Review of Claudia Soares’s book on children and social care (by Laura Nys)

Laura Nys is a visiting scholar at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, QMUL. She is currently writing a book on the history of emotions in Belgian juvenile reformatories (19th-20th centuries). Her research is funded by the Independent Social Research Foundation.

In this post, Nys reviews Claudia Soares, A Home from Home? Children and Social Care in Victorian and Edwardian Britain, 1870-1920 (Oxford University Press, 2023) for the History of Emotions Blog.


A purring cat

Historians studying institutions of residential care have done much to unveil histories of power, neglect and abuse. They have brought to light histories of institutional violence while also offering insights from transitional justice to help societies come to terms with their legacies of abuse.[1] In A home from home? Children and social care in Victorian and Edwardian Britain, 1870-1920, Claudia Soares offers a different perspective, arguing that notions of family, belonging and home, too, were significant in institutions’ understandings of care.

A photograph from 1910, reproduced in the book, shows a group of children in the garden of St Martin’s Home. The matron is affectionately petting a cat on her lap, as two of the boys watch and one of them reaches out to touch its fur. The photo conveys a surprisingly homely and affectionate image of an institution of residential care, an image that does not quite correspond to the widespread idea of institutions as harsh and punitive establishments. Using the archives of the Ways and Strays Society (WSS), Claudia Soares shows that alongside notions of reform and discipline, values such as homeliness, family and belonging were integral to the WSS’ views of care.


Families, children and institutions of residential care

Founded in 1881, the Ways and Strays Society (WSS) provided care for children whose family was unable or unwilling to look after them. They were either sent to the Society by their families as a temporary measure, or they could be placed there after an intervention from local authorities. The institutions operating under the Society were of diverse nature, ranging from cottages to foster families. Using the children’s case files, personal correspondence and publications issued by the Society, Soares discusses not only the WSS’ understandings and practices of care but also the experiences of the institutionalised children and their families.

As only a minority of the children in the Society’s institutions were orphans, their birth family remained an important factor in their lives. The book pays considerable attention to the families’ interactions with the Society. Analysing the bureaucratic paperwork, Soares shows how the admission documents were a site of negotiation between the WSS and the families, who each strove to gain or keep authority over the children (chapter 1). Tensions could arise over the parents’ desire to keep in touch with their children or their wish to reclaim their children once the family’s economic situation had improved (chapter 3). The bureaucratic documents, as Soares shows, reveal the Society’s wish to establish an institutional family and their attempts to gain control over the children. While Soares acknowledges the unequal power relations between the Society and the families, she also shows that the Society was sensitive to familial preferences and willing to preserve the parent-child relationships. The parents’ letters, furthermore, provide insights into values of working class families and in particular the importance of affection and emotional bonds between parents and children.

Creating a home

Several chapters of the book show how the WSS tried to create a substitute family for the children under its care, emphasizing notions of homeliness and belonging. Family-time rituals such as Christmas gifts helped forge a sense of family, while offering treats to children symbolised an attentive, personalized and affective care (p. 151). Particularly interesting is chapter 4, where Soares discusses how domestic ideals were translated in the material design of the institutions. Inspired by middle-class domestic ideals on comfort, beauty and authority, the institutions’ material environment embodied Victorian values of morality and industry, which were considered pivotal for the training of working-class children. Favouring small-scale homes, the WSS encouraged the institutions to create a homely feeling through decoration, while possessions – both shared and individual – taught children to respect each other’s properties. In a similar vein, keeping pets or maintaining gardens (chapter 5) was encouraged to promote family ideals in the institutions of residential care. The role of these practices is thoroughly analysed by Soares, who uses not only written but also visual sources.

In discussing the practices of care, Soares remains aware of the ambivalent nature of the sources. Many photos featured in the official publications of the WSS and intended to convey a favourable image of the WSS’s institutions. On several occasions, Soares states that the WSS liked to contrast itself with other welfare organisations and thought itself superior to other institutions (p. 110, 145, 160, 173). Nevertheless, the book contains some assumptions which, though not impossible, seem fairly optimistic. The dormitory, for instance, is described as “the space where intimate moments were shared – expressions of solidarity and compassion, moments of vulnerability and consolation, laughter, and friendships forged between residents” (p. 112), whereas tea time “created time and space for family togetherness, where interest in and fondness for children might be articulated” (p. 114). The word ‘might’ is important, and testifies of Soares’ care and carefulness, for it is hard to know whether the institutionalised children experienced the spaces in such a way.

Soares has taken great effort to bring to the fore sources that reveal children’s experiences. Throughout the book, she cites correspondence that sheds light on the voices of families, children and staff members, sometimes showing tensions, but often showing traces of care and affection. The last chapter, discussing post-institutional contact between children and staff members, is especially interesting. While the provision of aftercare was not standardised and not available to all children who left the institutions, the sources suggest that the children held certain expectations and felt they were entitled to help from institutional staff. Letters written by children after discharge that were published by the WSS – presumably after being edited – are informative of the expectations that the WSS had of its care leavers, such as their ability to keep a job, to have moral values and to show gratitude. Many of the informal letters between children and staff members might have been lost, but Soares shows that some letters were sent not solely with the purpose of aid-seeking, but from a genuine desire to maintain a friendship. Aftercare, Soares argues, was not merely considered ”an act of obligation” but could also be “one of friendship and devotion that casts the carer-inmate relationship as more than just a duty to provide basic material care in the out-of-home setting” (p. 176).

Historical perspectives on affection and residential care

In addressing features of home, family and belonging in institutions of residential care, A home from home? adds layers of complexity to the view of institutions as “miserable, bleak, and oppressive” (p. 3). Soares does not leave out the bleak histories of the institutions, such as children who were deliberately placed in institutions far away from the birth family (p. 43), the great efforts often made by parents to reclaim their children (p. 100) or the fact that children were sometimes sent to Canada without the parents’ explicit consent (p. 82). Yet, by putting to the fore notions of family, belonging and affection, Soares is able to shed fresh light on histories of residential care, urging us not to forget the cases where children felt “attachment, affection, and affinity with staff and co-residents that heightened feelings of intimacy and connection” (p. 4).

Soares deliberately approaches affection, family and the home as historical notions, contextualising them against Victorian ideals of domesticity and the history of working-class families. She eruditely relates her findings to existing scholarship (mostly relating to the English-speaking world). Though the book covers a period of fifty years, historical change within these five decades remains largely unaddressed, opening new paths for research. Throughout the book, Soares describes well-chosen case studies and offers a critical reading of the sources, which include articles, visual sources and both published and unpublished correspondence. A more systematic analysis of the latter would have strengthened the arguments even more, for example by juxtaposing the unpublished correspondence against the published – and possibly polished – letters. Offering fresh perspectives on residential care, A home from home? will appeal to readers interested in the history of the family, childhood, education and welfare.

[1] See, for instance Johanna Sköld and Shurlee Swain, eds., Apologies and the Legacy of Abuse of Children in ‘Care’: International Perspectives, Palgrave Studies in the History of Childhood (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

On The Aura: Medicine meets Spiritualism in the Nineteenth Century

Olivia KrauzeOlivia Krauze is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Cambridge. Her research explores the concept of ‘violent emotion’ in nineteenth-century medicine and fiction. Her interests more broadly include affect theory, the medical humanities, sexuality and queer studies, the novel form, periodical culture, and Russian literature.

In this guest post for The History of Emotions Blog, she examines how the changing meanings of ‘aura’ in the nineteenth century informed the novels of Thomas Hardy.

A quick search for the term ‘aura’ is likely to lead down two rather divergent paths: spiritual websites and book-length guides on How to See, Feel and Heal the Aura on the one hand, and medical information on the migraine aura (typical in one in three sufferers) on the other.[1] Both of these conceptualisations of the term are relatively modern; in fact, both developed around the same moment in the nineteenth century.

Figure 1: The front cover of a 16th-century edition of Galen’s Omnia Opera. Wellcome Collection

The Greek sense of ‘αὔρα’ as a breeze or zephyr, with its typically poetic associations, persisted in Britain for over one thousand years.[2] Its medical usage, meanwhile, dates back to the second century AD and Galen’s Omnia Opera, in which he described a case of epilepsy in a thirteen-year-old boy, preceded by the sensation of ‘a cold breeze’ originating in the leg and climbing upwards towards the head.[3] However, as Esther Lardreau has pointed out, the nineteenth century ushered in ‘[t]he reconstruction of the concept of the aura epileptica’.[4] In an 1858 review of a recent work on epilepsy, psychiatrist John Charles Bucknill commented on the growing signification of the term:

Some have applied its meaning solely to the sensation of a cold breeze or wind traversing from the periphery to the centre of the nervous system, while others have called any peripheral phenomenon which preceded the fit, by the name aura.[5]

The peripheral phenomena Bucknill went on to describe largely involved pain, discomfort or tremors, but by 1890, Byrom Bramwell, future president of the Royal College of Physicians, wrote that ‘[t]he aura may consist of any sensation which we are capable of experiencing’, indeed, that ‘[i]n many cases, the aura consists of a peculiar feeling, which patients often find it difficult to describe exactly’, ranging from sensory to motor reactions, and even sometimes inducing ‘dreamy states’.[6] If epilepsy was the condition most prolifically studied in this period, the influence of the ever-broader concept of the aura soon spread to studies of other neurological conditions, such as hysteria and migraine.

A colour chart taken from Man Visible and Invisible

Figure 2: ‘Key to the Meanings of Colours, from Man Visible and Invisible (Plate I). Wikimedia Commons.

Undoubtedly, a mutual pressure was exercised on the definition of the aura in all its variability and ambiguity by this new medical context and the then co-emergent modern Spiritualist movement. The first issue of The Spiritualist magazine published in 1869 included a report on the lecture of Mr John Jones, ‘a retired city merchant, and well-known friend of Spiritualism’, who attempted to prove that ‘[a] mesmeric aura, seen by sensitives, proceeds from every human being, and influences the actions of people more than most of them are aware’.[7] With the foundation of the Theosophical Society in 1875, members began to conduct individual studies into the aura, which became a key concept for occult theorists. In 1895, Charles Webster Leadbeater published the pamphlet The Aura: An Enquiry into the Nature and Functions of the Luminous Mist Seen about Human and Other Bodies. In his longer 1903 study, Man Visible and Invisible, he even made several attempts to illustrate the aura in its various aspects, as seen from the perspective of the clairvoyant (figs. 2 and 3).[8] As the movement grew, so did assertions that the aura ‘does not appeal solely to mystics and those transcendentally inclined, it has a very practical bearing upon the ills of life; for it prepares the way to a medical system based upon the true nature of the individual’.[9] Comparable claims on the health benefits of self-attunement to the aura pervaded contemporary self-help literature on the subject.

