Historians and Emotions: New Theories, New Questions

Le colloque international « Cultural History of Emotions in Premodernity » s’est tenu du 23 au 26 octobre à l’université d’Umeå dans le nord de la Suède.

Piroska Nagy (UQAM) a prononcé le 23 octobre la première conférence pleinière. EMMA vous en propose le texte en exclusivité :

Historians and Emotions: New Theories, New Questions

Piroska NAGY ©

1. An important moment in the history of emotions

I am very moved to open this conference on Emotions in the pre-modern era; you do surely understand that what we bring in common here are precisely our emotions – which means, in a way, our humanity. (That’s how at least medieval exegesis interpreted the tears of Christ.) I think, it is a great moment in History, which we inaugurate, dealing with these most human things, which are emotions, that constitute us and our cultures so deeply – after a long period when only reasonable things could be researched.

Before going further I have to tell you that I am here as the half of a thinking and writing couple: we are two historians to have founded EMMA, Emotions in the Middle Ages, a research program which I represent. Damien Boquet, my scientific spouse, is working hard at home – but he is with us, and present in what I say.

This great congress here in Umea – modestly called « workshop » – shows us something important: the amount of interest in emotions, especially as it is the second great event of its kind to date, after the 2006 Leeds International Medieval Congress, held on emotions and gestures. But from Leeds, nothing remains in terms of edition. I hope it will be different with this congress. In between, from 2005 to 2008 we carried out in France our project called EMMA – Emotions in the Middle Ages -: we held 3 workshops, one a year, and federated more than 60 scholars active in the field. Our works are under publication, and constitute 4 different volumes, and you can now see EMMA’s carnets on the web.

In 2002, Barbara Rosenwein, who is present today, entitled her well-known article on the historiography of emotions « Worrying about Emotions in History » in the AHR.

The present moment in the History of Emotions is already another one. Six years later, we have no more global reason to worry about emotions in history. The topic, which used to be considered as a suspect and rare one — if not one without an actual object — has become for now a world-wide research field in all periods of history and a very active one at that; its approach and methodology has been considerably renewed as it received important new contributions. After psychology, anthropology and philosophy, emotions have become a topic du jour in history too.

So, after a first period of quest for legitimacy – explaining how and why a history of emotions may have its own right in the great city of history – we can now construct our own building in it: the history of emotions, inlayed among the other little and big houses of the city, rural history, gender history, political history…

After having defended our right to a place, our foundations are stable today. I mean, there is a considerable consensus about the epistemological basis on which to build this history – even if the approaches may of course differ in details.  But before entering the details of how to make a history of emotions, let’s have a look on WHY.

Why such a focus on emotions in history – or even more largely, why are emotions so much in fashion today?

In order to answer this question, we have to re-place our historical interest in its wider, socio-cultural context. Emotions are everywhere around us, today: one speaks about emotional intelligence, and the questions around emotions – love and hate, anger or joy, happiness and suffering – make up the titles of hundreds of books we find on the psychology shelves of our bookstores all over the world. The world of different psychotherapies is in continual expansion. After Freud, all schools of psychology underline the need to undertake and accept our emotional identity, the benefit of expressing what we really feel, instead of holding back or repressing it, as our mothers and grandmothers did and taught. The idea underpinning this trend emphasizes the common functioning of reason and emotions, of body and soul. After a long period when few people worried about emotions, considered as a poor relative of reason – and we were all trying to be reasonable, rational, logical and well organized – it is now on this neglected side of being human that attention is focused. After the modern era of Cartesian reason –when in the name of reason, we have long cast aside, even suppressed emotions– the time of emotions seems to have finally come…

It is like a call – and it belongs to a call – not only for another history, which we are here to construct, but also for another way of living our humanity. We cannot be happy by our reason alone. Instead of performing and being efficient, like machines, this is also a call to let ourselves be human, shout, weep and laugh. This call is especially important in our world, centred on the dictate of rationalisation and profitability, which tends to forget basic human needs. That’s why, both in the sciences and in everyday life, the concept of sensible reason emerges, as the French sociologist Michel Maffesoli put it[1], that of being instead of doing, which does not place any more reason and emotions on opposing poles.

2. Paradigm shift and new theories for the study of emotions

This contemporary call sounds loud because of our ultramodern ways of lives and the ecological danger on Earth; at the same time, concerning perceptions of emotion, it is embedded on scientific ground. The transformation we are witnessing in this field has not yet finished to transform our lives and our ways of looking at the world.

From the 1940s on, neurosciences – the sciences of the brain – enquired on the place of emotions in our lives. From the 1990s on, the works of Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux, among others, made these discoveries accessible to a larger public. Scientific research in very different fields – after the neurosciences we can observe this in psychology, anthropology and philosophy – has shown in the last decades that emotion and reason cannot be opposed; with this statement it is the status of emotion that has changed. Emotions take part in our most logical decisions; they motivate us deeply, while we try to find reasons to explain our actions. All of us, all of you dealing with emotions here know the importance of this paradigm shift, which we can call the cognitive turn.

