Why is the HIstory of Emotions So Important?


The History of Emotions has become a vital field of historical research within contemporary academic discussions. Able to provide insight into the emotional history of a particular event, society and culture, this thematic approach has allowed for a nuanced understanding of the past. As a current undergraduate student, I have become deeply fascinated when comprehending the past through an emotional lens. Intrigued by the expression of feelings, the practice of studying emotions serves to make the relationship between the past and the present all the more tangible. If we are defined by our emotions and our expression of self, we must understand why those from the past articulated themselves in the manner they did.

The emotionology of a specific time frame constitutes so much more than simply understanding how people labelled their emotions. It also reflects a greater cultural framework in which people once expressed their sense of self in ways deemed appropriate. An emotion, when studied as a practice, provides a framework for understanding feelings “as emerging from a bodily disposition conditioned by a social context, which always has cultural and historical specificity.”[i] Learning to comprehend the way in which an individual’s thoughts and mentalities are shaped by their environment – cultural norms, social conventions and personal relationships – all helps to enrich both the stories of the past and our understanding of human nature.

Within my own research, I felt personally drawn to ego-documents for their ability to provide an endless amount of insight into the formation of self-identity and expression in the past. Defined as a source that is “providing an account of, or revealing privileged information about the ‘self’ who produced it”[ii], ego-documents help us to understand the way in which we structure our emotions and how society can mitigate these feelings. Analysis of ego-documents therefore enhances our knowledge of subjective experiences.

I utilised ego-documents in my own dissertation research to understand how men negotiated their identity in modern warfare during World War One. Inspired by the works of Michael Roper, I used these texts to gage an insight into the psychological developments and internalised emotions of the male lived experience. Using memoirs, correspondence home and audio recordings, I was able to gain an intimate understanding of soldier experiences and in turn, their psyche. Ego-documents afforded me the opportunity to gain insight into one of the most personal, and subjective, experiences of them all – the expression and construction of self-identity. 

Figure 1. Letters from World War One.

Reading letters to loved ones, for example, provided a window into the rich and diverse emotionality of war upon both the soldier and his family. Understanding the complexity and often traumatic recollections of war caused an emotional response – even in the present. For example, personal accounts from the likes of Jack Sweeney during the summer of 1916 accounted for the trauma of trench warfare in which he “sat down in the mud and cried, I do not think I have cried like I did that night since I was a child.”[iii]. Feeling deeply moved, I was emotionally effected by the vivid imagery surrounding modern battle. Reading the intimacy of a soldier’s emotional expression felt incredibly private and personal, almost as though I was trespassing. Sometimes, it appeared as though these evocative documents were too precious and too personal for me to use and explore within my own research.

Yet, this is the purpose of ego-documents. Letters, memoirs and audio accounts all help to bridge the gap between the past and the present. Whilst this undoubtedly can have an emotional impact upon us all, it also reminds us of the importance of history. History is not another realm or a separate entity to the present. It is a continual link to us all. Ego-documents provide a personal way to facilitate insight into the lived experiences that have shaped our pasts to make our present. Reading – or listening – about someone’s experiences, how they felt, and the relationships they had with friends and family, is a grounding reminder that those from the past are not so different to us. Ego-documents make this relationship more apparent. 

As archives closed during the Coronavirus pandemic, I adapted my research to work with online ego-documents from home. Whilst this hadn’t been what I imagined, it underscored the accessibility of many relevant sources. The Imperial War Museum’s online archival catalogue – including not just visual but audio clips – was an excellent way for me to immerse myself into understanding an individual’s lived experiences. Pairing this with other accessible information, such as governmental records, posters, popular literature and songs, I was able to gage a deeper understanding of the lived male experience of war.As such, recognition of the powerful role emotions has in our lives underscores the importance of the History of Emotions as an approach. It provides a window into an individual’s mannerisms, behaviours and self-expression, but also the comprehension of wider cultural schemas. To gain an insight into the past, the History of Emotions provides one of the most vital frameworks into understanding the most universal experience of them all – the emotional.

Ashleigh Wilson recently gained a First in History from the University of Sussex, and will soon commence postgraduate study at University College London.

[i] Scheer, Monique. (2012). “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): Page 193-220.

[ii] Fulbrook, Mary, and Ulinka Rublack. “In relation: the ‘Social Self’ and ego-documents.” German History 28, no. 3 (2010): Page 263-272.

[iii] Moynihan, Michael, ed. Greater Love: Letters Home 1914-1918. WH Allen (1980): Page 83.

Cover Image. British soldiers marching to the Battle of the Somme. Available in the public domain.

Figure 1. A collection of family letters written during World War 1. Available in the public domain.

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