Reading Faces: Bodies, Senses, Lives

By CHE Associate Investigator Melissa Raine, University of Melbourne

Image: 'Scene from a Novella'. by Liberale da Verona, ca. 1445–1527. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Image: ‘Scene from a Novella’. by Liberale da Verona, ca. 1445–1527. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

When I attended the recent “Reading the Face” collaboratory at the University of Melbourne, I was hopeful that bringing together the diverse subjects and perspectives listed in the program would result in unexpected connections and insights. I was not to be disappointed.

I was struck by the differing understandings of how the face was apprehended; a closely related issue was the connection between the face and the body. This gave me much to think about in terms of my current interest in the interplay of the senses and emotion. Jane Davidson’s work demonstrated how, during live performance, the faces of pianists affect the listener’s experience of the music. Her paper established, to my mind, the importance of a multi-sensory approach: although we “believe” music is experienced aurally, sound does not operate in isolation when other senses have the opportunity to participate. Another striking example of “sensory entrainment” emerged from discussion of Lisa Beaven’s interpretation of a landscape by Poussin. The term “ripple” was applied to the extraordinary effect, in the painting, of emotion transmitted from one figure to the next. That ripple was clearly aural in part, originating in the horrified cry of a witness to a terrible death. Alison Inglis discussed pre-Raphaelite artist George Sandys’ repeated representations of a young woman chewing on a lock of her own hair. This gesture, it seemed to me, played with the desire to touch that is implicit in eroticised images of young women, rendering her less available to the audience. When Stephanie Downes discussed the intimacy of encountering faces in the margins of medieval manuscripts, I found myself wondering, which sense truly apprehends the written text? Does reading a text with marginal faces require two different modes of apprehension simultaneously?

In my experience of the conference, two papers spoke to each other with particular urgency, both dealing with personal responses to traumatic early life experiences, both searching intensely for empowerment. Sarah Richardson discussed the confronting work of Phoebe Gloeckner, who draws upon her own childhood and young-adult experiences of sexual abuse and addiction in her graphic novels. Her work is explicit and distressing. Bindi Cole Chocka spoke of her own history of neglect and abuse, and its relationship with her video installation, We All Need Forgiveness, where 30 individual videotaped faces look out at the audience, uttering the phrase “I forgive you”. This work affected many collaboratory participants powerfully, and positively. By comparison, Gloeckner’s work seemed overwhelming for many, but her images have stayed with me. As Richardson pointed out, Gloeckner reclaims the agency of the abused subjects she represents; by refusing to flinch from representing the explicitness of the abuses, her work challenges the shamefulness that can be so insidiously associated with the recipient of abuse.

Chocka’s work involved “face” in an almost pure form, the focus entirely on the expressions and words spoken; Gloeckner’s faces were inextricable from bodies and what was done to the whole person. Chocka spoke about an earlier phase in her work where her art was “angry”, a phase she’d left behind; I wondered if she would consider Gloeckner’s work angry? If so, would she accord it any positive value? Similarly, Chocka’s emphasis on forgiveness implied an end goal of healing; I wondered what Gloeckner, a trained medical illustrator who also creates images of herself diseased to challenge the viewer’s gaze, would make of the concept? While Gloeckner’s faces and bodies were inextricable, perhaps the most powerful face of the conference for me was Gloeckner’s luridly graphic, cloyingly innocent eight-year-old girl poised on the brink of an early abuse, the enticement by her stepfather to feel grown-up by drinking wine. I say cloying, because the hyper-innocence and sweetness of this face defied – or should have defied — the possibility of exploitation. The most disturbing detail was the girl’s missing tooth. The blackness of that gap seemed symbolically to foreshadow the possibility of trespass, bringing home the sickening vulnerability of the child, the magnitude of that betrayal of trust, the sheer damage that would be inflicted. The difficulty of looking at Gloeckner’s work underscores how important it is for her work to be looked at.

Gloeckner’s faces were powerfully connected to disturbing representations of bodies, provoking often visceral responses; the multi-sensory apprehension that is at work in more pleasing aesthetic experiences was also in play here, the results discomforting, but generating understanding and empathy. The very detachment of Chocka’s faces from context, including body, seemed integral to the sense of resolution that her work strives to promote. Not surprisingly, I found myself connecting these works with the testimony from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that were, on those same days, entering my awareness via the media. I wondered if either Chocka’s or Gloeckner’s works might speak to any of these people, and more importantly, make a meaningful contribution to any of those lives.

Unexpected insights? Most certainly.

Livestream videos of the presentations may be found here.

Why education matters: breaking cycles of child labour in the past and in the present

'Against Child Labou'r flyer from the International Labour Organisation.

‘Against Child Labour’ flyer from the International Labour Organisation.

June 12 was ‘World Against Child Labour Day’, where nations and individuals mark their protest against the 215 million children around the world who continue to do work that harms them or stops them from attending school.[1] One of the ways the problem of modern child labour is being tackled is through promoting the benefits of education, marked in 2015 by the slogan ‘No to Child Labour. Yes to Quality Education’. Yet, this is not a solution that is novel to the twenty-first century, nor is it one that is particularly straightforward. Education as a route out of poverty and as a way of gaining status and financial security is firmly rooted in the past. There has been a demand for quality education by poor parents since the early modern period and a number of responses to this problem. In the early eighteenth century a pro-forma for setting up charity schools was written which highlights the importance of education and the flourishing demand for charity schools during the period:

A Form of a Subscription for a Charity School, 1699-1718

‘And whereas many Poor People are desirous of having their Children Taught, but are not able to afford them a Christian and Useful Education; We whose Names are underwritten, do agree to pay Yearly, at Four equal Payments, the several and respective Sums of Money over against our Names respectively subscribed, for the setting up of a Charity-School in the Parish of in the City of or in the County of for Teaching [Poor Boys, or Poor Girls, or] Poor children to Read and Instructing them in the Knowledge and Practice of the Christian Religion … and for Learning them such other Things as are suitable to their Condition and Capacity.’

The specifics for each charity school are helpfully left blank to ease the process of creating new schools for poorer children.

Of course, the same problems existed in the past as they do today. How do families accommodate the loss of earnings when their children are in school instead of working? How can poor families provide the necessary clothing, books and tools for the young school boy or school girl? These problems were just as real in the past as they are for countless families today who rely on everyone in the family contributing to often inadequate family incomes. But breaking this cycle and encouraging education has historically been one of the issues parents, local communities and religious leaders have confronted, even when attempts to provide education can only be described as sporadic, slow and definitely privileging the education of boys over girls. We’d do well to remember that it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that England would make primary school education free and compulsory.

At the same time, the provision of compulsory schooling should not romantically be seen as an investment in a work-free childhood. Not only did many children in the past and today combine work with school, but much schooling has been ideologically and practically designed to create a highly-skilled workforce. State investments in education continue to be justified on the grounds that employers require their workforces at a minimum to be literate and numerate, and often to have a broad range of knowledge. Updates in the curriculum are still justified in terms of business-need, as much as what benefits the welfare of the child.

Moreover, child labour has incorporated a wide range of experiences, especially when considered over time and place. Most modern audiences have little tolerance for children’s labour being used in factories or industrial work, where children are apart from families, face poor working conditions, and even poorer wages, and where children’s later life opportunities seem limited by such experiences. The social, physical and emotional toll this takes on children should not be underestimated. The ‘World Against Child Labour Day’ recognises the physical, psychosocial and moral dangers of child labour.

Historically however, much child labour happened in the home and within family structures. In such spaces, children might be taught to work the farm they would inherit or be apprenticed to a trade, such as millinery work for girls or shoe-making for boys, that provided children with the opportunities to run successful businesses, even become very wealthy, in later life. For such children, child labour was also a form of education that was often done by parents or parent-proxies. Apprenticeship contracts, for example, typically required that the employers whom children lived with not only provided a good education in their trade, but ensured the health and social wellbeing of their wards. Cruel masters were subject to discipline, both by the courts and the wider community.

The importance of education for such children was less about making good workers, or even enabling social mobility, than making good citizens. Education also provides children with the ability to read widely, to engage in political debate and to fully participate in the social and cultural life of their communities. Education provides access to a dimension of cultural life that reminds us that life is not only about work, but about the pleasures of creativity and cultural engagement. Perhaps most importantly, education ensures that people from all social backgrounds have the opportunity to have their voices heard in the public sphere. As we commemorate ‘World Against Child Labour Day’, and demand quality education for all children, we are reminded that what we want from education is not just good workers, or a more economically-productive society, but a society that provides the opportunity for children to explore their talents, that supports their abilities, that encourages equality for girls and boys, that teaches them to care about each other and wider society, that is politically engaged, and where everyone is able to participate in everything that it means to be human.

By Merridee Bailey and Katie Barclay

[1] International Labour Organisation Figures.

‘Arousing sluggish souls’: Hildegard of Bingen and the Ordo Virtutum

By CHE Associate Investigator, Julie Hotchin, Australian National University, Canberra.

The enduring appeal of Hildegard of Bingen’s (1098-1179) music was apparent in early May when a full house in Canberra was treated to an ethereal, poignant and at times playful performance of her liturgical drama the Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues). Vocalists from the Song Company and the Young Artist Festival Fellows, directed by Dutch early music specialist Koen van Stade as part of the Canberra International Music Festival, movingly performed Hildegard’s elaborate, soaring melodies to accompaniment on the harmonium by Festival Artistic Director Roland Peelman. The Ordo is rarely performed, in part due to the technical demands Hildegard’s music makes on performers, and on this occasion the vocalists conveyed the subtlety and force of the music with dramatic impact. The concert was an opportunity to experience the play and reflect on how its interplay of feeling and song convey spiritual meaning.