Its impact on the social sciences was crucial. Cognitive psychology and the consequent cognitivist trend in philosophy of mind developed quickly their new approach of emotions. Anglo-saxon analytic philosophers – Robert Solomon, Ronald de Sousa or Jon Elster[2] among others – argue that emotions motivate our acts and are linked to our beliefs. Cognitivism found an ally in the experimental social sciences – anthropology, ethnology, sociology – where social constructivism[3] started to assert the inclusion of emotional norms in the social construction of a culture or society, defining what is authorized or banished in matters of expression of emotions[4]. Ethnologic studies on non-western cultures – Michelle Rosaldo, Catherine Lutz are perhaps the best known among them[5] – have shown the radical difference of their theories of emotions compared to our western, dualist vision. Frequently, the same organs – the heart, for instance, among the Ilongot in the Philippines-are acknowledged to govern emotions and reason, social life and individual engagement[6]. In doing so, cultural anthropology underlined the western specificity of our dualist conception of man -and showed, how far conceptions of emotions are culturally determined phenomena[7].

All contemporary scholars of emotions agree on the importance of this paradigm shift; it is on this soil that a history of emotions is grounded. Our history of emotions is cognitivist, as cognitivism makes possible to rethink the role of emotions in human life. We are producing a cultural history of emotions, nourished by culturalism, or constructivism, which made it possible to include emotions in the field of social sciences and, among them, in that of history. This enterprise is nourished by anthropology, as we frequently put to ourselves the questions that anthropologists do, on the place of emotions in the life and society of people of the past.

As a consequence of this conjunction of different disciplines oriented toward the same goal in the last decades, studies of emotion have come to flourish – while the call for a « history of sensibility » by Lucien Febvre, around 1940, had provoked little echo. The great French historian had the intuition that emotions had a history, and doing this he was not the first: after Michelet, Huizinga and at the same time than Elias. But the period when he wrote did not yet possess the intellectual tools to construct it. A sensible history started just to become thinkable. The late success of Norbert Elias, from the 1970’s on, shows that it was this, the real moment of opening to a history of affect. Also, sensibility is a larger concept than emotions; it contains all that can be sensed: colours, music, tastes, landscapes… A few historians did work on sensibility and accomplished interesting work, like Jean Delumeau for the Modern Times, or Alain Corbin for the 19th century. In a way, many are there who did such a work without calling it so, like Peter Brown, already in his life of St Augustine but especially in his The body and society: Men, women, and sexual renunciation in early Christianity (1988). Finally, the « history of emotions » was officially born in the 80s, with the pioneer work of Peter and Carol Stearns. As the first wave of anthropological studies including emotions in their scope came to be known, more and more historians started to work on emotions in the 1990s, and, definitely, in the last few years.

However, what is new to our period now, is that with a history of emotions embedded in cognitivist and culturalist theory, we have to renounce the concept of civilisation process invented by Norbert Elias, despite all its secondary benefits. This can seem evident for scholars of Antiquity or of the Middle Ages, but may feel awkward for those of the modern times. Elias’ civilisation process is a comfortable theory, and has still many supporters. However, as Barbara Rosenwein elucidated it 6 years ago, it is bound to the « myth of passions », to the hydraulic and non-cognitive theory of emotions, seen as uncontrollable passions – so its scheme, comfortable yet ethnocentric, evolutionist and reductionist, creates more problems for a history of emotions than it resolves. A history of emotions cannot fit in this framework of history – first of all, because its very logic points to other directions. Our task is then to combine together thinking emotions on one hand, with the goal of historian on the other: that is, understanding social change.

3. Searching for new methods and tools

So, with all this, we haven’t yet finished discovering the transformation brought to our vision of history by the idea of considering emotional phenomena as social and historical facts. If emotions have a history, emotions oblige us to make a new history.

Speaking about feelings, emotions and other subtle facts, we need a different methodology than that, say, of a rural historian, a historian of political order or even that of practices of writing needs. We have to invent our own methodology to take into account what is resistant to history’s traditional methods; and to speak about emotions without losing all their meaning on the way.

Though, you might say, the first thing is to find their meaning, not to lose it…

The question of evidence

Here I have to recall one important objection historians of emotion have to answer every day, frequently addressed to us by the sceptical audience, whether that of our peers or of the elusive general public. It concerns the feasibility of a history of emotions: what can a historian of past emotions « touch » through his/her sources? Without access to past body language, there is perhaps little or no possibility to access to past emotions…

It is certain that the further we go back in history, the less traces of them we have, and the more difficult it gets to understand and explain what we find. The way people expressed emotions in the medieval West or Byzantium does not resemble to that we are used to in our period’s written evidence. On the other hand, the nearer we come to us, the more varied the kinds of evidence we have become. In modern times, writing practices extend: archival evidence on emotions, as well as forms of intimate writing (autobiography and journals) both become more and more frequent. In the last century we have increasing amounts of oral testimonies of emotions, and even films. These kinds of evidence allow the study of conscious discourse and body language together, which a medievalist cannot even hope to do. Historians of earlier periods need to do with scarce signs and words, and give a meaning to silence. However, we should not overestimate oral evidence: contemporary historians don’t have it as easy either: while oral testimonies enlighten emotions from a point of view a medievalist cannot adopt, they are just as embedded in cultural conventions of communication than were earlier expressions of emotion.

