Emotions Move, Emotions Matter

A Report from the International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, MI, May 2014)


Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was difficult not to feel smug when I first walked into room 2016 in the Fetzer Center and saw that it was absolutely packed.  Dozens of sessions were taking place in that time slot, but ours still had a spectacular turnout.  This became a familiar sight over the next two days, as our five sessions on emotion in the European Middle Ages unfolded.

These sessions were the fruit of a collaboration between the Swiss Association of Medieval and Early Modern English Studies (SAMEMES) and the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (ARC CHE).  We agreed that we wanted session titles that played upon two themes: the idea that emotions themselves are not fixed or static, but frequently in flux or working across space, time, and language; and the way that emotions attach themselves to the very ‘stuff’ of human life—clothes, plant matter, animals.

Denis Renevey, Stephanie Downes, and myself managed to convince the ICMS organizing committee that the time was ripe for a series of sessions on emotion: two on ‘Materiality and Emotion’ (run by the ARC CHE), two on ‘Motion and Emotion’ (run by SAMEMES), and a jointly run roundtable on ‘Feeling the Middle Ages’.  These sessions included papers on history, art history, and literature; topics derived from such varied fields of study as English legal history, French literature, and German sculpture.

Despite the breadth of material covered across the three days of discussion, a number of general trends kept resurfacing.  One of these trends was a resistance to ‘isolating’ approaches to the study of emotion—past or present. The ineffability of emotion often prompts scholars to erect artificial barriers between emotional subjects, processes, and experiences.  Scholarship often considers reason, feeling, thinking, and sensing separately, for example, or separates human emotional experience from non-human existence.  But papers and roundtable presentations at ICMS challenged these forms of artificial isolation by emphasizing what is most muddled, coextensive, and ‘enmeshed’ (to use Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s word) about emotion.  Both matter and the immaterial—plants, skin, swords and knives, the elements, and other non-human factors—were shown to carry powerful emotional charges, and even to be possessed of surprising emotional agency.   (Indeed, as Valerie Allen showed, the affective was even deeply connected to such acts as measurement and calculation.)

The second thing that was evident across all three days of discussion was that we were all deeply interested not just in what emotions are, but also—drawing on Sara Ahmed’s work—in what emotions do.  And they do a lot.  Indeed, it was clear not only that ‘Emotions make history’ (in the words of the ARC CHE motto), but that emotions situate us in relation to history.  Emotion can both establish and strain relations between individuals, different communities, or even between different periods of time.  The very act of naming or categorizing emotions has its own emotional and, some have argued, moral impact.  Emotions persuade and emotions trouble, particularly when they cannot be named or pinned down, as in legal accounts of individual suicides (Rebecca McNamara), or when, like Gawain’s green girdle, the objects to which they are attached shift in terms of their meaning or ownership (Sarah Randles).  As Stephanie Trigg demonstrated, emotion can also determine where objects are felt to ‘belong’, or where they eventually end up.  Emotions make things happen: as Evelyn ‘Timmie’ Birge Vitz suggested, we might consider emotions to be the ‘motors’ that ‘drive’ texts.  And, as Spencer Young pointed out during his roundtable presentation, emotions are making scholarly history right now, shaping and directing the research of countless scholars around the globe.

Conversely, presentations and discussion also often turned to the question of how (or whether) we ‘do’ emotion, or how (and if) emotion is something that we can avoid doing or feeling.  To what extent can we view emotion in relation to a kind of self-generated causality, according to which cause cannot be distinguished from effect (Karl Steel)?  To what extent are emotions capable of being practiced, cultivated, or repressed?  To what extent does the ‘performance’ of an emotion make manifest something that lies within, or to what extent does it bring emotion into being?  Emotion is made up of processes and stimuli over which we have varying degrees of control, and of which we are aware to different extents.

So how do medieval emotions ‘move’ and why/how do they matter?  The list of titles below will give you a sense of how presenters engaged with these questions over the three days of sessions.  Other thoughts, comments, and reflections, from those who were there and from those who weren’t able to make it, are most welcome!



 Lara Farina, West Virginia U, ‘Vines, Petals, Nerves: Feeling Floral Skins’

Gabrielle Parkin, Mount St. Mary’s U, ‘Feeling Fabric: Margery Kempe, Mysticism, and a Love of Clothes’

Sarah Randles, U of Melbourne, ‘Was Gawain’s Girdle a Relic?’

Katie L. Walter, U of Sussex, ‘Plastic and Prosthetic Skin’



 Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, George Washington U, ‘Love of Stone’

Brigit G. Ferguson, UCSB, ‘Emotions in Stone: Sinful Anger and Saintly Joy in a Thirteenth-Century Stoning of Saint Stephen’

Karl Steel, Brooklyn College, CUNY, ‘Spontaneous Generation and the Problem of “Automatic” Agency’

Rebecca F. McNamara, U of Sydney, ‘Weapons of Self-Destruction: Materiality and Suicide in the Middle Ages’



 Marcel Elias, Cambridge University, ‘Emotional Rhetoric in Middle English Crusade Romance’

Amanda Taylor, U of Minnesota, ‘”Feeling Words” and the “Mayd Martial”: Passions and Porous Bodies in Spenser’s Faerie Queene

Louise D’Arcens, U of Wollongong, ‘Feeling Medieval: Transhistorical Emotions’

Stephanie Trigg, U of Melbourne, ‘Where Do Medieval Things Belong?’



Laura Ashe, Oxford University, ‘Empathy and Socio-political Discourse in High Medieval Literature’

Ayoush Lazikani, Oxford University, ‘Sensing and Feeling in Thirteenth-Century Devotional Lyrics’

Valerie Allen, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, ‘Protective Measures: Some Late Medieval Charms’



Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, George Washington U, ‘Feeling Enmeshed’

Fiona Somerset, UCONN, ‘Feeling, Emotions, and Cognition: Together or Apart?’

Mary C. Flannery, U of Lausanne, ‘How Not to Feel’

Evelyn Birge Vitz, NYU, ‘Perspectives on the Emotions in Medieval French Literature’

Spencer Young, U of Western Australia, ‘Vices, Conversion, and the Emotions in Late Medieval Religion’


Posted by Mary C. Flannery

University of Lausanne

twitter: @15thcgossipgirl

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