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.

Fighting fire with fireology: Barbara Rosenwein’s new history of anger

Dr Imke Rajamani was a fellow at the Center for the History of Emotions at the Max-Planck-Institute for Human Development Berlin from 2011-2018, where she conducted research on anger and masculinity in postcolonial India. She is now working for the Falling Walls Foundation. Her publications include articles about concepts and images of anger in popular Indian cinema, and the co-edited book Monsoon Feelings: A History of Emotions in the Rain (New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2018).

In this post, Dr Rajamani reviews Barbara Rosenwein’s Anger: The Conflicted History of an Emotion (Yale University Press, 2020) for The History of Emotions Blog. 

The title of Barbara Rosenwein’s recent book is misleading: Anger (singular): The conflicted history of an emotion (singular). The title suggests that the book treats “anger” as a singular entity, an emotion or concept with a universal common denominator, whose evolution and contested meanings could be traced from antiquity to the present.[1] This is not the case.

The cover design, by Alex Kirby, comes closer to describing the content of the book and Barbara Rosenwein’s approach to anger. The word anger is printed in four pink blocks against a dark background. At the bottom, the bold, capital letters of the word appear clear. In the blocks above, the word has been stamped multiple times with different angles ­– twice into the second block up, thrice into the third and apparently four of five times into the highest block, making the word almost unreadable. In this design, anger appears multiple, layered, blurred and ambiguous. The closer the word anger is to the author’s name on the cover, the clearer it appears. The more distant the word or concept is from the author, the blurrier and the more ambiguous it gets, finally appearing unidentifiable.

One could interpret this design to represent stages in research. Does the researcher start with a blurry image that becomes clearer step by step, or does the researcher start with a clear concept of anger, that appears more layered and ambiguous the further she conducts her research? Both are true.

Barbara Rosenwein invites us, her readers, to look at and “rejoice … about that larger picture” (p. 200) of the many angers in history and the present, however ambiguous, blurred or distant they appear initially. The more we learn about the diversity of words, narratives, scripts, moral judgements, bodily enactments, medical practices and religious beliefs about anger, “the better we will be able to navigate our own lives” (p. 199). If the starting point and aim of any history of emotions is the understanding of one’s own feelings, and the emotions that govern one’s own emotional communities, it is logical that the English word “anger” features on the cover and that Rosenwein starts to explore angers in histories by placing a personal experience and memory at the centre of her larger picture. When she was a child, she tells us, she would sometimes beat her favourite doll. Her mother would explain the behaviour to a visitor with the words “That girl has a lot of anger in her”. Rosenwein asks: “What was this anger that I had a lot of?” (pp. 1-2).

The book – an extended historical answer to Rosenwein’s question – explores anger in three parts. The first is entitled, “Anger rejected (almost) absolutely” (pp. 10-79), and explores traditions of thought which follow the imperatives “abandon anger” and “avoid anger” ­– from Buddhist writings to contemporary anger management strategies for managers; from Seneca and the Stoics to the contemporary Neo-Stoics, such as Martha Nussbaum’s plea ‘avoid anger, embrace forgiveness and give peace a chance’[2]; from biblical ideas of peaceable kingdoms to contemporary violence in the name of religion.

Exploring the relations between anger and violence is a motif which runs throughout all the subchapters of part one. Rosenwein notes that “in the modern Western mind, anger, violence, and aggression are persistently associated, almost a ‘knee-jerk reaction’” (p. 65). She wants to break this assumption by showing that “peace is not the opposite of anger, and violence is not necessarily anger’s outcome” (p. 66). The stressing of this argument can be understood as a critique of Pankaj Mishra’s widely read 2017 book, Age of Anger.[3] Mishra traces conflict and political violence almost exclusively back to a universal kind of anger, which accumulated as a reaction to injustices brought about by the colonialist infliction of Western modernity on the world as a whole. Rosenwein argues:

Some of us worry that our many angers – so profoundly delightful, horrible, frightening, and powerful – will tear apart our social fabric. But in part that is because we have simplified a very complicated matter by labelling so many different feelings and behaviours “angry”. This book teases out the particulars and, by doing so, aims to give us a new perspective on ourselves and our era. (p. 7)

