Teaching the History of Emotions

I’ve just finished convening a PhD elective on the History of Emotions here at Melbourne. We ran the course in four sessions over two weeks, which meant that it qualified it as an “intensive” – apt enough! Numbers were such that we had outgrown our allocated room even before the course started, and so had to find a new space for some 25 PhD candidates, and their three (!) convenors: myself, Sarah Randles, and Giovanni Tarantino (both postdoctoral fellows in the School of History and Philosophy at Melbourne). We assembled in a larger but somewhat awkward seminar room in the corner of Old Arts, the three of us armed with coffee pots and brownies in the hopes of sustaining conversation over the course of the next three hours. Of course, we needn’t have worried.  With topics ranging from archeology and seventeenth-century music to contemporary poetics, film, child abduction narratives, and journalism, the discussion was free-flowing and debate often vigorous. On the Tuesday we visited the Ian Potter Musuem of Art (from whom we received permission to use the gorgeous Strutt painting of bushrangers on the Histories of Emotion banner) for a session on “Objects” and “Images”, organised by Sarah and Dr Heather Gaunt, who were joined by Matthew Martin, assistant curator of International Decorative Arts and Antiquities in the National Gallery of Victoria.

Over the course of the elective, we talked a lot about “sources” for the history of emotions. What are they? How do we use them? But we spent considerable time discussing critical approaches, too. Monique Scheer’s “Are Emotions a Practice (and is that what makes them have a history?)” remains a favourite, and Emily Robinson’s “Touching the Void: Affective History and the Impossible” spurred us on to thinking about the researcher’s own emotional response to the archive. What to do when your archives are overseas and how might this impact your research? Can you have an “emotional” response to a digital archive? And what about when you do travel to that long-anticpiated space; what then? A session on terminology (affect? emotion? passions?) led by Stephanie Trigg kicked off the series, and offered perspectives on the importance of humanities research, as compared with the sciences, and in contemporary Australia. This in itself was a point to which we kept returning: in short, how do we “do” the history of emotions in Australia, and how might that be different from elsewhere in the world?

I’ve called this post “teaching the history of emotions”, but that little describes my own experience of the course. I couldn’t have learned more. Thanks to all the students who took part and enriched the seminars with the energy and clarity of their ideas.

In the spirit of their generosity with us and with each other, here’s a copy of the course outline and readings. Feedback welcome!

Session One: Monday, October 7, 10am-1pm

Old Arts Seminar Rm 143


We’ll supply morning tea/coffee.



Part One: Intro to the History of Emotions (SD, SR, GT)


Sourcing Emotions

Questions for discussion:

  • What are our sources for the history of emotions?
  • How do we write the history of emotions?
  • What do emotions ‘do’? In history? In society? In culture?





Dixon, Thomas. ‘Emotion: History of a Keyword in Crisis,’ Emotion Review 4.4 (2012): 338-344.

Frevert, Ute. Emotions in History: Lost and Found (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2011). [Extracts]

‘AHR Conversation: The Historical Study of Emotions,’ American Historical Review (December 2012): 1486-1531.

Additional (all available online through the Baillieu)

‘Forum: History of Emotions,’ German History 28.1 (2010): 67-80.

Matt, Susan. ‘Current Emotion Research in History: Or, Doing History from the Inside Out,’ Emotion Review 3 (2011): 117-124.

Plamper, Jan. ‘The History of Emotions: An Interview with William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and Peter Stearns,’ History and Theory 49 (May 2010): 237-65.

Part Two: Feeling, Emotion, Affect (ST)


Language and taxonomy in the history of emotions. Discussion lead by Stephanie Trigg (SCC).




Stephanie Trigg, ‘Emotional Histories: Beyond the Personalization of the Past and the Abstraction of Affect Theory,’ Exemplaria (forthcoming 2014).

* * * * * * * *

Session Two: Tuesday, October 8, 10am-1pm

The Ian Potter Gallery


Meet at main entrance at 10am – TBC.



