Literature and emotions at RSA 2014

There are quite a few proposed panels on emotions/passions/feelings and literature at the RSA in New York, March 2014. Most deadlines are tomorrow or this weekend, so you read this just in time to write an abstract.

CFP Reading and health in early modern Europe

Symposium on Reading and Health in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1800

Medieval and Early Modern Research Group, Newcastle University

5-6thJuly 2013

This symposium will explore how early modern texts engage with the regulation of the body and mind through reading. It will investigate the connections between reading and health and consider how reading was understood as an embodied practice in the period with profound implications for both personal well being and conception of the healthy body politic.

We invite proposals that address the relationship between health and reading in any genre in print or manuscript in any European language. The genres might include medical, scientific, literary, religious, or pedagogical and rhetorical writings. We encourage proposals that recover diverse reading communities and practices and readers/hearers. We also welcome papers that consider problems of evidence: e.g. manuscript marginalia; print paratexts (and directions to readers); visual representations; non-material evidence (voice; gesture; touch).

Topics might include, but are not restricted to:

Reading as therapeutic (devotional; recreational etc.)

  • Reading medical writing
  • The physiology of reading
  • Reading and well-being
  • Reading and disability
  • Health and the senses
  • Health as a literary theme
  • Reading and the healthy body politic (censorship; free speech; reading communities etc.)

300-word abstracts for 20-minute papers from individuals and panels (3 speakers) to be sent to the conference organisers.

The deadline for abstracts is Thursday, January 31st, 2013.

View the conference website at Newcastle University.

The uses of a history of emotions

In Australia, the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions came under fire this week. In an article in The Australianthe  shadow minister for Finance of the centre-right Coalition claimed that the current government is wasting money on academic research that he considers to be “of limited value,” “unjustifiable” and not “genuinely meaningful.” [1] The government should fund only studies that support innovation, produce growth and productivity or lead to “genuine medical and scientific advances.”

In the article, the director of the Centre, professor Philippa Maddern, responded by stressing the relevance of historical research into the emotions. The centre contributes to better political and social decisions, she said, as well as to “modern-day wellbeing”:

A study of the reasons for suicide and community reactions during this [historical] period helped fill gaps in understanding for psychiatrists today. “We need that information so that we can better prevent suicide today.”

At The Conversation Rebecca McNamara, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the centre, yesterday defended the research project on similar grounds. She argues that there are “continuities in the ways that humans deal with struggle and change” and that the history of the emotions is therefore relevant to the wellbeing of people living in Australia today.

How were people’s emotions in the past understood to lead to these self-destructive situations, and how did family, community, and the state respond to their suicides? Though the cultural settings, geography, and time period are different, we are asking the same questions now in Australia.

She emphasizes that she liaises with medical practitioners and counsellors, and shares her outcomes with the public in the hope that her research will help prevent suicide by raising awareness (an aim that Andrew Robb would most likely support).

Both Maddern and McNamara, then, respond to Andrew Robb’s article on his own terms. They stress that the Centre’s research does contribute to medical advances and is therefore relevant to Australia today.

Of course the Humanities should respond to characterizations such as Andrew Robb’s. Scholars in the humanities are sometimes quite defensive about the work they are doing and seem to assume that each and every research project in the exact sciences contributes directly to the cure for cancer rather than to a better understanding of, say, evolutionary forces shaping sexual attraction in noctuid moths.

The question is, should we accept the (neoliberal) framework that shapes arguments such as these, or should we look at the relevance of humanities research from a broader perspective? Is research only valuable when it produces an immediate profit in terms of economic growth or medical advances? Such an approach not only threatens the humanities, but fundamental research in the exact sciences as well. If only those research projects were funded that led to such directly useful outcomes, a lot of discoveries would not have been made. Research needs a broad base of a wide variety of projects, questions, methodologies in order to reach results.

Indeed, the interesting thing is that whereas in politics this distinction between useful and “unjustifiable” research is a current vogue, at the same time the divide between the exact sciences and the humanities is being breached: we are creating consilience. Whereas Robb’s remarks seem to assume that humanities research is far removed from “scientific advances,” certain areas in science are beginning to turn to culture.

Cultural neuroscience, for example, is interested in the question “how cultural traits (e.g., values, beliefs, practices) shape neurobiology (e.g., genetic and neural processes) and behavior” [Wikipedia]. With regard to the emotions, Margaret Wetherell in her cross-disciplinary overview of recent research shows how neurology, anthropology, cultural history and the social sciences can fruitfully compare and contrast their frameworks to come to a working approach to emotion research (see my review).