The first part concludes with a reflection on the performative power of angry words and words for anger, which brings us back to the centre of Rosenwein’s anger picture – her own childhood memory. If she assumed that her mother’s naming of the behaviour was a transformative speech act, which made little Barbara’s behaviour anger by naming it as such, the concept was still open to interpretation: “Buddha would have agreed that my anger was … wrong-headed and self-destructive” (p. 10). From a Stoic point of view, the beating of the doll could have been an incident of anger as proper judgement and reasoned punishment – “perhaps in my mind, my doll had done something bad” (p. 39). In the Aristotelian view and its modern adaptations, the child had maybe acted out or mirrored the vengeful anger of her father, who talked at home about how he felt treated unjustly on his job (p. 83). Not only are there multiple angers, even one anger concept has multiple and often conflicted meanings. Why do we name and label feelings and behaviours the way we do? And what have goal orientation and morality to do with it?

This is the starting point for the second part of the book on “Anger as a vice but also (sometimes) as a virtue” (pp. 82-128). This part explores moral evaluations of anger and how anger was used to explain, condemn, excuse, justify or motivate aggressive behaviours. It also reflects a history of thought on the relation of body and mind, reason and emotion, in philosophical, religious and scholarly writing. The larger picture of anger is held together by constantly connecting contemporary angers to those of the past. For example, when Rosenwein explains that the Medieval Christian notion of “anger as righteous, passionate, virtuous and productive would have a potent future in the modern world” (p. 113) – which is another moment of countering Mishra’s historiography of anger – while she notices that there runs a parallel development of a declining acceptance of anger in America, as has been described by Peter and Carol Stearns in their book on anger from 1986.[4]

The conclusion of part two is one of the rare instances where Rosenwein allows herself to cast moral judgement on an anger. She writes:

the problem is the very idea of righteous anger. Our voices would be far less discordant if we did not believe that our anger is just and virtuous while ‘theirs’ is not, if we admitted that we might possibly be wrong (p. 128).

Emotional pluralism, the acknowledgement that different emotional communities have different angers with shared and distinct and conflicted histories, is at the core of her methodology and the moral standpoint expressed with most clarity in part two.

The third part, titled “Natural anger”, discusses the idea of anger as a natural phenomenon or natural force that affects the human body and mind or is produced by them. It presents anger as a subject in the medical and natural sciences, starting with Galen in antiquity and ending with neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett in the present. The question that dominates the research discourse in the 20th and 21st centuries is to what extend anger is shaped by nature (genes, evolution, basic instincts, bodily reactions) and to what extend is shaped by culture and society (learning and conceptualizing emotions). Rosenwein makes clear that these debates are not only of interest with regard to research, but also because political angers tend to get explained as either natural und thus unstoppable forces, or as social constructs that could be managed, avoided or abandoned, if people only wanted to. Rosenwein concludes that the “key challenge for today’s celebration of so many angers is to step back from the flash point of their combustible explosivity and begin to talk” about the goals and aims that motivate them (p. 195).

What I personally like about Barbara Rosenwein’s book is that she does not claim to have found the new key to solving anger as a problem – in fact, she does not even claim that anger necessarily is a problem. Unlike other authors of recent anger books that gained popularity, Rosenwein keeps the moral impetus low. To put it in a simplified (and maybe slightly unfair) way: Pankaj Mishra is countering anger with anger (fighting fire with fire). Martha Nussbaum suggests we can simply answer anger with forgiveness (fighting fire with a smile). Barbara Rosenwein promotes pluralism and suggests that we should all develop an empathetic understanding for the many angers, past and present, before we judge and act (approaching fire with fireology).

I am usually a fan of academic activism and the idea of translating knowledge into action in the spirit of wanting to improve the world. But since anger concepts are very much linked to violence and power in present day emotionologies, not only in meta-discourse but in the politics of action, where angers are used as tools of mobilization (p. 191)[5], I read Barbara Rosenwein’s book as an invitation to move the intellectual discourse and activism on anger beyond the one-moral-judgement-fits-all approach.

