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Emotions History

As the linguistic and cultural turns lost steam in the 1990s and 2000s, historians launched forays into the emotions. Psycho-history had been developing on the fringes of the profession for decades, but it was only at the turn of the twenty-first century that historians began to conceptualise ‘emotions’ history in earnest. Although there is growing consensus that emotions have shaped the course of history, debates still rage over how historians can identify and assess them.

In the readings this week, you’ll want to compare an early call (1941) for emotions history by one of the founders of the Annales School, Lucien Febvre, with an example of emotions history today (Lynn Hunt’s thesis about emotions driving the development of human rights.) Matt and Stearns provide a cogent overview of the debates and stakes of emotions history.

Seminar Questions

  • What led cultural historians to turn to the emotions as a subject of inquiry in the 1980s and 1990s?
  • What are the benefits and limitations of emotions history? What do emotions explain or not explain.
  • Do emotions have a ‘modern’ history?
  • Do you think Febvre’s aspirations have been met by current histories of emotions?
  • How do historians try to explain change through emotions?
  • Do you find Hunt’s claim credible, namely, that human rights have their origins in the rise of empathy in the eighteenth-century?


Either Ute Frevert, ‘Piggy’s Shame’ OR Joachim Häberlen, ‘Ingrid’s Boredom
in Learning How to Feel: Children’s Literature and Emotional Socialization, 1870-1970 (Oxford, 2014).

Lucien Febvre, ‘Sensibility and History’, in Peter Burke (ed.), A New Kind of History from the Writings of Febvre (London, 1973 [orig.1941]), pp. 12-26.

Lynn Hunt, ‘Torrents of Emotion’ in Inventing Human Rights (New York, 2006), pp. 35-69.

Background reading

Overview: Plamper, Jan. ‘The History of the History of Emotions’, Chapter One of The History of Emotions: An Introduction. Oxford, 2012. (ebook, limited to one user at a time but requesting further access...)

Scheer, Monique. "Are Emotions a Kind of Practice (and Is That What Makes Them Have a History)? A Bourdieuan Approach to Understanding Emotion." History and Theory 51 (2012): 193-220.


Further reading

  • Boddice, Rob. The Science of Sympathy: Morality, Evolution, and Victorian Civilization.
  • Broomhall, Susan. Early Modern Emotions: An Introduction. London, 2016.
  • Gammerl, Benno. "Emotional Styles: Concepts and Challenges." Rethinking History 16 (2012): 161-175.
  • Häberlen, Joachim C., and Jake Smith. "Struggling for Feelings: The Politics of Emotions in the Radical New Left in West Germany, c. 1968-84." Contemporary European History 23 (2014): 615-637.
  • Häberlen, Joachim C., and Russell A. Spinney. "Introduction." Contemporary European History 23 (2014): 489-503.
  • Häberlen, Joachim C., and Maik Tändler. "Spaces for Feeling Differently: Emotional Experiments in the Alternative Left in West Germany During the 1970s." Emotion, Space and Society (2016).
  • Matt, Susan J. and Stearns, Peter N. Emotions History. Urbana, IL, 2014.
  • Plamper, Jan. The History of Emotions: An Introduction. Oxford, 2015.
  • Reddy, William. The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions.
  • Rosenwein, Barbara H. Generations of Feeling. Cambridge, 2015.
  • Stearns, Peter and Stearns, Carol, ‘Emotionology: Clarifying the History of Emotions and Emotional Standards.’ American Historical Review, Vol. 90, No. 4 (Oct., 1985), pp. 813-836.