Figure 3: ‘The Astral Body of the Ordinary Man’, from Man Visible and Invisible (Plate X). Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas Hardy, a writer especially attuned to the relationship between body and mind in his works, and a voracious reader of contemporary medical literature, played on all these connotations of the aura in his 1891 novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles. In an important narrative moment, he described Tess’s effect on her lover and husband-to-be, Angel:

Clare had studied the curves of those lips so many times that he could reproduce them mentally with ease: and now, as they again confronted him, clothed with colour and life, they sent an aura over his flesh, a breeze through his nerves, which well nigh produced a qualm; and actually produced, by some mysterious physiological process, a prosaic sneeze.[10]

Hardy’s use of the term ‘aura’ is remarkably loaded here: it combines its Classical meaning, literally ‘a breeze’, with the more figurative meanings the term acquired during the nineteenth century. These meanings meet within the logic of the sentence. The implication is that Tess’s essence or aura, emanating from her lips, in turn produces the medical sense of aura in Angel. Hardy seemed to take to its comic conclusion the potentiality of this latter aura to result in a sneeze, rather than a fit, but retained a latent violence in the threat of the nearly produced ‘qualm’. That the narrator later extols Tess’s ‘healthy thought of a passion as an end’, but hints at something pathological about Angel’s desire for her, acts as a warning of the spasm yet to come.[11] The moment itself thus acts as an aura for the reader, anticipating the tragic fallout from Tess’s confession to Angel, which shatters the fallacy of his own privately conducted studies.

As this whistlestop tour of the changing etymology of ‘aura’ in the nineteenth century has shown, the twenty-first-century associations with which I started this post had a common point of issue, and more of a shared dialectic than might at first appear. Moreover, their co-evolution did not go unnoticed by contemporaries: the aura’s oversubscribed body of meanings provided a rich opportunity for affective expression for literary writers in the late nineteenth century.


Byrom Bramwell, Studies in Clinical Medicine (Edinburgh: Y.J. Pentland, 1890).

C. W. Leadbeater, Man Visible and Invisible: Examples of Different Types of Men as Seen by Means of Trained Clairvoyance (New York: John Lane, 1903).

Esther Lardreau, ‘The Difference Between Epileptic Auras and Migrainous Auras in the 19th Century’, Cephalalgia, 27.12 (2007), 1378-1385.

John Charles-Bucknill, ‘Dr Sieveking on Epilepsy and Epileptiform Seizures’, Journal of Mental Science, 4 (London: Longman, Green, Longman & Roberts, 1858), 408-426.

Karl Gottlob Kühn, ed., Claudii Galeni Opera Omnia, vol. 8 (Leipzig: Carolus Cnoblochii, 1824).

Marie A. Walsh, Preface to A. Marques, The Human Aura: A Study (San Francisco: Office of Mercury, 1896), v-vi.

Marion McGeough, A Beginner’s Guide to the Aura: Learn How to See, Feel and Heal the Aura (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2018).

‘Migraine with aura’, The Migraine Trust (2021)

The Spiritualist, 19 November 1869.

Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891).

[1] Marion McGeough, A Beginner’s Guide to the Aura: Learn How to See, Feel and Heal the Aura (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2018); ‘Migraine with aura’, The Migraine Trust (2021) <> [accessed 14/02/2023].

[2] A famous early example sees Odysseus worrying that the cold early morning breeze from the river may overcome him in his feebleness at the end of Book 5. Hom., αὔρη δ’ ἐκ ποταμοῦ ψυχρὴ πνέει, Od., 5.469.

[3] Karl Gottlob Kühn, ed., Claudii Galeni Opera Omnia, vol. 8 (Leipzig: Carolus Cnoblochii, 1824), p. 194.

[4] Esther Lardreau, ‘The Difference Between Epileptic Auras and Migrainous Auras in the 19th Century’, Cephalalgia, 27.12 (2007), 1378-1385 (p. 1383).

[5] John Charles-Bucknill, ‘Dr Sieveking on Epilepsy and Epileptiform Seizures’, Journal of Mental Science, 4 (London: Longman, Green, Longman & Roberts, 1858), 408-426 (p. 410).

[6] Byrom Bramwell, Studies in Clinical Medicine (Edinburgh: Y.J. Pentland, 1890), p. 229.

[7] ‘Reports of Meetings: St. John’s Association of Spiritualists, The Spiritualist, 19 November 1869, p. 2.

[8] C. W. Leadbeater, Man Visible and Invisible: Examples of Different Types of Men as Seen by Means of Trained Clairvoyance (New York: John Lane, 1903).

[9] Marie A. Walsh, Preface to A. Marques, The Human Aura: A Study (San Francisco: Office of Mercury, 1896), v-vi (p. v).

[10] Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), Chapter XXIV.

[11] Ibid., Chapter XXVIII.

Sic(k) semper tyrannis? Dictatorship and emotions around 1800

Dr Moisés Prieto is a research associate at the University of Bern. He is a historian of dictatorship,  emotions, and migration.

In this guest post for The History of Emotions Blog, he addresses some of the themes from his recent book entitled Narratives of Dictatorship in the Age of Revolution. Emotions, Power and Legitimacy in the Atlantic Space.

We still remember that meeting between French President Emanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin, on 7 February 2022, a few weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Or rather we remember that enormous meeting table staged to provide a determined political image.

The impact of that image is somehow reflected in the fact, that the table itself has its own Wikipedia entry.[1] The distance between the Russian ruler and his guest becomes a metaphor for the cooler diplomatic relations between the Russian Federation and the West, far from the friendly cordiality of the past. That image reminds us also of the notion of ‘social distance’ which was one of the core issues during the COVID 19 pandemics. It was in fact more a physical distance that health agencies worldwide demanded than anything else.

Figure 1: Putin and Macron meeting with a large table, , CC-BY 4.0

What is particularly fascinating about the image of those physically (and politically) distant rulers is the twofold message suggested by the imposed distance. Distance can reflect the idea of majestic solemnity, of an unreachable status worth to be honoured and worshipped, but it can also reflect the exact opposite: vulnerability, fear of being attacked and, in Foucauldian terms, le souci de soi. For those who love anagrams, these different interpretations may be condensed in ‘sacred’ versus ‘scared’.

One such scared and suspicious mind was the ruler of Paraguay’s after its independence from the Spanish colonial empire, too. Around 1819, the two Swiss physicians Johann Rengger and Marcel Longchamp arrived in Asunción with the aim to emulate Alexander von Humboldt and to explore the South American flora and fauna. They met Dr José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (1766–1840) and described the protocol for audiences as it follows:

This [Francia’s] fear of assassination is also shewn in the etiquette prescribed at his audiences. The person admitted must not approach nearer to the Dictator than six paces, until he makes him a sign to advance; and even then he must always stop at a distance of three paces. His arms must be held close to his body, and his hands open and hanging down, so that it be evident that he has no concealed weapons.[2]

The dictator of Paraguay was peculiar and not necessarily for the above ‘audience choreography’.[3] Unlike the typical heroes of the Latin American independence such as Simón Bolívar, José de San Martín or Antonio José de Sucre, Francia was not a military leader, but a theologian. Furthermore, he was officially proclaimed ‘dictator’ – as the office’s taxonomy – thus echoing the ancient Roman magistrate during the Republic. By then the term was still ‘unpolluted’ and shared little with twentieth-century tyrannies. It was used to evoke instead civic virtues of self-sacrifice and legislatory achievements embodied by historical figures such as Camillus, Cincinnatus, Sulla and Caesar.

During the French Revolution the term ‘dictator’ gained a new impetus and was freed from its historical and philosophical register and entered political language. In more general terms, history itself lost its iterability which was replaced by teleological visions of inexorable progress. Hence, the dictator as conceived in the ancient Roman Republic, who steps in to solve a particular crisis with extraordinary powers, yet for a limited amount of time, gave way to a new idea of dictator who takes over not for the defence of a given constitution, but in the name of one yet to come. The most tangible example for this new paradigm of rule was Napoleon Bonaparte.

Since his seizure of power on the 18 Brumaire (9 November 1799) he had given to France not just military victories, but robust institutions and laws, too. For many liberals all over Europe, Bonaparte embodied the values of the French Revolution. However, things changed with his coronation in 1804. This fall from grace provoked an interesting differentiation. Beethoven, Bolívar, Stendhal and Heine praised the genius of the First Consul Bonaparte, but disdained the self-crowned Emperor Napoleon I as if they were two different personae. Of course, not everybody loved Bonaparte either. On Christmas eve of 1800 he barely survived an assassination attempt. When in 1804 another plot was discovered and the French aristocrat duke d’Enghien considered to be involved in it, Bonaparte did not really hesitate to order his abduction, imprisonment and – after a mock trial – his execution. Eventually, d’Enghien had nothing to do with the plot. Once exiled on St Helena, more than a decade later, Napoleon justified the political murder as it follows:

I should still have had the right of the law of nature, of legitimate self-defence. The Duke [of Enghien] and his party had constantly but one object in view, that of taking away my life. I was assailed on all sides, and at every instant; air-guns, infernal machines, plots, ambuscades of every kind, were resorted to for that purpose. At last I was tired out, and took an opportunity of striking them with terror in their turn in London; I succeeded, and from that moment there was an end to all conspiracies. Who can blame me for having acted so?[4]

These words recall that the terror one instils reflects the fear one experiences.[5] And speaking of fear, is there any other fear than that of death? Bonaparte, worshiped by his supporters almost like a god, immortalised like a Roman divinity and a Messiah, was aware of his mortality.

Figure 2: Bonaparte Visiting the Pesthouse in Jaffa (1804), by Antoine-Jean Gros, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Unlike monarchs, dictators lack a ‘body politic’. They cannot perpetuate themselves beyond their death through a dynasty. Yet while the dictator might envy the monarch for this, the monarch is likely to envy the dictator, too, yet for his charisma and his freedom of action, generally not limited by any constitution or customary law. In other words, emotions become relevant factors for the sake of legitimising these new rulers. As David Bell eloquently puts it:

The intense emphasis now placed on the emotional bond between rulers and ruled was something new, and it meant that the revolutionary leaders were in no sense simply substitute kings. Their political authority was of a fundamentally different sort.[6]

Another ruler with such a fundamentally different sort of authority was the governor of the Province of Buenos Aires, Brigadier General Juan Manuel de Rosas (1793–1877). Originally a cattle-breeder, he became in 1829 governor and again in 1835 – this time with the sum of public power. His charismatic personality was attested by nobody less than Charles Darwin who met him in 1833 and whose ‘sinister’ attraction is palpable in the following quote: “General Rosas is a man of an extraordinary character; he has at present a most predominant influence in this country & probably may end by being its ruler.”[7]

Figure 3: Golden pocket watch with Juan Manuel de Rosas’ portrait engraved. Courtesy of Museo Histórico Nacional (Buenos Aires), inventory number. MHN 2446.