In Rosenwein’s book anger is a vice and a virtue, violent and calm behaviour, the reaction to injustice and a child’s play. Anger is felt as uncomfortable and pleasurable, in the brain, in the heart, in the pulse and without measurable bodily alterations. Anger has been identified and misinterpreted in faces, has been named with agreement and disagreement. Which brings us back to the fundamental question, that Thomas Dixon asked in the title of his recent article: “What is the history of anger a history of?”[6]

Anger. The conflicted history of an emotion is a history of knowledge traditions which Barbara Rosenwein chose as ‘having to do with anger’ on the basis of her own memories, experiences, knowledge and observations. The strength of her approach is the transparency of why and how she chose the topics and examples for her book. She addresses the blind spots and gaps in her larger picture of the angers in histories. At the same time, she expresses the desire to see more and fill those gaps. Is this approach an excuse for writing Eurocentric history, or a way of acknowledging pluralism while actually dismissing it? It could be. But it could also be understood as a call for building collective knowledge on the many angers in the field of the history of emotion, because one book will never be able to do justice to the topic.

The beauty and challenge of pluralism is, that there are multiple and often conflicting answers to one question. Therefore we should take notice of the cover and its message about how a history of anger – or any emotion – appears more ambiguous, layered and maybe even incomplete, the more you discover about it.



[1] The criticism on anger in the singular has also been made in greater detail and depths by Thomas Dixon in his recent article from 2020: What is the History of Anger a History of? Emotions: History, Culture, Society 4, 1-34, p. 28.

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

[3] Pankaj Mishra (2017). Age of Anger: A History of the Present, New York: Picador.

[4] Carol Stearns and Peter Stearns (1986): Anger: The Struggle for Emotional Control in America’s History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[5] See for example Amélie Blom and Stephanie Tawa Lama-Rewal, Eds (2020). Emotions, Mobilisations and South Asian Politics, London, New York: Routledge.

[6] Thomas Dixon, ‘What is the history of anger a history of’, Emotions: History, Culture, Society 4.1 (2020): 1-34.

Reading Darwin’s Expression

Psychology texts all name Darwin as a founder, yet hail only one concept: natural selection. None seems to know that his books represent a distinctive approach to understanding all forms of agency. This post examines how Darwin’s psychology shaped his take on expressions of emotion.

Ben Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Charles Sturt University in Australia. His authored books include Psychology and Experience (2005), Visions of Infancy (1989), and, most recently, Darwin’s Psychology (2020), which is available now through Oxford University Press.

Barely two months after Charles Darwin died in April 1882, Nature had rushed out a series of essays assessing his impact on science. Following geology, zoology, and botany came a final essay on psychology, written by Darwin’s protégé George Romanes. Its premise was an odd one: Darwin’s impact on psychology was ‘immense,’ equalling his impact in any other science. Yet, not only was Mr. Darwin ‘not himself a psychologist.’ He had ‘little aptitude for,’ and even less sympathy with psychological methods. Romanes knew that Darwin privately scorned the scientific pretensions of two leading-lights in Victorian psychology, Herbert Spencer and Alexander Bain – believing that the ‘problems of mind,’ should not be viewed metaphysically or deductively, but ‘in the same broad and general light’ as ‘all the other problems of nature.’[i]

So, what was it about Darwin’s understanding of animals and plants that flowed through to his psychology? More precisely, where did his naturalist’s stance most distinguish his treatment of emotional expressions? Answer: in his focus on the nexus between action and response—as my book Darwin’s Psychology elaborates.[ii]

Figure 1. Brassica oleracea (wild cabbage): spiral and geotropic (earth-seeking) movement of a radicle, traced by Darwin on horizontal glass over 46 hours.[iii]

Darwin cast both plants and animals as agents. Witness his experiments on purposive movement in cabbage radicles (Figure 1), the tendrils of climbing plants, and on earthworms’ intelligent plugging of their holes with leaves. Agency was crucial because, as his law of natural selection stressed, all actions produce reactions, which over time build up a complex theatre of interdependencies between living creatures and their surroundings, animate and inanimate—this theatre producing both the development of individual differences and the metaphorical ‘struggle for existence’ which help drive evolution. This crucial tie between a creature’s movements and their rebounding effects carried over into Darwin’s psychology. So much so that even when Darwin framed non-verbal expressions as purposeless side-effects of functional behaviour – we weep because the protective shutting of the eyes when suffering children scream incidentally stimulates tear-production – he hypothesised that such side-effects first came to signify emotionally through the agency of others responding to them as expressive, only by this route entering common understanding (as e.g. tears mean grief).