Another example is economic theory, which is abandoning the model of the homo economicus and rational choice and is now looking at the role of the emotions in stock markets and financial crises. An affective turn has also taken place in sociology and political sciences:

The return of emotion is, in part, an attempt to counter the growing salience of rational choice and formal economic models in both political science and sociology; and is, in part, fueled by real-world problems such as ethnic cleansing, addiction, greed, and (a theoretical problem but welcome in the real world) altruism. Theories that exclude the affective dimension of social life have difficulty explaining individual or collective behaviors that rationality does not appear to govern. [Mabel Berezin]

Since the emotions are in part shaped by cultural practice, a history as well as anthropology of the emotions are essential fields of research necessary to gain insight into this affective dimension of social, economic, political – well, human life, really.[2]

Finally, I think we need to keep an eye on the ideological framework from which such questions originate. The kind of innovation that Andrew Robb looks for is the kind that delivers economic growth, not the kind that questions whether economic growth and increased productivity are the best way forward. One of the other examples of unjustifiable research that he provides is “a study into the emotion and morality of climate change at the University of Queensland.” The denial of the relevance of this kind of research to me seems precisely the problem that a study like this addresses: how is it possible that we are so slow to react to the effects our economic growth and productivity have on the environment? Robb seems interested neither in the past of human experience, nor in the future of our planet.


[1] The Australian asks you to buy a day pass to read the article. Andrew Robb reproduced the article on his website.

[2] On the question ‘Why study the history of emotions?’ see also “What is the History of Emotions?” Parts I, II, and III at the History of Emotions blog.

New guide to the field of emotion studies

Margaret Wetherell, Affect and Emotion: A New Social Science Understanding (London: Sage, 2012)

Research into the emotions is rapidly expanding and deepening in all kinds of disciplines. Cultural historians, psychologists, sociologists, neuroscientists, biologists, researchers in cultural studies and political science – everyone is turning to affect as an essential topic of research. This makes for a  lively and exuberant field of research, but it can also sometimes give me the overwhelming feeling that I will never be able to read up on everything that is going on. My research focuses on early modern drama and I am taking in current thinking on the emotions in cultural history and cultural studies, but how am I to relate to new insights in the relation between emotion and cognition, mirror neurones, or the transmission of affect?

Margaret Wetherell’s Affect and Emotion is a pragmatic and down-to-earth guide to what is currently happening in the landscape of emotion studies. A professor in social sciences and social psychology, Wetherell conducted what she calls a ‘reading marathon’ across all these disciplines to see what they had to offer. “With some navigating,” she writes, “it did seem possible to put together integrated readings of the somatic, discursive, situated, historical, social, psychological and cultural bases of affective activity” (4). The model that she puts together is based on the flexible concept of “affective practice.”  She develops a working model for empirical social science, but the book certainly has its uses for the cultural historian as well.

Wetherell pits her model against three views of affect that she considers to be wrong turns in emotion research. The first, not surprisingly for a sociologist (or a cultural historian) is the idea of basic, universal human emotions pioneered by Paul Ekman. The second approach that Wetherell considers to be leading us in the wrong direction is the separation of affect from discourse in cultural studies (Clough; Massumi) and human geography (Thrift). She stresses that current research in neuroscience shows that body, brain and mind are all dynamically connected and involved in affective practice, and it would therefore be a mistake to separate affect from speech, text, cognition and interpretation:

I agree with Massumi, Thrift and Steward that it is time to take the effervescent, the mobile, the concrete, and ordinary social action seriously. But, I think one can’t do this without sustained attention to discourse. What is needed is an eclectic approach that investigates how the organisation of discursive formations or ‘big discourse’ intertwines with the patterning of everyday, dynamic and immediate discursive practice. (56)

[Note: Tony D. Sampson disagrees with her view on affective contagion in his review of the book (series of 5 blog posts)]

The third approach that Wetherell considers less useful is the view of the transmission of affect as something ‘uncanny’ in much recent work that employs terms such as ‘contagion’ or ‘group minds’ to describe the way passion moves from body to body. Examples she gives of this approach are Teresa Brennan’s The Transmission of Affect and the field of social psychoanalysis, which works with an outdated model of the self.

