‘Doleful Groans & Sad Lookes’: Sensing Sickness in Early Modern England

Hannah Newton is a historian of early modern medicine,Photograph of Hannah Newton - head and shoulders shot emotion, and childhood. Her first book, The Sick Child in Early Modern England (2012), won the EAHMH 2015 Book Prize. In 2011-2014, Hannah undertook a Wellcome Fellowship at Cambridge, and researched her next monograph, Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England (forthcoming). She is now a Wellcome University Lecturer at Reading.

Why is the sound of sniffing so irritating? As I write this, my attention is drawn to the unremitting snorts and splutters of a fellow passenger on the train. It seems that I’m not alone: in one recent survey, sniffing was ranked one the top 20 most annoying noises by Britons.[1] But perhaps we’re overreacting. After all, sickness can give rise to far worse sounds, as I’ve begun to realise since embarking on a new Wellcome Trust project, ‘Sensing Sickness in Early Modern England’. Taking the dual perspectives of patients and their loved ones, the project investigates how the five senses were affected by serious physical illness and medical treatment, and uncovers the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations of the seventeenth-century sickroom. My ultimate goal is to reach a closer understanding of it was like to be ill, or to witness the illness of others, in the past. I also seek to unravel the relationship between the senses and the emotions in early modern culture. While historians have undertaken valuable work on how the senses were involved in theories of disease causation, diagnosis, and treatment, the sensory experience of illness itself has been largely overlooked.[2]

Sepia print showing 5 figures: a seated man vomiting and 4 others behind him holding their noses.

Figure 1: ‘The Sense of Smell’, 1651; by P. Boone; Wellcome Library, London. A man vomits, while those around him hold their noses. It is noteworthy that the only female in the image – possibly a nurse – is not holding her nose. Could this be because the artist assumed that women’s work desensitised them to bad smells? This image could equally have been used to illustrate the sense of hearing or vision.

I became interested in this subject whilst researching for a previous book, The Sick Child in Early Modern England. I noticed that for parents, the greatest source of grief was not so much the death of a child, but was rather hearing and seeing their offspring in pain. During the sickness of his baby daughter Mary in 1669, the Suffolk clergyman Isaac Archer (1641-1700) lamented, ‘Oh what griefe was it to mee to heare it groane, to see it’s sprightly eyes turne to mee for helpe in vaine!’[3] In fact, so acute was the distress occasioned by these sensory stimuli, parents frequently claimed to feel something alike to the emotional and physical suffering of their sick children. This phenomenon was known as ‘fellow-feeling’ in the early modern period, a concept which meant ‘to partake in another person’s occasions, either of joy or sorrow’. Explanations for fellow-feeling centred on the emotion of love. The French philosopher and theologian Nicholas Coeffeteau (1574-1623) averred that a ‘signe of true Love…[is that] friends rejoice & grieve for the same things’.[4]

What were the sounds of the sickroom? The diary of the newly married gentlewoman, Mary Penington (c.1623-1682), provides poignant insights. She recorded that the groans of her sick husband ‘were dreadful. I may call them roarings’. Forty years later, she still remembered his groans, and added another auditory memory: the sound of his convulsing limbs as they slammed against the bed in his fits:

[H]e snapped his legs and arms with such force, that the veins seemed to sound like the snapping of cat-gut strings, tightened upon an instrument of music. Oh! this was a dreadful…sound to me; my very heartstrings seemed ready to break, and let my heart fall from its wonted place.[5]

By applying the metaphor of breaking strings to both her own emotions and her husband’s fits, Mary conveyed the depth of her fellow-feeling – her heart was mimicking his experience. To explain the emotional impact of sound, contemporaries referred to the link between the ear and the heart. The priest Thomas Wright (d. 1624), explained that the ‘shaking, crispling or tickling of the air’ – what we would call sound waves – ‘paseth thorow’ the body ‘unto the heart, and there beateth and tickleth it in such a sort, as it is moved with semblable passions’.[6] Personified as a sensitive creature, the heart generated passions that resembled the movement of the vibrations it perceived, which in Mary’s case was violent grief. It seems fitting that the words ‘hear’ and ‘ear’ are contained within ‘heart’.

Colour painting of a man grimacing, holding a bottle of medicine

Figure 2: ‘The Bitter Potion’, 1640; by Adriaen Brouwer; Städel Museum, Germany. The man’s face is contorted in an expression of deep revulsion after tasting the bitter medicine. In this period, bitterness was a sign of the drug’s potency.

Sights as well as sounds contributed to the agony of witnessing a loved one’s illness. One of the most heartrending sights was the facial expression of the sick person, typically grimaced in pain, or contorted through crying.[7] Timothy Bright (1551?-1615), a physician from Sheffield, provides a vivid picture of the ‘deformitie of the face in weeping’ in his treatise on melancholy. He wrote, ‘The lip trembleth’, the ‘countenance is cast downe’, and ‘all the parts [are so] filled with…moisture…that not finding sufficient way [out] at the eyes, it passeth through the nose’.[8] Relatives commented particularly on the look in the patient’s eyes, a tendency which reflects the entrenched belief that the eyes were the windows of the soul.[9] A poem composed by the Devonshire gentlewoman Mary Chudleigh (c.1656-1710), concerning her gravely ill daughter, Eliza Maria, encapsulates this experience:

Rack’d by Convulsive Pains she meekly lies,
And gazes on me with imploring Eyes,
With Eyes which beg Relief, but all in vain,
I see, but cannot, cannot ease her Pain.[10]

This mother’s inability to relieve her child’s sufferings accentuated her distress. Sight functioned in this context in a cyclical manner: the agony conveyed in the patient’s eyes pained the observer, and the observer’s pained expression added further grief to the patient. Relatives also mourned the loss of their loved one’s natural beauty and colour. Addressing the friends and relations of the sick, the London clergyman Timothy Rogers, asked ‘Where is his former Comeliness and Beauty…his lovely Features? You can…have no mind to look upon that very person that…a while ago, was the Delight of your Heart’.[11]

To conclude, witnessing the illness of a loved one was a deeply sensory experience in the early modern period. For those involved in the care of a sick or elderly relative, it may still be today. This blog has focused on just a few of the most frequently mentioned sights and sounds; my wider project also examines the smells, tastes, and tactile sensations that accompanied disease and treatment.

[1] http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/weird-news/britains-top-50-most-annoying-8826311 (accessed 10/01/17)

[2] For example, William Bynum and R. Porter (eds), Medicine and the Five Senses (Cambridge, 1993), explore the role of the physicians’ senses in diagnosis. On the contested role of touch in diagnosis, see Olivia Weisser, ‘Boils, Pushes and Wheals: Reading Bumps on the Body in Early Modern England’, SHM, 22 (2009), 321-39; Patrick Singy, ‘Medicine and the Senses: The Perception of Essences’, in Anne Vila (ed.), A Cultural History of the Senses in the Age of Enlightenment (2014), 133-53. On the role of bad smells in causing disease, see Jonathan Reinarz, Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell (Illinois, 2014), ch. 6; Holly Dugan, The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England (Baltimore, 2011), 97-125. On the role of scents in healing, see Jennifer Evans, ‘Female Barrenness, Bodily Access and Aromatic Treatments in Seventeenth-Century England’, Historical Research, 86 (2014), 423-43. On the benefits of pleasant smells and sights, see Carole Rawcliffe, ‘“Delectable Sightes and Fragrant Smelles”: Gardens and Health in Late Medieval and Early Modern England’, Garden History, 36 (2008), 3-21. On the role of sound (music) as therapy, see Peregrine Horden (ed.), Music as Medicine: The History of Music Therapy Since Antiquity (Aldershot, 2000).

[3] Isaac Archer, ‘The Diary of Isaac Archer 1641-1700’, in Matthew J. Storey (ed.), Two East Anglian Diaries 1641-1729, Suffolk Record Society, vol. 36 (Woodbridge, 1994), 41-200, at 120.