The innate human capacity for recognizing others’ expressions – what psychologists nowadays call ‘innate intersubjectivity’ – forms the centrepiece of Darwin’s psychology.[iv] It underpins his explanation for the ‘highest’ or most human of human capacities: language, culture, and conscience. His psychological analysis in all three cases – and also of sexual display – depends on a specialised form of rebounding, or meta-, recognition: my concern for how I read you to be reading me. This reflexive process of ‘self-attention’ is a core feature in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (henceforth Expression). Expression’s culminating chapter, on blushing, brings together the latest Victorian discoveries about circulatory physiology (Figure 2) with two psychological theories first sketched in notebooks penned thirty years earlier, when Darwin was in his twenties: of the ‘double self’ or ‘double consciousness’; and of sympathy. ‘It is not the simple act of reflecting on our own appearance, but the thinking what others think of us, which excites a blush,’ he wrote.[v] Thinking what others think of us – in the analyses of agency comprising The Descent of Man – proves as fundamental to the mutual intelligibility and maintenance of moral standards which distinguish different human groups, or the aesthetic tastes that vary between cultures, as it is to the self-ornamentation and ‘love-antics’ by which I aim to seduce the attentions of those whom I desire to desire me.

Figure 2. For the second edition of Expression, Darwin asked John Burden Sanderson to use a sphygmograph (pictured) to test whether small changes in blood pressure were consequent upon the movement of a subject’s attention to and away from his or her arm. But there was no second edition in Darwin’s lifetime. So the experiment never happened.[vi]

Expression is primarily where Darwin built his case for the central place of reading others in human psychology, on several grounds. If the muscle-movements comprising expressions of emotion have never been under conscious control, nor intended to express, an isolated expresser cannot know what they are expressing. Hence, Darwin proposed that there was an ‘a priori probability’ that an instinct for interpreting others’ movements as expressive had co-evolved with those movements.[vii] Nor was an inbuilt capacity for reading others just a theoretical necessity. It was confirmed by observation, both of adults and infants. It also proved itself by grounding Darwin’s trail-blazing methods for investigating expressive movement.

As described in Expression, these methods of research are all observational. In the 1860s, Darwin mailed out questionnaires to six continents, requesting trustworthy observers report back on the occurrence and form of specified expressions, particularly in ‘natives who have had little communication with Europeans.’ He only credited answers which recorded ‘the circumstances … under which each expression was observed’—underlining the importance Darwin gave to context in reading others’ movements.[viii] Observations and experiments on his infant son Doddy likewise confirmed the human capacity for reading others’ expressions. Again, context was key. The four-month-old Doddy’s Dad reported that he made in his baby’s presence ‘many odd noises and strange grimaces, and tried to look savage.’ This did not frighten Doddy, however, because the paternal experiments were ‘preceded or accompanied by smiles’—meaning Doddy read Darwin’s facial contortions ‘as good jokes.’[ix]

Darwin’s method for determining the meaning of facial expressions artificially produced by electrical stimulation was to invite lay-people to judge photographs – taken by the French scientist Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne (1806-1885; see Figure 3) – without ‘any clue to what was intended being given.’ Only if there were near-consensus amongst lay-judges about the emotional sense attributed to a photographed expression was Darwin confident it had such sense. These ‘judgement tests’ impressed Darwin with the way untrained observers ‘instantly recognised … so many shades of expression … without any conscious process of analysis’ – further evidence that humans have an instinct for reading others.[x]

Figure 3. Twenty out of twenty-five of Darwin’s lay-judges saw the left-hand expression as Duchenne intended: depicting some version of fear. Only one of eleven judges saw the right-hand picture as related to hatred, the intended meaning.

