The Emotional Turn in the Study of History

Source : Journal of Interdisciplinary History

Emotional Rescue: The Emotional Turn in the Study of History

The History of Emotions. By Rob Boddice (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2018) 248 pp. $120.00 cloth $31.95 paper

Medieval Sensibilities: A History of Emotions in the Middle Ages. By Damien Boquet and Piroska Nagy (trans. Robert Shaw) (Medford, Mass., Polity Press, 2018; orig. pub. in French as Sensible Moyen Âge: Une histoire des émotions dans l’Occident medieval [Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 2015]) 350 pp. $69.95 cloth $28.95 paper


For the last twenty years, an “emotional turn” in the study of history has been gathering momentum, building on other disciplines. Fifty years ago, neuroscientists started to trace brain activity that linked reason and emotion. Psychologists—early pioneers in the study of emotions—had already begun investigating the power and universality of emotional drivers. Social scientists took notice first, and historians have followed. The upshot to this trajectory is that the study of emotions in history has become fundamentally interdisciplinary; as a result, historians have become the new pathbreakers.

As the Rolling Stones sang in the title song of their 1980 album “Emotional Rescue,” “I’ll be your savior, steadfast and true/I’ll come to your emotional rescue.”1 This is not to suggest that the authors of the books under review bear any resemblance to Mick Jagger or Keith Richards. However, both books ought to enter the hall of fame of historical writing, for different reasons. They offer rich and exciting new scholarship about the history of emotions that will help a generation better research this complex subject.

“Emotions and feelings are guests who were invited late to the banquet of history.”2 It is a paradox that human feeling in all its guises, arguably the driver of human behavior whether activated or repressed, has been one of the most elusive subjects in historical research.3 For as long as the study of history was the preserve of elite men, the history of the emotions—like social and cultural history, the study of women, or the study of non-white people—had to wait in line. Emotions were considered suspect, irrational, something that stood in the way of proper scientific-based historical enquiry, not hard-fact based, even embarrassing. Intellectual history might concede that rhetorical devices could include emotional levers, but generally emotion was for the down-trodden masses and not worth serious study. Because rulers, the upper-classes, and decision makers kept their emotions in check, or so was the belief, the understanding of important changes and events did not require the emotions; in fact, the need for so called “objectivity” rendered emotion a dangerous subject of inquiry.

In fairness, there was a long tail to the distrust of feelings hardwired into Western thinking from the earliest philosophizing to the master narrative of the civilizing mission. Reason and emotion were in opposition; taming the latter was the mark of progress. It took a long time to square the circle contained in the judgment of Antoine de Rivarol, French journalist, commentator, epigrammatist, and aristocratic defender of the Ancien Régime: “Reason is the historian, but passions are the actors.”

During the last twenty years, however, an “emotional turn” in the study of history has been unfolding. It has been a slow burn, and it took a significant amount of prodding from outside the subject. Neuroscientists started arguing fifty years ago that brain activity showed that reason and emotion were linked. Meanwhile, psychology revealed the power and universalism of emotional drivers; psychologists were early pioneers in the field of the study of emotions.4 Then the social sciences started to take notice. Non-historians responded first, but eventually so did historians. A positive aspect to these developments is that the study of the emotions remains the most interdisciplinary of subjects, as journals such as the Emotion Review attest.5

Consequently, mainstream, orthodox histories and events have recently been getting an emotional makeover.6 Imperial and global histories are the most familiar ones, at least to this reviewer, but urban history and gender studies also show the influence of that new orientation.7 Political movements, modern populism, and electoral outcomes are now enlivened with the awareness of emotion.8 Newspapers, media, and print offer rich sources.9 In 2017, a journal entitled Emotions: History, Culture, Society (ehcs) was launched to focus solely on emotions in history.10