[4] Nicolas Coeffeteau, A table of humane passions. With their causes and effects (1621), 111-12, 117-19.

[5] Mary Penington, Experiences in the Life of Mary Penington Written by Herself, ed. Norman Penney (London, 1992, first publ. 1911), 70-71, 93.

[6] Thomas Wright, The passions of the minde (1630; first published 1601), 169-70.

[7] On facial grimaces, but for a later period, see Joanna Bourke, The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers (Oxford, 2014), ch.6.

[8] Timothy Bright, treatise of melancholie (1586), 153-54.

[9] Stuart Clark, Vanities of the Eye: Vision in Early Modern European Culture (Oxford, 2007), 11.

[10] Mary Chudleigh, On the death of my dear daughter Eliza Maria Chudleigh, in her Poems on several occasions (1713), 95.

[11] Timothy Rogers, Practical discourses on sickness & recovery (1691), 228-29.

“Stop Thinking about Death… and Stop Shouting at People”: Psychic Driving at the Museum of the Normal

David Saunders started his PhD in the Centre for the History of the Emotions in October 2016. His research is funded by the Wellcome Trust and intersects with our Living with Feeling grant.



On 24 November 2016, seventy-three individuals entered a small room on the third floor of St Bartholomew’s Hospital and disclosed their hopes, fears, and anxieties to a tape machine. Attending the Museum of the Normal, an event organised by Queen Mary’s Centre for the History of the Emotions, these “subjects” had been taken away from the bright lights and greenish specimens of Bart’s Pathology Museum and led into a darkened clinical room, where a silent, mechanical therapist was waiting to hear their confessions. Taking a seat under harsh lamplight, these individuals had volunteered to take part in a “revolutionary” therapeutic exercise called Psychic Driving.

man in a lab coat sitting at a desk with a tape recorder in a dimly lit room

The “Psychic Driving” apparatus. (Cred: Stewart Caine)

“Psychic Driving,” as explored previously on this blog, was a radical therapy developed in the early 1950s by Dr Donald Ewen Cameron, a psychiatrist at the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal. For Cameron, talking therapies had failed to stem the tide of psychiatric illnesses; instead psychiatrists needed to embrace new technologies to mechanise the process of psychological healing. Cameron’s imagination had been captured by one piece of technology in particular: the tape machine. By taping positive messages and replaying these to his patients on a never-ending loop, Cameron believed he could destroy their pathological memories, beliefs, and behaviours, and reprogram them into productive, well-adjusted members of society. The power to wipe clean and rewrite the memories and personalities of citizens was a powerful fantasy in the Cold War environment, and soon Cameron’s research drew the attention of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who began to covertly fund his work. Ultimately, psychic driving was a complete failure as both a therapeutic tool and a weapon of mind control. Patients forced to listen to Cameron’s looping messages for weeks and even months on end experienced disorientation, hallucinations, and severe memory loss.

It would perhaps be all too easy to cast off psychic driving as yet another “stranger than fiction” tale from the Cold War, another example of military and scientific excesses fed by paranoia, suspicion, and nightmares of nuclear destruction. Yet many of the motivations sustaining Cameron’s research remain entrenched in contemporary therapeutic culture: the endless search for “normality” and “equilibrium”, the modernist faith that technology can provide the solution to daily woes, the continuing obsession with “quick-fix” solutions. How, then, might the history of psychic driving point to the unexpected and troubling ramifications of our search for easy answers? Given the opportunity, what attributes and behaviours might we wish to “program” into ourselves?

These very questions were explored by visitors to the Museum of the Normal. Left alone with the tape machine, all participants were asked to respond to the same question: if they could change one thing about their lives overnight, what would it be? Their responses – disarmingly honest and frequently surprising – have been drawn together into a single “self-help” tape, accompanied by an ambient soundscape inspired by recordings used for guided meditation, yoga, and mindfulness. The tape thus stands as a collaborative exploration into our assumptions, desires, and fears about what it means to be “normal”.

This track contains some strong language.

Responses to the psychic driving installation varied immensely, often with no clear patterns or trends. However, a number of tentative observations can be made:

  • The majority of responses (58%) focused on a desired change of attitude towards life and its challenges. These frequently involved wanting to worry less, appreciate positive things more, and seize opportunities.
  • 31% of responses involved anxieties about time in some form. Most of these referred to fears surrounding procrastination, or a desire to use time more efficiently.
  • Only 7% of responses referred to relationships with others. Overwhelmingly, responses focused on the individual, often in isolation.
  • The vast majority of responses (76%) concerned abstract aspirations, such as working harder, enjoying life more, or becoming more motivated. A much smaller number of responses put forward specific goals (24%), which ranged from learning languages to quitting smoking.
  • In general terms, 60% of responses were framed in a positive manner – broadly defined as a desire to improve or augment certain attributes or characteristics. Meanwhile, 40% were framed in a negative manner – as corrections to perceived flaws or prohibitions of perceived bad habits.

The psychic driving apparatus has returned to its laboratory in Peckham for recalibration. A second test is currently under consideration.

The Team would like to thank all those who took part in the Psychic Driving installation at the Museum of the Normal.

New Publications, October – December 2016

A round-up of publications on the history of emotions from October to December 2016.

If you would like your publication to be featured in the next quarterly round-up, please send the details (including a link to more information or the full article) to emotions@qmul.ac.uk before 2 April 2017.

An additional list of publications is also published monthly on H-emotions: https://networks.h-net.org/categories/new-publications






New podcast: the politics of well-being, with Richard Layard and William Davies

Here’s the second episode of our podcast, with Jules Evans interviewing Richard Layard,  former government ‘happiness tsar’ and the creator of the NHS talking therapies service; and Wiliam Davies, author of The Happiness Industry.

You can listen to the previous episode, an interview with author Geoff Dyer about peak experiences, here. And you can now subscribe to our podcast on iTunes here.

Farts and Friars, Rebellion and Wrath: A Response to Thomas Dixon

Paul Megna is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, based at The University of Western Australia. He is currently developing a project on emotion and ethics in medieval and medievalist drama. He was awarded a PhD in English by the University of California, Santa Barbara, for his dissertation titled ‘Emotional Ethics in Middle English Literature’.

This is the latest in a series of posts about anger, and a second response to Thomas Dixon’s post ‘Angers past or anger’s past?’ The first response was by Kirk Essary. All three posts have also appeared on the ARC Histories of Emotion Blog.

In his recent post, Thomas Dixon argues that historians of emotion should avoid too readily conflating our contemporary understanding of anger with those espoused by the denizens of the past societies that we study. This is, of course, a crucial point and to argue against it would not only pay short shrift to the very real linguistic, phenomenological and ethical distinctions between our anger (or, since there are important differences between the ways that contemporary English-speakers conceive of anger, our angers) and angers past, but would also downplay the important cultural work of studying the history of anger in the first place. Nevertheless, I worry that too much focus on the divergence between our post-Darwin, post-Ekman understanding of anger and that of, say, Geoffrey Chaucer runs the risk of ignoring the equally important ways that angers past remain recognisable to us today.