Finally, if it is true that historians do not have access to feelings of the past, you know as well as I that even in everyday communication, what the other really feels remains always a mystery for us. We don’t have access to one another’s feelings, only to their bodily expressions, whatever these may be: conscious or unconscious, voluntary or not, oral or gestural. For Antonio Damasio, in an article of 2000, this last one – what we would be inclined to consider as the expression of emotion – IS emotion, opposed to what he calls the feeling of the other, which we cannot know.

Emotion and words

Considered from this perspective of everyday life, the situation of an historian is just a little bit worse. What are emotions for an historian? We can access words, expressions, representations, images or descriptions of gestures. I will remain here in the field of analysis of written texts, which is the most frequent for all of us. In these, emotions are firstly words.

Just like words of contemporary languages do not translate exactly from one language to another – for instance, the English word emotion is over-inclusive while feeling is bodily or intimate, but in French, « émotion », a sudden reaction, like that of anger or rage, can be opposed to long lasting « sentiments » like parental love, and in both languages we distinguish moods like boredom, lassitude, weariness. In the same way, our words do not translate literally those of other times.

Especially, what we have to recall, is the fact that the notion of emotion is recent: the very word « emotion » is a modern one – although « emotion words » existed at any time. The term « emotion » appears in 1532 in French and starts to spread in the century of Descartes, who still uses it as an equivalent of passion. The same process occurs in English: as Thomas Dixon argues, it was between the 18th and 19th century only, that psychology passed gradually from a differentiated typology inherited from the Christian tradition — of appetites, passions, affections and sentiments — to a unique, over-inclusive category of Emotion.  The modern notion of emotion – a secularized, morally neutral term linked to the body – takes gradually the place of the ancient, Christian vocabulary of passions and affects, as between the 18th and 19th century, psychology as a science becomes secularized. This fact creates of course a series of complications when working on evidence of earlier times.

This said, the first duty of a historian of pre-modern world is a lexicographic work, in order to chart the emotional world of the source, the author, the social group or the period one studies. This means contextualising the words, as widely as possible, in order to understand their use. But this, as you will see, is not always enough to grasp the emotional content of a text.

Then, we meet emotion-words and notions that refer to emotions belonging to the past – which can be the most perfect « historical objects », and of which the medieval sources abound: acedia, ennobling love between men, compunctio, or royal anger. But we also meet terms, which look like our own notions: jealousy, friendship or shame – and which, once studied, reveal a specific historical content one would not suspect at first. Then we do also encounter the bodily signs expressing emotions, like laughter, weeping, blushing or growing pale, which may be conscious and deliberate or not. The real work of an historian is then to understand the cultural importance and meaning of these notions and signs, which may greatly differ from ours, and may define a culture in a very different way. The signs and terms make always sense in a specific constellation of emotions, which characterizes the emotional culture of a society or a group. In this sense, for instance, Jacques Le Goff investigated medieval laughter, a difficult topic in medieval Christian culture, as Umberto Eco taught us in The Name of the Rose. However, the opposition of medieval culture to laughter does not mean the Middle Ages were desperate or sad: tears had the capacity to bring spiritual happiness, and a lot of rituals and get-togethers brought positive experiences of all kinds. Contrary to what Norbert Elias and before him, Johan Huizinga thought, the display and use of « emotions » was strongly submitted to social norms in the Middle Ages: medieval emotional expression was all but childish and « free ».  So, to understand emotions in history, we need subtler tools and notions than the ones which until now had functioned in other fields of history.

Notions and tools

Speaking about sensibility, we have visited some important theories that can help us, which are our foundations, our basics. Cognitivism forces us to think emotions and reason together; social constructivism, to put in perspective our own mental structures while studying them.

On this path, some new notions can help us to think emotions in history. Every society, even every social group has a discourse on emotions; this discourse is linked to their actual perception in the construction of man, but also to the perception of the role of emotions in social communication and construct. This discourse is highly normative in the sense it extracts, from a common emotional soil, some emotions rather than others, and it helps the formation of specific emotional repertories, regulating in the same time their intensity and expression[8]. This is what Peter and Carol Stearns termed « emotionology« , even if they restrained the use of the notion to modern society[9]. However, this is what any historian can study most easily, as emotionology appears in all kinds of texts. Emotionology is best known about emotions in a society, as it is promoted by institutions (first of all education, Church and state). Some try to reduce it to social norms – which would mean that « beyond » there would be some « genuine » emotions repressed, which do, however, sometimes show on the surface… – but work on sources shows, just like real life, that norms and practice deeply interpenetrate each other.

So, today, it seems better to put the problem in another way. As Barbara Rosenwein has recently argued, different segments of a society can promote different perceptions and norms about emotional behaviour. With her, one can realistically speak about « emotional communities » which share not only a common perception of the role of emotions in the life of men and of society, but also clear ideas on how to express them and to whom. Emotional communities are quite transient, short-lived entities; their life-span is that of a generation or two; however, societies may know more long-lasting norms and networks, linked to the form of a political regime and defined by the ruling class – this is what William Reddy called emotional regime.