Darwin could certainly not predict the utmost terror of Rosas’ second rule and the activities of the paramilitary force – the infamous Mazorca – which persecuted the dictator’s enemies, mainly located among the liberal and Europhile unitarians. Strict political control was articulated by means of powerful emotional practices. The dictator was hailed in what John Lynch called an “orgy of adulation”[8], with his portrait displayed in the churches of Buenos Aires, next to the crucifix. The use of colours, too, contributed to show a ‘generally recommendable’ allegiance to the governor. Red became the official colour every citizen – who cared for his/her own life – had to wear on his chest or on her hair. The effigy of Rosas became ubiquitous and, in some cases, perennial as the governor’s engraved portrait on pocket watches indicates. If a given uniformity in red was prescribed, other colours were forbidden like sky-blue and green, and, to the widows and orphans of his assassinated enemies it was prohibited to mourn. A pristinely paradigmatic ‘emotional regime’ (Reddy) with restrains and commandments was, therefore, reigning in Buenos Aires.

Rosas’ detractors like Domingo Faustino Sarmiento or José Rivera Indarte, a former supporter of the governor, used the word ‘terror’ to refer to his regime; an idea which was reconducted to the experience under the French Revolution. Sarmiento wrote in his seminal essay Facundo:

What happens is that terror is a disease of the mind that attacks a people like cholera, smallpox, or scarlet fever. No one, finally, escapes the contagion. And when work is done for ten straight years to inoculate it, even those already vaccinated cannot resist in the end.[9]

Hence, terror was no longer a Machiavellian mean to punctually ‘promote’ the people’s loyalty through single executions. As Reinhart Koselleck argued, it allowed now (post-)revolutionary regimes to pervade the realm of the private, thus penetrating homes, bodies and minds in an unprecedented way,[10] thus blurring the borders between the private and the public.

Rosas was finally overthrown after the Battle of Caseros in 1852 and fled to Great Britain where he spent the rest of his life in Southampton. All his efforts to perpetuate himself in power were in vain, facing eventually the same fate as Bolívar and Napoleon.

Generally, the tyrant leaving the floor is the best part of his regime. Supporters will certainly miss him and sometimes even detractors, unhappy and disenchanted by what came after him, might reconsider his deeds. If history loses its potential of providing guidance and its iterability, it becomes exceptional and, therefore, those ‘great men’ who shape history – in Carlylean terms – are perceived as exceptional too. The passing away of the exceptional and the unique produces inevitably a feeling of loss and pain.

Figure 4: Louis-Philippe inaugurant la statue de Napoléon sur la colonne Vendôme (19th century), by Carlo Canella (1800-1879), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This nostalgia, which had little to do with its originally pathologic meaning, had multiple expressions paving the path to a post-Napoleonic cult. Veterans gathering in their old uniforms at the foot of the Vendôme column, the consumption of emotional objects such as relics, statuettes, images and hidden faces of the late Emperor shows a longing for a (mythical) return of the hero. Starring back at those ‘good old days’ was a side effect of the new conception of linear and teleologic history.[11] Nevertheless, nostalgia was not only about the past. As Svetlana Boym claimed: “Fantasies of the past determined by needs of the present have a direct impact on realities of the future.”[12] No wonder that the longing for Napoleon the Great helped his nephew Louis-Napoleon – ‘Napoléon le Petit’, as Victor Hugo called him – becoming the ruler of France.

Dictators bear a sinister fascination, comparable to what cancer types might experience on oncologists. Studying those emotions inculcated and disseminated by them and those sentiments which affect them opens new ways of understanding how dictatorships function and why such a pernicious rule still exists. Dictators around 1800, on both sides of the Atlantic, show the transformation from the honourable, selfless citoyen taking the reins of the state for a higher purpose and paying his tribute to the ancient Roman model, towards an unlimited and uncontrolled concentration of power for the sake of itself and the dictator’s self-aggrandisement. Still echoing and obliged to the prestigious Roman tradition, they impose their iron will upon the population. Nowadays, autocrats generally present themselves as true democrats, but once in office they abridge civil rights and abolish those constitutional hurdles which impede them to perpetuate themselves in power. These steps must be followed by determined messages addressed to the people for the sake of quietening any criticism and presenting the ruler’s actions as necessary for the country’s safety, glory and happiness. It is in these messages where emotions operate and maintain a key role.


Vladimir Putin’s meeting table,, consulted on 26 March 2023.

Moisés Prieto, Narratives of Dictatorship in the Age or Revolution. Emotions, Power and Legitimacy in the Atlantic Space (London: Routledge, 2023).

Johann R. Rengger and Marcel Longchamps, The Reign of Doctor Joseph Gaspard Roderick de Francia (London: Thomas Hurst, Edward Chance & Co., 1827).

Memoirs of the Life, Exile and Conversations, of the Emperor Napoleon by the Count de Las Cases, 4 vols. (London: Henry Colburn, 1836).

Stefan Rinke, ‘The epitome of modern dictatorship in the early nineteenth century. Dr Francia in Paraguay, or «The Chinese emperor of the West»,’ in Dictatorship in the Nineteenth Century. Conceptualisations, Experiences, Transfers, ed. Moisés Prieto (London: Routledge, 2021), p. 133–49.

David A. Bell, Men on Horseback. The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020).

Charles Darwin, ‘Diary of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle,’ in: The Works of Charles Darwin, ed. Nora Barlow, 29 vols., vol. 1 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1986).

John Lynch, Argentine Dictator: Juan Manuel de Rosas 1829–1852 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).

Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, Facundo. Civilization and Barbarism, trans. Kathleen Ross (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2003).

Reinhart Koselleck, Critique and Crisis. Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 1988).

Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001).

[1] Vladimir Putin’s meeting table,, 26 March 2023.

[2] Johann R. Rengger and Marcel Longchamps, The Reign of Doctor Joseph Gaspard Roderick de Francia (London: Thomas Hurst, Edward Chance & Co., 1827), p. 201–2.

[3] Stefan Rinke, «The epitome of modern dictatorship in the early nineteenth century. Dr Francia in Paraguay, or ‘The Chinese emperor of the West’,» in Dictatorship in the Nineteenth Century. Conceptualisations, Experiences, Transfers, ed. Moisés Prieto (London: Routledge, 2021), p. 133–49, p. 133–34.

[4] Memoirs of the Life, Exile and Conversations, of the Emperor Napoleon by the Count de Las Cases, 4 vols. (London: Henry Colburn, 1836), iv: p. 191.

[5] Moisés Prieto, Narratives of Dictatorship in the Age or Revolution. Emotions, Power and Legitimacy in the Atlantic Space (London: Routledge, 2023), p. 117.

[6] David A. Bell, Men on Horseback. The Power of Charisma in the Age of Revolution (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), p. 10.

[7] Charles Darwin, ‘Diary of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle,’ in: The Works of Charles Darwin, ed. Nora Barlow, vol. 1 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1986), p. 149.

[8] John Lynch, Argentine Dictator: Juan Manuel de Rosas 1829–1852 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), p. 183.

[9] Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, Facundo. Civilization and Barbarism, trans. Kathleen Ross (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2003), p. 135.

[10] Reinhart Koselleck, Critique and Crisis. Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 1988), p. 164–65.

[11] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), p. 10.

[12] Ibid., p. xvi.

Fear, Time, and Agency

Suzy Lawrence is a PhD candidate at King’s College London. Her research explores moments of individual emotional agency in early modern drama

In this post, she looks at how connections between fear and time are used to control people’s behaviour in Shakespeare’s Henry V and Boris Johnson’s first lockdown address.

On 23 March 2020, I sat on a sofa, surrounded by the detritus of enforced home schooling, and watched open mouthed as Boris Johnson ordered us all to stay at home. It felt momentous. It also caused me to feel a whole host of different emotions: confusion, anxiety, sadness. But perhaps predominantly, I was aware of feeling fear. Fear of home school, fear of illness, fear for those I loved. I am lucky enough generally not to experience much fear in my daily life which perhaps made this moment feel even more extreme. Luckily for me, however, this was an emotion I had recently been thinking about in great detail. In my research, I look at moments of deliberate emotional change in early modern drama. As I watched Boris give his address, and as I felt the fear rising within me, I also saw a connection form between this moment and the way that fear is treated in Shakespeare’s Henry V. I’m sure Boris himself would have been delighted by the connection.

Boris Johnson addressing the Nation on 23 March 2020 (Source: Andrew Parsons/ No 10 Downing Street)

So, what then was it about that speech that took me back over 400 years? Well, the answer lies in the connection between fear and time and the way this connection can be manipulated by those in power to induce emotion in others. Authors of early modern health guides, which always deal with regulating the emotions, openly acknowledge that fear is an emotion based in the future. Thomas Rogers (1576) therefore describes fear as being ‘an opinion of some Evyll coming towards us’, while Jean D’Espine (1592) describes fear as being ‘caused and ingendered by reason of some imminent danger’.[1] The clergyman Nicholas Coeffeteau (1621) perhaps makes the clearest connections between fear and time, however, when he observes that ‘to cause Feare, the evill that doth threaten us must not bee present but to come; for that when it is present, it is no more a Feare but a mere heavinesse’.[2] These writers are acknowledging the fact that fear is an emotion inspired by the thought of a future unwelcome event. In fact, its existence appears to be entirely dependent on the futurity of that event. When the event arrives in the present, the emotion isn’t even seen as fear anymore, changing instead to become a ‘mere heavinesse’, a word which the Oxford English Dictionary defines variously as displeasure, sadness and grief.

Front cover of A Table of Humane Passions by Nicholas Coeffeteau (London, 1621). Source: LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection

As well as insisting that fear is an emotion always inspired by an event in the future, however, these writers are also clear that the event must be hard to avoid. D’Espine describes how the imminent danger causing the fear must be one ‘from which we knowe not how to be delivered, whensover it happeneth’.[3] Coeffeteau states that fear is ‘a griefe and distresse of the soule, troubled by the imagination of some approaching Evill, wherewith man is threatened, without any appearance to be able to avoid it easily’.[4] For me, this aspect of fear is crucial because it creates a link between the individual’s sense of personal agency, their ability to shape their future, and their sense of emotional agency, their ability to control their emotions. An event induces fear when an individual believes that they may not be able to avoid it and so it fills their future, seemingly offering no chance for escape. Because of this, it stands to reason that those in power, with the freedom to control how they use their time, may feel more able to dispel their fear than other socially or economically disenfranchised individuals.

Turning from these early modern authors to Shakespeare, it is clear that he is also conscious of these connections between fear, time and agency. In Henry V, Henry makes a speech at the battle of Agincourt to inspire his exhausted and frightened men to an unlikely victory against the dominant French army. The dramatic intention behind this speech is for Henry to change his soldiers’ emotions and thereby shape their actions: he needs to inspire them to fight. He therefore begins his speech by declaring that if any man ‘hath no stomach to this fight | Let him depart’ (4.3.35-36).[5] This is a clever move. In making this statement, Henry is seemingly giving his men some agency and so changing the battle from a moment of fearful inevitability to a moment when men can shape their own future. By giving them some control of their future, he immediately helps to dispel their fear.