Take, for example, a hilarious (at least in my humble opinion) moment in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale.[1] A greedy, sanctimonious friar is visiting his long-time patron Thomas, who lies on his deathbed. Thomas is angry with the friar since he has given ‘many a pound’ (III.1950–51) to friars, but never seems to fare better for his donations. After the Friar delivers a long, condemnatory sermon on the evils of wrath, Thomas becomes still angrier, but conceals his indignation and offers to give the friar yet another gift, as long as he agrees to split it amongst all of his brothers. Thomas instructs the friar to reach beneath his buttocks and, when the latter obeys, Thomas farts more loudly than any horse ever did, leaving the friar insane with anger, cursing Thomas through clenched teeth. My point is simple: modern readers both understand the friar’s anger and ‘get’ the Summoner’s joke. Even if we are totally unaware that friars were often lampooned in Chaucer’s time for spreading rage by usurping the sacramental business of local parsons, we grasp why the friar is angry because we would also probably be angry if we, upon being offered a gift, received instead a handful of farts. I daresay Thomas’s trick might enrage even the stoic Inuit Kigeak, Jean L. Brigg’s adopted father, discussed in another recent post by Thomas Dixon. Taken out of context, Thomas’s trick is not necessarily funny (it would not be funny if it happened to Kigeak), but I am able to laugh at the Summoner’s friar’s angry reaction to the trick because it proves him a hypocrite for preaching against the evils of anger. Despite arising from a radically different cultural milieu than my own, Chaucer’s depictions of anger and solicitations of laughter translate well, to borrow a phrase from Maxine Hong Kingston.[2] If they did not, I might have chosen a very different career path.


Figure 1: The Summoner in the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As Dixon points out, medieval Europeans strongly associated anger with the mortal sin of wrath. Medieval discourses on wrath, however, rarely conflate anger and sin entirely and often explicitly demarcate sinful anger from righteous anger. Elsewhere in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in The Parson’s Tale,[3] we get a thoroughgoing definition of sinful wrath, as well as its remedial virtues. Although the Parson does not prescribe righteous anger as the remedy for sinful anger, he does introduce his discussion of sinful wrath by positing that not all anger is sinful: ‘Ire is in two maneres; that oon of hem is good, and that oother is wikked’ (X.537). Good ire, for the Parson, is ‘withouten bitternesse’ and directed at ‘wikkednesse’, rather than the purveyor thereof (X.538–40). Supporting his discussion of righteous anger, the Parson cites Psalms 4.4 (the translation history of which Kirk Essary discusses in his recent post): ‘Irascimini et nolite peccare’ (‘Be angry and don’t sin’). In discussing sinful anger, the Parson introduces another split, this time between sudden or hasty ire, which occurs ‘withouten [. . .] consentynge of resoun’ and is therefore a venial sin, and ‘wikked’ anger, to which reason consents, making it a mortal sin (X.540–42). Once again, the finer points of Chaucerian anger are caught up in a sacramental theology that is quite foreign to some, though certainly not all, modern readers. As Thomas Dixon puts it, ‘[t]here is a substantive difference – phenomenologically and emotionally, morally and metaphysically – between committing the deadly sin ira and expressing the modern emotion of “anger” as conceived by a psychologist like Paul Ekman’.

On the other hand, the Parson’s discourse on anger is not so different, I think, than that expressed in Martha Nussbaum’s new book,[4] which Dixon aptly summarises in yet another previous post. Nussbaum is characteristically not content with being merely descriptive (as is Ekman’s psychology of anger), but is also prescriptive insofar as she hopes to provide us a blueprint for building a better society by instituting a healthier, neo-Stoic emotional regime. Her project, therefore, is not so unlike that of Chaucer’s Parson. Although I would certainly stop short of conflating the two prescriptive philosophies of anger entirely, I do want to point out that Nussbaum, like the Parson, disapproves of almost all anger, especially insofar as it entails a desire for revenge, but she does leave room for a healthy, acceptable ‘transition anger’, as long as it fuels efforts for preventative reform. Nussbaum’s ‘transition anger’ strikes me as existing somewhere between the Parson’s righteous anger and his venial, hasty anger. Despite their very real differences, the discourses on anger offered by Nussbaum and the Parson contain an uncannily similar ascetic program for producing a better world by emoting well. Both are forgiving of impulsive anger and critical of seething anger that broods on vengeance.

I certainly do not mean to suggest that it is easy to reconcile medieval and modern discourses on anger. Dixon alludes to the work of linguists like Anna Wierzbicka who analyse the various semantic valences of Old and Middle English anger-words, none of which coincide entirely with that of the Modern English ‘anger’. Inherited from Old Norse, the Middle English anger, for example, can signify something roughly akin to our anger, but, like the Old Norse angr, might also mean a much more general sense of sorrow or displeasure.[5] Making matters worse, in a time before authoritative dictionaries, words were used differently by different folks (as they continue to be today, despite a plethora of dictionaries!) Chaucer, for example, uses ‘ire’, ‘anger’, and ‘wrath’ more or less interchangeably, relying heavily on adjectives to signify the moral status of the anger in question. While some taxonomically minded Middle English authors, like Reginald Pecock,[6] explicitly distinguish between ‘anger’ and ‘wrath’, making the former a passion over which one has no control and the latter a wilful, and therefore potentially sinful, deed, such careful semantic distinctions between anger-words are the exception, rather than the rule, in Middle English anger writing.

Royal 18 E I f.165v

Figure 2: ‘The Death of Wat Tyler’, in Jean Froissart, Chroniques, late fifteenth century. British Library, Royal MS 18 E I, f.175.

Making matters still more difficult for those of us interested in reconstructing medieval notions of anger is the fact that all we have to understand them is surviving texts, works of art and archaeological remains. As many historians have noted, this yields an uneven record, skewed towards those possessing the privilege to produce: churchmen, aristocrats and poetic social climbers like Chaucer and John Gower. This poses a distinct problem for those interested in peasant anger: we have a glut of sources depicting peasant anger as bestial and socially disruptive – like Book I of Gower’s Vox Clamantis – and a dearth of sources indicating how peasants conceptualised anger differently than their oppressors. [7] Despite this difficulty, historians and literary critics like Paul Freedman and Steven Justice have done a great deal to study medieval peasant anger, sometimes by reading aristocratic chronicles against the grain and sometimes by focusing on small scraps of peasant discourse preserved in hostile sources.[8] I’m thinking, of course, of Justice’s fantastic work on the Rebel Letters: Middle English lyrics which served as peasant communiqués contained in otherwise Latin chronicle accounts of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.[9] In an article published a few years ago,[10] I argued that one of these short lyrics tells us a great deal about peasant anger without using a single anger-word. The lyric in question is called ‘The Letter of John Ball’ and is attributed to the radical priest of that name who rallied the Rebels at Blackheath with a rousing, proto-Marxist sermon. It derives from a common complaint lyric that bewails a world in which the Seven Deadly Sins run rampant:

Now raigneth pride in price,

Covetise is holden wise,

Leacherie without shame,

Gluttonye without blame:

Envie raigneth with treason,

And slouth is taken in greate season;

God doe bote, for now is time.

Unlike its sources and analogues, the ‘Letter of John Ball’ does not complain that the world is replete with wrath. In leaving anger conspicuously absent, Ball’s complaint implies that wrath is not a cause of the social inequality against which Ball preached, but a solution to it. The implicit endorsement of righteous anger contained in the ‘Letter of John Ball’ suggests that not all medieval laypeople adhered to the narrow understanding of righteous anger espoused by their confessors and that some recognised discourses on the deadly sin wrath as mechanisms designed to dissuade dissent. Sadly, the paroxysm of anger expressed in the 1381 Rising led to a draconian crackdown on peasant rights spearheaded by a young and preternaturally angry King Richard II. Nevertheless, John Ball and his compatriots Wat Tyler and Jack Straw continue to reside in the English proletariat imaginary as powerful symbols of righteous anger and dissent.


Figure 3: Frontispiece and first page of an early edition of William Morris’s A Dream of John Ball (London: Kelmscott P, 1892). Artwork by E. Burne-Jones, April 1888. Newcastle University Library, Special Collections, RB 821.86 MOR.