Once all this is said, we have outlined the framework in which historians can study emotions. This study of emotions is certainly a cultural history: as a historian, one has no access to the natural history of emotions through historical evidence – though, we may argue with Daniel Smail in his last book, A Deep history and the Brain (2007) that the cultural constructs concerning the expression and communication of emotions we are used to analyze, can be understood by their biological, neurological impact helping the management of emotions. Viewed from the neurological vantage point, Smail argues, the cultural management of emotions belongs to the field of psychotropy: it is in order to feel better that people act, in culturally elaborated and socially accepted ways.

Emotion, action and the unsaid

Now, with cognitive psychology and philosophy, we have to admit the strong link that exists between emotions and social action. In this perspective, the concept of emotives, coined by William Reddy in his Navigation of Feeling, on the model of the term performative in linguistics, is a useful tool. Emotives are what we could call, with John Austin, « how to do things with emotions »: these are the emotions which, when expressed, transform reality around them – this is the reason which explains their social restraint. Emotions can actually act. Let’s take the classical case of royal anger, but I would say, of anger at all; it is the case generally of collective expression of emotions, be it in a riot or revolution, or while listening to a sermon. This means we need to investigate the rhetorical and political use of emotions too. But this can be the case of mystical emotions, or of all those with a religious content, which establish relationship with God and witness of it.

The title of Reddy’s book, the notion of navigation of feeling, is a telling testimony of this capacity to act of which emotions dispose. It is because emotions (emotives) change reality that, once you embark on emotions, you don’t know where you arrive. Feelings take us from a point A to a point B: this is an idea that any psychologist would easily recognize. We can add to this process the fact that it is a proven fact by psychologists that emotions change, when engaged: one can for instance start by expressing shame and discover anger and fear behind them. Extending this idea to historical process, we can say that emotions – which themselves do change – are a powerful tool of social change, as the history of riots, wars and any social conflict has always shown. We can claim the same thing about other collective expressions of emotion.

Now, when we work on emotions, we are frequently confronted with emotions, which are not so clearly expressed. Think how difficult it is to understand emotions in everyday life – it is only when we know people and situations well enough that we can, hopefully, judge about how to to interpret their signs. To put it in another way, we have sometimes the impression that the emotional stakes go beyond what words do clearly say. In order to cultivate our capacities to understand what happens, we can’t limit ourselves to any textual context per se, but have to try to reconstruct larger sequences of events and social interactions in the text[10]. That’s what Robert Kaster suggests when he speaks of the analysis of « scripts« , that help us to understand emotional processes. The notion of script can be understood according to Roger Shrank as « a predetermined, stereotyped sequence of actions that defines well-known situations »[11], the kind of mental routines that guide the interpretation of events, helping to chose the behavior to adopt. In a given situation, we can suppose, in the framework of a general script, the existence of emotional scripts, relative to the emotions to adopt, defined by Kaster. This helps us to relate actions to emotions – especially in the case the text does not EXPLICITLY NAME the emotions at stake. As Nira Pancer, who works on early medieval shame argues, if we constitute a reservoir of emotional scripts in the culture under observation, we can deduce from a given behavior or action the emotion involved. She recalls the link established by the psychologist Nico Frijda between specific emotions and the types of actions they induce – and proposes to use the actions described to understand the emotions involved. If the idea is extremely useful, we have to be somewhat circumspect in using psychologists’ work on the link they establish between X emotion and Y action in our society: as constructivism has taught us, it is not evident that the same action was or could be the script answering this particular emotion 500 years ago.  But the use of the link emotion-action, based on the idea of scripts, can helps us greatly when we work with historical evidence, which does not name emotions, as it is frequently the case. In his study entitled Emotion, Restraint, and Community in Ancient Rome, Robert Kaster[12] establishes a taxonomy of emotional scripts in the authors he studies. Even if one cannot simply adopt his taxonomy for the Middle Ages or the Early modern times without further work, his method is both convincing and inspiring for us.

But the case discussed above raises a more general question on the treatment of historical emotions. What can we say, in general, about the emotions which are not clearly designated or named?

In this case, we can also defend a method which may seem suspicious: the method of intuitive reading. It is quite frequently the case that, as emotions bring change, one emotion reveals another – and that lexical analysis is far from revealing all about them. Sometimes, we need to read a passage a couple of times before understanding all that is at stake. In these cases, Nira Pancer speaks about « introspective reading »: it is by putting ourselves in the place of the hero of the text that we are able to comprehend what happens. When working on a text, or on a specific emotion or problem, after a time of immersion, we become particularly receptive to our sources. What can seem at first completely senseless, becomes slowly comprehensible as we get acquainted with the motivation-system – the social and emotional scripts – of people of the past. Familiarity creates sensibility: we start to understand but also to feel all these emotions, which shape longer emotional states, which make sense in social life. For this, we need of course to reconstruct exactly the precise meaning of every term in a given context, to understand every context and historical scene. But added to this, we need also empathy, useful in understanding the existential significance of an event, of a gesture or a relationship. This is what Sylvain Piron is working out successfully in his Epistolae duarum amantium published in French Under the title Lettres des deux amants[13], Letters of two lovers, which is probably the original correspondence of Abelard and Heloise at the time of their love-story. Between words, silences, colder and warmer tones, he gives us a plausible hypothesis of the steps of the evolution of the liaison.