All of those who study emotion have benefited from the success of interdisciplinary collaboration, which has toned down the voices of the skeptics and taken the history of emotions into its more recent phase of a “rocket-ship taking off” (Boddice, 2, fn. 3).11 A number of highly respected academic institutions have been steadfastly generating in-depth research throughout the world—Queen Mary, University of London; Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin; a pan-Australian research group; the Spanish Centro de Ciencias Humanas y Sociales del CSIC, based in Madrid; and the collaborative project between the Université de Aix-Marseille and the Université du Québec à Montréal about emotions in the modern age (more below). Many of us were inspired by books outside our narrow fields, such as Solomon’s philosophical work, In Defence of Sentimentality and Dixon’s history of a blubbing Britannia.12 Furthermore, an increasing number of universities in Europe and North America are offering courses in the history of emotions or including attention to emotion within the “bread and butter” curriculum.

Yet, as the introduction of the two books under review testifies, seasoned historians of emotion still feel that they have to make their case, which is astonishing considering all the achievements in the field.13 One explanation is that some scholars consider emotions to be naturally, and better-, studied as part of a whole, without being dissected in isolation. Like fascia in the body, they are ever-present but part of a moving picture, the importance of which should not be exaggerated. Others remain as squeamish about the study of emotion as they do about human beings who are emotional, distrusting human practices associated with the manipulation of emotions through social media, referendums, popular music, and so on. Historians on the right and opponents of populist leaders and politics evince a particular revulsion for what Ferguson has called the tyranny of today’s “emocracy” (a term coined by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ferguson’s wife).14

Finally, the practical challenges of researching emotions can be daunting. The “trail of the lonesome pine,” to use a howlingly bad pun, is by no means an easy route. It remains difficult to pin down people’s exact feelings at a particular time and their exact motivations for a particular decision. Emotions are volatile, fleeting, and changeable. Words in historical records that look like signifiers of emotion may not have had the same meaning when they were written; a reaction interpreted as sign of feeling may have been something altogether different. What was real? What was affectation? Can we even answer such questions about ourselves routinely?

These two books, however, when taken together, mark the end of the defense of emotional history. One might say that the study of the emotions is now in its adult phase, all grown up. Boddice’s fantastic introduction to the study of the history of emotions is as detailed, wide-ranging, and useful as any brief introduction can possibly be. His background on the subject is impeccable. Boddice has been thinking, talking, and researching about emotions for many years in Berlin while also conversing with the leading figures at all the major centers involved in the study of emotion. Indeed, Rhodri Haward, a Welsh wizard of emotions, at Queen Mary, University of London, encouraged Boddice to write his book.

Thank goodness that he did and that Boddice agreed. Now an introductory text exists that is so readable and well written that nonspecialists will find it hugely accessible, and seasoned historians will be able to “take the temperature of the field as a whole as it now stands,” avoiding the “unnecessary labour” of plodding through a vast field of “extensive bibliographical research” (1–7). Amen to that.

Boddice brandishes what he calls a radical perspective on emotions in history: They change over time; they effect outcomes; and they occupy the center of a “biocultural” view of human beings, as well as the center of the history of morality. To promote his way of thinking, Boddice smartly chooses the themes that he covers (and the order in which he covers them). Chapter 1 summarizes how the history of emotions began and progressed within the field of history. Chapter 2 addresses method, focusing on language to argue against a simplified master category of emotion and suggesting several useful alternatives. Chapter 3 continues with the nuts and bolts of theory and method, but it is no stodgy pudding after a dull main course. Boddice breezily addresses the contributions of key thinkers, aptly preparing for the remaining more practical or action-based topics. The following chapters look at power, politics, and violence; the history of human beings and personal emoting; the history of the senses, brain function, and emotions (his passion); the relationship between public spaces, objects, and globalization with regard to emotions; and the links between emotion and morality.

Boddice’s clear message is that the study of emotions requires collaboration across disciplines, especially history, anthropology, psychology, and neuroscience. Whereas the sciences once put the brakes on the study of the emotions, he is insistent about the universality of emotions and the prospects of neurohistory. He urges all historians of emotion to become literate in the neurosciences. His enthusiasm is infectious; the future study of past emotions never seemed more exciting.

