An Introduction to the History of Emotions


The history of emotions is an increasingly prominent scholarly field. This article has two aims. Firstly, it aims to serve as an introduction to some of the key debates surrounding emotions. Secondly, the article aims to highlight some of the issues that still need to be addressed. By doing this, it will become clear that emotions are an exciting subject for the historian to study and that there are still many interesting questions to be asked about them.



Peter Stearns

In the study of emotions, scholars have had to answer numerous questions such as how should we approach the history of emotions? And what concepts and tools are best used to understand emotions? Peter and Carol Stearns argue that the concept of emotionology is the most helpful methodology for understanding emotions. Emotionology can be described as the way in which society or a group thinks about emotions and their expression. This differs from an individual experience of an emotion. Historians, according to the Stearns, have mainly focused on emotional standards rather than actual reactions. One can access an emotionology through literature like handbooks or advisory documents. Meanwhile, the degree to which emotional standard affect ‘real’ emotions can be gained through reading diaries and personal letters. However, it can often be hard to do the latter, as an emotionology may be influencing how the author reacts, and what they write down. The main advantage with the Stearns approach is that it makes a distinction between ideal and reality,  allowing us to assess when a society’s expectations are influencing individual emotions. However, while the Stearns’ ideas are useful for understanding modern history, it is questionable whether this is the same for the medieval period. Letters and diaries are less abundant during the medieval period, and those collections that do exist were often selective and edited. The latter could also indicate a wider point; that the division between emotionology and emotion is perhaps not always easy to make.

Barbara Rosenwein’s concept of emotional communities is arguably better for understanding the medieval period. An emotional community is just like any other social community, but is defined by its emotional norms and practices. Individuals can be members of multiple communities which often surrounded groups dominating textual production. Rosenwein identified three successive communities in Merovingian Gaul. One surrounded Gregory of Tours, the poet Venantius Fortunatus and the Austrasian court of Queen Brunhild, next the Neustrian court that overtook her and finally a supra-regional elite that became prominent in the seventh century. The main benefit of Rosenwein’s approach is that it challenges the idea, which will be explored below, that the medieval period was less rational and more emotional than modernity. However, Rosenwein does not necessarily consider a number of primary source issues that may make it difficult to identify emotional communities. Gregory’s positive portrayal of Brunhild is at odds with the later Chronicle of Fredegar, in which she arouses ‘fury against her’ due to allegedly murdering ten kings. Likewise, Gregory’s negative portrayal of Queen Fredegund could potentially be explained by the fact that she was accused of murdering his patron, Sigibert of Austrasia. It may be that we are simply finding the political rhetoric in the sources, rather than different emotional communities. 

William Reddy introduces a number of concepts that can be used to understand emotions. Emotives are utterances which alter the state of an emotion itself, by the effect vocalisation can have, like reaffirming or denying a particular state.  The main advantage of Reddy’s concept of emotives is that it makes a bridge between the experience of an emotion, and the language used to describe it. ‘Emotions are the real-world-anchor of signs’ and therefore emotives confirm the existence of something outside of language by failing at representation. Reddy also uses the ideas of ‘emotional regimes’ and ‘emotional refuges’ in his work. An emotional regime is a dominant form of emotional expression, whereas a refuge would be the style that develops in resistance to it. Emotional regimes and refuges are ultimately changed by the power of emotives and the transformative impact of utterances.

Narratives of Emotional Change

Norbert Elias

Norbert Elias

Scholars have also come up with different narratives to explain how emotions have changed over time. The sociologist Norbert Elias suggested that ‘in more complex societies, emotions are more suppressed to safety’ because ‘from the interdependence of people arises an order more compelling and stronger than the will and reason of the people composing it’. This is in contrast to the medieval era, where individuals possessed less control of their passions.

However, this grand narrative of greater emotional restraint in modernity does not hold up under scrutiny. Harvey, writing about Bishops between 1100 to 1400, demonstrates how emotions usually considered more passionate, like tears, can actually be a sign of self-control. Harvey writes ‘His [a bishop’s] tears reflected his heightened awareness of the gap separating him from God, but also offered him the chance to close the gap.’ Harvey also suggests tears could deployed strategically like a weapon. For example, after the Council of Clarendon in 1164, Thomas Becket lamented his sins, which had delivered the Church into slavery. Furthermore, the idea that modernity is more self-restrained can also be undermined by Langhammer’s argument that passionate romantic love only emerged during the post-war era. Best and Furedi’s work on the emergence of road rage in the 1990s likewise does this.