Of course this approach creates another question, concerning the way we write: can a history of emotion be an emotional, sensible history? What, then, about the sacro-saint historical objectivity?

If we have to reject the hypothesis of Ramsay Mac Mullen – who wants to recreate by catharsis, and make feel feelings of the past  – we need to combine the effort of rational explanation with that of sensitive writing, side by side. In this way, we can integrate the benefits of cognitive sciences in our practice and writing of emotions’ history, which strengthen the anthropological constat: emotions think and reason feels.

4. New territories, new frontiers

After this incomplete overview of methodological achievements of our young field of history of emotions, it is time to look around and ask, how and what to do.

Once abandoned the opposition between « sincere » feelings and « imposed » ones by an anonymous norm, we can better understand the rambling appropriation of norms by individuals and groups.

The same gesture can be achieved on another level too, if we stop to consider collective emotions both as irrational outbursts, in the Huizingian way, and as ritualised forms, in the way Gerd Althoff proposes to do. The best is to adopt the position of social psychology, already tried and tested by French historians of the modern era, and consider emotion as a social bond[14]. Such a consideration is evident for the notion of caritas in the Middle Ages, this prototype of Christian love, modelling human relationships, social bonds, in Christian society. This is the relationship between rich and poor, powerful and those who have nothing, in 18th century Paris too. But it is also a fruitful approach to understanding the advent of the French Republic, in 1792 as Sophie Wahnich proposes to do. The collective emotion in question is then the voice of the people, vox populi in action as it embodies the desire of Republic of revolutionary people.

All the approaches I propose have one method in common: finishing with our western dualist training and, after having stopped to oppose emotion to reason, letting go of the binary oppositions between norm and practice, collective and individual, sincere and imposed, primitive and civilized….

I suggest, rather, trying to consider the ways social norms act on the expression of emotions in human communication, their acceptance or rejection. Disgust, for instance, is a primary emotion according to many psychologists; but, firstly, a Chinese lady and I will not be disgusted of the same thing, just as a medieval inhabitant of London and one living in 1920 would find very different things disgusting. Secondly, disgust would be expressed in very different forms by the 4 persons I mentioned above. Social norm or sincerity? Certainly both.

Appropriation of social norms happens sometimes in ritualized forms, most explicitly in ancient societies, based on religious order and mainly oral communication. However, ritualizing an emotion does not mean, as Gerd Althoff thinks, that emotion disappears of the ritual; on the contrary, rituals offer socially accepted frameworks of display for emotions and allow frequent experiments with them in a collective form. In this sense, as Sophie Wahnich suggests, a history of emotions is interested in the history of experience. This is the only way to understand, for instance, the cultural centrality of the cult of the Eucharist during the later Middle Ages: a collective, ritualized experience of emotional union to Christ, propagated by emotional contagion. We find the same kind of configuration with many religious and collective phenomena in religious societies, like late medieval preaching, contemporary or exotic, ecstatic rituals. And if medieval society’s reasoning was religious, as Philippe Buc argues, that of modern times became political, before contemporary, economic logic. So we can find the same mechanisms at work in these very different contexts, moving and holding different societies together.

Once we said that a history of emotions is a history of experience, we need to recognize its close link to the body, where emotions in expression, and all emotional experience, necessarily come to pass. This may seem obvious to you, as historians have already spoken a lot on the body. However, I think it is worthwhile to underline, how far a history of emotions is also a history of body and of the five senses. Our interest in the expression, communication and sharing of emotions brings us to focus on the body. Finally, investigating emotion allows us to link together the body on the one hand and reason on the other; theories, perceptions and practices of communication, on both sides, without which we shall not understand what real people in various societies did and do.

To conclude

All the things I tried to evoke here may help us to place our program of history of emotions at work. Doing this, it is also important to think about the place of our emotion studies in the framework of general history. We are the witnesses and actors of this progressive extension of the field of history described by Marcel Gauchet in 1999. After having excavated during the 19th century, in the framework of positivist history, great events and personalities, with the birth of the Annales School, History turned to economy, demography and social history. In the 1960’s, interest turned towards mentalities, cultures, minorities. It is in this continual progress of history that we have to replace today our history of emotions, grown out of this last trend.

Given the richness and variety of recent research on emotions, we can stop arguing for our right to exist. We ARE very present on the stage of history, in bookshops, and emotions allow us to get together with a lot of neighbouring disciplines, from History of Art, philosophy and literature to anthropology and psychology. This means we can and must now investigate more precise programs in emotional history, and according to me, this is the next step to take. The only way to construct truly our history of emotions can happen by progressing with the different questions we meet.