However, Medieval Sensibilities reveals the present state of the history of emotions to be healthy as well. The starting point for Boquet and Nagy’s magisterial milestone is the tension between historical inquiry and neuroscience, but they reach a verdict different from that of Boddice: “Neither universal nor timeless, emotions are whatever the men and women of each era, of each society, of each group make of them. How do they conceive of the nebula of affections and the mysteries of feeling, and what role do they accord to them? As historians tackle these issues, they must by necessity, cast their nets wide. If the focus needs to tighten, the frameworks should not be those of psychology or neuroscience, but the outlook of medieval men and women” (6).

This premise of Boquet and Nagy’s intense, beautifully crafted scholarship covering 1,000 years is difficult to dispute. They have written a history of a term that was not even in use during the Middle Ages! The word emotion first appeared in French, during the fifteenth century, in relation to mass uprisings and peasant revolts. Therefore, as the authors explain, their actual starting point was the concept of the sensible (the French term rather than the English derivative) developed by Lucien Febvre and the Annalist school of history. On this view, sensibility is multifaced, referring to feelings, passions, impulses, and affects; atmospheres, moods, and lasting dispositions; and pleasure, pains, joys, and sorrows. The field of medieval emotions is rich and inviting, with a number of projects underway revising the received wisdom.15

Boquet and Nagy, however, building on work by predominately French authors, including their own research and publications—notably, Emotions au Moyen Age (Paris, 2009)—take the field to another level. Their extraordinary fruitful intellectual partnership has produced an exquisite history, which, even for historians who are neither medievalists nor historians of emotion is a valuable resource. The foreword by Barabara H. Rosenwein (one of Boddice’s heroines in the field), the sophisticated translation by Robert Shaw, the colored illustrations, and the extensive references all testify to the triumphant evolution of diligent scholarship that this partnership has created.

In addition to proving, once and for all, the essential importance of emotions in history and in the Middle Ages, the authors make three major arguments. First, in terms of methodology, they show, through meticulous research, the value and rationale of “affectivity” when applied to the study of emotions: “We try to avoid any distinction between felt emotion and expressed emotion, any frontier between the authentic and the uncertain” (Bouquet and Nagy, 7). They explicitly take their cue from Mauss, who believed that “the ritualization of any emotion and its expression in a pre-defined scenario do not necessarily mean that it is not sincerely felt” (Bouquet and Nagy, 7).16 Secondly, they show that a broad social and cultural history is one of the best kinds of “anthropological history: a history of humankind, of the human being as a whole.” Thirdly, by applying these methodologies, largely through a focus on the monastic laboratories of the patristic era, they thoroughly overturn the tired linear narrative of the civilizing process, which has haunted the study of the Middle Ages in Europe. According to this older scholarship, this era was rife with childish and irrational feelings, uncontrollable rages, temper, and stagnation, which was destined to continue until the modern period with its controlled, rational self-mastery of unruly emotions. Instead, Boquet and Nagy display evidence based on social, economic, and theological changes that suggests a more subtle and nuanced emotional history.

At the heart (literally) of the more sensitive interpretation that Boquet and Nagy champion was a Christian model of affectivity, which was set in motion by a changing theological view of emotions. God was rediscovered as a feeling entity, and Christ’s Passion was an elevated extension of this new perspective. Religious elites upheld a normative Christian view of affectivity that permeated the worlds of monasteries, clerics, hermitages, missionaries, and pilgrims, as well as secular life, gripping the medieval masses as well as the royal courts. In imitation of Christ’s model of love and sacrifice, the value placed on pain and suffering, especially physical torment and mental torture, all increased. Thus, this fundamentally new understanding of God and Christ’s nature shaped how people lived across all levels of European society, laying down key touchstones for the centuries to come.