In 1888, 507 years after John Ball was hanged, drawn and quartered for rousing rebel anger, the socialist reformer William Morris published a short serialised novel entitled A Dream of John Ball, which details a dream vision in which the protagonist, a nineteenth-century socialist lecturer, finds himself in fourteenth-century England. Morris’s dreamer meets a peasant rebel and recites snippets of a Rebel Letter to showcase his socialist sympathies. He then hears Ball give a radical sermon and witnesses a minor skirmish early in the Revolt. In the story’s concluding chapters, he conducts a long, private conversation with Ball in which he details the sad results of the Revolt, the end of feudalism, the industrial revolution and the rise of a capitalist mode of production that leaves the working class infinitely more disenfranchised than medieval peasants. Needless to say, Ball is not thrilled by what he hears. At one point, he even furrows his brow in anger. Although Morris’s nostalgic novel provides a markedly pessimistic counterpoint to the neo-medieval utopia imagined in News from Nowhere, A Dream of John Ball hints at a dream of a utopian future shared by Ball, Morris’s protagonist and modern readers of historical records of class struggle such as myself. Morris places John Ball’s peasant anger in dialogue with that experienced by the proletariat under industrial capitalism. In so doing, he allegorises the way that historical inquiry fosters connections between past and present political emotions. Just as Morris resuscitates Ball’s anger, so do the historians of emotion who study peasant anger to build an archive of class struggle.

Do I mean the exact same thing when I say ‘wrath’ as did John Ball when he said it, or strategically opted to not say it, more than 700 years ago? Of course not. I can neither fully grasp peasant anger, nor Morris’s socialist discontent, nor the anger felt by African Americans, many of whom feel persecuted and endangered by the justice system that is ostensibly supposed to protect and serve them. But the unknowability of other people’s anger, historical or contemporary, does not absolve me of responsibility to empathise with it and even partake in it, to the extent that I can or choose to. As historians of emotion, we need to both respect and transverse historical difference. We need to study the roots and analogues, not only of anger that we deem righteous, but also that which we deem toxic (or Trump-esque), in order to help others and ourselves manage and understand contemporary anger. Our task, therefore, is not so different than that undertaken by either Nussbaum or Chaucer’s Parson. Somewhere between descriptive and prescriptive lies the vital work of the historian of anger.

[1] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Summoner’s Tale, in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd edn (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987), pp. 129–36.

[2] Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).

[3] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Parson’s Tale, in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd edn (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987), pp. 287–327.

[4] Martha Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[5] I am grateful to Carolyne Larrington for helping me to trace anger’s transition from Old Norse to English.

[6] Reginald Pecock, The Folewer to the Donet, ed. by E. V. Hitchcock (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1924), p. 110.

[7] John Gower, Vox Clamantis, in The Complete Works of John Gower: Latin Works (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902), pp. 3–313.

[8] See, for example, Paul Freedman, ‘Peasant Anger in the Late Middle Ages’, in Anger’s Past: The Social Uses of an Emotion in the Late Middle Ages, ed. by Barbara H. Rosenwein (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), pp. 171–88.

[9] Steven Justice, Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381 (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1994).

[10] Paul Megna, ‘Langland’s Wrath: Righteous Anger Management in The Vision of Piers Plowman’, Exemplaria 25.2 (2013): 130–51.

Dumb Witnessing: Good Old Boys and Canine Grief

bold-2Margery Masterson is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol. She works on Victorian masculinity and the twin themes of militarization and memorialisation. She is currently working on the Victorian volunteers craze of the 1860s.

I often pass an old man with his dog on my usual evening walk. There’s a grey tinge to the dog’s tufted black fur, but his short-legged gait is still brisk, punctuated by frequent stops to allow his owner to catch up. With the shortening days, the dog wears a collar of flashing red lights to protect him from cyclists, making him look rather like a homemade Christmas ornament.

We exchange pleasantries and then I return to my audiobook. The shape of the man and the dog soon fades back into the gloom and all I can see are the blinking red lights. Now moving, now patiently pausing. I am currently immersed in The Forsyte Saga (1906-1921). After concluding a whirlwind plot of adulterous affairs and ruinous lawsuits in the first volume, John Galsworthy slows the pace almost to a standstill for the ‘Indian Summer’ of Old Jolyon.


John Galsworthy ©Getty Images;

At eighty five, Old Jolyon’s left alone at home while his family’s on holiday. Almost alone. Balthasar, a would-be Pomeranian, watches as Old Jolyon seeks out the company of the beautiful Irene. In his sudden, deep need for Irene’s company, Old Jolyon comes to resemble his animal (‘his eyes grew sad as an old dog’s’) and it is his dog who notices Old Jolyon’s rapid deterioration: ‘Only the dog Balthasar saw his lonely recovery from that weakness; anxiously watched his master go to the sideboard and drink some brandy, instead of giving him a biscuit .’ (Indian Summer of a Forsyte Chapter IV)


I was retracing my steps homeward when Old Jolyon shuffled outside with Balthasar to wait under a tree for Irene one last time. The impending ending flashed across my mind. ‘The dog placed his chin over the sunlit foot. It did not stir … suddenly he uttered a long, long howl.’ I echoed this howl with a sudden, unstoppable sob. My own reactive grief seemed wildly out of proportion to the peaceful death of a fictitious octogenarian. What was so sad about this scene?


Irene (Gina McKee) and Old Jolyon (Colin Redgrave), The Forstye Saga, ITV (2002)








The only time I can remember feeling such simple devastation was watching children’s films featuring old dogs. Memorable among these canines is the old bloodhound in Lady and the Tramp (1955) who, recovering his sense of smell, tracks the villain’s carriage only to be run over. Even more heartrending is the old golden retriever in Homeward Bound (1993) who, having crossed the entire United States to be reunited with his boy owner, is injured falling into a pit and cannot climb out. The old dog as an old man reaches its apogee in Disney entertainments. Old dogs literally speak in the voices of old man and display, especially in the animated forms, human movements and expressions.

Agatha Christie, Dumb Witness (1937) Christie dedicated the book to her own wire terrier Peter.

Agatha Christie, Dumb Witness (1937) Christie dedicated the book to her own wire terrier Peter.

The pedigree of this synthesis of human and non-human forms is far older than Disney. Novelists in particular have long been drawn to the idea that dogs are unique witnesses to human suffering and death. Modern detective stories have always been interested in dogs as witnesses to human death – and intrigued by the problem of a witness that cannot speak. From Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes short story Silver Blaze (1892) and the dog that famously ‘did nothing, Watson’ to Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (1937) where Hercule Poirot deducts who the real killer is by observing the dog Bob.

Real-life celebrity dogs of the period performed hyper-masculine action ‘heroics’, like those of the sled-dog Balto, but they also excelled, as Liz Gray has discussed in this blog, in the more passive rites of mourning like Greyfriars Bobby. Dogs often mitigate the loneliness and isolation of illness, but they also bear witness to it in ways that are not always easy for historians to access. Victorian novelists were fascinated by the ways in which dogs externalized the unspoken or un-witnessed suffering of humans.

Sol Eytinge, ‘Dora and Miss Mills’. Wood engraving from Dickens's David Copperfield in the Ticknor and Fields (Boston), 1867, Diamond Edition [Victorian Web].

Sol Eytinge, ‘Dora and Miss Mills’. Wood engraving from Dickens’s David Copperfield in the Ticknor and Fields (Boston), 1867,

Charles Dickens is a past master of this theme. Jip is more than the mirror of his silly and perpetually juvenile mistress, Dora, in David Copperfield (1849-50): his aging body gives expression to her own unspoken deterioration. Bill Sykes’s dog, Bulls-Eye, shares the same fate in Oliver Twist (1837-9), and Dickens gives Hugh, from Barnaby Rudge (1841), a mongrel cur that Hugh calls for as he is about to be hanged.

But this projection is a two-way process. The suffering humans also take on doglike qualities. Magwich in Great Expectations (1860-1), already ‘very like the dog’ in his rough mannerisms, becomes doglike in his lonely and futile longing for Pip’s regard and affection. In The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1), Little Nell’s ‘panting dog’ of a grandfather visits her grave everyday for three months and then dies himself with doglike loyalty.