It is in this sense that we have been working with our EMMA project in France. Our scope was, and continues to be, to write the historical anthropology of emotions, in the sense Jacques Le Goff understood this discipline when defining it. Our perspective is transdisciplinary: we work together with cognitive psychologists (for EMMA 1 for the definition of our methodology and tools and and during EMMA 3, the politics of emotions) and philosophers (for EMMA 2, emotions and subjectivity).  In this way our study progressed from a first step, reflecting on methods to approach emotions in history, through a second step, the « subject of emotion », dealing with the individual, subjectivity and emotional experience, and finally, « politics of emotion », dealing with the collective use of emotions in the polis, that is society. Subsequent work will have cope with the problems of the body and the five senses; with emotional communication, in social and religious relations as well as with rituals. So our next step will concern the communication of emotions in the Middle Ages, between theory and body language. In the same time we have come to establish a chronology of emotional development during medieval times, in a book we are writing now with Damien Boquet – and which does not fit with Elias.

More largely, we need to think about the way a given period and society, or social group, envisaged the relations of emotions to body and reason, and about the ways theory was, or not, reflected in emotional practice. These are only a few questions among a lot -like rhetorics of emotions, contagion of emotions, emotion and propaganda; religious emotions and ritual; moral engagement and emotions in historical process; emotions and performance, and theatre… — as there is a lot of work to do. This is why we gathered here in the North of Sweden… and I think, on all this, you have a lot to say.

[1] M. Maffesoli, Éloge de la raison sensible, Paris, Grasset et Fasquelle, 1996.

[2] R.C. Solomon, The Passions. Emotions and the Meaning of Life, op. cit. ; R. de Sousa, The Rationality of Emotions, Cambridge (Mass.), MIT Press, 1987 ; J. Elster, Alchemies of the Mind : Rationality and the Emotions, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999.

[3] The Social Construction of Emotions, éd. R. Harré, Oxford, Blackwell, 1986 ; et le point de vue contraire chez W.M. Reddy : « Against Constructionism. The Historical Ethnography of Emotions », Current Anthropology, 38/3 (1997), p. 327-351.

[4] En anthropologie, l’ouvrage pionnier est celui de M.Z. Rosaldo, Knowledge and Passion : Ilongot Notions of Self and Social Life, Londres-New York, Cambridge University Press, 1980.

[5] M.Z. Rosaldo, Knowledge and Passion, op. cit., p. 36.

[6] Voir parmi bien d’autres choses The Social Construction of Emotions, op. cit ; M.Z. Rosaldo, Knowledge and Passion, op. cit. ; O.M. Lynch, Divine Passions, op. cit.

[7] Voir une bonne introduction au problème dans The Social Construction of Emotions, op. cit. ; et C. Lutz, « Emotion, Thought and Estrangement : Emotion as a Cultural Category », Cultural Anthropology, 1/3 (1986), p. 286-309.

[8] Nira Pancer.

[9] P.N. Stearns et C.Z. Stearns, « Emotionology. Clarifying the History of Emotions and Emotional Standards », American Historical Review, 90 (1985), p. 813.

[10] Nira Pancer

[11] Roger C. Schank et Robert P. Abelson, Scripts, Plans, Goals and Understanding: an Inquiry into Human Knowledge Structures, Hilsdale, Erlbaum, 1977, p. 41.

[12] R. A. Kaster, Emotion, Restraint, and Community in Ancient Rome, Oxford et New York, Oxford University Press, 2005.

[13] Lettres des deux amants, attribuées à Héloïse et Abélard, traduction et présentation par S. Piron, Paris, Gallimard, 2005.

[14] Deborah Cohen, « Money and Tears in Eighteenth-Century Paris: Recognition of the poor by individuals and by the State. » – à paraître !

Collecte bibliographique

EMMA entreprend de constituer une base de données bibliographiques sur l’histoire médiévale des émotions et de la vie affective (Occident latin, Byzance) qui sera mise en ligne dans les prochains mois.

Cette mission est actuellement confiée à Benoit Martel, étudiant de second cycle à l’UQAM, sous la direction de Piroska Nagy. Dans un premier temps, les investigations seront conduites à partir de mots-clés (en français, anglais, allemand, italien et espagnol) sur les grands sites de ressources (reti medievali, regesta imperii, International Medieval Bibliography, Medioevo latino, Jstor, Ménestrel, etc.) et les catalogues en ligne (Bibliothèque interuniversitaire de la Sorbonne, Bibliothèque universitaire de Poitiers, Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez, Sudoc, Library of Congress Online Catalogue, Worldcat, etc.) et complétées au moyen des bibliographies de monographies.

Dans cette perspective, nous lançons un appel auprès de tous les chercheurs pour alimenter cette bibliographie sur l’histoire de l’affectivité médiévale : si vous avez connaissance de références difficilement repérables avec nos critères d’interrogation, très récentes voire en cours de publication, n’hésitez pas à les transmettre à benoit.martel2@hotmail.com

Nos critères de sélection durant cette phase de collecte sont volontairement très larges ; donc, dans le doute, ne vous abstenez pas de nous faire part de vos trouvailles !

Cet appel a bien entendu un caractère permanent, vous pouvez donc aussi abonder la bibliographie en postant un « commentaire » à ce billet.