Henry V inspiring the troops at the Battle of Agincourt (Source: Charles Pye, 1807, LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection)

For those soldiers that stay, Shakespeare also uses the connections between time and fear in the rest of Henry’s speech to make sure that the future is nothing to be scared of. In one key moment, Henry tells his soldiers that:

He that shall see this day and live old age
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours
And say ‘tomorrow is Saint Crispian’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars
And say these wounds I had on Crispin’s day

This is another clever temporal trick. Henry has little chance of reframing the battle itself as something not to be feared. He therefore directs his soldiers imaginatively beyond the immediate, fear-inspiring danger, to a more welcoming future instead. Indeed, the nature of the place he sends them to is important. While Henry himself prays to God before battle, he doesn’t talk to his men about the opportunity to reach heaven, a place which is hard to imagine. Instead, he fills his soldiers’ minds with visions of an easily imagined and very familiar future, full of neighbourly feasts and the opportunity for happy boasting. The soldiers can focus on this reassuringly familiar but enticingly golden vision, instead of on the unavoidable battle. Henry therefore effectively time-hops them to a better place, putting the battle into their past and placing glory into their future instead. As such, their fear, an emotion which depends on an unwelcome future, is effectively dispelled.

Shakespeare writes Henry V using the connections between time and fear to convincingly portray Henry as dispelling his soldiers’ fears. In the world of the play, this has a clear personal benefit for Henry: his soldiers enter battle and win him reputational immortality. What, though, does this have to do with Boris Johnson and his speech of 23 March 2020? Well, as I listened to it, I started to realise that, just as Henry wants his soldiers to fight, so Boris’ speech is entirely focused on persuading its listeners to change their behaviour as well and that one of the ways it attempts to do this is through manipulating fear.

Henry gives his speech prior to an obvious moment of physical battle. Boris’ first task is to convince the potentially sceptical public that a battle is going on and that they should be scared. It is therefore noticeable that he begins his speech by creating that image of the unavoidable and unwanted future. He does this in three main ways. He describes Covid-19 as the ‘invisible killer’ twice in his speech This is an enemy that is unseen and therefore potentially unavoidable. He intensifies the situation by making it clear that the future is coming so quickly that it is almost here already, we are ‘in a moment of real danger’ where some workers are already on ‘the frontline’. And the future that is racing towards us is a dystopian one, where ‘there won’t be enough ventilators, enough intensive care beds, enough doctors and nurses.’ There are clear connections between the nature of these images and the definition of fearful events given by the early modern authors above. Compressing the four hundred years between their advice and my current moment, I also felt afraid as I contemplated the Covid battlefield that seemed to lie ahead.

A doctor in Italy at the end of a 12 hour shift in a Covid ward, the future that Boris evokes. (Source: Alberto Giuliani, CC BY-SA 4.0).

But, just like Henry wants his soldiers to go into battle, so Boris wants his listeners to fight too: he wants them to stay home, despite the huge personal and economic cost that will incur. Having created fear in at least some of his audience, Boris therefore uses the same tactics as Henry to make those people comply. He makes it clear that this fearful future may not be unavoidable after all because there ‘is a clear way through’ that depends on the listeners’ choices: people can choose to stay home. He also ends the speech confirming that if people do stay home then there will be a glorious fear-free future. Just as Henry describes his soldiers sitting in a pub showing off their scars, so Boris creates a vision where the nation has not only fought off Covid-19 but it has reunited: ‘we will come through it stronger than ever’ and ‘will beat it together’. Always shown in front of a Union Jack, Boris references England’s supposedly heroic past in order to move his listeners’ imaginations through to the fearless future and so also attempts to manipulate their emotions to ensure compliance with his unprecedented request.

The government’s slogan urged people to stay at home to change the future. (Source: Andrew Parsons/ No 10 Downing Street)

In that moment on 23 March 2020, my own emotion was too overwhelming to process with any kind of logical analysis. As the pandemic has progressed, however, being aware of how fear was thought about in the past has certainly helped me to rethink how to feel about it in the present. Everyone’s emotions have been different throughout this pandemic but understanding one of the ways in which my own emotion of fear has been evoked has allowed me to control it more effectively. Indeed, I write this shortly after the government has declared the end of isolation rules. While many are happy to embrace the idea of living with Covid, it is clear that for those who are clinically vulnerable, the fear remains. Acknowledging the connections between time and fear, and how those connections allow emotions and behaviour to be manipulated, can at least give people back some agency in managing any fear they may feel moving forward into the future.



Thomas Rogers, Anatomie of the Mind (London, 1576)

Jean D’Espine, A very excellent and learned discourse, touching the tranquilitie and contentation of the minde (London, 1592)

Nicholas Coeffeteau, A Table of Humane Passions (London, 1621)

William Shakespeare, Henry V, ed. by T. W. Craik (London: The Arden Shakespeare, 1995)

Prime Minister’s Statement on coronavirus (COVID-19): 23 March 2020.

[1] Thomas Rogers, Anatomie of the Mind (London, 1576), p. 26; Jean D’Espine, A very excellent and learned discourse, touching the tranquilitie and contentation of the minde (London, 1592), p. 143.

[2] Nicholas Coeffeteau, A Table of Humane Passions (London, 1621), p. 430.

[3] Jean D’Espine, A very excellent and learned discourse, touching the tranquilitie and contentation of the minde (London, 1592), p.143.

[4] Nicholas Coeffeteau, A Table of Humane Passions (London, 1621), p. 430-431.

[5] William Shakespeare, Henry V, ed. by T. W. Craik (London: The Arden Shakespeare, 1995), 4.3.35-36. All subsequent references are to this edition.

Geschichtsmüde: the weariness of history

Isabelle Grime took the History of Emotions undergraduate module at Queen Mary University of London during 2020-21, and is now about to start an MSt in medieval history at Oxford.

In this post, one in a series of contributions by QMUL students to the History of Emotions blog, Isabelle uses the history of emotions to explore a emotion felt about…history, especially in Germany.

A portion of the Berlin Wall’s East Side Gallery after with signs protesting its removal. Manfred Kielnhofer, Light Art Biennial Exhibition, 2013
Signs read: What does history cost? [middle, top] and ‘History must remain visible for our children’ [middle, bottom]

The German language possesses a wondrous ability to mesh words together and create new ones which pinpoint, often with almost eye-watering accuracy, emotions that you may never have known you’d experienced – until you see them encapsulated in a string of letters. Think schadenfreude, pleasure derived from another’s misfortune, or fernweh, painful longing for a far-away place. Recently, I stumbled across another, similarly untranslatable, but poignant emotion-word that I’d like to introduce you to: geschichtsmüde.

Combining ‘geschichte’ (history) and ‘müde’ (weary), geschichtsmüde is literally the feeling of being ‘weary of history’. I know what you’re thinking: didn’t you just call this emotion untranslatable?… That’s a good question. When grappling with geschichtsmüde, I feared it may be impossible to truly understand an emotion seemingly so entrenched in a language and culture that was not my own. I have experienced weariness, and studied history for as long as I can remember, but their fusion in a German context appears to create an emotion as ambiguous as it is acute.

In answering this problem, I turned, as I often do, to Twitter.

Appealing for ideas of what it might mean to experience geschichtsmüde, responses to this tweet identified a spectrum of potentially intersecting feelings. Laziness, ignorance, guilt and pain all fell under the umbrella of a geschichtsmüde triggered by the tumultuous history of Germany’s Third Reich (discussed in this podcast series). An intriguing element of geschichtsmüde illuminated through twitter testimonies and a conversation with a German friend was that despite it being ‘kind of everywhere’, geschichtsmüde as a defined emotion hasn’t been widely used in Germany. Thinking about it, this is the answer I needed; you don’t have to be aware that an emotion labelled geschichtsmüde exists to feel it, and so it is possible that it can be experienced in other linguistic and cultural circles.

But is this ‘weariness’ as simple as boredom with your own history, or could it be a more existential tiredness, accumulating over generations? In  Exhaustion: A History, Anna Schaffner envelops these fatigue-related emotion-words and tells their story over time. Discussing this with National Geographic, Schaffner suggests ‘what changes throughout history is not that we are worried about exhaustion, but the ways in which we explain our exhaustion’, elucidating that it is possible for the feeling to stay the same whilst its object mutates. It makes sense that history, a dynamic object, has created its own brand of exhaustion in geschichtsmüde.

Exhaustion: A History by Anna Schaffner [cover image from Goodreads]

This Google Ngram search indicates that geschichtsmüde was first discussed in German works around 1865, coinciding with the build-up to the unification of Germany as a nation-state in 1871, a period likely punctuated by reflection on the past. Other observably high points of people feeling geschichtsmüde, or at least writing about the feeling, occurred in the decades after the First and Second World Wars, as well as around watershed moments of the Cold War, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This clearly suggests there is a history of being ‘weary of history’; what changes is not the emotion itself, but the event, or chain of events, by which it is triggered. Like Schaffner suggested, as the scroll of history further unfurls, new explanations of geschichtsmüde emerge.

The pre-WW2 Nazi Nuremberg Rallies [above, via BBC] and the post-WW2 trials of the same name, prosecuting Nazi leaders [below, via HistoryExtra]

The history-weariness felt collectively amongst Germans, bound by the need to prevent the reoccurrence of historical atrocities, paints it as a culturally-embedded emotion.  However, this is not to say that geschichtsmüde can’t occur on an individual level. Douglas Murray describes it as something ‘modern Europeans can feel at almost any time’, but something that he felt alone on a flight over Nuremberg, a city with a tortured history. A personal geschichtsmüde was implied in Prince Harry’s recent, heart-breaking revelation that his ‘biggest concern is history repeating itself’, alluding to the parallels between Princess Diana and Meghan Markle, both plagued by the press and ostracised by the British Royal Family. It seems here that tragedy, shared or private, is a common thread tying together experiences of geschichtsmüde.

Is history repeating itself?
Prince Harry, pictured with Princess Diana [above, via Today] and Meghan Markle [below, via Elle]

However, weariness is not a foregone conclusion of history’s tragedies; this depends on the way you are confronted by them. As an undergraduate historian, revisiting the past is something I have actively chosen to do. But can this still create geschichtsmüde? In an introspective (not-so) deep-dive, I recalled the moment in September 2017 when I sat down to write a personal statement to study history at university. In that slightly pretentious, pseudo-intellectual style, typical of an 18-year-old lobbying an admissions officer for a place on their course, I wrote that I had been ‘enticed’ to study history due to the ‘pervasive power of its paradigms and their ability to augment our understanding of societies past and present’ (yes, I’m cringing too).

Rather less embarrassingly, to illustrate this, I used the example of Sankofa, a term belonging to the Ghanaian Akan tribe, often depicted as a bird with its feet facing forward whilst its head is turned back, designed to convey that ‘one must return to the past in order to move forward’. Apparently, at this stage of my life, I felt nothing akin to weariness where history was involved.

The Sankofa Bird of the Ghanian Akan Tribe [via Berea College]

Is it possible, though, that Sankofa, albeit more of a belief system than an emotion, could create geschichtsmüde, when the history we examine is too painful to move forward from? It seems this may too depend on whether we are unwillingly confronted by the past, like Prince Harry, or if we choose to retrieve it ourselves. ‘In our struggle to overcome weariness’, writes Schaffner, we may find ‘a more significant effort to master ourselves’. This brings to mind another German word, vergangenheitsbewältigung, defined here by the Collins German-English dictionary as the process of ‘coming to terms with the past’.