Collar of Keeper from Deborah Lutz, Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Collar of Keeper from Deborah Lutz, Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Indeed, ‘doglike’ characters seem particularly easy to twist from menacing men into pitiable specimens. Heathcliff, likened to a ravening wolf early on in Wuthering Heights (1847), takes on the more pathetic traits of a domestic dog in his mourning of Cathy. Emily Bronte’s own chief mourner was her dog, a large male mastiff called Keeper. The mastiff was an integral part of Bronte’s funeral procession and became a ‘living monument’ to her afterwards.

Book cover of Where’s Master by Caesar the King’s Dog

Where’s Master by Caesar the King’s Dog (1910). For more on this story see Cambridge’s Tower Project blog.

Bereaved canines act less as gate keepers and more as gateways into private human grief. This was especially true of King Edward VII’s wire fox terrier Caesar. After he prominently walked in the King’s 1910 funeral cortege, a first-person account of Caesar’s intimate view of royal bereavement was anonymously published. Where’s Master? admitted commoners into the King’s bedchamber at the moment of his death, increasing the pathos of his passing but, perhaps, lessening the awe of the occasion.

So what is it about dogs and grief that humans find both so heartbreaking and so familiar? Marjorie Garber writes in Dog Love (1996) about this quandary over pet bereavement: ‘This, I think, is part of the poignancy of the relation between human being and dog: we sense in dogs so much in the way of sympathy for our moods, grief’s, losses – and that we are so powerless to explain loss, death, and sadness to them. (Garber, p.252)

funeral cortege of King Edward VII. 

funeral cortege of King Edward VII.

If this is true – and I think that it is – then so is the reverse. If humans pity dogs’ uncomprehending and inarticulate response to human death, we also find it particularly sad when humans are rendered similarly dumb – whether by their intrinsic personality or social conditioning. It is conspicuous that, at least in nineteenth and early twentieth century literature, female characters never suffer from ‘doglike’ grief whereas upper-middle class British men at the turn of the twentieth century, John Galsworthy’s speciality, typify an inarticulate, ‘canine’ response to bereavement.

If, as Charles Fraser has argued in this blog, ‘connection entails reciprocity’, then we must look for a genuine exchange between human and non-human animals rather than ventriloquism. I suspect there is a possibility for a human and a dog to share one another’s grief – the old man and the old dog shuffling around the house in silent communion – but I am suspicious of attempts to give a human voice to non-human animal emotions. I doubt that the ‘speaking’ sentimental canines of fiction and of history are anything more than a reflection of human emotion.

Yet, as Galsworthy shows, humans’ ventriloquism of dogs reflects real emotions. He extends the dog Balthasar’s life for a ludicrously long time so that the dog’s death can presage another family bereavement in the second volume of The Forsyte Saga. ‘What is it, my poor old man?’ says Young Jolyon to the dying dog. Later, turning to his son as they finish digging Balthasar’s grave, ‘old man, I think it’s big enough.’ (In Chancery, Part II, Ch. X) Hearing this, you simultaneously realize two things: first that the son will die, and second that his father will never be able to fully understand or express his sadness at this bereavement.

Young Jolyon will become, like his father, a sad old dog.

Want to read more posts about animals and emotion?

Try Thomas Dixon’s ‘Emotional Animals No. 1’ or Liz Gray’s ‘Loyalty and a Dog Called Bobby’ or check out our ‘Emotional Animals’ category.

Translating ‘Anger’ in the Sixteenth Century: A Response to Thomas Dixon (Kind Of)

Do psychedelics make the terminally-ill believe in the afterlife?

st-francis-measuredTwo new studies just published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology showed that a single dose of psilocybin (the psychedelic drug found in magic mushrooms) significantly reduces anxiety and depression in people with terminal cancer. You can read them for free here.

The first trial, by a team at NYU medical school led by Stephen Ross, found ‘immediate, substantial and sustained clinical benefits of reduction of anxiety and depression’ in participants who took a single dose of psilocybin, versus a control group. Many cancer patients suffer from depression, anxiety and existential distress. The NYU study found that, after the treatment, 80% were in remission for depression at 6.5 month follow-up, and 75% were also in remission for anxiety.

This is unprecedented for a pharmacological intervention. It’s twice as effective in reducing depression and anxiety as anti-depressants and, unlike them, only has to be taken once. The study notes:

This pharmacological finding is novel in psychiatry in terms of a single dose of a medication leading to immediate anti-depressant and anxiolytic effects with enduring (e.g. weeks to months) clinical benefits.

The second study, by a team at Johns Hopkins medical school led by Roland Griffiths, was similar in set-up and found similar results – a 78% remission rate for depression after six months, and an 83% remission rate for anxiety. Two previous studies, by UCLA and the Heffter Research Centre in Zurich, also found psychedelics significantly reduce anxiety in terminally-ill cancer patients.

The question is: how? How does a single dose of a chemical cause such dramatic and sustained changes in a person’s attitudes? The studies are somewhat coy, but they point to something called ‘the mystical state of consciousness’:

This finding suggests a potential psycho-spiritual mechanism of action: the mystical state of consciousness. The mystical experience is likely to be one of several mediators that transmit the effect of psilocybin to changes in anxiety and/or depression.

It’s strange to find the phrase ‘mystical state of consciousness’ tucked away in all the bland statistical analysis of the modern scientific journal article. Of course, ‘mystical states of consciousness’ are quite hard to define – indeed, one of William James’ definitions of them is they are ‘ineffable’. So how can scientists measure them?

The scientists in these studies used various psychometric tests to measure people’s subjective experiences. Some of them are fairly standard, such as the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), which measures how depressed someone is by asking them to what extent they agree with questions like ‘I sometimes want to kill myself’ – this scale is widely used to see if someone with depression is in remission after a course of therapy.

To measure mystical experiences, the scientists used a variety of scales. One is the Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire, developed by Walter Pahnke, a religious scholar who did pioneering research into psychedelics and mystical experience at Harvard in the 1960s. The scale asks people to what extent their experience felt like the following (I’ll just give a sample of the statements):

teresaI. Internal Unity
26. Loss of your usual identity.
35. Freedom from the limitations of your personal self and feeling a unity or bond with what was felt to be greater than your personal self.
41. Experience of pure Being and pure awareness (beyond the world of sense impressions).
77. Experience of the fusion of your personal self into a larger whole.
83. Experience of unity with ultimate reality.

II. External Unity

14. Experience of oneness or unity with objects and/or persons perceived in your surroundings
47. Experience of the insight that “all is One”.
51. Loss of feelings of difference between yourself and objects or persons in your surroundings.
74. Awareness of the life or living presence in all things.

III. Transcendence of Time and Space

2. Loss of your usual sense of time.
12. Feeling that you experienced eternity or infinity.
34. Sense of being “outside of” time, beyond past and future.

IV. Ineffability and Paradoxicality
6. Sense that the experience cannot be described adequately in words.
23. Feeling that you could not do justice to your experience by describing it in words.
59. Sense that in order to describe parts of your experience you would have to use statements that appear to be illogical, involving contradictions and paradoxes.

V. Sense of Sacredness
5. Experience of amazement.
8. Sense of the limitations and smallness of your everyday personality in contrast to the Infinite.
31. Sense of profound humility before the majesty of what was felt to be sacred or holy.
80. Sense of awe or awesomeness.

VI. Noetic Quality
3. Feeling that the consciousness experienced during part of the session was more real than your normal awareness of everyday reality.
9. Gain of insightful knowledge experienced at an intuitive level.
22. Certainty of encounter with ultimate reality (in the sense of being able to “know” and “see” what is really real ) at some time during your session.

VII. Deeply-Felt Positive Mood
10. Experience of overflowing energy.
30. Feelings of peace and tranquility.
43. Experience of ecstasy.
60. Feelings of universal or infinite love.

Another scale is the Mysticism Scale, developed by Ralph Hood. It measures very similar attitudes – timelessness, sense of unity with all things – though in a slightly less obvious way. A third scale is the Spiritual Transcendence Scale developed by Ralph Piedmont (clearly if you want your child to be a mysticism researcher, call them Ralph). This scale measures sense of connectedness to humanity, sense of the unitive nature of life, and sense of joy from personal encounter with a transcendent reality.