Since a grand narrative can be so easily scrutinised, there perhaps should be an increased focus on cycles of emotional release and restraint instead. Studied by Reddy, the idea of emotional regimes supports this. In eighteenth century France, the emotional regime was the absolutist court, whereas the ‘extreme’ emotion of sentimentalism appeared in the refuge of the salons and theatres. After the Revolution, emotions were eventually tamed again.  A more cyclical approach is also more apparent in the Stearns’ work on the Victorians. The early Victorian emotionology was based around preserving the family. However, their later emotionology made emotions, like anger, more acceptable, as long as they were deployed with self-restraint. Approaches like Reddy’s and the Stearns’ are more nuanced than Elias, but there are still a number of issues with them to consider. Firstly, they still analyse on the grand scale, and miss how complex and often contradictory human emotions can be. On the other hand, it could be argued that they are not broad enough. They only identify cycles in their pertinent eras, and a lot of work would need to be done to fill in the gaps for other periods. It is certain that narrating the history of emotions is no simple task.

Emotions and Words

Depiction of Acedia in Sopron, Hungary

Acedia depicted as a sleeping man and a bat in the Goat Church in Hungary

An additional debate surrounds whether emotions change over time. It has been questioned whether they are biological constants or social constructions and whether emotions alter over time or if it is merely that their names change. A key emotion for understanding this debate is acedia. This emerged in early Christian monasticism, and is mentioned in the texts of Evagrius, Cassian and John Chrysostom. Acedia is highly problematic because authors, even within a short time frame, describe it very differently. Its symptoms include sleepiness, sickness, weakness in the knees, a lack of attention to prayer and overall dissatisfaction with monastic life or even the exact opposite, too much dedication to asceticism. It is unclear whether these authors are all writing about the same emotion. Modern scholars have had to come up with several explanations for acedia. This includes linking it to depression, or Emile Durkheim’s concept of anomie, which describes a disjuncture between a society’s expectations and an individual’s ability to reach them. Acedia could therefore represent a modern emotional state or alternatively its variety could be explained by temporal change.

It is worth pointing out that many scholars who employ a constructionist approach often make a recourse to biology. Ute Frevert describes how the emotion of ‘honour can confuse those looking for a biological’ explanation, while also suggesting that brain damage can impair a person’s sympathy. We should certainly not rule out the impact human physiology might have on emotions, but it is this author’s belief that the debate between those who take a ‘universal’ and ‘constructionist’ approach might be misguided. The variety of symptoms produced by emotions can be explained by the inherent ‘slipperiness’ of the language we use to talk about them. Different emotions and emotional words only receive meaning through each other and not by themselves. You cannot understand love without hate, and happiness without sadness. Therefore, an emotion may have many symptoms because of how it receives its meaning, rather than it having universal features or changing over time. Many modern medical definitions have a variety of symptoms, therefore perhaps we should expect the same for emotions today and throughout history.

While the history of emotions often revolves around words, we should also not forget the role of visuality. For example, Colin Jones has looked at the representation of teeth during the last century of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century France. At the Court of Versailles, there was a tradition of hiding your teeth, whereas in Paris new dental techniques made open mouths more acceptable. Meanwhile, Rosenthal has looked at the role of whiteness and blushing in eighteenth century British portraiture by examining how they expressed ideas about race. Certainly, visual evidence can be as just as insightful as the written word.

Emotions and Power

Emotions are also heavily connected with the exercise of power. They have had a particularly prominent role in gender relations. For example, after World War I, the Edwardian idea of ‘stoic’ manliness broke down due to the tough experience of warfare. Post-war memoirs and novels, such as Herbert’s The Secret Battle (1919), emphasised the complexity and diversity of emotional reactions. In Ancient Greece, male and female emotions differed based on the gap between different genders. Gender relations were in flux in the mid-seventh century BCE, but by 580 BCE, an ideology of controlled rationality had emerged.

