Historians make emotional journeys into the past

Researchers are finding powerful ways of resurrecting the elusive emotions of previous eras

December 24, 2015
The Mater Dolorosa, Albert Bouts
Source: Corbis
Crocodile tears? Are emotions best seen as spontaneous outpourings or in more Machiavellian terms?

Historians have long been interested in studying the emotions. One of the pioneering works, Johan Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages, was published in 1919 and has been described as “evok[ing] a late medieval world of vivid and extreme emotional feelings – of joy and rage; grief and tenderness – all expressed with childlike directness and simplicity”.

The description comes from Thomas Dixon, director of the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL). This was set up in 2008 as the first specialist UK centre and is designed not only to further scholarship but also to “contribute both to policy debates and to popular understandings of all aspects of the history of emotions”.

A blog report at the end of last year listing highlights of work in the area by the centre’s scholars and others gives a good sense of how things have panned out.

Dr Dixon had himself written and presented a 15-part series for BBC Radio 4 on Five Hundred Years of Friendship. (He has followed it up this year with the book Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears.)

Wellcome Trust medical humanities research fellow Chris Millard was seconded to the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology to produce a briefing on “parity of esteem” between mental and physical health.

A guest blog post by Joanna Kempner, associate professor of sociology at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, explored the gender politics of migraine. We might think that we have moved beyond the image of the migraine sufferer “encoded in dozens of misogynist jokes, each of which implies that women with migraine are either lying to avoid sex or are so weak that they succumb when faced with the prospect of working”. Yet even now that “a neurobiological paradigm” has been generally adopted, we still find that “the language of emotions and patient-blaming remains. And perhaps more importantly, the language of femininity remains as well.”

Meanwhile, other guest posts considered topics such as “a lovelorn Georgian aristocrat” (for Valentine’s Day) and “the grave of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis as site of memory and mourning”.

A ‘radical’ feeling

So the very existence of the centre at Queen Mary and similar institutions in other countries points to the range and vibrancy of research in this field. But it is also important to make clear what is being claimed for it.

Pioneers such as Huizinga tended to imply that some groups (usually modern white European men) are properly rational and civilised, whereas others have emotional lives of “childlike directness and simplicity”. Similar stereotypes have, of course, often been applied to women and “primitive” peoples.

Today’s scholars very explicitly reject all this. In a communal blog titled “What is the history of emotions?”, Rhodri Hayward, senior lecturer in the history of medicine at Queen Mary, calls the subject “a radical discipline”, which “teaches us that our feelings are not determined by deep psychology or biology but are instead historical constructions born out of an accident of our language, relationships and material circumstances…When we write the history of the emotions, we make available novel descriptions and associations that in turn create new ways of understanding and experiencing our inner lives.”

Not everybody is convinced that a historical approach can prove so liberating.

Francis O’Gorman, professor of Victorian literature at the University of Leeds, recently published Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History, a book that draws on his own experience as a fairly mild kind of worrier but also traces some of the history of the feeling.

Much of today’s worrying, he believes, has been “created by advanced capitalism, the sheer busyness and complexity of the modern world, where we try to do things more and more quickly, and are subject to more and more structures of evaluation”. Yet such a historical analysis hardly helps at a personal level because “we can’t get out of history and abolish advanced capitalism”.

“Searching for an emotional trail is challenging,” notes Joanna Lewis, assistant professor in the department of international history at the London School of Economics, particularly in the contexts she is exploring in her monograph Empires of Sentiment, given that imperialists’ “attempts to enforce boundaries and…superiority based on crude racism included the keeping-up of a non-emotional appearance: don’t show feeling; don’t betray emotions; crying is for girls and Africans; stiff upper lips at all times, chaps, especially in front of the servants, etc!” Yet because “the experience of empire was full of loss, disappointment, death, loneliness, cruelty and guilt”, this is also a richly rewarding field for a historian.

Wired or wily?

But are emotions best seen as spontaneous outpourings or in much more Machiavellian terms, as tools we use to manipulate others? How can we decide whether people, and particularly politicians, are genuine or opportunistic when they shed a tear or leap for joy? Can science provide insight into human emotions that historians ought to take into account?

Such questions have been much debated in books such as The History of Emotions: An Introduction by Jan Plamper, professor of history at Goldsmiths, University of London. On the last point, for example, he once wrote that the neuroscientific study of emotions was “yet to produce sufficiently robust knowledge for [historians] to exploit”.

Tiffany Watt Smith takes a similar line. Now lecturer in English and drama at Queen Mary, she spent most of her twenties as a theatre director, which gave her an interest in “emotional gestures and displays”. She is struck by the prevalence of “biologically reductive explanations in evolutionary psychology and neuroscience…Darwin is probably right that fear and disgust can be traced back to our animal ancestors. But that is not the entire story – we all know that emotions are not just physiological reactions.”

In The Book of Human Emotions: An Encyclopaedia of Feeling from Anger to Wanderlust, therefore, Dr Watt Smith was keen to “make a clear gesture about the abundance of emotions in our lives – not just a ‘basic’ five or seven [proposed by some psychologists]…I think it’s important to keep complexity at the forefront when we think about feelings.”

Earlier research on the history of emotions, suggests Sarah Crook, often focused on “subjective experience”, but some people have now moved on to topics such as “the emotional history of politics or political history of the emotions”.

In the PhD she is completing at Queen Mary, she is looking at how anxieties about postnatal depression (and other forms of distress in early motherhood) proved important in post-war Britain to second wave feminism, the campaign to legalise abortion and, later, the move towards “care in the community”. Although many other factors obviously came into play, Ms Crook hopes to “add colour and emotional depth to our understanding of these historical developments”.

To that extent, emotional history can work alongside political, social, intellectual and gender history in helping us to unravel some of the mysteries of the past.


You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Related articles

Related universities


Print headline: An emotional journey into the past

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

Home secretary says government will support 'best' universities

Man handing microphone to audience member

Academic attainment of disadvantaged students can be improved if they can decide how they are assessed, study claims

Woman drinking tea from saucer

Plugging a multibillion-pound deficit exacerbated by June’s poll result may require ‘drastic measures’, analysts have warned

Italy's gold medallist

New measures to ensure universities are ‘not penalised’ for taking poorer students also outlined for next stage of TEF

Classroom, school

Higher education institutions can and should do more to influence education at a secondary school level, says Edward Peck