Though vergangenheitsbewältigung is as steeped in history as geschichtsmüde, I can’t help but think that the former seems a more productive, positive outcome of Sankofa, whereas geschichtsmüde is something we desire to fix. In 1974, then-Federal President of Germany, Gustav Heinemann, launched a history competition for the country’s young people, whose exploration of and engagement with a range of themes from German history he hoped would remedy the ‘history-weary times’ they had slipped into. In 2017, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he felt no traces of geschichtsmüde thanks to the reinvigoration of history through entries in the competition. It seemed that by returning to a different aspect of Germany’s past each year, they were finally able to move forward. And, as I move forwards to an MSt in History, I am fortunate to say that geschichtsmüde hasn’t crept up on me quite yet.

Further reading:

Anna Katharina Schaffner, Exhaustion: A History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016)

Christel N. Temple, ‘The Emergence of Sankofa Practice in the United States: A Modern History’, Journal of Black Studies, 41:1, 2010, pp. 127-150

Douglas Murray, The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam (London, Bloomsbury, 2017)

Marco Zerwas, ‘The German Federal President History Competition. A Public History Occasion’, in Marko Demantowsky (ed.), Public History and School, (Berlin: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2018)

Vicki Lawrence, ‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung: Coming to Terms with the Nazi Past’, Agni, 48: The Translation Issue, 1998, pp. 100-114


Feeling Offended, Then and Now

Harriet Canty took the History of Emotions undergraduate module at Queen Mary University of London during 2020-21.

In this post, one in a series of contributions by QMUL students to the History of Emotions blog, Harriet enters the historical world of duels, hurt feelings, and defamation to ask whether people are feeling more offended now than ever before. 


In 2017 the BBC recorded a podcast, Offence, Power and Progress presented by journalist Mobeen Azhar which grapples with the notion of feeling offended in a modern context and the wider political repercussions of this reaction. The accompanying article to this programme posed the question “are we more easily offended than ever before?”. References to the “snowflake generation” or over-sensitive “woke” millennials, if only in the depths of Piers Morgan’s Twitter, reinforce this idea of being “easily offended” as a relatively new phenomenon, tied to a specific generation. Along with the notion of a lost sense of humour and a longing for a time where freedom of speech wasn’t so heavily policed and cancel-culture non-existent; “offended” has come to feel like a buzzword for our times. Yet, by placing the notion of feeling offended within a historical and cultural context, can we understand its status in modern day society?

I understand “offended” to mean “to be displeased, vexed, or annoyed”, coming from late twelfth century Old French. Yet, a search on the Oxford English Dictionary Online spells out the complex etymology of the word with definitions such as “striking one’s foot” or being “tempted into sin” now being out of use, along with the idea of “committing a crime” which still stands today. Whilst these descriptions seem quite different from my original understanding of feeling offended there is some overlap with the idea of inflicting pain or acting immorally. The numerous emotions that come into our current understanding of the notion of offence include “outrage” and “hurt” but as we look back historically “anger” and “humiliation” seem to be more relevant.

The Petticoat Duellists, W & J Stratfords, Carlton House Magazine, 1792

The duels of the eighteenth century saw the elite battle for the sake of their honour and their status both of which entitled them to respectful treatment, as we recently learnt from Netflix’s Bridgerton. Those who swallowed insults were seen to not respect themselves enough. Though these duels tended to be between gentlemen, of equal standing, it is a duel between two ladies, colloquially known as petticoat duels, which stood out most to me. In 1792, Mrs Elphinstone insinuated that Lady Almeria Braddock was much older than she claimed to be. This offensive comment led to a duel. There is some contention as to whether this truly took place but supposedly once Lady Almeria had managed to inflict a wound on her opponent’s sword arm both women were satisfied. Whilst risking one’s life for the sake of a mildly offensive comment seems much more extreme than our modern day equivalent of taking to Twitter, a key similarity seems to be a demand for respect. Another interesting distinction is the sense that gaining satisfaction in a duel seems to end all tension between parties, something that given today’s supposed cancel culture we seem to lack.

Smedley, W. T., “I have offended you? What have I done?”, 1903

Taking offence didn’t have to be quite so extreme, shown through Laura Gowing’s analysis of Early Modern defamation cases. The number of these cases rose substantially in the 1600s with over two-hundred cases per year by the 1620s, three quarters of which were taken forward by women. Whilst men would face allegations of drunkenness or debt, women tended to face sexual defamations which called into question their virtue, showing how feeling offended overlaps with ideas of embarrassment or humiliation. A study in 2018 by the Roma Tre University sees the emotional state of “feeling offended” as affected by personal factors including gender. While women tended to express sadness and bitterness when offended, men acted in anger and pride. Whilst there have been shifts to varying emotional states within feeling offended throughout history many of them relate to our current understanding of the word.

The occurrence of “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” within the People’s Daily by each year

The examples so far have shown how individuals have taken offence from words or actions that caused damage to their honour or reputation. Though offence can take this form today it is also often felt on behalf of a group that the person may either be a member of or an ally to, whether that’s LGBTQ+ or BAME. However, this idea of collective offence is better illustrated by looking at China. In 1959 the Chinese Communist Party’s newspaper, the People’s Daily, used the phrase “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” (伤害了中国人民的感情). The graph above tracks the usage of this phrase over following decades showing the increase in its popularity in the 1970s when the phrase became a feature of the Party’s political discourse. In 2007 China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that Saint Lucia had “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” by allowing a visit from the “so-called ‘foreign minister’” from Taiwan. Here, if we take “hurt feelings” to be an offshoot of feeling offended, the collective nature of China’s offence may well be reflective of the highly collectivist Chinese culture as opposed to the West’s individualistic ideology. These cultural differences are key, from people taking offence for using your left hand in India to laughing with your mouth open in Japan. The notion of feeling offended varies by culture and time period showing that what we are offended by is by no means inherent in humans.

Google Ngram for “easily offended”, 1800-2018

If we take a look at the Google Ngram for “easily offended” it suggests that those who see society as more offended than ever before may well be incorrect, perhaps the lull in the twentieth century has led to the assumption that there is no historical basis for taking offence. Whilst what has offended people has varied over the years the feelings surrounding offence and what is essentially a demand for respect, remains. Perhaps Twitter has somewhat evened the playing field allowing for not only the elites to voice their discontent and therefore projecting the voices of those who feel most disrespected. “Offended” has become a media buzzword for clickbait articles, occasionally enhanced with all capitals and often focusing on the latest Megan Markle drama, allowing for offence to be depicted as an irrational reaction. But “offended” is also used to describe more serious matters including xenophobia or racism and by using the term too freely we risk trivialising it. Irshad Manji, in a short video for Time Magazine, gives a nuanced understanding of feeling offended suggesting that there is much to be learnt from engaging with those who offend you and attempting to gain common ground. Perhaps by understanding the historical and cultural context of offence it validates its current position in modern day society as essentially a demand for respect.

Further reading:

Are we more easily offended than ever before?, BBC, November 2017

Robert Baldick, The duel: a history of duelling, London: Spring Books, 1970

David Bandurski, “A History of “Hurt Feelings”, China Media Project.

Mark Clifton, “What Duelling Can Teach Us About Taking Offence”, Aeon magazine, October 2018.

Jessica Goldstein, “The surprising history of ‘snowflake’ as a political insult”, Think Progress, January 2017

Laura Gowing. “Gender and the language of insult in early modern London”, History Workshop, no. 35, pp. 1-21, Oxford University Press, 1993

Isabella Poggi, and Francesca D’Errico. “Feeling offended: a blow to our image and our social relationships.” Frontiers in Psychology 8 (2018).


Hysteria: The Persistence of Patriarchy

May El Mantawy took the History of Emotions undergraduate module at Queen Mary University of London during 2020-21.
In this post, one in a series of contributions by QMUL students to the History of Emotions blog, May explores the dark history of hysteria.

We are living in hysterical times – especially now, with ‘pandemic hysteria.’ Whenever someone overreacts or there’s a lot of noise surrounding a situation, it’s classed as ‘hysteria’ or ‘hysterical.’ But the conflation of uproar and mass fear as ‘hysteria’ has made us lose sight of its history. Today, we’d determine that hysteria means excitement or emotion that is uncontrollable, yet the foundation of the term is rooted in oppression and misogyny.

‘Hysteria’ comes from the Greek word ‘hysterikos,’ meaning ‘suffering of the womb.’ Greek thinkers like Hippocrates and Plato believed that when a woman experienced delirium, excessive emotion, and lack of self-control, this was because her uterus was moving freely throughout her body and having tumultuous effects on her mental wellbeing. Plato believed that when the womb was empty for too long after puberty, it became distressed and disturbed and started to move around the body out of irritation. Just the root of the word shows that the term has been characterised as a woman’s emotional condition and illness from its inception; an illness that required treatment.

‘Treatment for a Wandering Womb’ from The Wandering Womb: A Cultural History of Outrageous Beliefs About Women by Lana Thompson (1999)

This gave the impression that women should be quick to occupy the womb – they were told that they needed to be getting married and carrying babies to anchor the womb. The threat of sexual deprivation and barrenness sending women crazy spurred the myth of the wandering womb, solidifying women’s position as strictly child-bearers. It also solidified excessive emotion as a feminine emotional condition, and boxed women in as an emotional gender. This mentality persisted, with Roman medical authors still considering hysteria to be an issue with the female generative system caused by ‘diseases of the womb.’ and it remained that when a woman experienced mental disturbance, stress, panic or uncontrollable behaviour, it was seen as another case of hysteria.

Fortunately, physicians looked elsewhere for the cause of hysteria. In the 17th century, Charles Lepois was one of the first to assert that “the seat of hysterical pathology was neither the womb nor the soul but the head.” This type of thinking started to shake the foundations of the prehistoric relationship between a woman’s reproductive system and her physical wellness. Although the focus of hysteria had shifted, it was still considered to affect women more than men, with Thomas Sydenham acknowledging that whilst some men could experience symptoms of hysteria, “women were constitutionally predisposed to hysteria due to their fragile nervous apparatus.”

Jean-Martin Charcot’s study on hysterical patients from ‘What is Hysteria?’ by the Wellcome Collection

Poster for electropathic belts from ‘What is Hysteria?’ by the Wellcome Collection

Even as the physicians shifted from womb, to brain, to the mind, women were still considered the most hysterical patients. Jean-Martin Charcot explicitly claimed that men and women alike experienced hysteria, but he’s largely been linked to controversial treatment methods, including electronic massages via the vagina, and examining female patients to study hysteria – still resting on the belief that hysteria developed through the female reproductive system and characterising hysteria as a woman’s emotional state (as seen below).