Another key figure in emotion research whom Wetherell disagrees with is Antonio Damasio, “social scientists’ current, number one, favourite neuroscientist” (28). Basing her critique on psychobiological research, neuroscience, anthropology and social sociology as well as genetics (she could have added cultural history to the list), she takes Damasio to task for still adhering to the basic emotions model and for distinguishing between affect and emotion. Drawing on the work of Klaus Scherer, she emphasizes that emotion processing is distributed in different brain circuits, and that cognition is not sealed off from affect in neurobiology.

The book provides a very lucid and useful overview of recent developments in emotion research. Wetherell is one of those people who can digest an awful lot of information and report on it in detail (even neuroscientific detail), but never lets you lose sight of the bigger picture. She is very clear on the reasons why she considers certain approaches less useful. But the book does not only guide you through the wrong turns of emotion research. Based on her magisterial overview of state-of-the art research in various disciplines, Wetherell also puts forward a new model for social scientific research. In her model, affect is a flowing activity, but with ‘affective ruts’ (14) formed by interweaving patterns resembling Raymond Williams’ structures of feeling, but more flexible: “something that comes into shape and continues to change and refigure as it flows on.” Thirdly, power works through affect and affect emerges in power. She deftly weaves together elements of the theories and models she surveys to form her own. In Wetherell’s view, affective practice is always situated, material, embodied, and contextual. One of the very useful examples she gives of how affect can be read, is that of conversation analysis, in which the exchanges between people are meticulously written down. The nitty-gritty level of a transcribed conversation soon confronts the researcher with all the specific contexts that need to be taken into account when analysing affect. In Wetherell’s words: “The concept of affective practice, then, encompasses the movement of signs but it aso tries to explain how affect is embodied, is situated and operates psychologically.” (159)

Wetherell’s style is pragmatic and no-nonsense; she takes you by the hand and guides you through the “deeply murky territory” of affective meaning-making (51), or through psychobiologists’ descriptions of emotion that read “rather like weather reports” (49). She is open about her own reading experience and the obstacles she ran into, and it can sometimes feel as if you are having coffee with her during a break in her reading marathon. She reports, for example: “When quoting Massumi it is almost impossible to stop. His words are so evocative and dizzying. What he is suggesting is so vague, breathless and escaping.” This sounds a tad dismissive of cultural theory as a whole, but that is not the case – Wetherell quotes Lauren Berlant approvingly throughout, and Sara Ahmed’s work on affective economies figures prominently in her model.

How is this book useful to the cultural historian? To begin with, cultural history is part of the framework in the book. Wetherell discusses the work of William Reddy most prominently, but also draws on Barbara Rosenwein and Thomas Dixon. Also, I think the model that Wetherell proposes, although most suited for empirical social science research, is food for thought for cultural historians – especially in its emphasis on the need for attention to the material situatedness and the embodiedness of emotions.

Emotions in History – Lost and Found

At the Umeå conference on the cultural history of emotions in pre-modernity in 2008, one of the frequently recurring themes was the desire for a new grand narrative of the history of emotions. After historians’ criticism of Norbert Elias’ influential model of the civilizing process, a new framework for the explanation of the historical change of emotions was called for. In her keynote lecture, Barbara Rosenwein hinted that she was working on a new book that would paint such a broad historical overview based on the rising and falling influence of emotional communities. Ute Frevert’s new book on modern (18th-century and later) emotions offers the kind of broad historical narrative of change that we looked forward to at the conference.

Emotions in History – Lost and Found is the publication of the Natalie Zemon Davis annual lecture of 2009, held by Ute Frevert at the Central European University in Budapest. Frevert is director of the Center for the History of Emotions at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. Her broad reading and in-depth knowledge of the cultural history of emotions found their way into this engaging series of lectures on the rise and fall of historical emotions.

The book has three chapters: a chapter on emotions and social groups that cultivate and drop them, one on gender and emotional styles and regimes, and the final chapter on the emotion of empathy and its rise to prominence from the 18th century onwards. The subtitle “lost and found” to me initially suggested a notion of cyclicality – the idea that emotions could lose prominence in certain historical periods, only to resurface again in others. This is not, however, the tenet of the book. Rather, Frevert focuses on honour as a “lost” emotion and empathy as a “found” emotion in the modern period. What is more, she argues that even if seemingly similar emotions can be encountered across history, these are not in fact the same:

So, the central argument is the following: Even if there are signs of acedia, melancholia or depression that resemble each other, the labelling, framing and contextualising of those signs are vastly different. Relating the symptoms to diverse systems of reference (magic, religion, arts and sciences, neurobiology) affects the value attributed to them. This in turn affects the appraisal and experience of those states. Seen from this perspective, acedia and melancholia are indeed “lost emotions,” lost in translation to a new emotional state called depression. (36)

Frevert opens her book with the example of president Sarkozy  who in 2010 reacted to criticism from Brussels on French campaigns against Roma camps by angrily declaring that he would not allow his country to be insulted. He considered the remarks “outrageous,” “disgusting” and “shameful” (3). The French president’s reliance on such a concept of national honour was met with “widespread bewilderment,” also in France (85). Frevert traces the trajectory of the emotion of honour in modern Western Europe, and suggests that it may be on its way to becoming a “lost emotion.” Honour serves to strengthen a group’s internal cohesion, and therefore becomes less important when boundaries between groups are less defined. She suggests that the European Union is an environment where national boundaries have become less prominent, and where the emotion of honour will become “obsolete” as a political concept and emotional disposition. (85) This teleology evokes the spectre of Elias’ civilizing process, and I should add that the suggestion is voiced in a section entitled “The decline of honour, or its return?”.  Frevert in the same section also asks how we should account for honour killings in European cities, for Zinédine Zidane’s headbutt in answer to slandering remarks about his mother and sister on the soccer pitch, or to the concept of national honour in the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s.

The second chapter, “Gendering emotions” looks at the ways in which emotions and their related practices have been related to ideas about men and women since the eighteenth century. Whereas in early modern societies the display of affect was ordered primarily on the basis of social rank and estate, and secondly on the basis of gender, in modern societies it was the other way around. The new social equality did not extend to the emotional differences between men and women, which were seen as based in nature. (100) “With the emergence of modern civil society, affects became not only closely observed and regulated, but also deeply and uniformly gendered.” (142) That process of modernization and increasingly gendered affect extends to emotional labour in today’s workplace — Frevert offers The Argus’ “Service with a smile” as an illustration — but at the same time capitalist consumer culture, with its endorsement of emotional intelligence in both men and women, makes gender differences less explicit and far-reaching.

The book focuses on what in the theoretical framework of the history of emotions would be called ’emotionology’: the study of the the ways in which emotional norms are shaped and reproduced by social institutions, practices and media. At the same time, Frevert acknowledges the possibility of individual or collective agency challenging these norms. In the third chapter on empathy, for example, she considers the ways in which the emotion was shaped in the late-eighteenth century by social groups who felt excluded by the notion of the “rights of man” – women and slaves. Throughout the lectures, Frevert emphasizes the heterogeneity of subcultures or immigrant communities, and thereby also rubs shoulders with Rosenwein’s concept of “emotional communities.”

As an early modernist, I did sometimes feel a little uncomfortable with the boundary that the book establishes between the seventeenth and the eighteenth century. The use of terms such as pre-modern and modern gives rise to a figure of thought so common in historical periodization in which you see certain phenomena as originating precisely in the period of your specialization. Although Frevert emphasizes that she does not deny a vibrant early modern history of the emotions (and has read widely on this earlier period as well), she does occasionally resort to rather sharp contrasts between the two periods. She characterizes the early modern period, for example, as a time without self-help manuals and scientific treatises on the passions (18) – a statement that is open to debate depending also on how strictly you define these genres, as is the idea that before 1661, in “teachings on affects and passions, the gender issue had been conspicuously absent” (99).

This is a minor quibble, however, because I very much enjoyed this engaging book that comprehensively covers a broad historical period, offers a clear perspective on the social and cultural character of emotions, and very convincingly shows the relevance of the cultural history of the emotions for the problems that we are faced with today.

New journal: Passions in Context

I just discovered a new online journal on the history and theory of the emotions called Passions in Context. It is a peer-reviewed journal that presents contributions from a variety of disciplines in English and German, and which was first published in the spring of 2010.

Th[e] growing interest in the history and theory of emotions is now both interdisciplinary and international. In particular in the English speaking world and in Germany are developing special centers for the research in the history and theory of emotions. Until now this interest has lacked a forum where contributions with such a wide orientation can be published. Passions in Context will be such a forum.