Cultivons les émotions

« Histoire culturelle des émotions avant les temps modernes »

(colloque d’Umeå, 23-26 octobre 2008)

Du 23 au 26 octobre 2008, l’université suédoise d’Umeå organise un important colloque intitulé « Cultural History of Emotions in Premodernity » / « Histoire culturelle des émotions avant les temps modernes » (par « Premodernity », il faut entendre en l’occurrence « jusqu’au XIXe siècle »). Vaste programme pour un colloque qui a l’appétit d’un congrès et annonce pas moins de 49 communications, dont 6 en séances plénières et 12 ateliers thématiques de 3 ou 4 interventions chacun.

EMMA y sera représentée par Piroska Nagy qui prononcera en clôture de la première journée une conférence : « Historians and Emotions : New Theories and New Questions ».

Le titre du colloque est (volontairement ?) ambivalent : l’objet est-il l’émotion comme fait acculturé (la construction culturelle de l’émotion) ou l’émotion dans le champ culturel ? À la lecture des résumés, l’enjeu de l’acculturation du fait émotionnel apparaît moins présent -voir alors tout particulièrement les communications de J. Liliequist, K. Kanerva ou A. Nilsson – que la question de l’usage culturel des émotions dans son sens le plus large (arts, littérature, vie religieuse, etc.).

Après le congrès de Leeds de 2006 qui était consacré aux « gestes et émotions au Moyen Âge » (avec plusieurs centaines de communications qui se réclamaient de ce thème), l’ampleur de ce colloque confirme que l’émotion est actuellement en train d’imposer sa légitimité historiographique. En l’espace d’une dizaine d’années, l’histoire des émotions est ainsi passée de l’intuition à l’institution, pour reprendre le titre d’un célèbre livre de Théophile Desbonnets sur le mouvement franciscain. Cela signifie aussi que nous sommes à un tournant. À considérer la forte visibilité qu’il faut souhaiter au colloque d’Umeå – et dans le fait même qu’il se tienne – on pourrait penser la partie gagnée, les « études affectives » définitivement étiquetées sur les rayons des librairies et des bibliothèques. En réalité, on en est encore loin, particulièrement dans les milieux historiens (qui marquent un indéniable retard par rapport aux littéraires ou à l’histoire de l’art dans ce domaine). Qui envisagerait aujourd’hui d’organiser un colloque avec pour sujet un thème aussi vaste que « Histoire culturelle des femmes, de l’Antiquité à nos jours » ou « Histoire culturelle des genres » ? Il y a vingt ou trente ans, peut-être, mais aujourd’hui, on n’en est plus à réfléchir sur la validité même d’une histoire des femmes ou du genre… Pour l’émotion, si ! De plus, c’est une double conquête que nous devons mener de front : d’une part, en donnant toute leur place aux émotions dans les sciences historiques (et dans la façon d’écrire l’histoire) mais aussi en réfléchissant à l’historicité même des faits émotionnels. Non seulement les émotions font l’histoire mais elles ont une histoire.

Cependant, après avoir fondé, il faut bâtir. Au-delà d’une validation nécessaire de l’objet, il convient désormais de construire pan par pan cette histoire des émotions, mais aussi de réfléchir conjointement à la façon de l’articuler aux autres champs (social, culturel, intellectuel) de l’histoire. Dans le moment que nous vivons, celui de l’émancipation, le risque est donc double : soit de faire du sur place en se contentant d’agiter la bannière d’une histoire des émotions sans réel projet historiographique ; soit de chercher à tout prix à faire sa place en revendiquant une spécificité bien à soi, qui méritera la précieuse extension « studies » : après les gender studies, après les cultural studies, devons-nous espérer commuer l’histoire des émotions en emotional studies ?

En tout cas, par son ambitieux programme, le colloque d’Umeå semble s’être donné les moyens d’aborder ces différents enjeux. Pour la période médiévale, les arts et lettres ont la part belle mais aussi l’Europe septentrionale : à tout seigneur tout honneur.

Programme pour le Moyen Âge (voir le programme complet et les résumés:

▪ Piroska Nagy : Historians and Emotions: New Theories and New Questions

▪ Barbara H. Rosenwein : Theory and Its Limits: The Emotions of Thomas Aquinas and His Disciples

▪ Jonas Carlquist : The Use of Emotions in St Bridget’s and St Catherine’s Revelations

▪ Maureen Flynn : Head or Heart? Medieval Controversy over the Seat of the Soul

▪ Ann-Catrine Eriksson : Gestures and Expressions: The Annunciation in Medieval Sculpture from Gotland

▪ Carolyne Larrington : Brynhildr’s Laughter, Guðrún’s Weeping: Performance, Performatives and Emotion in Old Norse Heroic Poetry

▪ Ira Westergård : Adoring the Invisible: Saint Elisabeth in Altarpieces of the Visitation

▪ Frank Brandsma : Arthurian Emotions and Audience Competence

▪ Kirsi Kanerva Ógæfa : (misfortune) as an Emotion in Thirteenth- Century Iceland

▪ Christina Lutter : Preachers, Saints, and Sinners. Emotional Repertoires in High Medieval Religious Role Models