Hildegard – a Benedictine nun, visionary, theologian and musician  ̶  is unique in the history of Western music. She composed over 60 songs for Mass and Divine Office known as the Symphony of the harmony of celestial revelations, as well as the songs that comprise the Ordo Virtutum. Most of her lyrics, with notated music, are preserved in her ‘collected works’, the so-called Riesencodex, which was compiled at Rupertsberg in the final years of her life.


Beginning of the Ordo VIrtutum, Wiesbaden, Hessische Landesbibliothek, Hs. 2, f. 478v.

Beginning of the Ordo VIrtutum, Wiesbaden, Hessische Landesbibliothek, Hs. 2, f. 478v.

(The Riesencodex is digitised here)

The Ordo Virtutum dates to the late 1140s and the early 1150s, the seer’s most fertile and productive period. Hildegard completed her first visionary treatise, Scivias, by 1151. The Ordo, like Hildegard’s other writings, was inspired by her visionary and auditory experience. In the final section of Scivias, Hildegard describes how she ‘saw the lucent sky, in which I heard different kinds of music (symphonia), marvelously embodying all the meanings I had heard before’ (Scivias, XIII; Hart, p. 525). Then follow lyrics for 14 songs and a shorter dialogue between the virtues, a soul and the devil that she later elaborated into the Ordo. If we understand Hildegard’s reference to ‘all the meanings I had heard before’ to be her work Scivias, her comment reveals how she conceived her treatise, music and drama as a unity to express her teaching about the path towards, and joy of, salvation. Although scholars differ on the specific occasion when the Ordo may have been performed  ̶  to celebrate the removal of Hildegard’s community from Disibodenberg to Rupertsberg in 1150, for a nun’s entrance into the community, or prior to receiving communion – it is evident that Hildegard designed it for her nuns to perform, creating a communal expression of confession and forgiveness.

In the Ordo, Hildegard creatively adapted traditional forms of liturgical drama and classical ideas about the battle between the virtues and vices to craft a story about the journey of ‘everysoul’. The central character in the play, Anima, is at once a particular and universal soul. She is the centre of a struggle between the Devil and the Virtues. Anima is first presented as happy, although she soon falls into discouragement and is lured into sin by the wiles of the Devil. With the aid of the Virtues Anima returns, weakened and bruised, and repents her ways. Humbled, she implores the virtues for assistance and with their aid the Devil is defeated and bound. The play concludes with a final melismatic chant by the Virtues and Anima representing the jubilation of the heavenly chorus.

Hildegard conceives of the Virtues as attributes of divinity that aid and strengthen the soul. The 17 Virtues in the play are drawn from the many Hildegard introduces and discusses in her visionary works. Each of these has special meaning for women living a monastic life – such as Humilitas, presented here as queen of the Virtues, Caritas, Obedientia and Discretio. We may imagine how a performance at Rupertsberg presented Hildegard’s nuns with role models for behaviour and instruction on the meaning and significance of particular virtues for the difficult path of spiritual life. It is intriguing to think about how the roles may have been assigned or selected by the nuns – were individuals chosen to perform a virtue that they already embodied, or one they needed to develop?

The musical structure of the Ordo reinforces the spiritual intent of the drama, distinguishing between sorrowing for sin and rejoicing in victory. The individual Virtues sing short elaborate songs in high modes, echoing their heavenly origins. Anima moves between happy and despairing, the shifts in tone and pace of her song from high to low, fast to slow, reflecting her differing emotional states. The only figure who does not sing is the Devil. Instead he angrily interjects, startles, and growls his challenge to the Virtues and his inducements to Anima. This juxtaposition of sound is intentional, for in Hildegard’s thought anger separated people from God. An angry person could not hear the heavenly symphony, and lacked a human voice. In presenting the Devil as uttering growling, bestial sounds, Hildegard portrays him as discordant and inharmonious, trapped in his fundamental disobedience to God.

To indicate the emotions the performers were to display, the rubrics in the Riesencodex text include emotion words as guides. When we first meet Anima she is described as felix (happy), later gravata (depressed), infelix (unhappy) and penitens (penitent). Similarly, the cleric who performed the role of the Devil is instructed to speak strepitus (noisily). Facial expression, gesture and movement all contribute to the emotional tenor of the drama. At his first appearance in Canberra, the Devil interrupted the rhythmic sound of the harmonium, interjecting a discordant and humorous note.

The Ordo reflects Hildegard’s idea that music can move the heart to change, to arouse the soul to repent. Towards the end of Scivias she wrote:

‘And as the power of God is everywhere and encompasses all things [. . .] so too the human intellect has great power to resound in living voices, and arouse sluggish souls to vigilance by the song’ (Scivias, III, xiii; Hart, p. 533).

In the tradition of Gregory the Great, Hildegard also stresses music’s ability to induce compunction of the heart: ‘For the song of rejoicing softens hard hearts, and draws forth from them the tears of compunction, and invokes the Holy Spirit’ (Scivias, III, xiv; Hart, p. 534).

We see here how Hildegard’s embodied conception of song, through which the breath moves through the body in a way that acts upon the soul, was thought to effect change within the person. Music could soften a hard heart and turn it towards heaven. She uses music to dramatise and evoke the emotional force of repentance, as Anima moves away from pride and grows in humility, before expressing contrition. Hildegard’s musical painting encapsulates the teaching contained in her lengthy visionary treatises and condenses it into a dramatic performance that engages ‘hearts and minds’. Here we see the consummate skill of the teacher keen to shape the lives of her community for the better. Hildegard’s music shows the breadth of her creative expression and how she lent a distinctively female voice to the celebration of the divine in the liturgy. The Ordo also prompts us to reflect on the relations between emotions and the qualities that we desire as virtues in our own lives and how we can bring them into being.

Further Reading:

For an edition and translation of the Ordo Virtutum see Peter Dronke, ‘Ordo VIrtutum, The Play of the Virtues, by Hildegard of Bingen’, in his Nine Medieval Latin Plays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 147-184.

Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, translated by Sister Columba Hart. Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), esp. Book Three.

The Ordo Virtutum of Hildegard of Bingen: Critical Studies, ed. by Audrey Ekdahl Davidson (Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University, 1992).

Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom: St Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

Voice of the Living Light, ed. by Barbara Newman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

Margot Fassler, ‘Composer and Dramatist’, in Voice of the Living Light, pp. 149-175.

Recycling in the Viking Age: Scandinavian re-use of monuments in Britain


By Shane McLeod, University of Stirling, Scotland, UK, Honorary Researcher, CHE

In honour of World Environment Day this note examines what may be considered a Viking Age example of recycling in Britain – the re-use of earlier monuments for burial. In true recycling style, this re-use of landscape features by the immigrants often involved adapting the monument to a new purpose.

The Viking Age has numerous examples of Scandinavians recycling, including material from other cultures such as silver, weapons and, perhaps most revealingly, metal-work taken from religious items and turned into jewellery. However, another example of recycling had the ability, in rare instances, to transform the immediate environment: the re-use of monuments for Viking burial. Once thought to be an example of expediency, or indeed laziness, most Scandinavian scholars now propose that in Viking Age Scandinavia earlier monuments were deliberately chosen as they were potent echoes of past power. Appropriating them for new burials was a way of associating the family of the dead with past rulers of the land, thereby legitimizing the current claimants by emphasizing a sense of continuation. Perhaps the most famous example, and the one which most altered the landscape, is the Jelling complex created by King Gorm and his son Harald Bluetooth, in which two large burial mounds (one an enlarged Bronze Age mound), two rune stones, and a church superseded a large ship setting.

Re-use of earlier monuments by Scandinavians for burials also occurred when they settled in Britain (primarily in England and Scotland) despite the impossibility, or at least extreme unlikelihood, of being able to claim kinship with those who had built the original monument. There are examples of earlier settlement sites re-used for burial, such as brochs at Castletown (north Scottish mainland) and Gurness, and even an abandoned Norse house at Buckquoy (both Orkney); as well as a cairn at Skeabost (Isle of Skye). However, the most common example of Viking Age re-use in Britain is in earlier burial mounds/barrows, effectively adding the dead of the new conquerors/settlers to the burial places of those who had previously ruled the land. Examples include the re-use of Bronze Age burial mounds at Housegord (Shetland), Aspatria (Cumbria), and Claughton Hall (Lancashire), whilst a Neolithic long-barrow was re-used for two burials at Rampside (Lancashire: it is not known if the church site is older than the Viking burial). The dates of these monuments clearly demonstrate that many of them were extremely old features in the landscape by the Viking Age, and it may be that the immigrants were seeking parallels to the ancient monuments that they were familiar with in Scandinavia. As Britain was Christian by the time of the Viking Age (there are many examples of Scandinavian burials in Christian cemeteries) it is uncertain what the relationship of the local populations was to these ancient burial places. It could even be questioned how bothered they would have been that the new Viking elite were being buried in mounds that had not been used for burial for millennia. However, work by Sarah Semple on the Anglo-Saxon material has demonstrated that in many instances such places remained important in the local psyche, sometimes as part of local folklore, but often as places related to elite, even royal, power. Consequently, the local importance of Viking burial in these ancient monuments should not be underestimated.