These scales suggest that psychedelics give rise to some unusual beliefs about reality, such as the belief one is suddenly in touch with ‘ultimate reality’, the belief that there is ‘spirit in all things’, a sense one has reached ‘pure consciousness’ or the belief one is in touch with ‘universal love’. None of these beliefs could be exactly checked by science. Indeed, some of them might be outright rejected by traditional materialist science, such as the belief there is a spirit in all things.

The studies tip-toe around the big question: do psychedelics reduce anxiety and depression in the terminally ill by changing their beliefs about the afterlife? This, after all, is one of the most common insights from the mystics of the past – there is something in us beyond the ego which is immortal and divine. Contemporary psychedelic scientists, eager for acceptance in the mainstream scientific community, duck this metaphysical question by pointing to quantitative reductions in depression or ‘increases in the transcendence / mysticism scales’.

This sort of quantitative analysis would be well supplemented by qualitiative research – interviews with the participants where they describe their trip. UCLA’s earlier study of LSD for terminal cancer patients did more qualitative interviews, and sure enough, people said things like ‘For the first time in my life, I felt like there was a creator of the universe, a force greater than myself, and that I should be kind and loving’. There are also some interviews with participants of the recent Johns Hopkins study on YouTube – you can see them struggling to put their experience into words (they’re ‘ineffable’ after all).

Time magazine interviewed one participant in the Johns Hopkins study, who described her trip:

suddenly I saw my fear. It was a black mass inside my body. I felt a volcanic anger toward my fear and I screamed, “Get the f-ck out, I won’t be eaten alive!”As soon as I screamed at it, the black mass of fear disappeared. I began to feel like I was floating in the instrumental music playing from the headphones I had on, and I started to feel love. I felt like I was being bathed in love and it was overwhelming, amazing, wonderful.

This accords with the experience of Aldous Huxley, who famously took LSD on his deathbed. Psychedelics had showed him, he said, that ‘love is the central cosmic fact’. Again, not really an assertion one could scientifically test to see if it’s true.

When I attended Breaking Convention last year (which is the world’s biggest conference on psychedelics) I asked Thorsten Passie from Harvard, who has studied how LSD reduces anxiety in those with life-threatening illness, whether anxiety was reduced because people had new beliefs about the self and the afterlife. He replied: ‘We didn’t ask them, but I think so.’ I also asked Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins, lead-investigator of one of the new studies. He replied: ‘Not everyone necessarily becomes convinced there’s an afterlife, but quite often they become open to that possibility for the first time. That’s a big change to the total certainty they are facing annihilation.’

Walter Pahnke’s research on LSD with terminal cancer patients in the 1960s was less coy. He wrote:

Our experiments have indicated that deep within every human being there are vast usually untapped resources of love, joy and peace…these feelings are released most fully when there is comolete surrender to the ego-loss experience of positive ego-transcendence, which is often experienced as a moment of death and rebirth.

He added:

One of the greatest fears about human death is that personal individual existence and memory will be gone forever. Yet having passed through psychological ego-death in the mystical experience, a person still preserves enough self-consciousness so that at least part of individual memory is not lost.

In other words, psychedelics appear to give people near-death experiences where their lifes aren’t actually in danger. They give people the experience of ego-death, and a sense that this is OK, that the universe / God loves them. And this helps them face the future prospect of their actual death, because they think there’s something beyond the ego – whether that’s described as ‘pure consciousness’, ‘mind at large’, ‘God’, or whatever. This is very similar to what happens in actual near-death experiences, for example after cardiac arrests – people come back with reduced anxiety about death, because they no longer think death is the end. Researcher Kenneth Ring says that reduced anxiety about death is ‘the most consistent finding in NDE research’.

Clearly, more research needs to be done on this, which directly explores how psychedelics change people’s beliefs about the nature of the self, the nature of reality, and the afterlife. It’s an interesting topic, because it’s not clear how science should treat these new mystical beliefs – as delusions, as placebo, or perhaps as insights that are potentially reliable. Does it matter if the insights are true or not, as long as they improve people’s moods?

I suspect psychedelics will soon be widely used in palliative care. How would that change our culture? How would it change our attitude to death? And to life? Could psychedelics play a role in a spiritual revival in our over-rational and materialistic culture?

Albert Hoffman, inventor of LSD, hoped that psychedelics could inspire a ‘new Eleusis’ – he was referring to the Eleusinian Mysteries, the great religious cult of ancient Greece, which existed for 2500 years, before it was shut down by the fanatical Christian emperor Theodosius in 392 AD. No one knows precisely what happened during the secret ritual – initiates were mystes, sworn to silence, which is where the word ‘mystical’ comes from – but participants apparently drank a potion, and then went on a terrifying trip to the underworld, before being reborn as children of Demeter. The philosopher Cicero said he thought Eleusis was the greatest single contribution of Greek culture to the world. It enabled people to ‘die with a better hope’ – just as psychedelics help the terminally ill.

Ergot, which contains lystergic acid, may have been consumed at the Eleusinian Mysteries

Ergot, which contains lystergic acid

In the 1960s, mycologist Gordon Wasson speculated that the Eleusinian potion contained ergot, a fungus that grows on corn which contains an LSD-type compound. Certainly, there are similarities between descriptions of the mystery rites and LSD experiences. Plutarch, who was a priest of Eleusis, described the inititation as ‘wandering through the dark … terrors, shivering, trembling … after this a strange and wondrous light, voices, dances and the majesty of holy sounds and sacred visions’. Compare this to the account of one participant in a 2014 trial of LSD for those with terminal cancer: ‘It was just really black … I was afraid, shaking … It was total exhaustion … like an endless marathon … Suddenly a phase of relaxation came … It became bright. Everything was light … It was really gorgeous … The key experience is when you get from dark to light.’

Quite similar, no?


Angers past or anger’s past?

Thomas Dixon is Director of the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. His new research – part of the Living With Feeling project – explores the history, philosophy, and experience of anger.  

In this, the third in a series of posts asking ‘What is anger?’, Thomas confronts the problems posed by the wide variety of terms that have been used to refer to anger-like emotions in other languages and other eras.

This post is extracted and adapted from a talk Thomas gave at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions Biennial Research Meeting in Adelaide in November 2016, and will be followed by two responses from researchers at the ARC Centre in the coming weeks. This post has been published simultaneously on the ARC Histories of Emotions blog.

In previous posts about anger, I have written about ideas drawn from philosophy and anthropology. In both cases I found myself fretting about the meanings of the word ‘anger’, and of some of the terms in other languages it has been used to translate. In this piece, I turn to linguistics and historical semantics to address this issue head-on.

The first phrase in the title of this post – ‘Angers Past’ – gestures towards the plurality of the emotional states, feelings and behaviours that are suggested by the singular English word, ‘anger’. In its second, differently punctuated form, the same phrase – Anger’s Past – was the title of an extremely valuable collection of historical studies edited by Barbara Rosenwein and published in 1998. The subtitle of that collection – ‘The Social Uses of an Emotion in the Middle Ages’ – reinforces the idea that ‘anger’ is the name of a singular emotion (albeit one with multiple uses). However, as the contents of the essays in that collection make clear, the English word ‘anger’ can be used to translate several different emotion words – including, to take just two examples, both ira and furor in Latin.
harris-cover2Turning to the classicist William Harris’s book Restraining Rage: The Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity (Harvard University Press, 2001), a similar picture emerges. Harris’s work reveals a wide range of terms in both Greek and Latin for what he calls ‘anger-like emotions’ including, in Greek, mēnis, cholos, kotos, orgē and thumos and, in Latin, in addition to ira and furor, iracundia, indignatio, stomachari and dolor. In the past, as in the present, there have been many varieties of furious feelings and indignant passions – hence one might think about ‘Angers Past’ rather than ‘Anger’s Past’.