Part One: Objects (SR)

This session will consider the ways in which humans form emotional attachments to objects and the ways in which they might use objects to represent and manage their emotional states.


Matthew Martin (NGV) will speak on selected artifacts in the National Gallery permanent and temporary collections.




Guy Fletcher, ‘Sentimental Value,’ The Journal of Value Inquiry 43 (2009): 55-65.

Roberta Gilchrist, ‘Magic for the Dead? The Archaeology of Magic in Late Medieval Burials,’ Medieval Archaeology 52 (2008): 119-159.


  • How do objects acquire or produce emotional significance?
  • How do they represent or regulate emotional states?
  • How do the inscribed emotional meanings of objects change as their physical, cultural and temporal contexts change?

Part Two: Images (SR)


Heather Gaunt (Potter Gallery) will lead introduce selected works in the Potter collection.

NB: we may need to organize smaller groups in which to see the collection.

Will organise/finalise these at the first session.


James Elkins, Pictures & Tears: a History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings (London: Routledge, 2001). (extracts)

Elina Gertsman, ‘The Facial Gesture: Misreading Emotion in Gothic Art, Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures 36.1 (2010): 28-46.


  • How do artists employ various visual techniques to depict and elicit emotions?
  • How do the conventions of depicting emotion in art change over time and in different cultures?
  • How are our emotional responses conditioned by our own circumstances/experiences?

* * * * * * * *

Session Three: Monday, October 14, 10am-1pm

Old Arts Seminar Rm 143


We’ll supply morning tea/coffee.


Part One: Places (GT)


What is ‘affective cartography’? This session explores ideas of emotional belonging and religious identity in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century.




Source texts/images available for download on the LMS



  • What can maps and visual descriptions of place offer historians of the emotions?
  • How are politics/geography/religion etc. implied?
  • How might ‘affective cartographies’ relate to ‘emotional communities’ (Rosenwein)?



Part Two: Texts (SD)


This session considers literature as a source for the history of emotions, with a specific focus on texts from the late medieval period.


Sarah McNamer, ‘Feeling,’ Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature, ed. Paul Strohm (OUP, 2009), 241-257.



Tracy Adams, ‘Performing the Medieval Art of Love: Medieval Theories of the Emotions and the Social Logic of the Roman de la Rose of Guillaume de Lorris,’ Viator (2007): 55-74.

(primary) Thomas Hoccleve, ‘The Letter of Cupid,’ ll. 15-49. In Poems of Cupid, God of Love, ed. Thelma S. Fenster and Mary Carpenter Erler (Leiden, 1990).

We’ll look at this text together in class – I’ll supply extracts.


  • What does the study of text and genre bring to the history of emotions?
  • How do we deal with questions of ‘sincerity’ and ‘artificiality’?
  • What limitations/advantages exist in the study of how texts express, represent, and generate emotions or emotional states?


* * * * * * *

Session Four: Tuesday, October 15th, 10am-1pm

Old Arts Seminar Rm 143


We’ll supply morning tea/coffee.


Part One: Your work


Bring a source of some kind (an object, an image, a text, an idea) and be prepared to introduce it for a few minutes.


Part Two: History of Emotions Review


Theorising the emotions; “doing” the history of emotions; the historian in the archive.


  • (after Scheer): Are emotions a kind of practice?
  • Is there a future for the history of emotion in collapsing the boundaries of the humanities and the sciences? eg. neuroscience; cognitive psychology
  • How ‘useful’ is the history of emotions? For the historian? For you?
  • What role is there for the historian’s own affective response?



Robinson, Emily. ‘Touching the Void: Affective History and the Impossible,’ Rethinking History 14.4 (2010): 503-20.

Scheer, Monique. ‘Are Emotions a Kind of Practice (and is that what makes them have a history)?’ History and Theory 51 (2012): 193-220.


Reddy, William M. ‘Historical Research on the Self and Emotions,’ Emotion Review 1.4 (2009): 302-315

 Posted by Stephanie Downes

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