The most radical re-fashioning of the environment by Vikings for burial in Britain occurred at Repton. Although some burials took place in the churchyard excavations in the 1980s, there was an uncovering of a mass burial near the church of at least 264 individuals who were placed in a large mound created by cutting down a building. The two-room building had been cut down almost to ground level and the de-fleshed bones were placed in one of the rooms and then covered with a cairn, which in turn was covered by a mound of pebbles and edged by kerb-stones. There was also a pit at the edge of the mound containing four juvenile skeletons, possibly sacrificed to commemorate the closing of the mound. The recycling of a building to create a large burial mound (approximately 14 x 11 metres) would have had a large visual impact on the surrounding environment, especially the potentially dazzling effect of the pebbles used to seal the mound. It is also likely to have had an emotional impact upon the local population who would be reminded of the events that had taken place at the site every time they saw the mound.

In all of these examples, the recycling of ancient non-Scandinavian monuments for Scandinavian burial was a way for incoming elite to appropriate prominent places in the landscape to demonstrate their power and control of the surrounding land. The action would have changed the way in which people interacted with the sites, as whatever associations had existed were now replaced by that of a burial place for the migrant elite.

Image taken by the author.

«I feel. Therefore I am.» Scratch Notes on the Rome Symposium “Feelings Matter: Exploring the Cultural Dynamics of Emotion in Early Modern Europe”

Posted by Giovanni Tarantino

On 30 March 2015, in Rome, Giovanni Tarantino (CHE, Melbourne) and Giuseppe Marcocci (Tuscia University, Viterbo) convened the CHE-sponsored symposium Feelings Matter: Exploring the Cultural Dynamics of Emotion in Early Modern Europe. Hosted by the Istituto Storico Italiano per l’Età Moderna e Contemporanea, the event was held under the patronage of the Giunta Centrale per gli Studi Storici (the Italian National Commission for Historical Studies). Invaluable support was also provided by the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies of the University of Melbourne, by the Department of Humanities at the University of Eastern Piedmont and by the Department of Cultural Heritage Sciences at Tuscia University.

7. the audience

Four leading scholars (Charles Zika, Paola von Wyss-Giacosa, Ulinka Rublack, and Yasmin Haskell) presented their research, placing particular emphasis on the fruitfulness as well as the problems associated with historic inquiry into the emotions. They discussed a very varied range of sources and themes, giving participants a rich cross-section of the interpretative possibilities offered by the history of emotions. In this field of studies, historians are challenged to update their methodological tool kit and to engage with less usual sources (such as the social life of things, clothes, food, the visual and performing arts, or intaglio techniques, to mention just a few of the topics considered). For each paper, an expert discussant made a crucial contribution by highlighting strong points and problematic issues, in order to draw everyone into what proved to be lively, critically informed and intellectually stimulating discussions. Finally, a round table coordinated by Alessandro Arcangeli (University of Verona) helped to bring into focus the themes and problems that emerged during the day, and to pinpoint some further possible lines of inquiry in relation to the early modern age. The event was attended by an international cohort of forty keenly attentive scholars from Italy, Australia, Germany, UK, France, Switzerland, and Brazil.

* * *

Italian colleagues will recall that in a recent debate about the crisis in the discipline, which was on the mailing list of the Italian Society of Early Modern Historians (SISEM), there were calls for historians to show greater liveliness and to make a joint effort to be more receptive to new historiographic lines of inquiry, from global history to transcultural studies, from environmental history to the history of emotions. The Rome Symposium sought to contribute to that most welcome discussion.
5.Giuseppe Marcocci_Fernanda Alfieri

Besides the dense themes dealt with in the four keynote presentations, two more were repeatedly alluded to in both Giovanni Tarantino and Giuseppe Marcocci’s opening remarks and in the lively discussions that followed each session. The first concerns the interrelations of language, cultures and emotions (the studies of the Polish linguist Anna Wierzbicka being a key point of reference) and the pressing need to move beyond the eurocentrism that still prevalently distinguishes and restricts the horizons of historic research into the emotions. This is evident not only in the primary areas of expertise of the historians affiliated to CHE, but also in the framework of the Rome Symposium, and its title, which was evidently an expression of it, though both Paola von-Wyss Giacosa and Marcocci’s reflections evoked at once the importance and the complexity of a comparative approach.

The other theme related to the emotional involvement of the researcher and the need to have “the bodily experience of doing history”. In a stimulating essay entitled “Touching the Void: Affective History and the Impossible,” which appeared in the periodical Rethinking History in 2010, Emily Robinson discusses the “pleasures” of historical work. More specifically, she explores the commonly felt urge of historians to personally visit sites associated with the events they are studying, to actually touch the documents (rather than getting by with digital reproductions), and to savour the dust of archives, almost as if such physical experiences were a necessary prelude to the re-enactment that historical writing seems to involve.

Such considerations prompt further reflections on the supposed “unattainability” of historic objectivity. It is certainly true that the challenge for all historians is how to balance the disciplinary need for objectivity with an acknowledgement of our own subjectivity and personal, emotional reactions to the historical event we are researching.

For example, Carlo Ginzburg has repeatedly described how, when reconstructing the trial strategies adopted by the Inquisitor, he not only identified emotionally with the victims, but also felt an embarrassing intellectual affinity with the Inquisitor, because he too, albeit with different purposes and methods, was trying to understand a culture reluctant to be inscribed within the stereotypes of his own.

Dwelling on the theme of objectivity in history in his essay “Our Words, and Theirs: A Reflection on the Historian’s Craft, Today”, Ginzburg looks back to Kenneth Pike, who coined the terms “etic” and “emic”. An “etic” account is comparative, couched in a language unspecific to any given culture. By contrast, an “emic” account derives from a specific culture. While the questions historians pose are inevitably etic, Ginzburg states, in our answers we should strive for emic responses, deriving from the specificity of the culture or historical period at which our questions are directed.

2.Daniel Barbu_Giovanni Tarantino

And this, we might say by way of conclusion, is even truer for the historians of emotions.


* * *

The following conference report has been generously provided by Lucio Biasiori (from the Harvard Center for Renaissance Studies at Villa I Tatti, Florence), who chaired the final session of the Rome Symposium.

History of emotions or history through emotions? This is the most challenging question that emerged from the Rome conference Feelings Matter: Exploring the Cultural Dynamics of Emotions in Early Modern Europe organized by Giovanni Tarantino of the Melbourne node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE) and Giuseppe Marcocci of the University of Tuscia-Viterbo. In other words, are emotions just to be regarded as a subject of research, or should their study also inform the approach adopted by all historians, whatever their subjects of research? And to what extent are these two perspectives compatible?

These questions received a rich range of answers during the conference, which took place at the Istituto Storico Italiano per l’Età Moderna e Contemporanea at Palazzo Mattei di Giove in Rome. This was undoubtedly a suitable location for a conference devoted to the history of emotions. The palazzo is itself an emotional place (at least for Italians), as it was in Via Caetani (just in front of the palazzo, halfway between the headquarters of the Communist Party and those of the Christian Democrats) that the corpse of the Italian prime minister Aldo Moro, killed by the Brigate Rosse terrorist organization, was found in the back of a car.

It is difficult to summarize the breadth of topics touched upon during the conference. Charles Zika (CHE, Melbourne) showed that figurative representations of the witches’ sabbath concealed the construction of a hostile and negative stereotype of early modern European societies. Analysing the work of a vast number of engravers, Zika set out to highlight collective emotions within visualized action, paying special attention to the representation of dancing witches. In particular, he pointed out that a shift took place in the representation of witchcraft between the sixteenth and seventeenth century: while witches in the sixteenth century were designated as members of a group, in the seventeenth century they appear as members of an alternative community. Artistic conventions certainly played a role in this change, but – Zika maintained – the new style reflected a change in imaginative focus towards communities as forces either for stability and order, or contingency and disorder.

6.Yasmin Haskell The Jesuits, who were masters in eliciting and distinguishing emotions, could not be neglected: Yasmin Haskell, also a project leader at CHE, focused on the figure of the French Jesuit Pierre Brumoy and his reflections on passions and tragedy. Harshly polemicizing against Stoic morals, Brumoy even borrowed some Lucretian passages in order to vulgarize the Jesuit theory of the morally improving effect of the aesthetic emotions.

3.Ulinka Rublack Objects themselves are capable of conveying emotions, as Ulinka Rublack (St John’s College, University of Cambridge) showed by referring to the recent Fitzwilliam exhibition Treasured Possessions, of which she was curator. Calling into question watertight juxtapositions such as the one between Protestants and Catholics, Rublack showed the attitudes of early modern people (from Magdalena and Balthasar Behaim, a sixteenth-century Nuremberg couple who traded in textiles, through to Benjamin Franklin) towards luxurious objects, reflecting on how objects open a window onto a whole early modern emotional universe.
Paola von Wyss-Giacosa (Max-Weber-Kolleg, Erfurt and University of Zurich) focused on the widely discussed Céremonies et coutumes religieuses de tous le peuples du monde (Amsterdam 1723–37) edited by Jean-Frédéric Bernard and illustrated by Bernard Picart (both French exiles and, at the time, members of international Calvinism). She dealt with the emotional role of the images in this encyclopaedia of religions of the early Enlightenment. The authors, she maintained, relied on the intaglio technique’s power of sensual persuasion not for a sensationalistic stimulation of emotion (be it shock or disgust), but instead to help the reader to begin to dwell upon the nature of ceremonies and the essence of religion.