Only reading the book can do justice to its content. Its nine chapters follow a natural chronology, but they are also helpful thematically. The first three chapters trace the development of a Christian theology of emotions, moving toward a close inspection of the cloister and monasticism and then the laity. Chapter 4 extends Nagy’s previous theological scholarship and sets the direction of the rest of the book. Changes in thinking within monasticism released the idea of people being able to communicate with God by expressing emotion, which could spread out and assume few forms. Chapter 5 treats the feelings of aristocrats in this regard, discussing same-sex love and delving into epic literary texts. Chapter 6 explores the emotive nature of man from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, using medical and scholastic texts, including those by John of La Rochelle, Master of the University of Paris, and Thomas Aquinas, his famous student. Chapter 7 surveys the important area of princely emotion and its politics. The two most elusive and fascinating aspects of this history are addressed in the last chapters—the mysticism of holy women, with its fervent piety, which often involved self-harm and other physical manifestations, and the everyday emotional lives of non-elites, including the performative display of laughter and shame.

Despite the richness and depth of the coverage, the authors will leave readers greedy for even more illustrations, stories about women, and encounters on the frontiers of non-European theology and religiosity. More information about St. Hildegard von Bingen—abbess, mystic, and composer—as well as about medieval music, early polyphony in particular, would certainly have been welcome.17 Music adds an important dimension to the history of emotions, even if it is unlikely to change the overall arguments about the primary drivers of change. We cannot feel past emotions easily, but we can experience them again as conveyed in sound, even though how we hear later might not be precisely how we heard originally, if only because of the context. Mark Williams, the conductor of the choir Index Cantorum, recently told the audience in Winchester Cathedral at a recital including one of the first “grand masses” of the fourteenth century, such music would have been the loudest sound heard at the time, which surely carries some emotional implications.



Music is just one example of the fecundity of cross-disciplinary collaboration when it comes to writing the history of the emotions. One barrier to this collaboration is copyright law, which makes the extensive use of lyrics prohibitive and demanding. Fairness dictates that access be made simpler and cheaper for academic research. Boddice, Bouquet, and Nagy would surely second that emotion (to quote Smoky Robinson). But even without a musical fanfare, these two books announce, loud and clear, that the history of the emotions plays all the right notes.

1  The Rolling Stones, “Emotional Rescue,” released June 1980, on Atlantic Records.

2  Nagy and Bouquet (trans. Greg Robinson), “Historical Emotions, Historians’ Emotion,” 15, available at, orig. pub. as “Emotions historiques, emotions historiennes,” Ecrire l’historie, 2 (2008), 15–26.

3  For a quirky illustration of how terms and feelings have been taken for granted and/or left out of analysis, see Ben Cohen, “S’chadenfreude Is in the Zeitgeist, but Is There an Opposite Term? Word Used for Taking Pain in Another’s Pleasure Is ‘Gluckschmerz,’ or Is It?” Wall Street Journal, 13 June 2015, available at

4  Emotion is one of several psychology journals published by the pioneering American Psychological Association. Launched in 2001, it went from a quarterly publication to a bi-monthly one in 2008.

5  Emotion Review (published in association with the International Society for Research on Emotion) can boast a gargantuan interdisciplinary reach, legitimately advertising itself as being “open to publishing work in anthropology, biology, computer science, economics, history, humanities, linguistics, neuroscience, philosophy, physiology, political science, psychiatry, psychology, sociology, and in other areas where emotion research is active.”