To draw out as Darwin’s Psychology does Darwin’s notion that an expressive movement is a part-action which others complete – famously celebrated by George Herbert Mead – is to challenge a hundred years of commentary. Many claim that, for Darwin, it is ‘internal’ emotions which stamp their meaning on visible expressions, expressions themselves being ‘secondary.’[xi] Read superficially, some comments in Expression do support this gloss. But, as Darwin lamented, his book’s argument constantly ran against the grain of the assumptions about emotion that soak ordinary language. See particularly Expression’s warning about the misleading way common speech attributes purposiveness to the book’s central term, expression.[xii] Hence the need for readers to approach Expression circumspectly, because, as Einstein counselled, where scientists’ words prove ambiguous, we should fix our attention ‘on their deeds.’[xiii] Which underlines the importance of the logic behind Darwin’s research methods in Expression. And of the way he typically argued: explaining the muscular movements comprising an expression as caused by other muscular events, not by some hidden ping-pong of ‘emotions’ buried in the consciousness of the expresser, only accessible via introspection (as in Spencer and Bain).

Expression’s last paragraph reminds us that it embodies a ‘theory of expression,’ not a theory of emotion. It largely gives what we now call a situationist account of the way emotion is read into movement: meaning being generated by how an expressive action is perceived by the agents involved to interface with its interpersonal circumstances.[xiv]


[i] George Romanes, ‘Charles Darwin, [Part] V. [Psychology],’ Nature 26, (1882), p.169.

[ii] Ben Bradley, Darwin’s Psychology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[iii] Charles Darwin, The Power of Movement in Plants (London: John Murray, 1881), p.11.

[iv] Colwyn Trevarthen, ‘Communication and Cooperation in Early Infancy: A Description of Primary Intersubjectivity,’ in Before Speech: The Beginnings of Human Communication, ed. Margaret Bullowa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

[v] Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 2nd ed. (London: Murray, 1890), p.345.

[vi] Paul White, ‘Reading the Blush,’ Configurations 24, (2016), pp.293-294.

[vii] Darwin, Expression, p.378.

[viii] Darwin, Expression, p.18.

[ix] Darwin, Expression, p.379.

[x] Darwin, Expression, pp.378-80; Charles Darwin, ‘A Biographical Sketch of an Infant,’ Mind: A Quarterly Review of Psychology and Philosophy 2, (1877), pp.293-4.

[xi] E.g. John Dewey, ‘The Theory of Emotion (1) Emotional Attitudes,’ Psychological Review 1, (1894), p.553; Lisa Barrett, ‘Was Darwin Wrong About Emotional Expressions?,’ Current Directions in Psychological  Science 20, (2011), p.400.

[xii] Darwin, Expression, p.377.

[xiii] Albert Einstein, ‘On the Method of Theoretical Physics,’ Philosophy of Science 1, (1934), p.163.

[xiv] Darwin, Expression, p.387; Carlos Crivelli and Alan Fridlund, ‘Facial Displays Are Tools for Social Influence,’ Trends in Cognitive Sciences 22, (2018), p.388.

Developing Emotions

Developing Emotions is a pioneering programme of lessons designed to promote emotional literacy and emotional awareness in school children. It has been developed as a collaboration between the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London and TKAT Multi-Academy Trust.

The lessons have been piloted in TKAT schools during 2020 – both before and after lockdown, and are now being made available to other UK primary schools. 

On average, the lessons resulted in a 75% increase in the scope of children’s emotional vocabularies. 

Teachers and PSHE leads – please read (and listen) more below and find out how to access the lessons, activities and resources to use in your school, or with your children at home. 

In the podcast episode embedded here, you can listen to Professor Thomas Dixon, during a visit to one of the participating schools, talking to teachers about the way the lessons support emotional learning:

The Developing Emotions lessons cover topics including sadness, joy, tears, laughter, anger, revenge, fear, worry, love and friendship. They are cross-curricular lessons, with an emphasis on the history of emotions, literacy, vocabulary, and the creative arts. They also covers key topics in PSHE, science, and philosophy.