Historical and contemporary linguistic comparisons can be used to reinforce this point over and over. Consider, for instance, the research of Daria Izdebska into the history of words for anger-like emotions in Old English and Middle English. Izdebska has traced the history and semantic connections of a range of different words, including yrre, gram, wod, wroth and torn. Following Cliff Goddard, Izdebska criticises the attempt to capture the mental lives of other cultures in modern English terms as a form of ‘terminological ethnocentrism’, which ‘introduces distortion and inaccuracy because it imposes the perspective of a cultural and linguistic outsider’.[1]

I share completely the opposition of anthropologists and linguists to projecting modern English-language psychological categories on to past periods and other cultures. Anna Wierzbicka has also written persuasively and prolifically about emotions from a linguistic point of view, making similar arguments about ethnocentrism. In a chapter on anger, disgust and Paul Ekman’s theory of basic emotions in her book Imprisoned in English: The Hazards of English as a Default Language (Oxford University Press, 2013), Wierzbicka mentions several languages which lack any direct equivalent to the English term ‘anger’, looking especially at Wut and Zorn in German (which, incidentally, are both related to early English terms studied by Izdebska). Wierzbicka suggests that Wut is more like ‘rage’ than ‘anger’ and includes an impulse towards destruction rather than aggression.

As I have said, one could multiply such examples endlessly, but the basic point is that historians can join forces with linguists in arguing against ethnocentrism when it comes to emotion words. As I continue to grapple with the question of what my proposed history of anger is going to be a history of, I take away from my studies of the historical linguistics of the topic two clear ideas and one enduring puzzle.


Ira’: detail from The Seven Deadly Sins, and Four Last Things by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1500; Museo del Prado, Madrid.

My first clear idea is that language is constitutive of emotional experiences and so a change of emotion words across time and space is not merely lexical. There is a substantive difference – phenomenologically and emotionally, morally and metaphysically – between committing the deadly sin of ira and expressing the modern emotion of ‘anger’ as conceived by a psychologist like Paul Ekman. One impressionistic way to imagine this difference is to compare the world of thought and experience represented in Hieronymus Bosch’s depiction of ira as one of the seven deadly sins (c.1500) with the contrasting world of thought and experience represented in the figure of ‘anger’ as one of five emotions controlling a young girl’s brain in the Pixar movie Inside Out (2015). These are not the same things. Deadly sins are labelled, defined, evaluated, interpreted and, crucially, experienced differently from basic emotions.inside-out-head

The second and closely related clear idea I take away from thinking about historical linguistics is that we need to separate the question of whether there are human universals of some kind underlying emotional experiences from the question of whether the ‘basic emotion’ theories of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century Anglophone psychology have accurately picked out those universals. The former may be true, the latter is not. Even if there is some universal, physiologically grounded, evolved, instinctive state that underlies anger-like emotion-like experiences in all cultures, it is unlikely that that reality is the contemporary English-language psychological construct ‘anger’.

Then the enduring puzzle – which I am still puzzling over – is as follows. If we agree that ‘anger’ is not the same thing as orge or ira or Wut or Zorn – or any of the other states, behaviours and feelings picked out by other non-English words for anger-like, emotion-like things – and if we agree that a history of anger-like phenomena needs to be constituted through the words, concepts, categories and ideas of the historical actors of past periods, because those words were constitutive of their experiences and attitudes, then on what basis do we identify the words of theirs that we are interested in?

To put it another way, in writing a history of anger of the kind I wish to attempt, is there any escape from ethnocentrism on the one hand or reductionist essentialism on the other? If ‘anger’ is itself both a time- and language-bound concept and, by extension, a time- and language-bound phenomenal experience, then what is the history of ‘anger’ a history of (since ‘anger’ is the name for an experience available in full only to modern English speakers)?

One possible solution is to stipulate a definition of ‘anger’ and look for anything in past cultures and other languages that seems to fit the bill. William Harris attempts something like this. So, on the one hand, he argues strongly for linguistic, conceptual and experiential plurality, and tries to keep this plurality in readers’ minds by referring, as I already noted, to ‘anger-like emotions’ and ‘angry passions’ rather than just to ‘anger’ in the singular. In addition, however, to justify his inclusion of a wide range of different states with various Greek and Latin names within his remit, he offers a definition of the core phenomenon he is interested in, as follows: ‘a vigorous, temporary, emotional condition in which the subject desires the object’s harm, and/or desires to attack the object with words, because of some perceived failing’.[2] Like all attempts to define emotional states, this one falls apart fairly quickly. Let me just mention two of several problems. First, people – as Harris himself repeatedly points out – in both the ancient world and the present – can be gripped by slow-burning anger-like states over long periods of time. Angry passions are not necessarily either vigorous or temporary. Secondly, Harris’s inclusion of a desire for revenge (whether physical or verbal) excludes many ideas and experiences of rage, fury and ire, ancient and modern, which do not include such a desire. I wrote a bit more about orgē-anger and revenge in a previous post with reference to Martha Nussbaum.

So, if we cannot assume that ira, or orge, or yrre, are the same thing as ‘anger’, and if we are unable to define ‘anger’ in a satisfactory way, then what is left as a methodological starting point? Where I have currently got to in my thinking about this question rests on two metaphors: thinking about the history of emotions as a kind of anatomy combined with genealogy.


The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt (1632); the Mauritshuis Museum, The Hague.

Looking at this Rembrandt painting, I think of us as historians of emotions doing to the historical experiences we are interested in what the students are learning to do to the human body – gently teasing apart the flesh from the bones, the nerves from the sinews, the blood vessels from the internal organs – to see how the whole is made, how it might function, and what each part contributes to the whole. Incidentally, extending the metaphor a bit further, I think of language as the skeleton rather than the skin in this image. The kind of components we all look out for when anatomising emotional experiences include words, categories, narratives, metaphors, images, beliefs, moral and religious attitudes, bodily responses and behaviours, public performances and subjective experiences, feelings and testimonies. Each of these separate components itself has a history. And those components can come together in different formations at different times to constitute different emotional categories and feelings.

I combine this idea of the anatomy of emotions with the conventional idea that all such cultural elements can be explored genealogically as products of a process of cultural evolution – of descent with modification. Taking these two ideas of anatomy and genealogy together, my suggestion is that the history of anger should be anchored not by an underlying basic emotion or natural kind, nor by a projection back of modern English-language psychological categories on to past cultures, nor even by stipulating a general definition of the phenomenon to be studied – but by demonstrating a chain of cultural and intellectual evolution or descent of the component parts of modern angry experiences. The criterion for inclusion should be ancestral connection.

So, in fact the point I have reached is to think of my project as an investigation both of angers past and of anger’s past. Those many and various anger-like, emotion-like categories and experiences of the past sometimes include within them the cultural ancestors of the components of modern anger – such as a tendency towards violence, or a feeling of boiling over, or a flaring of the nostrils, or a sense of injustice. But those components have their own histories that can be traced independently of the various emotional constellations they have been part of – constellations named variously in different times and languages.

What I have in mind is a contingent story and not a teleological one. It treats modern Anglophone ‘anger’ as what happened to be produced by the past, not the goal or inevitable result of the past, and not something universal or timeless, but as one emotional stage in a process of evolution which will develop in different directions in the future. In the anatomical genealogy, since it is the specificities of contemporary experiences and theories of ‘anger’ that will anchor my history then it must also be held together by some particular lexicon of anger and emotion – namely the lexicon of modern English – not because I wish to make the ethnocentric assumption that that lexicon carves nature at the joints for all time – but because my experience – and that of other users of the English language – is fundamentally shaped by modern English terminology – notably, but not exclusively, as deployed by the varieties of academic psychology and psychiatry.