The first issue “Writing Emotions” featured an opening contribution by Barbara Rosenwein (via whose website I found the journal) on problems and methods in the writing of the history of emotions, as well as articles on staged feelings; emotions in collective viewing; pathos and atrophy. The second issue is called “Atrocities – Emotions – Self” and features the edited papers from the “Atrocities, Emotion, Self” conference that took place at the Center for Subjectivity Research, University of Copenhagen, in 2009. If I understand the timeline correctly, a new issue should be forthcoming this spring.


Cross-disciplinary study of the emotions

At VU University Amsterdam, we have recently opened a new centre for the cross-disciplinary study of the emotions and senses, ACCESS for short. The centre is the initiative of cultural historians (myself included) and an anthropologist. We hope to bring together academics from many more disciplines to exchange ideas on the study of the emotions and senses. The interdisciplinary symposium on the Transmission of Emotions that I am organizing on 10 February is one of the ways in which we aspire to stimulate cross-disciplinary activities, such as applications for funding of interdisciplinary projects.

The ACCESS ‘mission statement’ reads:

The Amsterdam Centre for Cross-Disciplinary Emotion and Sensory Studies provides a platform for cooperation between scholars from the humanities, the social sciences, and the life sciences.

Recently the scholarly interest in the emotions and the senses has gained momentum through the ‘affective turn’ informing many new studies in different disciplines. ACCESS aims to enhance this momentum, creating an interdisciplinary platform between historians, cultural anthropologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, philosophers and other scholars interested in the cultural production and expression of the emotions and the operations of the senses.

Our research rests on the presumption that both the experience and expression of the emotions and the senses are culturally informed. Different communities shape different sensory and emotional ‘regimes’. To quote Oliver Sacks: ‘culture tunes our neurons’.

 More information on ACCESS and its upcoming activities is to be found on the ACCESS website.


Sadness and the Self in Early Modern England

Disssertation Reviews is a new website that publishes friendly, non-critical reviews of unpublished dissertations, to give an immediate insight into new developments in scholarship. They used to focus on Chinese, Japanese and Korean Studies, but have recently branched out into “Science Studies” and are seeking editors to cover more fields in the humanities and social studies. Science Studies editor Leon Rocha invited me to write a review of Erin Sullivan’s PhD thesis on early modern sadness, which I very much enjoyed reading. The review will be published there shortly, and Leon kindly allowed me to reproduce the review here. Of course you should also visit Disssertation Reviews for more reviews of recent PhD theses.

Sadness and the Self in Early Modern England
A review of Secret Contagions: 
Sadness and the Self in Early Modern England by Erin Sullivan.

The history of emotions is a burgeoning field within cultural history. In recent years, a number of key publications have mapped out the beginnings of a theoretical and methodological framework, and academic centres on the subject are mushrooming around the world. Erin Sullivan’s thesis Secret Contagions: Sadness and the Self in Early Modern England is a valuable new addition to this growing field, not in the least because of its innovative approach to the exploration of historical emotions.

Readers in the early modern period were extremely interested in sadness and grief: the period has been called melancholy’s ‘golden age.’ A number of books exploring this early modern fascination with grief have appeared in the past few years, such as Angus Gowland’s Renaissance Melancholy (2006), Jeremy Schmidt’s Melancholy and the Care of the Soul (2007), Jennifer Vaught’s Masculinity and Emotion in Early Modern English Literature (2008), and Gary Kuchar’s The Poetry of Religious Sorrow in Early Modern England (2008). Whereas these studies focus on particular kinds of sadness (melancholy, religious sorrow) and on particular genres of texts, Sullivan takes a wider contextual view by basing herself on a variety of sources ranging from plays and poems to doctor’s casebooks, diaries, and bills of mortality. In so doing, her rich thesis is able to show convincingly that multiple discourses of sadness (medical theory, moral philosophy, Christian theology) co-existed in the period, sometimes overlapping or conflicting with each other.

The thesis concentrates on the period between the accession of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558 and the Restoration in 1660. It is not, however, the particulars of Tudor and Stuart monarchies or the trauma of the civil wars, but the aftermath of the Reformation that forms the dominant historical context for Sullivan’s argument. The new forms of Protestant religious practice that took shape in early modern England shaped their own discourses of emotional experience. Sullivan concludes that whereas medical and philosophical advice tended to see grief as a damaging and therefore dangerous passion, these new Protestant ideas considered sadness in a more positive light, as a means to come closer to God.