Although studies shifted towards more plausible explanations for hysteria, like neurology and mental wellness, it wasn’t really until men returned from WWI with symptoms of hysteria that, today, we’d consider to be PTSD, that emotional pain was seen as something that needed to be taken seriously. Physicians continued linking hysteria with femininity, and this is an issue that’s still relevant in contemporary history and current events. We as a society have a problem with classifying women who express any emotion as hysterical, but celebrate men who do the same. We see this frequently in reports of female fans of male artists – almost always, they are called hysterical.

The use of ‘hysteria’ or ‘mass hysteria’ to describe female fans increased when The Beatles burst onto the music scene in the 1960s and pandemonium surrounding them was termed ‘Beatlemania.’ Attendees at The Beatles’ live shows described scenes that were “almost like collective hypnotism” and recalled how female fans were fainting, screaming and wetting their seats – actions linked to symptoms of hysteria, shown in the image below. Critics of The Beatles fans doubted the mental stability of young female fans; Paul Newman even called them the least fortunate of their generation and idle failures.

‘Girls Listening to The Beatles for the first time in the 1960s’

The way that male critics typified female fans of The Beatles as degenerates and hysterical shows how negatively women are viewed when they express emotion or excitement.  The negative outlook on female fans is closely tied to misogyny and dated gender expectations. Barbara Ehrenreich’s 1992 essay suggests that hysteria and obsession with adult men is a form of protesting sexual repressiveness, breaking free of rigid standards placed on young women in a way that wasn’t considered proper or politically correct.

It’s intriguing how the image of mass hysteria is tied to female mass hysteria – an image of sobbing, screaming and fainting women, overcome with uncontrollable erotic energy. When we shift focus to mass male hysteria, it’s described as drunken destructiveness – a rampage of uncontrollable masculine passion. Take football fans as an example: they shout and become aggressive and emotional in a way that they can’t control. This indicates that men suffer from hysteria and uncontrollable emotion, except they aren’t described as ‘hysterical’ like women are. They’re called ‘passionate’ and ‘opinionated’ football fans, but their lack of control over their emotions is the same as female fans.

Lisa Lewis’ investigation into fan behaviour shows that male football fans are usually socio-economically disempowered men who find empowerment in their actions at football matches and so their hysteria is assertive. When female fans exhibit similar actions, they’re seen as overstepping boundaries of proper feminine behaviour and of low intellect. See the below comparison of female music fans and male football fans.

English football fans from ‘Analysis: the ugly return of hooliganism’ by Ronny Blaschke

Fans of Justin Bieber from ‘Justin Bieber Arrested, Mug Shot Revealed, All of the Tears’ by John Walker

This is because, as Elke Krasny puts it, the history of hysteria is the history of patriarchy, and to indicate that men experience the emotional condition of hysteria is to indicate that they are unstable and unreliable. Hysteria is emotion in excess – men can harness their emotions for their benefit, but women don’t have the mental capacity to deal with it. Hysteria is rooted in misogyny and controlling sexual behaviour of women, and this still dominates the treatment of women, their emotions, and their health today. Even when it comes to politics, authoritative and passionate female politicians are seen as unhinged, yet their male counterparts are seen as passionate and bold. Trump can be angry; Harris must remain collected (below). Diagnosing a woman as hysterical impairs her ability to effectively engage with her target audience – the gendered historicization of hysteria has served to silence and repress strong women and continues to do so today, and we need to change that.

‘Trump undertakes the design shouting phase’ by Wonkette

Sen. Kamala Harris at the James Comey hearing (AP Photo)

Further Reading:

Antony JW. Taylor, ‘Beatlemania’ and Mass Hysteria – Still a Much Neglected Research Phenomenon, Journal of Psychology and Psychotherapy

Lisa A. Lewis, The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media (Routledge: London, 1992)

Mark S. Micale, Approaching Hysteria: Disease and Its Interpretations, Princeton University Press

Elke Krasny, ‘HYSTERIA ACTIVISM: Feminist Collectives for the Twenty-First Century,’ Performing Hysteria: Images and Imaginations of Hysteria

Dorian Lynskey, Beatlemania: ‘the screamers’ and other tales of fandom, The Guardian

Rob Boddice, The Arch of Hysteria, REMEDIA

Jude Ellison Sady Doyle, “Hysterical” Women Have Been Making Men Nervous Since The 1900s. Kamala Harris Does The Tradition Proud, Elle

Sarah Jaffray, What is Hysteria?, Wellcome Collection

B.B. Wagner, Beware the Wandering Wombs of Hysterical Women, Ancient Origins

Ada McVean, The History of Hysteria, McGill


Understanding Anger within a Historical Framework

Will Watson is a PhD candidate at the School of History, Queen Mary University of London. In this post for the History of Emotions Blog, he reflects on the place of anger in the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s, and asks what a history-of-emotions approach can add to our understanding, with particular reference to Barbara Rosenwein’s recent book about anger.

This is the latest in a series of research posts, conversations, and reviews asking ‘What is anger?’

As Rob Boddice argues:

at the heart of the history of emotions… …is the claim that emotions have a history. They are not merely the irrational gloss on an otherwise long narrative of history unfolding according to rational thought and rational decision-making. Nor are emotions merely the effect of history; they also have a significant place, bundled with reason and sensation, in the making of history.[1]

What this suggests is that there is a need to acknowledge the role that emotions play throughout history; that is, emotions hold the key to a deeper and important layer to better understanding individuals, actions, communities, cultures, and societies of the past. Building upon such observations, my PhD, entitled ‘The Emotions of The Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland, 1963-1972’ explores how emotions played an important role in influencing the motivations, goals, ideology, strategy formation and mobilization of individuals and organisations involved within this social movement.

My work seeks to understand, for example, what emotions were in play at any given moment, what frameworks emotions were understood in and how they then led to, and shaped, the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) and political discourse and activities, such as street politics, protest, and civil disobedience. Although my research explores other emotions, such as shame, guilt and humiliation, anger was a key emotion felt by those who participated within the CRM. From the anger of Catholics over issues of discrimination, such as perceived bias in housing allocation, to anger felt due to perceptions of poor Nationalist political representation, anger was an underlying emotion that influenced both individual and collective action. This raises the question of how one might explore and understand such an emotion within a historical framework.

Although research within both psychology and neuroscience suggest that anger occurs naturally – originating in the amygdala in response to internal or external stimuli, for example – studies have also shown that anger can be nurtured: anger and resulting behaviours and expression can be learned, and influenced, through upbringing, relationships, culture, and society. This allows for anger to have a history, as it implies that anger has both social and cultural specificity. Therefore, when historical actors speak of their emotions, such as anger, historians must seek to contextualise it within a cultural and social framework.

To illustrate this, my own research can offer an example. Conn McCluskey, a founding member of the Campaign for Social Justice (CSJ) – an organisation that sought to end discrimination in Northern Ireland through constitutional means – believed that anger should be rejected; this was influenced, in part, by his religious beliefs. He acknowledged that he felt angry but perceived it as sinful and a gateway emotion to sectarian violence, as it would perpetuate Protestant Loyalism and Catholic Republicanism. Therefore, when forming a strategy to challenge discrimination, he opted for a non-aggressive approach – one that was solely based on statistics and reason. What can be seen is that his understanding of anger, and the anger of others, was influenced by religion, culture, and society – set within his historical context; this, in turn, had an impact upon how he chose to express anger, and, therefore, upon the history of the CRM.

Article published by the Irish News, 1964, by Conn McCluskey’s wife, Patricia, stating the aims the of Campaign for Social Justice. Picture source: Irish News,1964, D2293/1, Dungannon Affair Files, Box 1, Folder 2, Public Record Office Northern Ireland.

The idea that anger has a history is not a new concept within the history of emotions, yet the approach to better understanding it within a historical framework remains debated. It is here that a new book by Barbara Rosenwein (previously reviewed for this blog by Imke Rajamani) can offer further insights. By arguing for the historically changing and culturally defined nature of anger, Rosenwein’s book continues to challenge the idea that emotions are hardwired and serves as an example of how one might think of anger as nurtured and contextually influenced. To better understand earlier forms of anger, Rosenwein again offers her concept of ‘emotional communities’: homes, schools, businesses, tribes, for example, that share norms and values with regards to emotions and emotional behaviour. As she states: ‘each community favours some emotions and shuns others; each expresses its emotions in characteristic ways’.[2]

Although my own research does not utilise Rosenwein’s ‘emotional communities’ framework specifically, that approach does provide important methodological and theoretical considerations for my PhD, and for the study of the history of anger more generally. Rosenwein argues that the historian of emotions must uncover a system of feeling by looking for emotional commonalities and disparities within social and cultural context; to understand how emotions were understood both individually and collectively; to analyse which emotions were valued and which were deplored; and to analyse how such emotions were expressed, acted upon and with what consequences. Regardless of methodological and theoretical approach, such issues are fundamental to understanding anger in the past.

Rosenwein illustrates this in her book by studying different emotional communities. For example, Rosenwein first explores the concepts of Buddhism, Stoicism and Neo-Stoicism. Similarly, amongst these emotional communities, anger was believed to be a disadvantage and something to be abandoned or rejected. Each community shared a view of anger as having a deleterious impact upon individuals, but the understanding of anger and the approach to removing it varied. The Buddha proffered anger as suffering and a matter of ego that needed to be transcended. Conversely, Seneca, the most widely read of the Roman Stoics, argued that anger was part of human nature – it could not be avoided but could, through practice, be minimised and controlled.

In the second section of her book, Rosenwein explores anger as a vice and/or virtue. Here she analyses, for example, Aristotle and Pope Gregory the Great and, generally, the history of Christian understandings of anger. This view of anger was far removed from the anger of the Buddha or Seneca but is more closely related to the ‘righteous anger’ of the Patristic era Christians, right through to what emotional communities in a contemporary, modern society might believe. Finally, Rosenwein considers ‘natural anger’, analysing early medical understandings of anger, where emotional communities such as those that centred around the teachings of Galen and, later, medieval humoral theory, saw anger as a naturally occurring part of human nature, and, therefore, an unavoidable part of human existence.

Young people in Londonderry throwing bricks at the Royal Ulster Constabulary, c.1969, Source – BBC article: In Pictures: Derry in 1969

What Rosenwein’s examples demonstrate is that what might be seen simply as anger (or emotions, generally) – an outward expression or inner feeling – is, in fact, more complicated, often rooted in social conditioning and deeply held beliefs. It suggests that the communities that people are part of will determine their understanding and expression of anger, and even its functionality, and shows that even when individuals and the collective have shared values, or a shared ideology or religion, understandings of anger can be nuanced enough to define a community as uniquely separate from another.

This insight about the way that community rules and identities are fundamental to emotional life, is evident within my own research: where organisations, such as the CSJ, suggested that anger should be abandoned completely, others, particularly those that were young and more radical, saw the expression of anger as justified, and a necessary tool for mobilisation. Although both organisations had the same religious beliefs, the goal to end discrimination, and were part of the same movement – and, as Rosenwein would argue, part of a wider CRM emotional community – their differing view of anger and how it should be expressed separated them. This is an important consideration, particularly when trying to uncover the varying motivations, actions, and disparities within the CRM, and to understand why violence occurred during protest and marches.