8.Xenia von Tippelskirch

The discussion of the various talks was lively. Three speakers out of four had an Italian discussant. This procedure was successful, as the differences in approach between Italian and English speaking historiography, far from being an obstacle to dialogue, turned into a fruitful bond between the continental sensibility and concern for accuracy in the use of sources, on the one hand, and the capacity of Anglo-Saxon scholarship to freshly interrogate the available evidence, on the other. Vincenzo Lavenia (University of Macerata) considered images of witchcraft as a source for investigating what is a highly elusive historical subject. Rolando Minuti (University of Florence) reviewed the vast recent scholarship on the Cérémonies, taking into account the various aspects of Bernard and Picart’s undertaking. Renata Ago (University of Rome “La Sapienza”) dealt with the methodological aspects of material culture and its heuristic value for the history of emotions, while Xenia von Tippelskirch (Humboldt University, Berlin) indicated some important paths for future research on the Jesuit Brumoy. Even when the debate became sharper, not only was fair play always respected, but the discussion also profited from the contributions of younger scholars.

1.The Symposium venue The final roundtable was an occasion to test the reactions of Italian historians to the outcomes of the conference. Unlike the US, UK, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, and Australia, Italy has no academic centre explicitly devoted to the history of emotions. A lack of funding is certainly a concomitant cause, but this is also a symptom of the present state of health of Italian historiography, standing between a glorious past and an uncertain future.

Fernanda Alfieri (Italian-German Historical Institute, Trent) emphasized the need to broaden and deepen research around emotions, taking into account the Foucauldian question of power. In other words, the history of emotions should deal not only with what an emotion is, but also with who elicits it and why. Furthermore, in her view, more attention should be paid to the question of definition (Tortarolo’s remarks also moved in a similar direction). The comments of Giuseppe Marcocci and Umberto Grassi (who have recently coedited a book on homosexuality in the Christian and Muslim world) encouraged scholars of emotions to move towards a global and gender perspective, in order to write a history of emotions à part entière, which overcomes the boundaries of traditional historiography, according to a tendency advanced, among others, by the Sinologist Eugenia Lean in the 2012 issue of the American Historical Review, devoted to the history of emotions.

Finally, both Edoardo Tortarolo (University of Eastern Piedmont) and Raffaella Sarti (University of Urbino) traced a genealogy of the history of emotions. The former mentioned Johann Huizinga and Norbert Elias as two possible noble fathers of the discipline, whereas the latter recalled the names of Edward Shorter, Lawrence Stone, Hans Medick, and D. W. Sabean. Thus, at first sight, one might readily think that there is a fracture between a cultural and a social history of emotions, according to a dichotomy that has been formulated in the past for microhistory (see Alberto M. Banti, “Storie e microstorie: l’histoire sociale contemporaine en Italie (1972–1989),” Genèses 3 (1991), 134–47, at p. 145). Supposing such a juxtaposition would however be misleading, then as now.

4. Charles Zika_Lisa Beaven

Charles Zika noted that some of the insights into the nature of  emotions,  gained to some extent through neuroscience research but certainly not exclusively so, has demonstrated that “cognition, thinking and ideas, on the one hand,  and emotions, feelings and sentiments, on the other, are not diametrically opposed, as they have tended to be understood (and of course still are by many – historians and others, including popular scientists). To the contrary, emotion is not separate from cognition; cognition and emotion are two different yet related ways of perceiving and understanding the world.”  In Zika’s view this makes for some important differences in the historical approach of historians of earlier periods and those working in this field over the last two decades. It means that “all understanding, decision-making, social action, etc involves emotion as well as cognition.  Emotions therefore are not considered a separate field of research, let alone the domain of culture; they are integral to all human action. Emotion is critical to the fields of politics and society, as well as culture. It is analogous to such categories of historical analysis as gender.”

A possible way both to escape the widely perceived dichotomy between a social and a cultural level, and to acknowledge the presence of predecessors without being oppressed by them, would be to return to an “historian for all seasons” (though he was not mentioned during the conference), namely Marc Bloch. In The Royal Touch (1924) he turned an emotional phenomenon (the belief in the magic-working power of the kings of France and England) into a subject for a political, social, and cultural history of medieval and early modern Europe. On the other hand, in The Historian’s Craft, he outlined a sort of program for the history of emotions as well, when he wrote that “what is most profound in history may also be the most certain”. The future challenge for the history of emotions will thus not only be to make the past resurface, but also to connect with the most intimate spheres of men and women of earlier ages and transform those feelings into a matter of analysis. A demanding task, no doubt – but the Rome symposium was an encouraging signal in this direction.


Symposium Conveners: Dr Giovanni Tarantino (CHE, The University of Melbourne); Dr Giuseppe Marcocci, Tuscia University,Viterbo)

Keynote speakers: Prof Charles Zika (CHE, University of Melbourne); Dr Paola von Wyss-Giacosa (University of Zurich); Prof Ulinka Rublack (St John’s College, University of Cambridge); Prof Yasmin Haskell (CHE, University of Western Australia)

Discussants: Dr Vincenzo Lavenia (University of Macerata); Prof Rolando Minuti (University of Florence); Prof Renata Ago (University of Rome “La Sapienza”; Prof Xenia von Tippelskirch (Humboldt University, Berlin)

Roundtable: Dr Fernanda Alfieri (Italian-German Historical Institute, Trent); Prof Penny Roberts (University of Warwick); Dr Raffaella Sarti (University of Urbino); Prof Edoardo Tortarolo (University of Eastern Piedmont);

Symposium attendees: Prof Guido Abbattista (University of Trieste); Dr David Armando (CNR, Naples); Dr Daniel Barbu (University of Bern); Dr Lisa Beaven (CHE, Melbourne); Dr Lucio Biasiori (Harvard Center for Renaissance Studies at Villa I Tatti, Florence); Dr Benedetta Borello (University of L’Aquila); Dr Maurizio Campanelli (University of Rome ‘La Sapienza’); Maria Anna Chiatti (Tuscia University); Orazio Coco (University of Rome ‘La Sapienza’); Prof Guido Dall’Olio (University of Urbino); Dr Rosanna De Longis (Istituto Storico Italiano per l’Età Moderna e Contemporanea); Prof Irene Fosi (D’Annunzio University of Chieti-Pescara); Dr Umberto Grassi; Dr Davide Grippa (University of Milan); Dr Sabina Pavone (University of Macerata); Elena Lugli (Rome); Dr Chiara Petrolini (University of Verona); Francesco Ronco (Scuola Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa); Dr Camilla Russell (University of Newcastle, Australia); Prof Giulio Sodano (The Second University of Naples); Prof Ann Thomson (European University Institute, Fiesole); Juliana Torres Rodrigues Pereira (UFRY, Rio de Janeiro); Prof Michaela Valente (University of Molise)

‘Say Sorry You Bastard!’: Postcolonial shame, reconciliation and National Sorry Day

'Sorry' painted in the sky during Corroboree 2000. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

‘Sorry’ painted in the sky during Corroboree 2000. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

On a cold Sunday in 2000, two days after National Sorry Day had been commemorated on the 26th May, over 300,000 Indigenous and non- Indigenous people walked together across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in support of Indigenous Australians and Reconciliation. Known as the great ‘Bridge Walk’, for over six hours the tide of walkers formed a ‘human sea of goodwill’, making their way across Sydney’s most iconic bridge together. According to one participant, ‘a huge snake of people moved over the bridge, a giant rainbow serpent wearing a skin of colour, predominantly red, black and gold’[1] The committee that organised the event, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, requested that people bring ‘bells, whistles, drums and colourful dress or other props to add to the fun’ to create a sense of hopeful celebration. The mass Bridge Walk would be a new start. It would inaugurate an affective and powerful national refounding, and participants were to be part of this crucial moment in the life of the nation. There were people in wheelchairs, and children in prams; there were countless Aboriginal flags and banners. The vast number of people and the physical act of walking together provoked charged emotional responses. Evelyn Scott, chairwoman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation described the day as ‘awesome’ and ‘emotional.’ Linda Burney, the chairwoman of the NSW State Reconciliation Committee, was quoted on the day as saying ‘a week ago, I was despairing about living in this country. Today, I feel great.’[2] Many walkers report moments of poignant interaction and friendship with people they had never met before. Australian author Kate Grenville recalls that:

Almost at the end of the walk, on the southern end of the Bridge, I noticed a group of Aboriginal people leaning against the railings watching us. … At the end of the row, a tall handsome woman frankly staring, as if to memorise each face. Our eyes met and we shared one of those moments of intensity- a pulse of connectedness. We smiled, held each other’s gaze, I think perhaps we gestured with our hands, the beginning of a wave.[3]

At the heart of this great tide of walkers was a genuine hope for a new beginning between peoples, for a new moral covenant, and a desire for recognition of past wrongs.

Huge crowd on Sydney Harbour Bridge during the Walk for Reconciliation, Corroboree 2000, by Loui Seselja. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Huge crowd on Sydney Harbour Bridge during the Walk for Reconciliation, Corroboree 2000, by Loui Seselja. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

But for some the Bridge Walk was more protest than celebration. Many people walked in silent reflection. Banners in the crowd declared the word ‘Sorry !’ voicing a demand for an apology. Some marchers sang ‘Treaty’, the top-hit song by Aboriginal rock group Yothu Yindi, which could be heard being played down at the harbour. For some this powerful, en masse and state-choreographed journey of ‘Walking together’ for Reconciliation provided the good feelings of hope, pride and release. Yet for others attentive to the ‘bad feelings’ of national shame and the need for an apology, political redress was absent.[4] For the Reconciliation Bridge Walk addressed a hopeful future, but it did not directly acknowledge the past.