▪ Kerstin Pfeiffer : Once Seen, Never Forgotten: The Affective Dimensions of Medieval Crucifixion Plays

▪ Caroline Boucher : Playing with Emotions in Fourteenth-Century France. The Chess of Love and the Medieval Representation

▪ Ilse van der Velden : A Study of Emotions in the Practice of Disputatio

▪ Curie Virag : Music and Emotional Expression in Medieval China

▪ Auður G. Magnúsdóttir : Real Love, Unbreakable Friendship: Expressions and Understandings of Love in Laxdæla Saga

▪ Anu Korhonen : Beauty, Masculinity and Love between Men: An Elizabethan Rewrites a Medieval Affair

▪ Carin Franzén : Courtly Love as a Feminine Strategy

▪ Francesca Braida : Body and Spirit Emotions of Dreams and Visions in the Middle Ages. The Social Use of Emotions in the Christian World

▪ Maureen Flynn : Nocturnal Pollution and the Medieval Misinterpretation of Women’s Dreams

La logique des émotions

Je n’ai pas encore eu l’occasion de consulter le volume mais la revue polonaise (et francophone) Organon vient de publier un numéro consacré à « La logique des émotions » (n°36, 2007). Le numéro est daté de 2007 mais la parution a été annoncée fin septembre 2008.

La période médiévale ne paraît pas spécialement à l’honneur dans ce dossier qui néanmoins offre des angles d’approche assez ouverts (musicologie, ethnologie) autour de l’axe philosophique.

Table des matières (avec deux articles en ligne) : « La logique des émotions »

Le numéro est déposé dans les librairies parisiennes Vrin et Compagnie. Prix: 10 euros.

Ouverture du carnet d’EMMA

vierge folle, cathédrale de Magdebourg
vierges sages, cathédrale de Magdebourg

Comment faire l’histoire des émotions ? Si Lucien Febvre appelait déjà dans les années 1930 à « reconstituer la vie affective d’autrefois », son appel n’a guère suscité de vocations pendant des décennies. Depuis peu, l’intérêt des historiens s’éveille, en écho à l’élan des sciences voisines, désireuses de penser l’émotion voire de la regarder elle-même comme une forme de pensée. La psychologie cognitive, la philosophie analytique, les neurosciences tout aussi bien que l’anthropologie ont mis au jour le tissage serré qui unit indéfectiblement les émotions et la raison, ainsi que la production culturelle de la partie visible des affects.

Ce changement de perception, bien visible dans nos sociétés, bouscule désormais jusqu’au regard sur le passé. Longtemps, on a considéré qu’au Moyen Âge, cette « enfance de l’Europe », les émotions des individus et des peuples étaient elles-mêmes infantiles, mal maîtrisées et pulsionnelles, jusqu’à ce que la maturité d’une rationalisation croissante apporte les manières plus policées des temps modernes. Aujourd’hui, nous savons que les émotions sont culturellement produites, qu’elles sont à l’œuvre dans les processus de décisions rationnelles : c’est toute la trame de leur intégration dans l’histoire qui est donc à reprendre. A partir du moment où nous admettons que toute culture, voire toute société a ses codes propres qui définissent les valeurs et normes attachées à l’expression de l’émotion en général et de telle ou telle émotion en particulier, le paradigme de Norbert Elias d’un « processus de civilisation » perd sa pertinence et l’évolution affective depuis l’Antiquité jusqu’au Moyen Âge devient à son tour un sujet historique majeur. A posteriori, il apparaît bien que si l’appel de Lucien Febvre est resté sans réelle réponse pendant un demi-siècle, c’est bien à cause d’un ensemble d’a priori culturels que seules les recherches récentes ont ébranlé. Sur ce nouveau chantier, il est d’autant plus logique que la médiévistique soit aux avant-postes qu’il y a des caricatures grossières à rectifier concernant les émotions médiévales.

vierges folles
vierges folles

Le programme EMMA « Pour une anthropologie historique des émotions au Moyen Âge », engagé depuis 2006, fait le pari d’une histoire des émotions médiévales qui se construise dans un dialogue avec les sciences humaines de l’émotion, ne serait-ce que pour permettre à l’historien de mesurer la part de ses propres projections culturelles. Dans un champ historiographique en construction, la spécificité de notre projet consiste à ajouter à la perspective historique et sociale des émotions une perspective anthropologique. Notre intérêt spécifique est précisément de croiser l’histoire sociale et avec l’histoire culturelle de la construction de l’individu, homme et femme, dans un contexte historique donné. Ponctué par de grandes rencontres ouvertes à l’internationale et à tous les champs de la médiévistique concernés (littérature, philosophie, histoire, histoire de l’art), le programme chemine depuis la compréhension des outils intellectuels de cette histoire vers une appréhension ouverte des pratiques sociales.

Nous avons choisi d’ouvrir ce carnet de recherche à la fois pour diffuser les grandes lignes de nos résultats scientifiques (voir les rubriques du menu), en attendant ou en complément des publications, et bien entendu pour faire part de l’actualité de nos travaux en cours.

Damien Boquet et Piroska Nagy