Battle of the Bogside, Londonderry, 14 August 1969. Violence erupted when civil rights marchers were cordoned off by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and confronted by Unionist counterdemonstrators. Source – History Pod, 12th August 1969: The Battle of the Bogside

Although such an approach offers important considerations for understanding past anger, there are some further theoretical concepts worth mentioning. The ‘emotional community’, as a concept, does not address the importance of embodiment or spaces for understanding anger. Instead, it suggests that society, culture, communities, and the emotions within, are mentalised and, therefore, relatively static; that anger adheres to a strict system of norms and values. However, as contemporary research within history, sociology and psychology suggests, anger can be both cognitive and subject to spaces and bodily conditioning.[3]

The dual cognitive and bodily nature of anger was also something that has become evident in my own research. Although civil rights groups acknowledged some emotions to be important for encouraging action, the environments that protesters found themselves in often led to emotions that were beyond cognitive reasoning. Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, Catholic protesters were banned from entering certain areas, particularly areas that were heavily dominated by Unionists or areas that had significant emotional value to Loyalists. Many marches were cordoned off by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and far-right Unionist/Loyalist organisations. Such occurrences led to spaces becoming latent with emotional meaning – both for areas that protesters were banned from entering and for the spaces that they were confined to. Naturally, such spaces, and what occurred within them, gave rise to emotions that were not reasoned. In addition, my research has discovered that many participants that attended protest marches had no intention of conducting themselves aggressively. On the contrary, many had reasoned that emotions such as anger would be harmful to their cause. However, the spaces and bodily connection within protests engendered emotions such anger, rage, shame, and pride, often in response to ritualistic behaviours (chanting and the singing of patriotic songs, for example) and in response to the perceived threat of counter demonstrators and the RUC.

To fully understand anger within a historical framework, then, I suggest that a middle-path should be followed, understanding historical actors both as autonomous, cognitive agents, and also as subject to the emotional power of spaces and embodiment. The former suggests that individuals of the past controlled and made conscious decisions regarding their anger, which had a significant impact upon their actions, expressions, and behaviours.[4] In line with Rosenwein’s approach, such appraisals can be influenced by religion, ideologies, culture, and society. Therefore, seeking to understand the various communities that people are part of, whether a civil rights movement or political organisation, remains a valuable empirical tool. The latter, however, requires uncovering individual and collective experiences, such as through spatial environments and ritualistic behaviours, and how these created bodily manifestations, sometimes separate from conscious or cognitive processes. This moves beyond the traditional method of discourse analysis and seeks to analyse accounts of observable behaviour, making use of third-person accounts as viable sources to uncover emotions of the past – particularly anger.


Boddice, Rob. “The history of emotions: Past, present, future.” Revista de Estudios Sociales 62 (2017): 10-15.

Gammerl, Benno. “Emotional styles–concepts and challenges.” Rethinking History 16, no. 2 (2012): 161-175

Gammerl, Benno. Jan Hutta, and Monique Scheer. “Feeling differently. Approaches and their politics.” Emotion, Space and Society 25 (2017): 87-94.

Pernau, Margit, (2014). Space and emotion: building to feel. History Compass, 12(7), 541-549

Rosenwein, Barbara H. Anger: The conflicted history of an emotion. Yale University Press, 2020

Rosenwein, Barbara H., ed. Anger’s past: the social uses of an emotion in the Middle Ages. Cornell University Press, 1998.

Rosenwein, Barbara H. Emotional communities in the early middle ages. Cornell University Press, 2006.

Rosenwein, Barbara H. “Problems and Methods in the History of Emotions.” Passions in context 1, no. 1 (2010): 1-32.

Scheer, Monique. “Are emotions a kind of practice (and is that what makes them have a history)? A Bourdieusian approach to understanding emotion.” History and theory 51, no. 2 (2012): 193-220


[1] Rob Boddice, “The history of emotions: Past, present, future.” Revista de Estudios Sociales 62 (2017): 10-15, 11.

[2] Barbara H. Rosenwein, Anger: The conflicted history of an emotion. Yale University Press, 2020, 4; see also Barbara H. Rosenwein, “Problems and Methods in the History of Emotions.” Passions in context 1, no. 1 (2010): 1-32; see also Barbara H. Rosenwein, ed. Anger’s past: the social uses of an emotion in the Middle Ages. Cornell University Press, 1998; and Barbara H. Rosenwein, Emotional communities in the early middle ages. Cornell University Press, 2006.

[3] See, for example, Monique Scheer, “Are emotions a kind of practice (and is that what makes them have a history)? A Bourdieuian approach to understanding emotion.” History and theory 51, no. 2 (2012): 193-220; and, Margit Pernau, (2014). Space and emotion: building to feel. History Compass, 12 (7), 541-549.

[4] Benno Gammerl, “Emotional styles–concepts and challenges.” Rethinking History 16, no. 2 (2012): 161-175; and Benno Gammerl, Jan Hutta, and Monique Scheer. “Feeling differently. Approaches and their politics.” Emotion, Space and Society 25 (2017): 87-94.

Emotions are not illnesses

Photo of Thomas DixonThomas Dixon is Professor of History at Queen Mary University of London, where he researches and teaches the history of emotions. Since 2019 he has been leading the ‘Developing Emotions’ project, helping to teach and support emotional literacy in UK primary schools. In this post he reviews Dr Lucy Foulkes’s new book, Losing Our Minds: What Mental Illness Really Is And What It Isn’t (London: The Bodley Head, 2021).

Emotions are not illnesses, but you’d be forgiven for thinking they were. “Anxiety” and “depression” have both named emotional states for longer than they have named illnesses, but both words now convey inescapably double meanings, referring both to feelings and to disorders. There are subtle semantic differences between “being” anxious or depressed, “feeling” anxious or depressed, and “having” anxiety or depression – but such subtleties are rarely brought out in public discussions, in which everyday feelings keep morphing into other things. When does an emotional experience become a “mental health issue”, a “disorder”, or a “mental illness”?

These are among the questions that Dr Lucy Foulkes takes on in Losing Our Minds. She remarks that the main reason she wrote the book was her concern – both as someone with a history of mental illness and as a psychology lecturer supporting young people – that the language being used around mental illness is exacerbating the very problems it is designed to help (p. 162). The book opens with a ‘Note on terminology’ and a quote from Nathan Filer: “There is no uncontroversial language when talking about mental illness – and that includes the phrase ‘mental illness’.” (Filer is, incidentally, the author of one of my favourite books about mental illness – originally published in 2019 as The Heartland, and since reissued as This Book Will Change Your Mind About Mental Health.) Although Foulkes, “cautiously” uses the phrase “mental illness” throughout her book, she nonetheless offers powerful reasons why others might think twice before doing so in future.

This emphasis on language is really important. We must all have noticed that, whatever the rates of particular mental illnesses, we are undoubtedly living through an epidemic of discussions of “mental health”. “We all have mental health.” “Are you struggling with your mental health?” “Take a walk in the sunshine for your mental health!” “How has Covid-19 impacted mental health?” The phrase “mental health” now includes within its ever-expanding semantic remit both its own opposite (mental illness) and also pretty much every other kind of emotional experience. There has also been a medical process of disorder inflation, a bit like the grade inflation people complain of in academic settings. Each successive edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is fatter than the last – containing, overall, more disorders, with lower thresholds for diagnosis. In other words, it has been getting easier and easier, over time, to qualify for a disorder.

The first step Lucy Foulkes recommends towards puncturing some of this linguistic inflation is to make clear, in how we speak, that there is a difference between difficult feelings and clinical disorders, in other words “to allow space for normal human emotion in response to difficult events without labelling it as a disorder, even when that emotion is devastation. We should be comfortable talking about and responding to distress in its many forms – worry, loneliness, grief – without immediately resorting to a dictionary of disorders” (p. 175).

Losing Our MindsLosing Our Minds provides tools with which to map the muddy and misty borderlands between emotions and mental illnesses. Foulkes brings her own experience of a mental breakdown as well as her academic expertise to bear on the topic identified in the subtitle: ‘What mental illness really is and what it isn’t’. The thread of her personal story is woven unobtrusively into what is primarily a guide to the state of the art in the science of mental illness, as applied to pressing issues such as whether there really is an “epidemic” of mental illness among young people, whether using social media is bad for your mental health, the shifting meaning of “trauma”, and why young people seem to be increasingly drawn towards self-harm. The book is lucidly written and builds its case with a winning combination of care and concision.

Along the way, we learn about the best recent scientific studies on, for instance, the impact of genes, brains, and parenting on mental health. The discussion of parenting will make uncomfortable reading for those who, like me, are already all too aware of the way they “model” unhelpful feelings and behaviours to their children. In fact, this is pertinent to the longer history of human emotions too. The way that parents pass on to their children deep-seated emotional attitudes and responses which they, in turn, learned from their own parents, is one of the main mechanisms through which emotional regimes are transmitted through the centuries. There is also an interesting historical resonance in the idea – discussed in a section entitled ‘Might there only be one mental illness?’ – that delusions and irrationality could be shared features of many mental illnesses today (pp. 62-65). Such an idea would have been recognised by philosophers and physicians from the time of John Locke onwards as they worked within their much simpler taxonomies of mental derangement three centuries ago.

Foulkes also points out that history should make us sceptical of the idea that people today have unprecedentedly stressful lives. As she rightly says, war, sickness, financial crisis, and injustice have been the rule rather than the exception in human history, noting also that late nineteenth-century ideas about the ‘neurasthenia’ caused by modern life is just one precursor of modern discussions of a unique crisis in mental health. Despite this warning, Foulkes’s own account hints at a somewhat exaggerated sense of the extent of change in the very recent past. She states a couple of times that as recently as 2008 “no one talked about mental illness” (p.3). This doesn’t chime with my own personal recollection. When I was a student in the early 1990s I attended the university counselling service for treatment, and also volunteered on a student nightline designed to help those suffering mental crises. A report published in 1989 by the Office of Health Economics began by stating: “Some commentators regard the term mental illness as being so wide ranging that it is at best virtually meaningless and at worst misleading”. Even the most recent phases of our discussions of what is and isn’t mental illness has a history going back some decades. Dr Sarah Crook has published research on debates about a crisis in the mental health of undergraduates in the period 1944-1968, offering another useful counterpoint to the idea that students in the twenty-first century are uniquely prone to mental illness.

I don’t want to give away too many of the findings that Foulkes explains and discusses in her book, but the general picture is one in which any real rises in levels of mental illness are much lower than media reporting tends to suggest. For instance, an NHS-led study of young people aged five to fifteen, from 1999 to 2017, found an increase in the rates of depression and anxiety disorders from 9.7% of the cohort in 1999 to 11.2% in 2017 (p. 18). The book is also really good at explaining how and why that mismatch arises between careful scientific studies and the headlines based on them – a perennial frustration for those of us wanting a careful and evidence-based discussion on this topic. Foulkes approvingly quotes Mark Rice-Oxley’s comments on how a survey finding that a quarter of participants reported having a number of depressive symptoms (which might, or might not, in consultation with a medical professional result in diagnosis and treatment) will get reported as “A quarter of the nation has depression” (p. 177).