I imagine I will continue to worry at this distinction between angers past and anger’s past as my project develops, giving rise no doubt sometimes to perplexity and anxiety, not to mention irritation, resentment, indignation or rage at my own intellectual struggles. And that, of course, raises the next puzzle, namely how to decide not only which historical non-English terms, but also which contemporary English ones, should be included within the semantic net of a history of modern anger. But that is a puzzle for a future post.

Read more of Thomas’s thoughts on anger on this blog.

Follow Thomas on Twitter: @ProfThomasDixon

[1] Daria Izdebska, ‘The curious case of TORN: the importance of lexical-semantic approaches to the study of emotions in Old English’, in A. Jorgensen, F. McCormack, F. and J. Wilcox (eds) Anglo-Saxon Emotions. Series: Studies in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland (Ashgate: Burlington, 2015), pp. 53-74 (p. 58).

[2] William Harris, Restraining Rage: The Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 40.

The Lingering of the Lost Self. Review: Deborah Lutz ‘Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture’

Tiffany Watt SmithTiffany Watt Smith is a research fellow on the ‘Living with Feeling’ grant at the Centre for the History of the Emotions.

She is the author of The Book of Human Emotions and On Flinching: Theatricality and Scientific Looking from Darwin to Shell-Shock


Deborah Lutz, Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2015) 

For four generations, my family has lovingly tended a ghoulish heirloom – a severed horse’s hoof, set in silver and turned into an inkwell. It originally belonged to the favourite nag of my great-great grandfather, who drove a London ‘growler’ or horse-drawn cab in the 1880s. When I run my fingers over it, unexpected emotions rise up in me. Sometimes I think I can feel a faint echo of the love felt between the animal and its original owner. Or the exhaustion they must have experienced as each new passenger boarded the cab. Perhaps this is mere fanciful nostalgia on my part. Could a horse’s hoof really contain a residue, a patina, of its emotional past?

Silver inkwell made from the hoof of ‘Anstey’ the horse of Colonel Guy Hamilton, © National Army Museum. http://www.nam.ac.uk/online-collection/detail.php?acc=1995-07-46-

Silver inkwell made from the hoof of ‘Anstey’ the horse of Colonel Guy Hamilton, © National Army Museum. http://www.nam.ac.uk/online-collection/detail.php?acc=1995-07-46-

Many of us inhabit lives crammed with belongings, with stuff. Yet, for all our apparent attachment to things, it can be hard to find a language to talk about the feelings objects arouse. It’s spooky enough to talk of a glove or book or inkwell as somehow harbouring the emotions of its previous owners. Yet, encounter some object from the past, and it may well feel as if some of its previous lives still pulse within it. Deep in the archives, a letter exchanged by two eighteenth-century lovers is not only thrilling for its content, but for its smudges, its marginalia, its wine stains (or are they splashes of blood?) that seem to re-animate long dead emotions. In our libraries and archives, the emotional resonance of such pieces – be they strips of flayed skin or locks of hair, pressed flowers or collections of feathers – are hidden behind their categorization as ‘3-D objects’ or ‘ephemera’. But if today, talk of objects having emotions seems eccentric at best, this was not entirely the case for the Victorians, who as Deborah Lutz has explored in her rich and fascinating Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture, were at home with the emotional pull the inanimate world has on us.

Lutz, a literary theorist, is of course not the first to explore the importance of the material world in Victorian culture. Like Elaine Freedgood, Hermione Lee and many others, Lutz’s contention is that literature is capable of both reflecting and shaping our interactions with the inanimate. Her focus, however, is more specifically on the dead human body-turned-thing. She asks how hair, teeth, bones, skin and even organs were absorbed into the era’s elaborate rituals of grief, and in turn, influenced changing conceptions of subjectivity at that time.

For Lutz, body part relics are particularly intriguing, since they offer a clear example of what it means to think with ‘things’ as opposed to ‘objects’. In his much-discussed article on ‘thing theory’, Bill Brown explains that ‘we begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us’, escaping the boundaries of their expected function and becoming hard to define. Lutz argues that body part relics inhabit this blurry in-between. They are both actual and metaphysical, secular yet with a ‘dash of magic’. What’s more, body part relics have meaning precisely because of their authenticity – yet, as Lutz intriguingly explores, their provenance is often in doubt. Most of all, body part relics are part of peculiar transformations, muddling the boundaries between life and death. As Brown ponders, ‘Why…does death have the capacity both to turn people into things and to bring inanimate objects to life?’.

Lutz’s answer to this question begins with the tale of Shelley’s heart. Miraculously surviving the poet’s cremation in Italy (so the story goes), the heart was snatched from the embers by his friend Trelawny, and carried back by Mary Shelley to England where it was wrapped in silk, and stored in a copy of Shelley’s Adonais, and finally buried with their son Percy Florence in 1889. Lutz, while raising questions about the reliability of this tale (among others: how could Shelley’s apparently larger-than-normal heart be stored between the pages of what is essentially a pamphlet?), approaches Shelley’s heart as a ‘secular relic’, recalling the older European tradition of storing the severed fingers or bones, or withered heads of saints in ornate reliquaries. If saints’ relics could levitate, weep and cure the ailments of those who touched them, so for the Romantics, the lost genius of the poet lingered on in their bodies as much as in their writing.

Moving forward through the century, Lutz finds many other intersections of body and book. In the Brontë household at Haworth, everyday items such as a sofa, a writing desk and clothes are mementos through which ‘absence comes to feel material’ (encountering the material culture of these writers’ lives is the subject of her enjoyable recent book The Brontë Cabinet). The third chapter discusses posthumous representations such as death masks and waxworks, pitting these deliberate memorials against the unintended bodily deposits of sweat and skin. For instance, in Great Expectations, the walls of lawyer Jaggers’s office are ‘greasy with shoulders’, and there is a dark wash along the staircase from years of ‘shuffling up and down’. As Lutz puts it, ‘such leavings…provide an ever-present reminder of how bodies are not just the container for ‘selves’ but they are also substances that leak and rot…’, always transforming, always testing the limits between subject and object. The fourth chapter more tenuously discusses shrines and tombs as spaces which have ‘witnessed the living of the loved one’, linking these animated spaces to those enchanted rooms familiar from the mid-nineteenth century fashion for Spiritualism. The final chapter, however, returns squarely to the business of things, addressing the ubiquitous Victorian practice of hair jewellery (for a discussion of contemporary ‘hair-work’ see Bharti Parmar’s post on this blog).

Locket and chain, c. 1810 by John Miers, England ©Victoria and Albert Museum, http://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/artists-residence-va/hair

Locket and chain, c. 1810 by John Miers, England ©Victoria and Albert Museum, http://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/artists-residence-va/hair

Hair-jewellery, already established by the 17th century, flourished in the 19th, with brooches, lockets, watch fobs, earrings and buttons all featuring intricate designs woven out of a dead loved-one’s hair. It was a laborious process: boiling, cleaning, straightening the individual strands with weights, and then the weaving itself. Many families sent packets of curls away to jewellers with instructions of the design to be completed – and in turn, rumours began to circulate that unscrupulous jewellers were substituting the real hair for another person’s (or even animals’) locks, whose strands were thicker, and longer, and so easier to work with.

In this growing suspicion about the provenance of hair jewellery for mourning, it is possible to see fractures in the idea – taken so much for granted earlier in the century – that to hold part of a loved-one’s body was to connect with that lost person. With the increasing medicalization of dying towards the end of the nineteenth century, the dead body became shrouded behind hospital screens, and the idea of plundering it for keepsakes perceived as unhygienic. The First World War is widely thought to have put an end to elaborate Victorian mourning rituals. As Joanna Bourke has explained, grieving became muted, with extended farewells not only impossible but also unpatriotic. Perhaps too, it was the spectre of anonymous graves, and fields in which blown-apart bodies mingled in the mud, that put an end the practice of retrieving body parts for use in mourning and memorial – and made any thoughts of a live and enduring connection between dead body and person seem, in the end, a kind of nostalgia.