6  Bruno Cabanes, “Negotiating Intimacy in the Shadow of War (France, 1914–1920s): New Perspectives in the Cultural History of World War I,” French Politics, Culture & Society, XXXI (2013), 1–23; Karin Priem, “Seeing, Hearing, Reading, Writing, Speaking and Things: On Silences, Senses and Emotions during the ‘Zero Hour’ in Germany,” Paedagogica Historica, LII (2016), 286–299; Kathryn D. Temple, “Mixed Emotions: Love, Resentment and the Declaration of Independence,” Emotions: History, Culture and Society, II (2018), available at doi:

7  For global/imperial history, see Ayyaz Gul, Nyla Umar Mubarik, and Ghulam Mustafa, “Emotions, History, and History of Emotions in Punjab: A Historiographical Survey,” Journal of the Research Society of Pakistan, 54, no. 2 (2017), 53–65; Daniela Hacke and Paul Musselwhite (eds.), Empire of the Senses: Sensory Practices of Colonialism in Early America (Boston, 2017); for urban history, Joseph Ben Presetel, Emotional Cities: Debates on Urban Change in Berlin and Cairo, 1860–1910 (New York, 2017); for gender studies, Sigurdur Magnússon, “The Love Game as Expressed in Ego-Documents: A Culture of Emotions in Late Nineteenth Century Iceland,” Journal of Social History, L (2016), 102–119.

8  See, for example, Saeid Golkar, “Manipulated Society: Paralysing the Masses in Post-Revolutionary Iran,” International Journal of Politics, Culture & Society, 29, no. 2 (2016) 135–155.

9  See, for example, Monika Freier, “Cultivating Emotions: The Gita Press and Its Agenda of Social and Spiritual Reform,” South Asian History, 3, no. 7 (2012), 397–413.

10  According to its mission statement, ehcs is dedicated to understanding the emotions as culturally and temporally situated phenomena and to exploring the role of emotion in shaping human experience and the actions of individuals, groups, societies, and cultures.

I have been part of this new movement, more by accident (or osmosis, if one is being generous) than by design. For a number of years, I began undergraduate lectures about the end of apartheid, through histories of pain and suffering, with a video showing a stadium of emotional supporters of the African National Congress singing their freedom anthem in the 1980s. Anticolonial nationalism in Africa was only understandable to me as a highly emotional “ism,” infused with the hurt of racism. Alongside, I was writing a monograph about an unfashionable but famous figure in British imperial history, which led to a theory about emotions and sentimentality running through relations between Africa and Britain to the present day—Lewis, Empire of Sentiment: The Death of Livingstone and the Myth of Victorian Imperialism (New York, 2018) [for a review of this book by Robert I. Rotberg, see Journal of Interdisciplinary History, L (2019) 127–129].

11  The quoted phrase is from Jan Plamper, The History of Emotions: An Introduction (New York, 2015).

12  Robert C. Solomon, In Defence of Sentimentality (New York, 2004); Thomas Dixon, Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears (New York, 2014).

13  See, for example, Joanna Bourke, The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers (New York, 2014); Peter N. Stearns, Shame: A Brief History (Chicago, 2017); Douglas S. Massey, “A Brief History of Human Society: The Origin and Role of Emotion in Social Life,” American Sociological Review, LXVII (2002), 1–29.

14  Niall Ferguson, “Feeling Beats Truth in Our Indignant “Emocracy,’” Sunday Times, 27 Jan. 2019, 19.

15  See, for example, Paul Dingman, “Ethics and Emotions: A Cultural History of Chivalric Friendship in Medieval/Early Modern Times,” unpub. Ph.D. diss. (Univ. of Rochester, 2012); Juanita Ruys, “An Alternative History of Medieval Empathy: The Scholastics and Compassion,” Emotions: History, Culture, Society, II (2018), 192–213.

16  See Marcel Mauss, “Les techniques du corps,” Sociologie at anthropologies (Paris, 1966; orig. pub. 1950), 362–386, for a summary of his thought.

17  See, for example, Gustave Reese, Music in the Middle Ages (New York, 2001); Suzanne Lord, Music in the Middle Ages: A Reference Guide (Westport, 2018). Also of relevance is David Lol Perry’s re-imagined fourteenth-century plainsong, “Three Wings: Plainsong, Reimagined” (Warner Classics, 2017), based on St. Hildegard of Bingen’s “O Virtis Saipientiae”—an attempt to connect emotionally with contemporary audiences.