Emotions in premodernity

beloveds_detailIn the last week of October, I was at the Cultural History of Emotions in Premodernity conference, organised by Jonas Liliequist and his colleagues at Umeå University in Sweden. It was the first conference of a new international network for research on the history of emotions. The size of the conference, modestly called a workshop, was ideal – there were about sixty participants, and that turned out to be the perfect number for getting to meet everyone in 4 days’ time. There were six keynote papers, and twelve parallel sessions.  These were the keynotes (in order of appearance):

Piroska Nagy
Université du Québec à Montréal (UQUAM)
“Historians and Emotions: New Theories and New Questions”

Barbara H. Rosenwein
Loyola University Chicago
“Theory and Its Limits: The Emotions of Thomas Aquinas and His Disciples.”

Kristine Steenbergh
Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam
Emotion and Gender: The Case of Anger in Early Modern English Revenge Tragedies

Walter G. Andrews
University of Washington, Seattle
“Age of Beloveds: Love and Its Emotional Content in Early Modern Ottoman Society and Culture.”

Anne C. Vila
University of Wisconsin-Madison
“Finer’ Feelings: A Zoology of the Over-Delicate in Eighteenth-Century and Early Nineteenth-Century France.”

Wendy Heller
Princeton, New Jersey
“Learning to Lament: Monteverdi and the Gendering of the Passions in Early Modern Italy”

Piroska Nagy opened the conference with an inspiring paper “Historians and Emotions: New Theories, New Questions“, in which she surveyed past theories on the history of emotions, and looked at new methods, tools and theories. She posted her paper on the  EMMA (Émotions au Moyen Age) website, where she also wrote a review of the conference. There is a lot more to read on the EMMA blog.

Barbara Rosenwein built on her work in Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages (Cornell, 2006) (Google books link) in which she challenges Norbert Elias’s teleological model of the history of emotions. Elias’s model, which views emotions as frothing fluids that need to be repressed and controlled, is no longer tenable in the context of modern cognitive theories, in which the emotions play a key role in rational cognitive processes. Moreover, it represents the Middle Ages as a period of child-like, uncontrolled anger – a representation vigorously contested by medievalists. In place of Elias’s model, Barbara Rosenwein proposes the emotional community, “groups in which people adhere to the same norms of emotional expression and value – or devalue – the same or related emotions.” Several communities can co-exist, and they can change over time. In her paper, she tested this model on the community of Thomas Aquinas and his disciples.

The abstract of my paper on gender and the emotion of anger in early modern English revenge tragedies is here. I proposed a model of research into the history of emotions that resembles Barbara Rosenwein’s, but builds more on Foucault and Joan Scott’s theories, and is concerned with the role of literary texts in shaping emotional regimes.

Age of belovedsWalter Andrews gave a paper that tickled everyone’s senses with its intriguing descriptions of the representations of love in early modern Ottoman culture. He showed us fascinating parallels with early modern western European culture, and stimulated our interest into non-western histories of the emotions. I am currently reading his wonderful book Age of Beloveds: Love and the Beloved in Early Modern Ottoman and European Culture and Society (Duke, 2005). Review coming up!

Anne Vila made us think about our own emotional ecologies by analysing the bodily sensitivities of scientists in the eighteenth century, and Wendy Heller’s paper, richly illustrated with fragments from Monteverdi opera’s, indulged my senses as well as my fascination for gender and the passions.

Highlights from the parallel sessions for me were Jan Söffner’s “What Does the Poem Feel? A Medieval Answer,” Frank Brandsma’s “Arthurian Emotions and Audience Competence”, Angus Gowland’s “Melancholy, Imagination and Dreaming in Early Modern Europe” and Maureen Flynn’s “Nocturnal Pollution and the Medieval Misinterpretation of Women’s Dreams.” Jan Söffner argued that we can no longer only ask what a poem thinks, we should be interested also in what the poem feels. As he put it in his abstract:

Paradigms of the embodied mind, of embodied emotionality (as discussed in Neurosciences and related fields of Social Psychology), of embodied perception and interaction, and embodied semiotics put into question the universality of the Saussurian or post-Saussurian absentic structure of signification and rather focus on phenomena of meaningfulness emerging from and inside embodied sensuality too.

Frank Brandma used the concept of the ‘mirror character’ from neurological research to examine the ways in which medieval texts generated emotion in their readers and listeners. Angus Gowland analysed the relationship between melancholy, imagination and dreaming in early modern theoretical texts, and Maureen Flynn looked at fifteenth-century explanations for the wet dreams of monks and nuns. The entire programme and the abstracts can be downloaded from the conference site.

The conference was the first international activity of the new network for the cultural history of emotions in premodernity. The new website has just gone up. There, you can join the network to access the news list and the discussion forum. This is how the website summarizes the aims of the network:

The theme “cultural history of emotions in premodernity” aims to bring together scholars and post-graduate students from a broad range of disciplines. The history of emotions should not be confined to specific disciplines, methodologies or geographical areas but is best understood from the perspective of interdisciplinary and comparative approaches. We welcome contributions to all aspects of the history of emotions, from approaches as diverse as possible and especially in comparative perspectives across cultures.
Our aims could be summarised as:

  • providing a forum for discussion, contact and news
  • establishing contact with other research groups
  • initiating new research projects
  • organising seminars, workshops and conferences
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