Today, May 26, marks Australia’s seventeenth National Sorry Day. But its origins are for some unclear, and its entanglements with the Australian movement for reconciliation and the highly charged cross-currents of emotion that Sorry Day generated in this period have only partly been explored.

National Sorry Day was first commemorated on the 26th May 1998, on the first anniversary of the day that the ‘Bringing Them Home’ report was tabled in parliament. This key report, produced by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, recommended changes in laws and practices surrounding the forced separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their parents and communities in the past and today. The report proposed that a ‘national ‘Sorry Day’ should be held each year to commemorate the history of forcible removals and its effects.’[5] However, despite people participating in events around the nation for National Sorry Day, it was recognised in a ‘semi-official’ manner only, with events largely state-based and sponsored by various government agencies, churches and business leaders.[6]

Crucially, in 2000 despite there being a national day of sorrow and mourning, no formal apology had been given by the Australian government. Indeed, Indigenous Australians would have to wait another ten years until Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s national Apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples of February 2008.

The Sydney Bridge walk of 2000 then was a heady emotional mix; Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples alike reported feelings of intense sadness and shame at past practices, and expressed hope in the future of reconciliation. The eudaimonic emotions of good feeling, unity, hope and celebration were entwined with an intense undercurrent of anger and frustration focused on policies of the contemporary government. Prime Minister John Howard had refused to make a formal national apology to the Stolen Generations, and he would not walk across the bridge. In a packed Sydney Opera house at the ‘Corroboree 2000 – Towards Reconciliation’ meeting, held on the day sandwiched between National Sorry Day (26th May) and the Bridge walk (28th May), highly respected Aboriginal activist and former public servant Charles Perkins shouted at Prime Minister Howard: ‘Say sorry you bastard!’ to great applause.

The Bridge Walk marking a crucial, celebratory national refounding was expected to do an enormous amount of symbolic, affective, and political work. But it became a dense site of performative and emotional contestation concerning Australia’s history. ‘Sorry’ appeared as a subversive moral counterpoint at the Bridge Walk. In the blue Sydney sky the colossal words ‘SORRY’ appeared three times. A plane had been hired by a group of citizens to write in the sky the word that the PM refused to say. Indeed, the word ‘Sorry’ was emblazoned on tee-shirts, hats, banners and placards carried by the walkers. Howard’s refusal to apologise meant that the reasons for saying ‘sorry’ had not only expanded, but that the emotional load it had to bear was even greater. Originally it was to address the National Sorry Day context of apologising to and commemorating the Stolen Generations as an act of political redress and healing, but the broader message of sorry that appeared at the Bridge Walk was an apology and a protest against the history of violence, Aboriginal dispossession of land, past government policies, the separation of families, Aboriginal deaths in custody, as well as John Howard being a ‘bastard’. One walker wrote:

I saw the river of people pouring onto the bridge … Over the railing, I glimpsed the sails of the Opera House and saw the first fleet’s arrival at that very spot. I saw the beginnings of our tragic slaughter and abuse of the indigenous people. And I felt shame; shame for my ancestors in country Australia who introduced disease and appropriated land, who saw themselves with unalienable rights, rights we now recognise they never had. Then I looked up and saw the word ‘Sorry’ being written in the blue, blue sky and I cheered with everyone else.[7]

The interruption then of ‘SORRY’ in the sky emerged as a moment of emotional truth for some walkers. One Aboriginal woman, a member of the Stolen Generations, said that she had not wanted to walk across the bridge because she was felt overwhelmed by bitterness and grief, yet ‘gradually as she walked in this crowd, that sense of bitterness began to recede but it was when the word ‘SORRY’ appeared in the sky that it struck her heart and lifted the veil of hurt and trouble.’ [8]

‘Sorry’ would carry diverse emotional significance for different people. Non-indigenous author Kate Grenville also reflected on how the Bridge Walk’s vague sense of purpose offered a good feeling of camaraderie and triumph that, for her, would turn out to be empty of historical significance. She wrote: ‘The walk itself promised to be another big symbolic thing. Its aims were large and vague enough to make us feel cosy in spite of the bitter westerly wind. Everyone was smiling. We were all pretty pleased with ourselves.’[9] But, like the giant ‘SORRY’ in the sky, her joy quickly faded when she realized that nothing had been risked, sacrificed or properly confronted. She recalls that after exchanging glances with an Aboriginal woman, a ‘sudden blade of cold’ ruptured her good feeling as she began to question seriously her sense of ancestral belonging. Contemplation of who her forebears were and what they might have done cut through any sense of pleasurable affinity, inspiring her to research her own complicit heritage:

I wanted to get away from it all now: the smiles, the benign feeling of doing the right thing, the shuffling crowd of people whose pleasure in the moment hadn’t been sliced open. … The imagery of our walk, across a bridge, suddenly seemed all too easy. We were strolling towards reconciliation – what I had to do was cross the hard way, through the deep water of our history.[10]

The collective emotions of pride, honour, shame, frustration and anger that attend the question of the colonization of Australia as invasion or settlement sat at the very heart of the ‘History Wars’ debates during this decade of Reconciliation.[11] The Bridge Walk carried these many diverse and ambivalent emotions. It also became a space for counter-political narratives demanding apology and treaty that would be reported in the national and international media.

What work did these emotions of good will, unity and togetherness generated by such state-based reconciliatory performances achieve? On one level they did have the potential to build trust and to raise the prospect of an emancipatory future. And for some the sudden appearance of ‘SORRY’ did ‘lift the veil of hurt and trouble’. Such cross-cultural, mass participatory performances had the power of feeling to move people to change. Yet such good feelings were also heavily entwined with the politics of shame and shame’s release, that is, the desire for a new covenant to overcome settler shame.

We must attend more closely to the ‘affective economies’ of sorry and shame in post-colonial settler nations argues sociologist Sara Ahmed. Suggestive is her insightful examination of the ‘Sorry’ books of the 1990s and 2000s, where thousands of Australians signed their name to apologise for past wrongs, and her extended critique of national shame. Ahmed posits ‘shame’ as comprising very much a coloniser presence-to-self dynamic. She argues that settlers work through their shame in order to become reconciled with themselves and the aspired settler nation, thus reinscribing its hegemonies.[12] Here the ‘recognition of shame – or shame as a form of recognition’ she writes, ‘comes with conditions and limits.’ For those who feel shame (eg. the colonisers) ‘shame becomes not only a mode of recognition of injustices committed against others, it is also a form of nation building’.[13] For Ahmed, those ‘who witness the past injustice though feeling national shame are aligned as well meaning individuals, if you feel shame then you mean well’. And, since we ‘mean well’ we can ‘work to reproduce the nation as an ideal’, in other words, the feeling of shame reconciles the coloniser with their preferred idea of themselves. Shame can thus be recuperative of the offender, not of those offended. Shame then can ultimately be transformed in to pride, entailing a reduplication of repressive national norms. Here ‘non-indigenous Australians express sorrow, sympathy and shame in order that they can ‘return’ to their pride in the nation.’[14]

When the national enunciation of ‘Sorry’ finally arrived in 2008 it was to great emotional release; it was a poignant moment of national affect. Prime Minster Rudd’s speech was also threaded with affective crosscurrents of shame, stain, pride, and honour. The Stolen Generations, he stated, represented ‘a blemished chapter in our nation’s history’. Casting not settlers but Aboriginal people as proud and honourable, he apologized for the ‘indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture’. Rudd spoke of the need for the ‘healing [of] the nation’ and, echoing the language of redress, stated that the ‘unfinished business’ was to ‘remove a great stain from the nation’s soul’.[15]

Today, fifteen years after the great Bridge Walk for reconciliation and seven years after the national apology, the political space of negotiation is in some ways closed off. Perhaps ‘sorry’ as Ahmed argues has served largely to recuperate the settler nation as benevolent, rather than promote progressive change. We inhabit now a post-reconciliation and post-apology moment. Pressing arguments around the recognition of Australia’s first peoples in the constitution, and heated debates about the closure of remote Aboriginal communities appear in the news. While the affective power of Australia’s reconciliation movement and the politics of apology have been marked for all in various ways, their substantive effects in terms of real political gains for Aboriginal people remains to be seen.

For National Sorry Day events please visit Reconciliation Australia:

Penny Edmonds is a CHE Associate Investigator, and an ARC Future Fellow and Associate Professor in the School of Humanities, University of Tasmania. Her forthcoming book ‘Settler Colonialism and Reconciliation: Frontier Violence, Affective Performances, and Imaginative Refoundings’ (Palgrave Macmillan) is due out 2016.

Dr. Alicia Marchant is an Honorary Research Fellow and CHE Associate Investigator, based at the University of Tasmania.


[1] Margaret Allum, ‘Bridge walk ‘must be built upon’’, Green Left Weekly, June 7, 2000.

[2] Tony Davis, ‘Marching for a Fresh Beginning’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28 May 2010.

[3] Kate Grenville, Searching for the Secret River, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2006, pp.11-12.

[4] See Sara Ahmed, ‘The politics of bad feeling’, Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association Journal, Vol. 1, 2005, pp.72-85.

[5] ‘Bringing them home: The “Stolen Children” Report’

[6] Mike Head, ‘The Politics of Australia’s “National Sorry Day’, World Socialist Web Site,

[7] Excerpt from a letter to Council Following Corroboree 2000 by Suzanne McCourt, Birrag, Victoria’ in ‘Reconciliation: Australia’s Challenges. Final report of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation to the Prime Minister and the Commonwealth Parliament, December 2000’.