While rises in overall levels of mental illness in the last twenty years have been relatively modest, there are some other areas where the changes are more alarming. This includes massive rises in the use of anti-depressants. Prescriptions of these drugs practically doubled – from 36 million to 71 million between 2008 and 2018 in the UK (p.13) – an increase totally out of proportion to any change in actual levels of mental illness, and all the more worrying given the debates about effectiveness and side-effects. Foulkes also looks at rising rates of self-harm in girls and young women, and explores how such behaviours arise, and why they spread. On this and other topics, she is always guided by available scientific studies and, refreshingly, will often conclude that we just don’t know – for instance on the question of whether rising reported rates of mental illness reveal that mental illness is itself rising (p.161). It could be that we are all talking about mental health more, and differently, and that emotional experiences that were not previously considered evidence of illness now are.

So, where does Foulkes stand on the question of what really is a mental illness and what isn’t? Are we misusing the language of “illness” and “disorder”? The picture Foulkes paints is one in which normal emotional experiences and mental disorders exist on a spectrum, and in which there is no clear, non-arbitrary way to mark the dividing line. Mental illnesses do not have “biomarkers”. You cannot scan my brain or body, or do a blood test, to see if I have depression the way you might test if I had a physical illness, like cancer, a cold, or Covid. Nevertheless – and perfectly consistently – Foulkes urges us to take the admittedly blurry line between mentally healthy states and mental illnesses seriously in the way we think, talk about, and treat them – for the sake of those on both sides of the line.  It does not help those experiencing stressful but ultimately manageable emotions if we label and treat them too hastily as sufferers of an illness. And it does not help those most in need of treatment, Foulkes argues, if those of us with emotional problems that fall short of “real” mental illnesses are channelled towards over-stretched mental health services.

Towards the end of the book, Foulkes explains the distinction she wants to draw by contrasting two episodes in her own life – one at the age of seventeen following the painful end of a relationship, and a second more severe disruption to her life when she was twenty. The first she calls a “period of prolonged sadness” and the latter a “fully-fledged breakdown”. In the first episode, she concludes, she didn’t have a mental illness, in the second she did (pp. 172-3).

I think we definitely need to distinguish between manageable emotional states and more severe incapacity, but I am not as optimistic as Foulkes about the possibility of doing so in a consistent and helpful way using current concepts of mental illness and mental health. During the discussion of her “period of prolonged sadness”, which she does not consider to have been an episode of mental illness, Foulkes notes that she probably fulfilled the criteria for a diagnosis of clinical depression. This is crucial, and suggests a bigger question, which Foulkes does not answer. How are we to distinguish between prolonged sadness and clinical depression if not by the diagnostic criteria used by health professionals? The implication of Foulkes’s comment is that it is the diagnostic criteria used by mental health professionals themselves, rather than loose talk by patients and commentators, that are the real problem. But she doesn’t quite come out and say so.

Although I remain unsure how we can best address the harms done by the concept creep exhibited by “mental illness” and “mental health”, this impressive book is a great starting point for well-informed conversations on the issue. It speaks with calm, rational humanity about why we should hesitate before medicalising our emotions.

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Read a blogpost and listen to a podcast about the ‘Developing Emotions’ programme of lessons for primary schools

A Crisis of Care: Madeleine Bunting’s ‘Labours of Love’

Photograph of the authorDr Sarah Chaney is a postdoctoral research fellow on the Living With Feeling project at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, exploring the history of emotions in nursing. Her publications include Psyche on the Skin: A History of Self-Harm and articles on the idea of compassion in healthcare.

In this post, Chaney reviews Madeleine Bunting’s Labours of Love: The Crisis of Care (2020) for the History of Emotions Blog.

Labours of Love book cover

A few years ago, my partner and I were woken in the early hours of Saturday morning by a phone call. His elderly mother was in hospital and her condition had worsened overnight. How soon could we get there? Neither of us drive, so there followed several panicked hours on tubes and trains, as we worried that we wouldn’t arrive in time. Thankfully we did.

When we got to the ward, two nurses were standing in the curtained off area, hastily setting up Spotify on one of their mobile phones at her bedside.

“We didn’t want her to be alone.” One of them said. In a busy, under-staffed hospital ward, music was the best they could offer.

The efforts of these two men to care for an elderly woman they barely knew in the last few hours of her life touched me deeply. My partner’s mother had often told us she was scared of dying alone and I was grateful that the nursing staff had tried to prevent this in our absence. I was grateful for the careful way they withdrew once we were settled and the quiet efficiency with which, later, one nurse came back to rearrange the bed and allow her to pass away quite peacefully.

Despite the graceful care of these individual nurses, that morning also showed some of the cracks in the system my partner and I had become increasingly aware of during his mother’s slow decline in health. The nurses showed an awkward guilt that they were unable to sit with a dying woman; music was a poor substitute. A few days earlier, someone else had tried to discharge my partner’s mother despite her condition, desperate to free up a bed in the busy hospital. Her homecare couldn’t be restarted at such notice; dangerously low staffing levels meant that her care slots had immediately been assigned to someone else as soon as she was admitted to hospital. When we tried to pay for extra care, we were told it wasn’t available.

Madeleine Bunting’s Labours of Love sets this “crisis of care” (as she herself calls it) in political, social and historical context. Care has long been invisible, Bunting notes. This holds for both the skills and knowledge of the care workforce, as well as the vast numbers of unpaid carers, most often women, who provide a necessary service – and economic saving – to society but are rarely recognised for doing so. In the modern era, Bunting claims, a new crisis of care has erupted from increasing life expectancy and the prevalence of long-term health conditions.

Labours of Love primarily blames a capitalist system for creating this crisis. “Capitalism was built on ignoring and marginalizing the care work of women,” Bunting states in the first chapter, which briefly outlines the history of care (p. 23). She notes that economists in the late eighteenth century saw only men as independent economic agents; women and children were dependents, not contributors to the economy in their own right. It would have been interesting to examine whether this was the case in the pre-industrial era. Was care more visible and better recognised when the home lay at the centre of work and economic life for most households? As Mark Hailwood and Jane Whittle have recently argued, the different structure of society in the early modern era allowed some women to participate in all main areas of the economy. Exploring this historical shift might have made the marginalising of care during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries perhaps seem less inevitable.

Yet Bunting is right to emphasise the centrality of the Victorian middle class ideal of the woman as the “Angel in the House”: self-sacrificing and silently dutiful (though of course, scholars have long noted the contradictions between this ideal and the reality for many women). This ideal weighed heavily on those women who cared for family members, as well as infiltrating the profession of nursing through middle class reformers like Florence Nightingale (even today, almost 90% of nurses in the UK are women). Working-class women also became invisible in this model, despite the paid care they provided. What of the “vast army of servants”, Bunting asks, silently providing support in homes but ignored by early historians of the working class like E.P. Thompson? There have, of course, been histories of domestic service since Thompson barely mentioned it (see, for example, the work of Lucy Delap or Laura Schwartz). For most people, however, the history of domestic service is probably best characterised by Downton Abbey and not the lower middle- and upper working-class families who employed housemaids or part-time nannies.

Cartoon of a nurse reading while watching a baby, titled "the servants"

Punch, or, the London Charivari.. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

After explaining the backdrop to the modern crisis, exacerbated by the policies of UK governments from 1997 onwards, Bunting moves on to consider care in different settings. She looks at childcare and the specialist care of disabled children, care in the hospital and the GP surgery during adult life, and social and end of life care, most often for elderly people. She interviews nurses, care workers, GPs, academics, and the parents of disabled children; she shadows charity workers and home visits to patients. Across all these areas she finds the same issues in a system-wide emphasis on consumerism, business models and bureaucracy that marginalises the human relationships central to providing care, and is almost always at odds with the care that workers want to provide.

The emphasis on the words of these carers – paid and unpaid – is the real strength of this book. Take the heartfelt story of Liz, who describes the emotional impact of the absence of educational support for her autistic son, or Tony, who speaks movingly of the way a late career shift into care work impacted his life, changing him as a person and improving his relationship with his family. One point made very forcefully by interviewees, especially in the chapter on GP services, is the importance of the continuity of care: of understanding patients’ life histories and building relationships with them. In a marketized model, this relationship-building is all too easily swept away – yet, Bunting argues, it is the foundation of all forms of care.

Sarah Gamp and Betsey Prig in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit from The history of nursing in the British Empire by Sarah A. Tooley. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

For historians of medicine, there are occasional issues. One is Bunting’s repeated assertion that care was more important historically simply because medical knowledge was less advanced. She assumes that doctors in the nineteenth century “had little medical skill” (p. 167) and implies that the stereotype of the lazy, drunken “Sarah Gamp” nurse was a widespread reality in nursing before Nightingale’s reforms (p. 119), which has of course long been criticised by historians.[1] Her short chapters on care-related words sometimes suffer from the same lack of historicity. Others, however, highlight interesting shifts in language: the new addition of the word “care” to nursing in the post-war era (an interesting parallel to my own work on the term “compassion”) or the modern rejection of the term “pity”, widespread in earlier descriptions of care.

It’s important to remember, of course, that this book is not a history. Bunting’s skill is as a journalist, weaving history into the backdrop of a very modern problem. Beginning with the commercialisation of medicine and care by New Labour, Bunting starkly highlights the additional impact of austerity policies in 2010. Cuts have impacted disproportionately on those with disabilities and the elderly. Care workers have been forced through ever-increasing bureaucracy to focus on tasks and marginalise the relationships at the centre of care. Why do we accept this? Perhaps, until we see for ourselves the human effects of the marketisation of care – as I did in the case of my partner’s mother – we find it hard even to acknowledge these contradictions.

The crisis of care that Bunting describes has only been worsened by the coronavirus pandemic. Waiting lists for hospital treatment and social care have lengthened. At a recent online event I attended at the Royal College of Nursing on the impacts of the pandemic, one nurse mentioned the huge backlog in dementia diagnosis: someone’s condition might be declining daily, but they remain unable to access much-needed support. This gap is replicated across many other areas of care.

Bunting, writing a short foreword to Labours of Love as the pandemic broke, seemed optimistic. Has Covid-19 finally made the crisis in care visible, she asked? Has it made us appreciate and value care workers as we never have before? For a while, when the shortage of equipment and trained staff was all over the news, perhaps it did. Yet already, it seems, the lessons we learned in 2020 are receding. As I write this blog, a paltry 1% pay rise has been proposed for NHS staff in 2021, to the fury of trade unions and professional bodies alike.

Bunting’s book, it seems, is just as relevant and necessary as we start to move out of the pandemic as it was before it began: the arguments she makes need to be heard more than ever.

[1] See, for example, Siobhan Nelson, Say Little, Do Much: Nursing, Nuns and Hospitals in the Nineteenth Century, (2001) and the current work of Erin Spinney and Alannah Tomkins.