Emotions can and have been mobilised politically. Nicole Eustace comments on how emotions were used during the American Revolution; ‘The spirit of liberty arose from the careful blend of genteel feeling and popular passion. Consisting of a heady blend of civic love, mighty anger, and communal sympathy and public grief’. This was to mediate between the apparent ‘insensibility imputed to the enslaved and the excessive spirit ascribed to Indians and the enslaved and the excessive spirit ascribed to Indians and while also avoiding the ineffectual effeminacy attributed to the English’. As Liu has argued, the mobilisation of emotions was also apparent under Maoism in China and was based around three themes: victimisation, redemption and emancipation. Each theme respectively produced indignation in struggle campaigns, guilt in thought reform campaigns and final euphoria for social reform. Emotions during the American Revolution and in Maoist China were used and assigned in a diverse variety of ways.


This article has looked at a number of key issues in the history of emotions. It has hoped to serve as an effective introduction to these, while also raising some questions that still need to be answered. The history of emotions is a rapidly developing field and there is still plenty of new ground to be explored.

Written By: Liam Greenacre


Primary Sources

Gregory of Tours, Ten Books of Histories in The History of the Franks translated by Lewis                                   Thorpe. London: Penguin, 1974.

Fredegar, Chronicle in The Fourth Book of The Chronicle of Fredegar and Continuations  translated by John M. Wallace-Hadrill. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1960.

Secondary Sources

Best, Joel and Frank Furedi. “The Evolution of Road Rage in Britain and the United States.” In How Claims Spread: Cross-national Diffusion of Social Problems, edited by Joel Best, 89-106. New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 2001.

Crislip, Andrew. “The Sin of Sloth or the Illness of the Demons? The Demon of Acedia in Early Christian Monasticism.” The Harvard Theological Review 98, no. 2 (2005): 143-69.

Eustace, Nicole. Passion is The Gale: Emotion, Power and The American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Harvey, Katherine. “Episcopal Emotions: Tears in the Life of the Medieval Bishop.” Historical Research 87, no. 238 (2014): 591-610.

Jones, Colin. “The King’s Two Teeth” History Worskhop Journal 65 no.1 (2004): 79-95.

Langhamer, Claire. “Love, Selfhood and Authenticity in Post-War Britain.” Cultural and Social History 9, no. 2 (2012): 277-97.

Lin, Yu. “’Maoist Discourse And the Mobilization of Emotions in Revolutionary China” Modern China 36, No. 3 (2010): 329-362.

Elias, Norbert. “The Social Constant Towards Self-Constraint.” In Norbert Elias: On Civilization, Power and Knowledge, edited by Johan Goudsblom and Stephen Menell, 49-67. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Frevert, Ute. Emotions in History-Lost and Found.  Budapest: Central European University Press, 2011.

Reddy, William. “Against Constructionism: The Historical Ethnography of Emotions.” Current Anthropology 38, no. 3 (1997): 327-51.

———. “Sentimentalism and Its Erasure: The Role of Emotions in the Era of the French Revolution.” The Journal of Modern History 72, no. 1 (2000): 109-52.

Roper, Michael. “Between Manliness and Masculinity: The War Generation and the Psychology of Fear in Britain, 1914- 1950.” Journal of British Studies 44, no. 2 (2005): 343-62

Rosenthal,  Angela. “Visceral Culture: Blushing and The Legibility of Whiteness in Eigthteenth-Century British Portraiture.” Art History, 27, no.4 (2004): 563-592.

Rosenwein, Barbara H. Emotional Communities in The Early Middle Ages.  New York: Cornell University Press, 2006.

———. “I Theories of Change in the History of Emotions.” In A History of Emotions, 1200-1800, edited by Jonas Liliequist, 7-20. London: Pickering and Chatto Ltd, 2012.

———. “Worrying about Emotions in History.” The American Historical Review 107, no. 3 (2002): 821-45.

Stearns, Carol Z. and Peter N. Stearns. “Emotionology: Claryfying The History of Emotions and Emotional Standards.” The American Historical Review, 90, no.4 (1985), 813-836.

Strearns, Peter N. American Cool: Constituing a Twentieth-Century Emotional Style. New York: New York University Press, 1994.

Toohey, Peter. “Acedia in Late Classical Antiquity.” Illinois Classical Studies 15, no. 2 (1990): 339-52.

Van Wees, Hans. “A Brief History of Tears: Gender Differentiation in Ancient Greece.” In When Men Were Men: Masculinity, Power and Identity in Classical Antiquity, edited by John Salmon and Lin Foxhall, 10-53. London: Routledge, 2013.

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