[8] Ronald Wilson, ‘Faith and Ethics in Contemporary Society’, Church and Civil Society: A Theology of Engagement, edited by Sue Leppert, Francis Sullivan, ATF Press, Hindmarsh, S. Aust, 2004, pp.28-29.

[9] Grenville, Searching for the Secret River, p.11.

[10] Grenville, Searching for the Secret River, p.13.

[11] See S. Macintyre and A. Clark, The History Wars, Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2003; R. Manne (ed.), Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Melbourne: Black Inc., 2003; P. Brantlinger, ‘“Black armband” versus “white blindfold” history in Australia’, Victorian Studies 46:4, 2004, p. 655.

[12] Sara Ahmed, ‘Shame before Others’ in The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Routledge, 2004.

[13] Sara Ahmed, ‘The Politics of Bad Feeling’, Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association journal, vol.1, 2005, p.72.

[14] Sara Ahmed, ‘The Politics of Bad Feeling’, p.80.

[15] K. Rudd, ‘Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples’, (accessed 22 May 2015

My Reading Adventure (or when the dots begin to connect)

Posted by Grace Moore

The Aldine Adventure Book.  Public School Collection, Special Collections, University Library.

The Aldine Adventure Book. Public School Collection, Special Collections, University Library.


One of my projects at the moment is a small exhibition, ‘Reading Adventures’, which will open in the Noel Shaw Gallery (the Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne) in July. The library holds around ten thousand rare books for children and adolescents, and the exhibition will offer a taster of its many adventure stories, drawing on the McLaren, Morgan, and Public School collections.


This is my first time as a curator, and when I became involved in the project it was mostly because it connects to a long-standing research and teaching interest in writing for children, rather than because it might speak to my CHE work. If I’m truthful, I was also very happy to have been asked! As the weeks have passed and I’ve thought about this work alongside my emotions-based research, I’ve realized that it isn’t quite so removed from that work as I had initially thought. On a basic level, I’ve found a number of books for my fire project that I probably wouldn’t have known about otherwise, but I’ve also begun to think much more about the emotions surrounding books and reading, both in terms of stories, but also in relation to the book as a material artefact.


I first visited the university’s special collections about a month after my arrival in Melbourne in July 2004. Armed with torches, my colleague Jenny Lee rounded me up one afternoon and marched me across to the library’s basement, where, she told me, there were things I ought to see. I’m not certain that the torches were strictly necessary, but they certainly added to the sense that we had embarked upon something intrepid. Having just spent two years at a university with very few library resources, I remember being quite overwhelmed by the array of books, many of which are extraordinarily beautiful.


At various intervals over the intervening years, I’ve ordered books from the collection and they’ve arrived, as if by magic, in the library’s special collections reading room. I didn’t really think to go back to look at the shelves, at least partly because I felt that I knew what was there. Over time, though, my research interests have shifted and (hopefully) broadened. As a consequence, returning to the stacks to select books for the exhibition involved being delighted all over again, and viewing things rather differently than I did a decade ago. It also involved a cascade of recollections—partly through re-encountering works I’d grown up reading, and partly because, in the case of the library’s nineteenth-century holdings, I’d encountered many of the works for the first time at the home of my beloved PhD advisor, Chris Brooks—a passionate collector, and owner of more than 12,000 rare Victorian works. When I hold a volume of Henty in my hands, I can hear Chris reading it to me, even though he died more than a decade ago.




As a Victorian scholar, I’ve always loved working with archives and with rare books. My own relationship with them is both highly affective and visceral., even though I’ve no interest in possessing these objects for myself—it’s their seclusion, their comparative inaccessibility that is part of their draw. Carolyn Steedman notes that we can both fetishize and mystify the experience, while writing with great beauty of how scholars can almost commune with their subjects when working in rarefied environments. In Dust (1992) Steedman invokes the example of Michelet, who wrote of breathing the dust of the dead, ‘and making them live as they had never really done before’, a slightly obsessive process that AS Byatt captures brilliantly in her novel Possession.


Hazel Armitage, With Lucinda in London.  Public School Collection, Special Collections, University Library.

Hazel Armitage, With Lucinda in London. Public School Collection, Special Collections, University Library.

There is little dust to inhale in the Baillieu’s immaculate special collections area, but the books themselves yield lovely moments of connection with some of their original readers. Page-turning can sometimes evoke memories—particularly when working with a collection of children’s books. It can also occasionally yield childish ephemera, including the carefully pressed—but long-forgotten—flowers that slipped out of one adventure volume, or the painstakingly traced design for a portable wireless, tucked into an annual of stories for boys. While I squirm at the fuss of having my own personal page-turner (as I did when I worked on the original Hard Times manuscript at the V&A), I love leafing through books or manuscripts that nobody has touched for decade. I love being in an environment that only a few scholars visit, and I love the spade-work that can sometimes, just sometimes, lead to an exciting find.   On a couple of occasions I’ve had experiences in archives which—without sounding too batty—have almost bordered on the mystical, and these tend to collapse into each other when I begin work on something new.


The nature of the ‘Reading Adventures’ exhibition means that a lot of the work I’ve undertaken thus far has been about the books as objects, rather than about the stories they contain. As a consequence, part of the excitement of this project has been about deferral of pleasures, as I identify things to which I want to return and compile lists of books I want to read over the months and years ahead. The generosity and patience of the team from the library means that I’m learning a huge amount as I go, sometimes about the spatial dynamics associated with displaying objects, and at others about what Dianne Mulcahy calls ‘sticky affect’; the lasting emotional response that can come from visiting an exhibition space. I’ve had to re-think my sense of the aesthetics of the book, trying to anticipate what might look engaging when it is placed behind glass, and inaccessible to readers. At the same time I’ve learned that while for a scholar issues associated with the book’s age, such as foxing, are part of a book’s patina, they mean something very different when the volume becomes an exhibit.


My first discovery was that making decisions about what to exhibit is incredibly difficult and, yes, quite emotional. In the early stages there were weekly and sometimes bi-weekly meetings in which Anthony, the rare books curator, walked me through the shelves, answering questions, making suggestions, and generously sharing his remarkable knowledge of the collections. At the end of this process, I found myself with a shortlist of more than 350 books and an enormous collection of grainy photographs to help me to remember the appearance of the many volumes I’d pulled from the stacks. Some works (like the fabulous Scouts in Bondage and Jancy Scores Again) were, sadly, out before they were in. But reducing the list to around sixty volumes was quite, quite agonizing and, while we’ve now finalized the case content, I still have moments where I find myself thinking, ‘But if only we could make room for…’.


The selection process is inevitably a highly subjective one, and so rich are the library’s holdings that it is possible to configure any number of reading adventures that would be markedly different from my own. While some of my decisions have been informed by a sense of writers who ought to be represented (visitors will, for instance, expect to see books by Enid Blyton), personal taste and nostalgia also play important roles when working with this type of material. I’ve written in the past (with my wonderful co-author, Sue Pyke) about re-reading and the ways that we bring our past selves to favourite books, creating layers of extra-textual narratives that are unique to each of us. Although Sue and I were thinking specifically about the process of (sometimes obsessively) revisiting novels by the Brontë sisters when we wrote the piece, the process of re-reading a book from childhood can be very similar. Our memories of a book’s narrative may be imperfect, but they are often inflected by the context in which we read or re-read the work and, especially for child-readers, recollections of being read to by adults.


W.H.G. Kingston, Snow Shoes and Canoes, or the Early Days of a Fur-Trader in the Hudson’s Bay Territory.  Morgan Collection, Special Collections, University Library.

W.H.G. Kingston, Snow Shoes and Canoes, or the Early Days of a Fur-Trader in the Hudson’s Bay Territory. Morgan Collection, Special Collections, University Library.

And this is where my projects begin to collide. I’m in the early stages of working with a group of musicologists and a psychotherapist, thinking about the therapeutic uses of reading and music in the wake of natural disasters. We’ve been using ventures like Read Me Something You Love and By Heart as springboards to think about the role that the cherished, remembered story or poem can play in helping people to assimilate traumatic experiences into their lives. Books are, of course, often lost in catastrophic events and increasingly, as I’ve been working with these lovingly preserved volumes in one area of my research, I’ve also been thinking about absent books in another. As a Dickensian, this connection makes complete, almost instinctive, sense to me. Dickens had a phenomenal memory and, growing up in a household where money was often short, he recalled walking the streets and reciting classic novels in his head, citing it almost as survival mechanism. Erich Auerbach famously wrote Mimesis while in exile from his library, drawing on his memories of the books that were being burned by Nazis and writing what Arthur Krystal has termed a ‘book about books’ as a kind of fortification against the destruction. When books are no longer present, the memories of their stories live on, just as childhood memories inform our affective encounters with books in museum spaces.


What seems to be emerging here for me is an unwieldy new project about the emotions surrounding books, memories, objects and reading. It’s something for me to chew over as the exhibition planning gathers momentum and I move—very willingly—out of my regular comfort zone to be guided through discussions about colour schemes, book cradles, and a whole host of things I’ve never thought about before in my life. I’m drawn to the tensions between the present and the absent, as I think about these different forms of love for the book, and I’m struck by the forces of memory and nostalgia that bring them together. I don’t have that many answers yet, and need to think carefully about how this work will sit alongside other research programs, such as Andrew Stauffer’s Book Traces.  However I’m conscious that the reading adventure upon which I’ve set sail might turn out to be something of an odyssey for me….




Reading Adventures will open to the public at the Noel Shaw Gallery, the Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne on 16 July 2015.