Activities include art, writing tasks, debates, music, dance, and a final quiz for each unit. Children will encounter blues music, Shakespeare, the philosophy of utilitarianism, Romantic poetry, Charles Darwin’s ideas about emotions, modern dance, and more.

At present, materials have been developed for use with Year 3 and Year 5 classes (children aged 7-8 and 9-10), although they could of course be adapted for other age groups.

We hope you and your children enjoy them! We would love to hear from you about your experience of using the lessons, or if your school would like to take part in a future pilot. When you sign up you will receive a welcome email letting you know more about how to stay in touch.

The rest of this blog post includes all the links and information you need to understand and use the materials. When you are ready, you can sign up here to get access to all the resources.

What will I get when I sign up for these resources?

You will receive a login and password to give you access to all the teaching materials on the schools pages of our website The Emotions Lab.

There you will find the teaching materials divided into two pages – one for Year 3 and one for Year 5 children. On each page you will find the PowerPoints and teaching materials. The PowerPoint walks you through the lessons, with video and audio clips and images. Supporting materials provide briefings for teachers, a one-page plan for each lesson, and worksheets for children.

How can I get more of a flavour of what’s included? 

You could start by having a look at the Teacher’s Handbook 2020-21 for our Year 5/6 lessons.

Is this a PSHE programme?

Yes and no. The lessons could be used as one central strand of a PSHE curriculum focussing as they do on feelings, emotions, and friendship. However, this is also a broad cross-curricular programme using history, literature, art, drama, music, science, and philosophy to provide children with an enriched understanding of how words, images, and music can represent human emotions.  This is a programme rooted in history and with an emphasis on vocabulary and the arts.

Is this suitable for children with special educational needs or disabilities?

We hope that all lessons will be suitable for all children. They are not designed to initiate discussions of particular children’s emotions, or emotional problems, but to help all children learn more about a wide range of human experiences. It will be for you to think about whether any particular child might encounter issues in a lesson about, say, anger or sadness. You should take the usual precautions and consult with the safeguarding, pastoral, or counselling staff in your school about any concerns.

Do you know if the lessons work?

Yes! We have piloted them in TKAT schools and received positive feedback from the class teachers, who told us that children are really engaged by them and enjoy learning all about words, images, and ideas to do with emotions. Our evaluations show that children’s emotional vocabulary increases by 75% on average after taking our lessons.

The history of emotions sounds interesting! Where can I learn more?

We recommend browsing the blog posts and listening to the podcasts about different emotions on The Emotions Lab to get a flavour of the research behind Developing Emotions – and checking out our two games.

What if things are still unclear or I have other questions?

Please feel free to contact the project team at Queen Mary at any time by sending a message to

Thank-you for your interest in Developing Emotions!

You can now sign up here to get access to all the resources.


An Impassioned Royal Scandal

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the sensational trial of Queen Caroline for adultery. In this guest post for the History of Emotions blog, Dr Matthew Roberts of Sheffield Hallam University looks at the wave of sentimentalism the scandal created, and how British radicals such as Richard Carlile crafted a politics of feeling in response.

Two hundred years ago today, one of the most talked about trials in British history began in the House of Lords. Under the terms of the aptly named Bill of Pains and Penalties, Queen Caroline – the estranged wife of the new king, George IV – was put on trial for adultery. This was demanded by the king who wanted to prevent Caroline from becoming queen with the hope that a guilty verdict would be grounds for divorce.

The Trial of Queen Caroline, 1820, by Sir George Hayter. Source: National Portrait Gallery, licensed under Creative Commons.

 Just as royal scandals are today, the Queen Caroline affair was followed closely by virtually the whole country, with public opinion firmly behind the queen. The new king was widely reviled. By contrast, Caroline was loved by the people, whose just cause, in William Hazlitt’s words, ‘struck its roots into the heart of the nation’.[i] As Hazlitt’s words imply, the affair was the occasion for a wave of sentimentalism. The wave was big, even by Georgian standards.

