« Emotion and Health, 1200-1700 » : un compte rendu par A. Arcangeli

Emotion and Health, 1200-1700 (Queen Mary, University of London, 26 June 2010)

Alessandro Arcangeli (Verona-Wolfson College, Cambridge)

As its web site recites, the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London, the first research centre in the UK to be dedicated to this field, was launched in November 2008 with the key objective of providing “a focus for interactions between social and cultural historians of the emotions on the one hand, and historians of science and medicine on the other.” A sample of the activities it plans includes themes such as theoretical categories, the idea of expression, madness, well-being, difference, religion and law. It also runs a History of Emotions email list. The Centre is directed by Thomas Dixon; in its steering committee are also Fay Bound Alberti, Rhodri Hayward, Colin Jones (History) and Elena Carrera (Hispanic Studies). It has several other QM members and a few affiliated research scholars from other institutions: Joanna Bourke (Birkbeck), Barbara Rosenwein (Loyola) and Louis C. Charland (Western Ontario). Over the past two years the Centre has organized several research seminars. On 26 June 2010 it held its first one-day conference – and it certainly was a positive test.

The symposium was organized by Elena Carrera, with the financial support of the Wellcome Trust, and its topic was “Emotion and Health, 1200-1700”. After a welcome by the director and a short introduction by the organizer, the intensive day saw the presentation of eight research papers by a combination of established and younger scholars.

Nicholas Lombardo (an American Dominican theologian, visiting at Cambridge during the current academic year) opened with a discussion of emotions and psychological health in Aquinas. He briefly introduced the historical background of thirteenth-century Parisian theology, and insisted on Aquinas’ generally positive evaluation of the role of passions. The elements of negative judgement one can find in the Prima secundae would appear to be concessions to the previous Christian tradition, in a world more accustomed to accept continuity rather than change. Sadness (dolor-tristitia) was the object of a final in-depth analysis, as a case study. William MacLehose (History of Medicine, UCL) presented the fascinating migrations, between folklore and twelfth-thirteenth century learned medicine, of what could be described as a pathological condition affecting sleep: incubus, namely, the feeling of being crushed, suffocated or strangled by a demon while asleep. In the tales and their discussion, fear and the power of imagination play a significant role, sometimes with the passion identified as a cause producing those symptoms, other times – when a more materialistic etiology in humoral terms is predominant – as consequence of a disorder.

Michael R. Solomon (Hispanic Studies, University of Pennsylvania) examined the vernacular tradition of writing on hygiene (for a lay audience) in medieval and early modern Spain, to ascertain the predominant assessment of love and sexual intercourse. It appears that, throughout the period and that particular literary genre, the two issues were hardly connected: while coitus was discussed within a (predominantly male) regimen of the semen (under the non-natural “retention vs excretion”), amor was a subject of health concern mainly if/as a passion perturbing an individual’s humoral balance, therefore in most cases with pathological implications. In order to discuss medicine, psychology and the melancholic subject in the Renaissance, Angus Gowland (History, UCL), a specialist of Robert Burton, introduced the audience to the rich traditions that influenced Western notions of the self (Platonic, Aristotelian, Christian), and the complex position of the individual in the context of Galenic medicine: while humoral doctrine, on one hand, suggested that a particular complexion was unique to a person and allowed to understand what mattered to his/her particular health, on the other hand medicine had to generalize in order to understand illnesses, their causes and appropriate treatment (Aritotelianly, science is concerned with species, not individuals). In theory, humoral doctrine allowed the four main complexions to be conceivable as balanced; in practice, the melancholic condition was predominantly regarded as a depravatio, with different suggestions for the main part of the body and function considered affected (the brain; alternatively, the heart), according to varying anthropological and physiological tenets.

In the afternoon, Erin Sullivan (PhD History of Medicine, UCL, where she has been the receiver of a Roy Porter Memorial studentship) summarized her doctoral research on sadness in early modern English medicine and culture. In a variety of sources, including works of moral philosophy, she examined the complex set of relationships between body and soul that were called upon to explain and confront sorrow and grief – the way in which this most pernicious of all passions, the one which most often was believed to be able to kill you, circulated and infected individuals. Perhaps slightly stretching a relevance to the general topic, Iris Montero (PhD History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge) presented intriguing connections between symbolic meanings of hummingbirds in pre-Columbian Mexico and indications of the medical use of their ashes as a cure for epilepsy.

Vivienne Lo (History of Medicine, UCL – with the assistance of Penelope Barrett) took the audience to the opposite end of the world and further back in time, since her exposition on spirits and emotions in China, while leaving room for later developments, had its core in the ancient and early medieval period, as the founding one for that medical tradition. While the audience has certainly appreciated an introduction to notions Western scholar are rarely exposed to – from qi (originally, the philosophical notion of an external force, subsequently internalized in medical terms as a flowing substance with major impact on health), to xie (pernicious) qi – a number of apparent similarities with the Hippocratic tradition have appeared remarkable. Among them, the identification of the main emotions (anger, joy, worry, fear, fright, sorrow); but also the idea that, in a circular pattern, each of them was meant to be useful as a means to counteract the unwanted effects of an excessive presence of one of the others. On the front of historical change, close to the chronology more directly contemporary to the European material analyzed by most other speakers, the Ming period saw the evolution towards a nationalistic account of who is gifted with the right qi, with the Chinese body valued as balanced, the non-Chinese as corrupted by nature. In the wake of her studies of music and spirit in early modern thought, Penelope Gouk (History, University of Manchester) compared the works of Marsilio Ficino, Francis Bacon and the English physician Richard Brocklesby (1722-97) and registered significant continuity in their conception of the effects of music, a similarity grounded on the survival, throughout the early modern period, of Platonically inspired notions of the structure of both the macro- and microcosm, as well as of the relations operating between them.

The concluding round table was led by Elena Carrera on the basis of some of the several threads that allowed to cross the topics and source material explored by several presentations: from music, to the socio-political contexts and implications of medical theories and practice, to the range of solutions by which emotions have been recognized a specific status within a variety of anthropological and physiological doctrines.

The symposium was well attended by a diverse and competent public, and both the participants and the audience appreciated a number of advantages offered by its formula. Among them, the comparatively wide chronology (as well as geography) should probably be mentioned, as it allowed specialists of given (and often narrower) periods, cultures or topics to fruitfully register elements of continuity and change emerging from sources and studies they may not habitually frequent. A publication of the proceedings is planned and would surely be welcome.


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