Depression, Guilt, and a Parish Priest in Medieval London

Raven_1899On some night in the mid-twelfth century, Martin, the parish priest of All Hallows on the Cellar was interrupted while going to bed. Just as the priest was taking off his shoes, a serving-boy entered his house bearing a message from his employer. This employer was the wife of Roger Bat, a member of a powerful and wealthy London family. The Bats were urban oligarchs, one of the sixteen major interlocking families that provided seventy-percent of the aldermen who held office in the city of London before the civil war. The boy told the priest that he was needed immediately for “some business” with Roger’s wife. Annoyed, the priest asked what the business was. Martin especially wanted to know if she was ill. The boy did not know, but added that his mistress “didn’t seem sick.” That Roger’s wife appeared well convinced Martin that there was no immediate danger to her soul, and that he could safely go to bed. If she had been ill, Martin would have been duty-bound to return with the serving-boy to administer the Last Rites. Since the boy’s mistress apparently suffered from no physical illness, the priest dismissed the interruption in his evening as a nuisance call. Martin told the boy, “Perhaps she’s drunk. Go and say to her that it isn’t convenient to talk with her tonight about any business.” The priest said that he would gladly meet with her tomorrow, after his morning services. The boy returned and told Roger’s wife what the priest said, and her response was tragic. The woman agreed that she was very drunk, but added that the priest “hereafter will not speak with me in this life.” She retreated into her room, locked the door, and hanged herself with a noose. The woman’s suicide, according to the theology of medieval Christianity, condemns her soul to Hell, and the priest eventually paid the price for his negligence. Martin lived for a long time after the woman’s suicide. He lived badly, breaking his vow of celibacy and living with a concubine with whom he had multiple children. After many years, Martin grew old and sickly, at last taking to bed while suffering from a final illness. On his deathbed, the priest cried out: Woe is me! Woe that I ever took up the name and responsibility of a priest. For my miserable and filthy life and especially that woman, who hanged herself through my negligence, now drag me to damnation. During the night, as Martin’s final moment drew near, ravens flew into the room through the windows extinguishing all of the candles. The ravens disappeared suddenly as Martin exhaled his final breath, signalling the priest’s entrance into Hell. This story combines specific pieces of medieval religiosity with expressions of mental illness familiar to a modern audience. The woman’s cry for help is discounted because her problem isn’t immediately visible as a bodily disease. The priest also dismisses what a modern reader might regard as a symptom of the woman’s interior illness, her drunkenness, as something that she just needs to get over. Martin’s easy assumption that Roger’s wife is drunk suggests that intoxication was a regular issue for her that the priest had dealt with before. These familiar elements represent an extraordinary continuity in the history of emotions.RaveninFlight.jpg An important moral of this story is that inattention to the interior emotional and mental states of others is a form of negligence. Martin tells the reader as much right before he is carried off to Hell. Modern responses to suicide and mental illness often stress similar messages (although for quite different reasons). While this medieval story suggests that the priest should have been more attentive to saving souls, the modern concern most often lies with saving and improving lives. When I read this story, I am also struck by how deeply it is shaped by class and gender. We only have a record of this suicide because it involved the wife of a remarkable man. If this event did not touch one of the wealthiest families in medieval London, it would have been entirely lost in time. How many other similar struggles were not only nearly invisible in their own time, but have also been entirely lost because of the low social status of the people involved? We do not even know the woman’s name. Her value and her memory are entirely bound up with the person of her husband, Roger Bat. The author of the story tells us not only the name of the priest (Martin), but also the names of several of the priest’s sons and a servant, who are present when Martin dies. The woman, in contrast, who is central to the story’s plot, has no name of her own. The role of class and gender in this medieval story remind us of the on-going importance of these issues in access to mental health resources and even in the wider visibility of the need for access to these resources for marginalized populations.  Background on the Story: The story of the bad priest Martin comes from the Liber revelationum or Book of Revelations of Peter of Cornwall. This work is a very large collection of visions and revelations put together around the year 1200. Much of this collection is now available, in both Latin and English translation, as Peter of Cornwall’s Book of Revelations, edited by Robert Easting and Richard Sharpe. The manuscript’s author, Peter of Cornwall, was an Augustinian canon and the prior of Holy Trinity Aldgate. It is the twenty-second chapter of the first book (pages 288-91 in the edition by Easting and Sharpe). Modern Mitre square roughly corresponds to the cloister of Peter’s priory, and the only visible remnant of it is an arch inside Swiss Re House. Click here to link to a Google map with locations of this story.

Link to: for a google map of sites in this story.

Link to: for a Google map of sites in this story.

Information on the Chapel of All Hallows on the Cellar: The church called All Hallows on the Cellar, or All Hallows the Less, stood on Upper Thames Street. It took its name from its location on top of arched vaults. It is not to be confused with the larger All Hallows. The Third Edition of the London Encyclopaedia claims the church is first attested in 1216, but the story of the bad priest Martin is a good deal older. In John Stow’s survey, the church is attached to a large house called Cold Harbour (Survey of London, 1598 and 1603, 1:235-37). The church burned in the Great Fire of 1666 and was not rebuilt. By CHE Postdoctoral Fellow Michael David Barbezat.

Anyone seeking support and information about suicide can contact Lifeline on 131 114 or beyondblue 1300 22 46 36.

Recipes in the Archives: ‘Honey Ointments’ and Early Modern Motherhood

On this Mother’s Day I find myself in Dublin, embarking upon the archival phase of research for my Centre for the History of Emotions project, ‘Mother’s Milk: Breastfeeding, Infant Care and Domestic Medicine in Early Modern Ireland.’ I am lucky enough to be able to spend the next few weeks ensconced in the National Library of Ireland, absorbed by their collection of manuscript receipt (recipe) books.

Fig. 1 ‘To Cause early labour’. NLI Ms 14,251, mid- eighteenth century (courtesy of the National Library of Ireland).

Fig. 1 ‘To Cause early labour’. NLI Ms 14,251, mid- eighteenth century (courtesy of the National Library of Ireland).

I first encountered these fascinating sources when I was just starting my doctorate. Back then I was interested in their cookery recipes, and although I occasionally stopped to cast my eye over the equally rich collection of prescriptions and cures they contain, for the most part I rushed over them, my thesis on food history requiring complete devotion. I remember, at the time, being somewhat curious as to why everyone needed cures for ‘Sore Breasts’ in the eighteenth century (how naïve I was), but I didn’t think much more of it- the quest to find the earliest potato recipe seeming much more important. Three babies later, I now understand what all the fuss was about. The need for a cure for sore breasts, advice regarding milk supply and a remedy for colic, have since become very real. So, with three wee boys in tow, I am back to explore these tomes of early modern wisdom, with a very different set of (somewhat sleep-deprived) eyes.

Fig. 2 A prescription to assist in the delivery of a dead child or after birth, and to quicken labour, NLI Ms 14,251, mid- eighteenth century (courtesy of the National Library of Ireland).

Fig. 2 A prescription to assist in the delivery of a dead child or after birth, and to quicken labour, NLI Ms 14,251, mid- eighteenth century (courtesy of the National Library of Ireland).

Domestic sources like manuscript receipt books give us an intimate window into the lives and concerns of women in the early modern world. They contain a rich variety of materials, including cookery recipes, medical cures, housekeeping advice, beauty remedies, meal plans, prose and poetry, which collectively provide us with a highly detailed account of life within the early modern home. The unique contents of each volume can also help us to understand the everyday concerns of individuals in a degree of detail which is quite rare. One volume I was examining just this week contained at least a dozen cures for baldness in men, and the image of a wife consulting her collection of cures gathered from far and wide, while a concerned husband fretting over his receding hairline hovers anxiously in the background is conjured vividly (National Library of Ireland, Ms 42,009).

Fig. 3 Prescriptions relating to infant and child health, including recommendations for teething, urinary retention and worms. NLI Ms 14,251, mid- eighteenth century (courtesy of the National Library of Ireland).

Fig. 3 Prescriptions relating to infant and child health, including recommendations for teething, urinary retention and worms. NLI Ms 14,251, mid- eighteenth century (courtesy of the National Library of Ireland).

One of the most striking features of early modern receipt books is the fact that they bear the creative input of people from a wide social circle, and were clearly a place in which familial and kinship knowledge, legacy and networks were maintained. Through attributions, which respectfully acknowledge the original source of an entry, we are able to see how women shared knowledge relating to the care of their families. Letters containing cures and recipes are also frequent components of domestic collections, demonstrating how women bridged geographical distances and maintained an active involvement in the care and nourishment of one another and their children. Generational divides could also be overcome through these manuscripts. If we look closely at the lifecycle of an individual book, we can see that many of these volumes became family heirlooms, handed down from one generation of women to the next. As cherished items of property, bequeathing a receipt book to a daughter or daughter-in-law was both a sign of affection, but it was also a gift of invaluable practical knowledge. Given the wealth of information they contain relating to domestic medicine, which was gathered over generations, it was also a gift that could provide critical to the health and well-being of the family in the future.

The volumes contain a range of cures and prescriptions for a host of illnesses from every day complaints such as worms and rheumatism to far more serious conditions including cancer and rabies. Given their importance in the sphere of domestic medicine, and their association with women as their primary authors and custodians, it is unsurprising that these manuscripts also contain extensive advice relating to reproductive health [Fig.1 to 2], breastfeeding and infant and child care [Fig. 3 to 4].

Fig. 4 ‘Receipt for Children ill with Hives’. From the receipt book of Lady Elizabeth Maguir[e], NLI Ms 42,228, mid- to late eighteenth century (courtesy of the National Library of Ireland).