When Caroline returned to Britain in June 1820 a constitutional crisis ensued which pitted the king and his ministers against parliament and the people. Feelings ran high both inside and outside of parliament. The affair was discussed in a highly melodramatic register, in which the wronged and not too virtuous queen was presented as the victim of a loveless marriage. The young dissolute, libertine and already (illegally) married Prince of Wales had consented to the marriage back in 1795 only as a quid pro quo for parliament paying off his massive debts.[ii]

Relations between the two royals deteriorated almost immediately, with Caroline forced into exile in 1814. By all accounts, the queen had led a lively life, mainly in Italy where, it was rumoured, she had taken an Italian lover, Bartolomeo Pergami.

Leading the campaign outdoors in favour of the queen were the radicals who skilfully presented Caroline’s suffering as a synecdoche for the plight of the working classes. Feeling was the plane upon which queen and people met. As the people of Nottingham declared to her: ‘The addressers felt for the wrongs of the Queen as they felt for the various oppressions under which they themselves laboured.’[iii]

Plebeian women sympathised with Caroline as a victimised wife; many suffered with the queen.[iv] Respectable ‘men of feeling’ felt the chivalric urge to protect their queen.[v] Those who did not sympathise with the queen were callous. The crowds who took to the streets, especially in London, admired the queen’s courage in returning to Britain despite huge bribes and threats, and were prone to angry outbursts and rioting when provoked by the authorities as they frequently were in the febrile months which followed.

Bronze medal commemorating Queen Caroline’s arrival in Britain, by J. Westwood, 1820. Source: Author’s personal collection.

The authorities and their loyalist supporters were anxious and fearful, for behind the apparent radical displays of loyal disloyalty which attached itself to the coattails of the queen lurked the Jacobin threat of bloodthirsty revolutionaries, fears that had been stoked by Peterloo and the recently foiled Cato Street conspiracy. It was hatred for the king rather than love for the queen which motivated the radicals, cynics claimed. As a result, the queen was playing with fire in allying with the radicals. Fire and smoke were recurring motifs in anti-radical and pro-king caricatures, visual representations of the inflamed passions of the multitude stoked by radical leaders.

The Radical Ladder, by George Cruikshank, 1821. Source: British Museum, licensed under Creative Commons.

Satirists had a field day as caricatures, pamphlets, broadsides and squibs circulated widely. Some of this print and visual culture was bawdy and semi-pornographic, designed to shock as well as amuse, in its lampooning of the debauched king or the queen’s lewd continental lifestyle, complete with xenophobic hostility to Caroline’s foreign lovers.

Among those radical supporters of the queen was the unlikely figure of Richard Carlile. As a republican he had, initially, dismissed the queen’s case as humbug, but he soon changed his tune to the extent that he, too, found it impossible to resist being sentimental: ‘an involuntary tear has oft trickled down my cheeks on reading of your cause’, he told the queen from his prison cell in Dorchester gaol where Carlile was serving a long prison sentence for blasphemy.[vi] Carlile’s wife, Jane, took over their radical publishing business and bookshop in Fleet Street, and she published a number of squibs and pamphlets in support of ‘the ill-fated, ill-married and ill-treated Caroline’.[vii]

In the aftermath of the affair, there is no doubt that Carlile set about trying to create and practice a rational politics of ‘pure reason’ unsullied by the kind of sentimentalism that he and other radicals had poured out in defence of the queen. But this appropriation of rationality, as with much else in political language, was rhetoric crafted for a specific purpose. Carlile’s aversion to sentimentalism in the 1820s was part of the war he was waging with rival radical leaders whose reliance on the effusive, but all-too transient mass platform (large open-air meetings), and the adulation of the credulous masses for romantic radical leaders like Henry Hunt, was juxtaposed to his own rival ascetic, austere rational republicanism. To put it another way, the politics of feeling was central to the rivalry among British radical leaders.

Richard Carlile. Source: British Museum, licensed under Creative Commons

In any case, Carlile’s path to ‘pure reason’ was paved with affective tensions as he struggled to practice what he preached, while it turned out that the destination of ‘pure reason’ he was aiming for was a state of happiness. But this aside, his sentimental response to the queen was neither opportunistic, diversionary or without lasting consequence, as claimed by his biographers who have struggled to explain Carlile’s impassioned response to Caroline.[viii]

The callous treatment of the queen was symptomatic of arbitrary government and the ways in which ‘honest industry is robbed to gratify the bad passions of the idle and vicious’, as Carlile put it. This was the real reason why ‘every vein in’ his body ‘had swelled with indignation at…the filthy tales manufactured’ by the queen’s enemies who were without shame.[ix] All this was grist to the mill of Carlile’s republicanism.