Sullivan is not only interested in the way sadness is shaped by these co-existing discourses. What I found particularly captivating is her fascination with the way individuals used these different discourses of sadness to make sense of their emotional experiences in their own (written) expressions and representations. Inspired by developments in anthropology as well as the work of historian Charles Rosenberg, Sullivan moves from the social constructivist framework current in emotion history towards a model of thinking about the passions that leaves more room for individual agency, “recognizing that social processes are messy and that they are affected by people, just as people are affected by them” (88). Her approach in this way combines three key concepts employed in the cultural history of emotions, which Sullivan in her introduction neatly characterizes as “a set of theoretical nesting eggs” (30): Carol and Peter Stearns’s ‘emotionology,’ which focuses on dominant emotion discourses in a historical period; Rosenwein’s concept of ‘emotional communities’, which examines how social groups employ these discourses; and finally Reddy’s ‘emotives’ which focuses on the individual expression of emotions (although he also relates that expression to ‘emotional regimes’).

The first chapter, “Sadness and dis-ease in early modern thought,” distinguishes between four categories of sadness shaped by three different discourses. In a philosophical context, grief was considered as a disease of the mind that needed to be overcome by reason; medical discourse saw melancholy as a disorder of the physical body; and godly sorrow and despair are categories of sadness shaped by religious discourse that were considered to originate from conflicts in a believer’s conscience that could only be healed by God’s grace (65). Even as she makes these elucidating distinctions, Sullivan stresses that these are dynamic constructions that often merged and overlapped. Just as the authors of treatises on the passions have often crossed disciplinary boundaries in their choice of their subject, so do these categories know many different permutations. The bodily nature of grief, for example, also played a part in philosophical and religious discourses. What is more, points of conflict existed also within these discourses themselves. In medical theory, for example, the Galenic humoral model was challenged by chemically-based systems of medicine such as that of Paracelsus. Sullivan therefore stresses the importance of a context-dependent approach to representations of sadness, an approach also that takes into account the way these ideas were used in personal practice. These discourses, she writes, “did not form a whole to explain passions: an individual’s personal attitudes towards sadness depended on her particular outlook on life, as influenced by factors such as religiosity, level of education, and social standing” (83). After the first chapter has thus mapped these overlapping discourses of grief, the following four chapters each deal with a different aspect of grief in the early modern period.

The “secret contagions” of the title are quoted from The Uses of the Passions (1649), a translation of a treatise by Jean-François Senault. He uses these words as he ponders the ways in which mind, body, and soul affect each other in the experience of emotion. The second chapter, “Grief, death and the possibility of self-knowledge,” takes this issue of the relation between body and mind as its central question, focusing on the idea that one could die of grief. Drawing on the London Bills of Mortality, Donne’s poetry, the plays of Shakespeare and Samuel Pepys’ diary among many other sources, Sullivan shows that although grief is on the one hand seen as a passion that results in extreme physiological changes and could lead to death, other texts conceive of it more as a passion of the mind and connect it to human agency and understanding, a perspective that also allowed for a more positive view of grief as enabling personal insight and wisdom. The finding that these two discourses co-existed leads Sullivan to nuance the recent emphasis on the literal, material and bodily meaning of expressions such as “sunken spirits” or “broken hearts,” for example in the work of Gail Kern Paster. Rather, she underlines that this material view of the passions circulated alongside discourses that situated the passions in the mind, and which questioned the extent to which they materially altered the body.

The next chapter, “The problem of melancholy: theory, discourse and practice,” starts once again from a contradiction within a discourse, in this case that of melancholy. On the one hand, this type of humoral sadness caused by a surplus of black bile is associated with self-obsession and self-indulgence, while it is on the other hand also seen as conducive to intellectual and artistic creativity. The central question in this chapter is how individuals “square[d] the commonly voiced, negative views of melancholy with its more desirable possibilities” (144). Sullivan turns first to literary texts such as Milton’s “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” and Shakespeare’s As You Like It with its typical melancholic character Jaques, to find that literature tends to represent the ambiguous character of melancholy, showing its intellectual face but at the same time hinting at its negative aspects. She subsequently turns to doctors’ casebooks and patient narratives, to see how these two views of melancholy were experienced in medical practice. Sullivan discovered that doctors tend to associate the condition with rather mundane physical complaints, and that patients often turned to religion as a framework to explain their suffering and healing.

