Gramaye, ‘Antiquitates illustratissimi ducatus Brabantiae’ (Brussels, 1610). Reproduced by permission of the Master and Fellows of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

The monastery itself, which you see in this image, was largely rebuilt or destroyed in later centuries, though its setting beside its medieval fishponds is a reminder of the ways in which the marking of time through feast and fast radically reshaped Europe’s environments.

CHAMPION RHS Image 3.JPGThe Premonstratensian Abbey of Park. Photographed by author (2013)

The tower which is the most likely candidate for the bells is the little one beside the m of Dominorum in the 1610 image. Joanne Anderson at the Warburg kindly pointed out to me it is also a visual structure similar to the kinds of elaborate architectural ‘houses’ for the Eucharist which were being installed in churches across the Low Countries in the period. So here, again, we might see a resonant body of sources pointing towards the co-habitation of the eternal in the precisely temporal.

This is a long way from Gladstone St – but the possibilities of this kind of history help me understand it in new ways: I don’t have to see St Dimitrios’ church as a dying remnant of a kind of sacred time antithetical to the measurement of the modern secular hours. Instead, the time of that little church might be seen as part of a world full of varieties of sacred and secular time: a time for prayer, a time for play; a season for tax returns, a season for cricket, and a season for hanging clothes on the line outside (less of that in Britain, but even that climatic distinction is, of course, subject to change). And I can see a history of the architectures of time, and architecture in time, as another complement to a fuller transdisciplinary practice of history.


Dr Matthew Champion is Lecturer in Medieval History at Birkbeck, University of London.


Top Image: Dr Matthew Champion with RHS President Prof. Margot Finn.