Above all, the queen’s case was an important watershed moment in Carlile’s emerging feminism. By the end of the 1820s, Carlile had become infamous for his controversial views on sex, love and marriage. One of the main rights that he advocated was divorce and free love, by which he meant men and women should marry for love, and be free to divorce if that love ceased. It was no coincidence that Carlile dwelt on the absence of this in the royal marriage: ‘It is much to be lamented  that a mutual separation is not legal’, he had written at the beginning of the affair.[x] Women had just as much right to be loved as men.

Carlile claimed that women had the same affective capacity for love as men. Thus, sex should be a mutually pleasurable experience for both parties; his advocacy of birth control was designed to remove the dreaded fear of unwanted pregnancy. Carlile’s feminism was grounded in a universalist notion that all humans had the same potential capacity for feeling, a view which also underpinned his opposition to slavery, as it did for his mentor Thomas Paine.[xi]

Carlile was not the only one for whom the queen’s case was a watershed. More broadly, we can see Queen Caroline affair as a key moment when the notion that the public sphere ought to be an arena characterised by restraint and decency was consolidated. Though humour, sarcasm, irony and theatricality did not disappear from the public political sphere it was never again as obscene and unrestrained as it had been 1820.[xii] Some of this undoubtedly stemmed from a reaction to the emotional over-heating of the queen’s case, a factor in the decision of the Tory government’s decision to drop the Bill of Pains and Penalties in November 1820.

Caroline’s moment of triumph was all-too-brief: she soon lost favour by taking a pension from the government, and when she tried to gain entry to the king’s coronation in July 1821, she found the doors of Westminster Abbey barred. Less than a month later she was dead (from an obstruction of the bowel), a poignant and melodramatic end which led to an outpouring of public grief, and further riots as the authorities tried to quietly ship her body back to her native Brunswick.

Thereafter, as regency radicalism lost much of its sentimentalism, Carlile was at the radical forefront in creating a set of feeling rules that accented restraint, respectability and soberness. But Carlile’s case is a reminder that historians need to be on their guard when historical actors juxtapose their self-proclaimed rationality against emotion. Affairs of the mind or heart are rarely so stark.

[i] Quoted in Nicholas Rogers, Crowds, Culture, and Politics in Georgian Britain. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998, p. 248.

[ii] Thomas W. Laqueur (1982), ‘The Queen Caroline Affair: Politics as Art in the Reign of George IV’, Journal of Modern History, 54, pp. 417-66; Anna Clark (1990), ‘Queen Caroline and the Sexual Politics of Popular Culture in London, 1820’, Representations, 31, pp. 47-68.

[iii] Black Dwarf (1820), 2 August.

[iv] As Rob Boddice notes, the original definition of the word sympathy meant to suffer with. Boddice, Rob (2016), The Science of Sympathy: Morality, Evolution, and Victorian Civilisation. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, p. 3.

[v] Louise Carter (2008), ‘British Masculinities on Trial in the Queen Caroline Affair of 1820’, Gender & History, 20, p. 261.

[vi] Republican (1820), 8 December.

[vii] A Warning Voice to the People of England (n.d. [1820]. London: Jane Carlile.

[viii] Iain McCalman (1993), Radical Underworld: Prophets, Revolutionaries, and Pornographers in London, 1795-1840. Oxford, Oxford University Press, p. 162; Joel Wiener (1983), Radicalism and Freethought in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Life of Richard Carlile. Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, p. 57; James Epstein (1993), Radical Expression: Political Language, Ritual, and Symbol in England, 17901850. Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 131-32.

[ix] Republican (1820), 8 December.

[x] Republican (1820), 25 February.

[xi] Nicole Eustace (2008), Passion is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, p. 440.

[xii] Vic Gatrell (2006), City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London. London, Atlantic Books, chs 17-18.