Aren’t emotions the same now as they have always been? Weren’t they hardwired in us from the Stone Age on? The answer to both questions is a simple No. Psychologists, neuropsychologists, historians, and sociologists are increasingly recognizing the mutability of human emotional life. Human beings are less hardwired by DNA than by learning, and learning depends on our culture, society, and the norms and values around us. Despite all this, the changing nature of our emotional lives is still not a common truism.
But given that they have changed, how may they be studied? Don’t we need living people to know what emotions they are feeling? How can historians talk about the “real emotions” of people of the past? To answer this question, consider that feelings cannot be seen under a microscope or split like an atom; emotions are known indirectly. They are known by a throbbing heart, a word, a grimace, a gesture, an oxygenation pattern in an fMRI. These indications must be interpreted: by the person whose heart is beating, by friends, lovers, enemies, scientists. No one has seen an emotion.
Historians, like everyone else, must work with hints and traces. In What is the History of Emotions? we have joined together to show the many and inventive ways in which, over the last several decades, historians have gone about discovering the emotions of the past. We have outlined the theoretical and historical frames of this passionate quest from the earliest approaches and methods of the 1980s to the most recent trends and avenues of research. The history of emotions is both mesmerizing and tangled; it requires a guide. Our book provides students, teachers, and even casual readers with a clear and delightful path through the thicket.
Barbara H. Rosenwein is Professor Emerita at Loyola University Chicago. Riccardo Cristiani is a medievalist by training and an independent scholar.
Their new book What is the History of Emotions? is now available from Polity.