Fig. 4 ‘Receipt for Children ill with Hives’. From the receipt book of Lady Elizabeth Maguir[e], NLI Ms 42,228, mid- to late eighteenth century (courtesy of the National Library of Ireland).

Such material reveals a great deal about early modern infant and maternal healthcare, but also demonstrates the importance of the intergenerational kinship networks through which this essential knowledge was handed down by women, ensuring the health of future generations. Among the most common breastfeeding related entries, which I am focusing on in this particular phase of research, are cures for ‘sore breasts’ [Fig. 5 to 6], but others relate to regulating milk supply and curing colic. Over the next few weeks I will be collating as many of these cures as possible for future detailed analysis, but for now, I am able to enjoy being immersed in these manuscripts, which allow you to discover the world of their authors in great detail. Through the very personal medium of their own handwriting, in their own family volume, we can learn about the authors’ concerns for their children and the trials of being a mother in the early modern world.

Fig. 5 ‘Honey Ointment for Sore Breast’. From a receipt book by A. Corry, NLI Ms 4175, 1829 (courtesy of the National Library of Ireland).

Fig. 5 ‘Honey Ointment for Sore Breast’. From a receipt book by A. Corry, NLI Ms 4175, 1829 (courtesy of the National Library of Ireland).

Sometimes as historians we are astounded by how much has changed, but at other times, we can be touched by just how much in the human experience stays the same. The other day, upon returning home from the archives to a hungry baby, I emailed my sister back in Australia to ask when she introduced solids. I then checked the advice of a breastfeeding forum on Facebook I regularly use, to see what other mothers had to say on the subject. The medium for sharing information may now be email, text or social media, and technology may have rapidly expanded the scope of our networks, but the essence of the practice is still very much the same- women circulating knowledge and assisting one another in the care of their bodies and babies.

This symmetry of experience became even more apparent the following day, as the afternoon wore on and the risks of missing several feeds seemed to be catching up with me. I was struck immediately by the irony of the fact that a research project about cures for breastfeeding ailments had in fact led to my own predicament, but my own dull ache also gave me a very real and immediate sense of connection to the late eighteenth-century woman whose advice for ‘sore breasts’ I was hurriedly transcribing (NLI Ms 14,901).

Fig. 6 ‘A Plaister for a Sore Breast’. NLI Ms 14,251, mid-eighteenth century (courtesy of the National Library of Ireland).

Fig. 6 ‘A Plaister for a Sore Breast’. NLI Ms 14,251, mid-eighteenth century (courtesy of the National Library of Ireland).

She recommended a concoction of white wine, olive oil and flour spread on leather and applied to the afflicted breast, sound advice I am sure, but instead I opted for cabbage leaves and some paracetamol on the way home, my own mum’s orders, and after all, she knows best.

By CHE Associate Investigator Madeline Shanahan.

The executions of the Bali Nine duo: a long history of publicising emotions

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, eight prisoners were taken to a forest on a prison island and each tied to a stake. As they in unison sang ‘Amazing Grace’, a firing squad executed them for crimes the authorities had judged so heinous that the only appropriate punishment could be for them to pay with their lives. Their violent end would, it was argued, act as a shocking deterrent to anyone thinking of committing the same crimes. The account of their executions was immediately relayed to audiences around the world eager for details of their gruesome end.

As a historian of capital punishment in early modern Europe, I am struck by how much of the story of the executions on Indonesia’s Nusa Kambangan prison island resemble those of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There are, to be sure, small differences: the crime here was drug smuggling rather than heresy or treason; the condemned were killed with sophisticated guns, a weapon not yet in widespread use four hundred years ago; and the news of the deaths was known instantly around the globe thanks to social media, a speed of news travel unthinkable in the period of handwritten newsletters that could take weeks to travel from one end of Europe to the other.

But so little about executions has changed. Tied to a stake and singing hymns while awaiting their violent deaths, the eight prisoners killed on Wednesday remind me of the ‘Lyon Five’, five young Calvinist students burned at the stake for heresy in Lyon in 1553, who went to their deaths singing psalms in French to steady themselves in their final moments. This in itself was shocking: singing the words of the Bible in the vernacular rather than Latin was an activity that marked them as reformers who threatened the Roman Catholic orthodoxy and thus the security of the French state. Some might argue that it is unseemly to compare religious martyrs to drug smugglers, but in the end, the authorities viewed the crimes from the same perspective: the activities of the condemned presented a danger to social order, and the executions had to be violent in order to act as a deterrent to others.

The broadcasting of information about the executions also throws up interesting points of similarities between our modern era and the past. Although I live in the UK rather than Australia I am nevertheless aware of the saturation of the news media there by the plight of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the duo already notorious for their involvement in the Bali Nine case that has long gripped the Australian imagination. The media coverage here is, naturally, somewhat more balanced – greater attention has been paid to the story of Mary Jane Veloso, another prisoner sentenced to die whose apparent innocence and exploitation at the hands of traffickers profiting from the precarious nature of Filipino overseas workers caused international outcry. The videos and photos of the distressed relatives of the condemned, including the heartbreaking video plea by the young sons of Veloso, have saturated the media, including – importantly – the Twittersphere, where the hashtag #savemaryjane gave the campaign for her reprieve a worldwide impact. While the 24-hour news cycle now allows us instant access to developments in these events, the emotional effects of capital punishment have always been a key part of the way in which they are reported.

In the early modern period, a time in which the majority of Europe was illiterate, news was often transmitted via the means of song, and ballads about crimes and executions were so popular that they form their own sub-genre of news-song. Full of sensationalist language, ballads about the condemned were often written in the first-person voice of the criminal, allowing the singer to momentarily embody the role of someone about to meet a grisly end. Like Alice Davis, burned at the stake in London in July 1628 for stabbing her husband to death, who sings in her ballad ‘A Warning for all desperate Women’,

Magdalene College - Pepys 1.120-121. English Broadside Ballad Archive. Retrieved from:

Magdalene College – Pepys 1.120-121. English Broadside Ballad Archive. Retrieved from:

God and the world forgive my sinnes,

which are so vile and foule,

Sweete Jesus now I come to thee,

O Lord receive my Soule.

Who could fail to be convinced of the need to avoid sin upon hearing poor Alice sing her song of remorse in her final moments? Songs like these were designed to cause the maximum amount of emotional response – executions were meant to be horrific, terrifying, and painful. Those who think that the early modern period was a time so violent that its people were inured to grisly sights of dismemberment and death are missing the point: it was precisely the horror of witnessing a prisoner have his limbs severed that was supposed to frighten citizens into leading an orderly life. The greater the publicity of these gruesome events the more people would get the message.

In fact, the reporting of the executions of convicts has always been central to the entire project of the execution itself. How the state chooses to publicise its ability and determination to execute its citizens is at the core of both its rationale for execution and, interestingly, its specific methods for doing so.

So China – believed by Amnesty International to execute more people every year by far than any other country – treats its executions as a state secret because its condemned are usually political prisoners. Rather than publicise its actions, the Chinese government would simplify prefer to pretend that these troublesome comrades are merely ‘gone away’.

The US, which executed 35 people last year but which had 3,035 people on death row as of October 2014, still has retribution as its motivation for execution. Statistics have repeatedly proven that capital punishment is not a deterrent to crime, so it cannot claim – as Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo has – that executing people reduces crime rates. Rather, execution is punishment born out of revenge, not an emotion that the US authorities would like to be known for. Therefore the convicted must have their life removed in an environment supposedly devoid of emotion: death should be painless, private, rational, and so lethal injection in front of a small group of selected witnesses is the method of choice.

By contrast, Iran (which, at over 289 officially reported executions in 2014, comes #2 on Amnesty International’s list of top executing countries) sometimes chooses to execute its criminals by hanging them from cranes in public places – the higher the hanging the more people can see. The execution in Syria in February this year of a man convicted of homosexuality who was thrown from a high-rise building offered the same extreme level of public visibility.

Similarly, the recent beheadings of prisoners by ISIS were all documented on professionally filmed videos that were addressed to Western leaders and broadcast around the world. These are authorities, whether politically recognised or not, who want to ensure that the execution sends a very specific message of deterrence to a chosen audience – who watches the execution is as important as who is executed. In this way, they profoundly resemble early modern states who used the capital punishment of criminals as a moment not only to exact revenge on the perpetrator of a crime and offer a visual and terrifying deterrent for the spectators, but also to demonstrate their own power over their own citizens. The crimes committed, such an authority argues, are not crimes against individuals but crimes against the entire society, and therefore all of society must be a part of their expiation.

In the end, therefore, for President Widodo the result of this mass execution could not have resulted in a better outcome: eight of the nine prisoners, all of whom were believed to have been guilty of drug smuggling, were violently killed, sending a message to the world that Indonesia will be tough on those smuggling drugs into the country, while the one prisoner believed to have been duped, wrongly accused and then convicted, was reprieved, demonstrating – as he would see it – Widodo’s openness to due process and his merciful compassion. Whether the weeping families of Myuran Sukumaran, Andrew Chan, Rodrigo Gularte, Jamiu Owolabi Abashin, Silvester Obiekwe Nwolise, Martin Anderson, Zainal Abidin and Okwuduli Oyatanze would see it that way is another matter.

By Dr. Una McIlvenna, Lecturer in Early Modern Literature, Queen Mary University of London, Honorary Research Fellow, CHE

For more on her research with CHE, see Singing the News of Death: Song in Early Modern European Execution (1500-1900)
or follow her on twitter at @UnaMcIlvenna


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