The Great Polish Emigration

by MAEVE DEVITT TREMBLAY | University of Cambridge, PhD, History
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This PhDCast features Maeve Devitt Tremblay (History, University of Cambridge). Her work deals with migration from nineteenth-century Poland to France and the Polish stereotypes that resulted from this. Maeve uses an interesting array of primary source material from plays and cookbooks to poetry and song to analyze French attitude toward Polish migrants. In November, Maeve presented her work to the Cambridge Migration Society Graduate Research Seminar Series.


In Stereotype, Appropriation, and Migration: French Responses to the Great Polish Emigration in the Nineteenth Century, I spoke about how a migration can affect cultural representations of foreigners in the place receiving new migrants. Specifically, I investigated French responses to the migration of thousands of cultural and political elite from the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to Western Europe, particularly Paris from 1831 to 1870.

Considering the foundations of Polish-French relations, I emphasise that a ‘special’ relationship founded on historical ties meant that France and Poland regarded each other as ‘friends’. By the nineteenth century, Poland was partitioned, and French media took an interest in promoting Polish independence by reporting both on political developments in partitioned Poland and the reaction of the French government to these events. By tracking the changes in the portrayal of Poland in popular French media (pre-migration, migration, and post-migration), my research suggests that an evolution of French stereotypes concerning Poland and Polishness is revealed. I consider various types of primary sources to illustrate this argument including vaudevilles and melodramas, costume books, caricatures, cookbooks, songs and poetry. Examples include lithographs portraying weak Polish migrants arriving in France and caricatures criticising the French government for its lack of support regarding the Polish cause for independence. Moreover, some melodramas and vaudevilles portrayed Polish migrants arriving in France ‘weak’, requiring aid and praising France, but others depicted suffering Polish soldiers critical of France for its lack of aid– thus demonstrating a range in portrayals of both France and Poland.

My research suggests that although French fascination with Poland was prolific throughout the nineteenth century, it evolved greatly. Before the migration, stereotypes were imaginary, not focusing on realistic details. During and after the migration, France continued to appropriate the idea of Poland within French culture, but a more realistic and multi-layered portrait emerged, co-authored by Polish migrants alongside the French. Polish migrants became active contributors to French culture, writing plays, poems, and creating art that depicted Poland, thus directing their own identity on the stages and pages of French society. Thus, as more migrants arrived in France, depictions of Polish people and Polish politics became more realistic. Along with this increase in accuracy, however, came a moderate decrease in depictions. The Great Emigration demystified Poland and Polish people. No longer an imaginary concept to be sculpted into various French directed visions, Polish migrants became a reality in the lives of French people and this process of demystification resulted in fewer representations.

I am still tackling some questions throughout my research process: Can positive cultural stereotypes exist? Can appropriations of a national group truly affect people’s understanding of foreigners? When stereotypes evolve, do people’s opinions also evolve?


Want to continue the discussion?

If you have any recommendations regarding theoretical and methodological texts on cultural appropriation and its effect on migration, contact Maeve.

Cover image by Sebastian Meyer

Maeve Devitt Tremblay is in the third year of her PhD in History at Cambridge. Her research looks at representations of Poland and ‘Polishness’ in nineteenth-century French culture. Her MPhil, also completed at Cambridge, focused on Polish nobility on the Grand Tour. She was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, where she studied History.

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