The final two chapters of the thesis explore the ways in which Protestant religious practice shaped new understandings of grief in post-Reformation England. In the fourth chapter, “Embodying faith: godly sorrow and the heart,” Sullivan again employs a broad range of sources including sermons, religious treatises, spiritual autobiographies, and the poetry of John Ford and George Herbert. She shows that in contrast to the prevalent conception of grief in medical and philosophical discourse, religious practice shaped a more positive experience of grief. As she puts it: “[t]he passive acceptance of sadness and suffering, believed to be sent from God, was one of the central ways in which believers could demonstrate to themselves and others the extent of their sorrow for sin, their connection with God, and their inclusion among the elect” (204). Interestingly, she also argues that in Protestant religious practice, the bodily aspects of grief were not eschewed: its understanding of grief was heavily based in notions of physical affliction. The heart, at once bodily and metaphysical in this discourse, functions as a reminder of grief’s “secret contagions”: the overflow between the bodily, mental and spiritual nature of sadness in religious practice.

Chapter five, “Tales of despair: narrative authority and interpretive possibility” establishes a fascinating link between the doctrine of double predestination and the notion of individual appropriations of existing discourses of grief that is so central to this thesis. Religious despair, if moderate, could be read as a sign of the elect, but in excessive form it was an emotion that pointed to the opposite. Because of this room for interpretation, “it became increasingly important that people wishing to identify themselves as among the godly narrated their experience of religious anxiety in a way that limited the potential for alternate interpretations” (249). In this thesis’ characteristic manner, the chapter turns to various expressions and representations of religious despair in a myriad of sources to explore the ways in which early modern believers narrated this form of sadness. In an entertaining example, Sullivan shows that attempts to relieve religious despair did not always have the intended effect. The anxiety generated by the doctrine of double predestination spawned a great number of works of “practical divinity” which sought to help their readers in identifying signs of their election by God. William Perkins published a “Table declaring the order of the causes of Salvation and Damnation,” which charted the various paths of life towards grace and reprobation (see illustration).

Perkins, "Survey or table declaring the order of the causes of salvation and damnation according to God’s word …”

The poem “The Distracted Puritan” (1648), however, suggests that these well-intended guides may have increased religious despair rather than relieved anxiety. Set to the tune of Tom of Bedlam, the speaker of the poem complains:

I observ’d in Perkins Tables
The black Lines of Damnation:
Those crooked veines
Soe stuck in my brains,
That I fear’d my Reprobation. (p. 281)

This is a wonderful example of what I consider to be one of the key strengths of this thesis: Sullivan’s attention to the ways in which the various discourses of grief were appropriated, combined, and reshaped by individual authors in early modern England.

Dissertation information: University College London, University of London, 2010. 348pp. Supervisors: Hal Cook, Andrew Wear, and René Weis.

The Transmission of Emotions

An Interdisciplinary Symposium

The Transmission of Emotions
An Interdisciplinary Symposium

Friday 10 February 2012, 12.30-17.30 hrs
VU University Amsterdam, Aurorazaal

‘The business of understanding the transmission of affect has barely begun’
– Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (2004)

How and why do we sense and share the emotions of others? The question of how we are moved by the feelings of others has long remained largely unexplored in psychology, neurology, and language research. It is only recently that various disciplines have begun to unravel the mechanisms of empathy, emotional contagion, and the operations of affect in watching a film or reading a novel.

This interdisciplinary symposium brings together three scientists who explore the transmission of emotions from different disciplinary perspectives: neurology, social psychology and psycholinguistics. Their lectures will introduce current knowledge of the transmission of emotion in these three fields. The symposium seeks to encourage interdisciplinary exchange on this broad-ranging topic so fundamental to understanding human interaction.

The speakers:

  • Christian Keysers (neurology): The emphatic brain
  • Agneta Fischer (social psychology): The regulation of social relations through emotional mimicry
  • Jos van Berkum (psycholinguistics): So what about emotion in language?

Click here to register (before 25 January 2012)

For more information, please see the ACCESS website or contact Kristine Steenbergh (k[dot]steenbergh[at]vu[dot]nl).

This event is organized by the Amsterdam Centre for Cross-Disciplinary Emotion and Sensory Studies, sponsored by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research and the Faculty of Arts, VU University.

