Asian History

Emotions in History

The idea that history is based not only on events and facts, but on the experience of emotions is central to Barbara Rosenwein’s article “Worrying about Emotions in History.” (2002). The thesis that is presented in the the article is that the traditional paradigms used by historians in regard to the influence of emotions in history are insufficient and based on incorrect or incomplete assumptions. Among Rosenwein’s many objections to what she calls the “Grand Narrative” strategy of understanding the role of emotions in history are the ideas that emotions in any given historical time-period and culture are static and that they are of lesser importance than issues of politics, economics and power. Rosenwein is able to support her position quite strongly by referencing the role of emotions in medieval European society. In doing so, she takes into account not only the written expression of the role that emotions played in medieval society but the way in which emotions were expressed through gesture in art and in the construction of the medieval family and the conception of medieval manners. The ideas that she forwards are highly persuasive, and it seems obvious that the role of emotions in history is not only significant but undeniable since emotions underlie the motivations for historical events, persons, and cultures that are studied by historians.

Rosenwein remarks that emotions have received far too little attention from traditional historians. She observes that “for the most part, historians have not treated the subject of emotions at all” (Rosenwein, 2002, p. 821).  this fact allows her to conclude  that the absence of emotions in historical study has left a gap in historical knowledge that contemporary historians should immediately begin to address. The previously held convictions by historians that it was not the presence and influence of emotions that mattered in history, but the way in which emotions were dealt with through cultural mores is dismissed by Rosenwein as being relevant to historical study but insufficient for a true and complete  understanding of history.

In regards to the traditional incorporation of emotions in historical study, Rosenwein writes that “emotionology” falls quite short of the kind of approach that is actually warranted. She insists that the emphasis of this kind of history “is not on how people felt or represented their feelings, but on what people thought about such matters as crying in public, getting angry, or showing anger physically” (Rosenwein, 2002, p. 824). The result of this approach is to miss the complex and always-changing role of emotional experience that colors and shapes history. Therefore, Rosenwein calls fro a completely revamped perspective in regard to the way the influence of emotions is studied and understood by historians.

One of Rosenwein’s most penetrating observations is that emotions within a given historical time-period and within a specific culture or society are fluid influences that change over the course of time and shift according to social spheres and positions. She writes that “not only does every society […] express emotions differently, but even within the same society contradictory values and models […} find their place.”  This assertion brings forth an entirely new, and needed model for understanding the role of emotions in history. As Rosenwein mentions “The Grand narrative that has dominated emotions scholarship cannot stand” (Rosenwein, 2002, p.842-845). This idea is fully substantiated by her article.




Rosenwein,Barbara H. (2002). “Worrying about Emotions in History.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 107, No. 3 (June), pp. 821-845.


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