The Heart in History

“A vessel in the form of a heart held by a hand: lateral and three-quarter views”. Pen and ink drawing attributed to Giulio Romano or one of his followers. 16th c. Courtesy of the Wellcome Trust.

By Katie Barclay, The University of Adelaide

In the seventeenth century, elite Scottish couples addressed each other with terms of endearment, marking their intimacy and possession of the other. ‘Sweetheart’, ‘dear heart’, ‘my dearest heart’ were common addresses by both men and women. The beloved was not simply an arm, a kidney or even a rib, but a heart – an organ, which by the seventeenth century had held particular cultural significance for centuries. The heart was closely associated with a wide-range of emotions, or affections, that were sometimes physically, sometimes metaphorically, located there. Love of course, but also courage, as Richard the Lionheart reminds us, the envious heart of Snow White’s evil stepmother, or grief, which metaphorically and sometimes physically breaks hearts. At times, the heart was also the location of memory, volition, will, intelligence and soul.

piere sala
Detail of a miniature of the allegorical personifications of Friendly Expression and Courteous Manner, catching flighty hearts in their net; from Pierre Sala, Petit Livre d’Amour, France (Paris and Lyon), c. 1500, Stowe MS 955, f. 13r Courtesy of the British Library.

The heart could both act as a form of conscience and as a barometer of morality. To be ‘black-hearted’ meant to be disposed to evil; to be ‘kind-hearted’ was to be caring or compassionate. Like conscience, it could be conflicted: ‘My heart nourishes joy and pain’, noted the monk Jean Bodel. Hard hearts suggested a lack of empathy for the other, or conversely, like the Virgin Mary in the Marian play The Betrayal, who felt her ‘hert hard as ston’ on hearing of Christ’s death, speak to an incapacity of normal emotional functions, a closing down of the moral, emotional self in response to great tragedy. The warm and functioning heart here signified not just life but its wilful, moral dimensions; the cold heart reflected a failure to be fully human.

In this, the heart could and did stand for the whole person, their desires, their thoughts, their life immortal. Galen talks of a heart that ‘is the hearthstone and source of the innate heat by which the animal is governed’, placing the heart as the ruling organ. ‘For since God judges hearts, the heart must be the highest and most powerful part of man’, noted Philip Melanchthon. The relationship between the heart and the self supported practices such as heart burial. Dervorgilla of Galloway, the thirteenth-century noblewoman, had her husband’s heart embalmed after his death, carried it with her, and had it buried next to her heart after she died in ‘Sweetheart Abbey’, the monastery she had built in his memory. Until the late seventeenth century, Scots who died abroad had their hearts returned home for burial, while the practice of removing hearts from the body after death and embalming them was still practiced in the 1660s. The preservation of the heart acted to maintain a physical tie, so central to understandings of intimacy, between the living mourners and the deceased. Heart burial continued in other parts of Europe, such as France, until the late eighteenth century; as late as 1883, the Republican Leon Gambetta’s heart was removed, embalmed and placed into a statue of him that acted as a shrine for a secular pilgrimage amongst those seeking political change.

probably early 1480s
Portrait of a Young Man by the Master of the View of St Gudula. c. 1480s. Copyright © The National Gallery, London.

Given this association between the self and the heart, placing the beloved as ‘your heart’ was to deny the self, to complicate the boundaries of lover and beloved, to assert the becoming of ‘one flesh’ found in biblical prescriptions of marriage. The capacity of the heart to hold multiple selves, even to inscribe Scripture and society within it, marked its porousness. Shakespeare writes of a lover ‘Thy bosom is endeared with all hearts … And all those friends which I thought buried’,’ finding the hearts of all that he loved previously in a lover’s heart – an idea all the more profound when the heart is considered as not just emotion but self. Edgar Allan Poe’s murderous narrator is haunted by the victim’s beating heart; his guilt embodied within another. Eighteenth-century legal writers and many centuries of biblical scholars desired that the law or Scripture be ‘learned by heart’, an inscribing not only of knowledge but cultural values and ways of being, of memory and society, into the self. For some medieval peoples, this inscription could be quite literal so that when Ignatius of Antioch’s heart was opened after his death, the word Christ was engraved in gold. Mary of Modena’s heart contained the inscription of a cross. Christ, of course, should be found within the heart, as the many images of him knocking on the heart’s door suggest; indeed he should be loved with the ‘whole heart’, according to the gospel of Mark, a ‘jealous God’ indeed. As such, loving partners, children and family (let alone worldly wealth or goods) too enthusiastically could be a threat to the all-encompassing love that God demanded: ‘thus I am apt to set my affection to much upon husband & children’, which ‘puts my ♡ much out of frame for secret duties’ noted Katherine Gell in 1657. The heart could become quite crowded.

“Voor de deur van het heilige hart” By Antonie Wierix (II), c 1630-50.

It is perhaps not surprising given this highly social and multifaceted heart that at times it seems to surprise the body which holds it. Seventeenth-century French fairytales talk of unruly hearts that fall deeply in love and exert influence and control, despite the desire or wishes of their owners or the wellbeing of society. Hearts are also changeable, with religious conversion often envisioned as a transformation of heart – of cold hearts that become warm, dead hearts that come to life. In such situations they function as the physical embodiment of spiritual transformation. Such metaphors, which rely on the temperature, textures and movements of a physical structure, tie the history of the heart into the history of the organ, of medical understandings that coexist with such metaphors, at times underpinning and enforcing the wider attributes associated with the heart, at others growing further apart to live in juxtaposition with them. Such badly behaved, changeable hearts, hearts replete with other people and things, and metaphorical hearts that coexist and collide with medical hearts, challenge ideas of a unified self, and trouble ideas of whose conscience, whose will, operates through the heart. The heart comes to encompass not just the human, but their relationships with the world, friends, family, loves and the divine. It is because the heart is so full that it provides us with such rich material for study.

The Centre for the History of Emotions study day on ‘the Heart’ was held on 11 March 2016 at The University of Melbourne. More information about the program is available here.

Katie Barclay is an economic and social, cultural and gender historian, specialising in Scotland and Ireland across the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. She is currently working on a research project A History of Intimate Relationships in Scotland: Emotion and Family among the Lower Orders, 1661-1830, funded by the ARC [DP140100111]. It looks at the marital relationships and marriage-like arrangements of the Scottish poor and how this shaped their emotional lives. Barclay has recently completed a project with Professor David Lemmings and Dr Claire Walker on ‘Governing Emotion: the Affective Family, the Press and the Law in Early Modern Britain’, which explored representations of the family and the law in the early modern press. 

Further Reading 

Eric Jager, ‘The Book of the Heart: Reading and Writing the Medieval Subject’, Speculum 71 (1996): 1–26.

Fay Bound Alberti, Matters of the Heart: History, Medicine, and Emotion  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).




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