Illustration by Camilla Engman (

Conference: Cultural history of Dutch Emotions

Cool, Calm and Collected
The Dutch and their Emotions in Pre-Modern Times

Koninklijke Bibliotheek Den Haag
4 November 2011

Registration by way of an e-mail to: info[at]knhg[dot]nl, or by telephone: +31 (0)70 3140363

The conference ‘Cool, Calm and Collected’ aims to enhance the burgeoning history of emotions in the Netherlands. Speakers at the conference will present their current research, integrating the study of emotional standards in advice literature with the study of actual emotional practices in ego documents, chronicles or archival sources. The fields covered will range from politics, philosophy and the urban feud to religion, the stage and the visual arts. The conference will not only be of interest to specialists in the history of emotions but also to the greater historical community.

Although the history of emotions was already suggested as an interesting topic by Lucien Febvre and Johan Huizinga it has been taken up seriously as a subject of historical study only fairly recently. Initially, historians limited themselves largely to the study of documents that prescribed emotional ideals and standards. Researchers are now going beyond such texts. They are currently identifying transformations in emotional ‘communities’ and ‘styles’ on the basis of letters, autobiographies and memoirs, as well as a variety of narrative, archival and visual sources. Historians are also emphasising performativity, what emotions actually do. At the institutional level, in Europe two important research centres have been started: in London the Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions (Thomas Dixon, director); in Berlin the ‘Forschungsbereich Geschichte der Gefühle’ (Ute Frevert, director). This conference seeks to establish a more solid footing for the history of emotions in the Netherlands and join in with these international trends.

The speakers at the conference will discuss the emotional styles of the Modern Devouts and the cult of pugnacity in Late Medieval feuds. Focusing on the seventeenth century, they will reconsider the performativity accorded to the emotions in painting, the theater, and pietist religious movements. For the eighteenth century, speakers will analyse the Dutch ‘cult of sensibility’, the contemporary appreciation and navigation of the sentiments. The day will be closed with a lecture by Dorothee Sturkenboom. She is a pioneer in the study of emotions in the Netherlands and will relate the emotional history of the Dutch to contemporary and more recent views on their ‘national character’.

The conference’s keynote lecturer, the well-known English historian Thomas Dixon, will discuss the latest developments in the field.

The organisers: Wessel Krul, Herman Roodenburg, and Catrien Santing.

The conference will take place in the National Library of the Netherlands (KB) in The Hague.

The conference fee is € 30,- (€ 25,- for members of the KNHG and € 15,- for students and PhD students) and includes lunch. The conference fee should be transferred to account number 6934391 of Nederlands Historisch Genootschap in The Hague.

Registration by way of an e-mail to:, or by telephone: +31 (0)70 3140363.


9. 45 – 10.00                          Welcome Catrien Santing (Groningen University), chair

10.00 – 10.15                       Introduction Herman Roodenburg (Meertens Institute)

10.15 – 11.00                        Keynote lecture Thomas Dixon (Queen Mary, London)

                                                 History in British Tears: Some Reflections on the Anatomy of Modern Emotions

 11.00 – 11.15                        Coffee/tea

11.15 – 11.45                        Mathilde van Dijk (Groningen University),

                                                 ‘Just some silly Beguine’: being pious and showing it in the Devotio Moderna

11.45 – 12.15                        Matthijs Gerrits ( Leiden University )

                                                Anger and Feuding in the Late Medieval Northern Low Countries

12.15 – 13.30                        Lunch

13.00-13.30                          Annual Meeting Koninklijk Nederlands Historisch Genootschap

13.30 – 14.00                        Kristine Steenbergh (VU University)

                                                  Vondel and the Role of Emotions in the Public Sphere

14.00 – 14.30                        Fred van Lieburg (VU University)

                                                  The Use of Emotions by the Hotter Sort of Protestant

14.30 – 15.00                        Eric Jan Sluyter (Amsterdam University)

                                                  The Changing Representation of the Passions in History Paintings by Rembrandt and his Amsterdam Colleagues


15.00 – 15.15                        Coffee and tea

15.15 – 15.45                        Wessel Krul (Groningen University )

                                                 Phlegmatic Excitement. The Dutch and the Discovery of the Emotions in the 18th Century

15.45 – 16.15                        Edwina Hagen (VU University)

                                                 The Passionate Politics of Rutger Jan and Catharina Schimmelpenninck: Dialogue between the Head and the Heart.

16.15 – 16.45                        Dorothée Sturkenboom (independent scholar)

                                                The Dutch Temperament: An Enigma to be Explained…

16.45 – 17.30                       Reflections by Dixon, Roodenburg and Santing, followed by Plenary Discussion

17.30-18.00                         Drinks