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The Aachen Passion Altar. 1505-1510. By the Master of the Altars of Aachen, Late Gothic anonymous painter. Detail. Calvary. Central panel. Treasury Museum of the Cathedral of Aachen. Germany.
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The solemn season of Lent, which runs from Ash Wednesday through Easter, is a time many Christians spend considering the nature and depth of divine compassion. I’ve had a window into that contemplation recently. Two friends of mine and I wrote The Prayer Wheel, a book about how modern believers can make use of a 900-year-old, wheel-shaped, monastic prayer diagram, and we set up a Facebook page. Over the last weeks my colleague Jana Riess has been using it to run an interactive devotion.The other day she asked participants to respond to a string of terms generated by the Prayer Wheel, including “Passion” and “Mercy.”

Someone immediately posted, “Passion of Jesus. I’m going through a season of sadness and grief. It really comforts me to know that He understands and is in this with me.” I mentioned to Lauren Mancia, a history professor at Brooklyn College in New York who is familiar with the Wheel, that the response seemed “beautiful and timeless.”

She corrected me on “timeless.”

“Christians didn’t always feel this way about Jesus,” she said. Through much of the faith’s first millennium, Western Christians approached Christ with reverence and awe, but also considerable fear, given that he would be returning as humanity’s judge. Current beliefs that Jesus is “in this” with us actually date to a specific and momentous shift in the 12th century, when Christians discovered in themselves a deep compassion for Jesus’ sufferings—and a corresponding conviction that he cared about theirs.

The change was important in Western history but not atypical: “The emotions Christians feel about God have not always been the same,” Mancia said. In fact, the very definitions of love, fear, hate, pity—the whole lot—have changed over time.

Mancia added, “The history of emotions is a hot academic field. Although it didn’t used to be.”

After centuries of abstaining from the study of emotions, historians are making up for lost time. There are currently three competing literature-review volumes with “History of the Emotions” In their titles. Oxford University Press, to name just one publisher, is producing not one, but two scholarly book series on the topic. There are history of emotion journals, history of emotion conferences and history of emotion centers worldwide. The field, says Barbara H. Rosenwein, professor emerita at Loyola University Chicago and co-author (with Riccardo Cristiani) of What is the History of Emotions?, has ”so proliferated, it’s absolutely jumped out of its skin.”

This is probably because for a very long time the study of emotions was unnaturally restrained by a set of outdated paradigms. For a long time, historians avoided anything that could not be clearly quantified. “Irrational elements” such as “sensation as distinct from thought,” wrote in the philosopher of history R. G. Collingwood in 1935, could “not [be] parts of the historical.” The one grand historical scheme that did take emotion seriously assigned it a static and demeaning role: The 20th-century version of Progressivism, the conviction that humanity is constantly civilizing itself, picked the Middle Ages as its ground zero, citing that era’s supposed failure to suppress its “childish” emotions as the proof of its uncivilized state. Emotions themselves were seen as universal, and essentially unchanging, if internally chaotic; what progressed was a culture’s ability to control them. (That medieval straw man has recently been revived by Steven Pinker in his best-seller, The Better Angels of Our Nature.) It is hard to do history about things that do not change.

By the end of the last century that model was clearly outdated. Researchers in several fields knew that emotions shifted over time, space and even social class—in ancient Greece, for instance, masters could feel anger, but it was definitionally impossible for slaves. Clearly, emotions must be at last partially socially constructed. Brain scientists, meanwhile, identified patterns on scans that seemed to give feelings a more concrete reality.

Rosenwein was one of several historians who believed something had to give. “I found the discussion, especially about the Middle Ages, extremely dissatisfying, and thought I could do a better job,” she says today. Her 2002 paper “Worrying about Emotions in History” proposed that people in every period of time live in “emotional communities” that (tacitly) negotiate feelings, as well as their value and their expression. As the fortunes of the communities change, so does the nature of emotions. This model pulled emotions into an ever-evolving web that comports far better with the contemporary idea of history.

Freed at last, the history of emotions turned almost overnight from a pariah into a kind of academic skeleton key: Almost immediately, dozens of improbably varied titles appeared, covering everything from the role of envy in American society around the turn of the 20th century to the evolution of love in South Asian cultures.

Some historians of emotion became interdisciplinary luminaries. In January New York University’s David Konstan, a prescient scholar of emotions in ancient Greece and Rome, recently took time out from the question of whether the destruction of Carthage was a genocide (he thinks not—the classic definition involves feelings like disgust, whereas the Romans felt the Carthaginians had violated an agreement) to address neuroscientists at the Swiss Center for Affective Sciences in Geneva.

And the emotion historians have institutions of their own, including centers in Britain, Germany and Finland. Most ambitious is the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions in Australia, which in 2010 received $24.5 million dollars from the Australian government, reportedly the largest humanities grant ever awarded there. It has produced studies, art and theater delving into the emotions both of the continent’s indigenous people and its 18th century European settlers.

The happiest historians are probably Rosenwein’s fellow medievalists, whose chosen era, freed from the stigma of “childishness,” is clearly rich with emotional landmarks and transformations.

For example, Brooklyn College’s Mancia has been working on how that 12th-century shift in viewing Jesus occurred. The transition to a model of mutual compassion was not automatic; for a while, people rehearsed it. She has studied articulated Jesus dolls with human hair that believers could prayerfully hang on a small cross and then take down and comfort. There is now a term—“emotives”—for things people say in order to awaken appropriate feelings in themselves. The doll, Mancia says, is “a material emotive.”

It makes one wonder what the material emotive might be for a historian of emotions these days. Perhaps an articulated figure, finally seated at the academic table.

David Van Biema, a former religion writer at TIME, is the co-author, with Patton Dodd and Jana Riess, of The Prayer Wheel: A Daily Guide to Renewing your Faith Through and Ancient Spiritual Practice. The Prayer Wheel is an emotive.


Correction, May 13, 2020

The original version of this story misstated the name of an institution studying the history of emotions. It is the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, not the Centre for Human Emotions.

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