The History of Emotions

The History of Emotions: An Introduction
Jan Plamper
Oxford University Press 368pp £35

Generations of Feeling: A History of Emotions, 600-1700
Barbara H. Rosenwein
Cambridge University Press  390pp  £19.99

Jan Plamper opens The History of Emotions with a visit to an anatomy room. His research on the history of fear among soldiers had led him to examine the human amygdala, the almond-shaped mass of nerve cells beneath the cerebral cortex, considered by many neuroscientists to be the seat of negative emotions. The study of emotions is currently a booming field in historical research, operating at the intersection of anthropology, sociology, psychology and the life sciences. Historians have long been interested in emotions as explanations for individual and collective actions, to evoke the moods of particular periods – ‘the age of anxiety’, for example – and in social histories of love, marriage and death. However, historians have often deployed a rather rudimentary notion of what emotions are, how they work and how they might change over time. Plamper’s book sets out to provide an introduction to past and current research in the field. This is an ambitious aim, but one in which Plamper succeeds admirably, providing lucid and stimulating distillations of key work and debates.

While Plamper is clear that historians interested in the emotional life of the past must engage with other disciplines, he is also adamant that they must not do so uncritically. In one original intervention, he offers a bracing critique of the tendency of popular neuroscience and some scholars in the humanities to incorporate over-simplified claims from works of science into their research. While Plamper’s research on the history of fear may have led him to investigate the significance of the amygdala, the idea that certain regions of the brain are responsible for particular emotional responses is not uncontested. In one experiment, a dead salmon placed in an fMRI scanner seemed to light up when shown assorted photographs of emotional expressions. A claim that emotions are to some extent ‘hard-wired’ also runs counter to currents in historical research which, drawing on anthropological approaches, have tended to emphasise the extent to which emotions are culturally constructed. Yet a middle ground between ‘constructionist’ and ‘neuroscientific’ approaches to emotions may be found in the emerging understandings of ‘neuroplasticity’, which understands the brain as constantly shaped and reshaped by its environment. As Plamper suggests, it is here that neuroscience can learn from history rather than vice versa. When neuroscientists scan someone’s brain, they have to understand that it is not ‘the brain’ that they are scanning, but an individual’s brain, one with its own history from a particular time and culture. 

Barbara Rosenwein’s Generations of Feeling is also ambitious and wide-ranging. As a medievalist and one of the pre-eminent historians of the emotions, Rosenwein challenges some of the still influential narratives in the history of emotions associated with the historian Johan Huizinga and the sociologist Norbert Elias. Writing in the first half of the 20th century, both Huizinga and Elias tended to characterise the Middle Ages as a period of emotional excess and immaturity and to contrast it with a more emotionally controlled and sophisticated modern era. 

By contrast, Rosenwein insists that the history of emotions cannot be viewed as unfolding in a linear progression from excess to restraint. Rather, in different periods many different ‘emotional communities’ have co-existed, each with their own emotional norms and standards. So, for example, the melodramatic emotional world of the profusely weeping religious mystic, Margery Kempe (c.1373-c.1439), was contemporaneous with the more constrained approach to emotional expression to be found in the letters of the Paston family of Norfolk, in which affairs of the heart were treated in the same sober tone as discussions of horses and property. Rosenwein contends that, like the human genome, the emotional makeup of any society at any moment is a mosaic consisting of older inherited notions of feeling and newer mutations. Our notions of romantic love were not, as some suggest, invented by 12th-century troubadours singing songs of courtly love, they can already be found 500 years earlier in the writings of Gregory of Tours.

As both these works suggest, the history of emotions has the potential to address vital questions about what makes us human. Neither book is particularly aimed at the uninitiated or general reader, but anyone looking for a readable and engaging introduction to this fascinating field would do well to read Plamper’s stimulating survey. 

Catriona Kennedy is Senior Lecturer in Modern British and Irish History at the University of York.

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