Emotions and Health, 1200-1700 


Author: Elena Carrera
Emotions and Health, 1200-1700 examines the Aristotelian and Galenic understandings of the ‘passions’ or ‘accidents of the soul’ as alterations of both mind and body across a wide range of medieval and early modern cultural discourses: Aquinas’s Summa, canonization inquests, medical and natural philosophical texts, drama, and the London Bills of Mortality. The essays in this collection focus on notions such as death from sorrow, physiological explanations of fear, physicians’ advice on the harmful and beneficial effects of anger and of sex, medical and philosophical constructions of the melancholic subject, and theological and medical discussions on the impact of music in moderating the passions and maintaining health.

Contributors include: Nicole Archambeau, Elena Carrera, Penelope Gouk, Angus Gowland, Nicholas E. Lombardo, William F. MacLehose, Michael R. Solomon and Erin Sullivan.

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Elena Carrera, DPhil (Oxford), is Senior Lecturer in Spanish Golden Age Culture at Queen Mary, University of London, and a founder member of its Centre for the History of the Emotions. She has published on medieval and early modern emotions, mysticism and madness.
‘’Carrera and her contributors provide an excellent collection of essays […] these essays should be essential reading for scholars interested in the history of emotions and the history of the body’’.
John M. Hunt, Utah Valley University. In: Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 45, No. 2, 2014, p. 436.

Emotions and Health … succeeds in achieving its aim of re-examining pre-modern conceptualisation of emotion, and, in doing so, opens up a number of avenues for further research.”
Bronwyn Reddan, The University of Melbourne. In: Emotions: History, Culture, Society, Vol.1, No.1 (2017), pp. 200-202.

List of Illustrations

Notes on Contributors

Elena Carrera

Chapter One. Emotions and Psychological Health in Aquinas
Nicholas Lombardo

Chapter Two. Tempted to Kill: Miraculous Consolation for a Mother after the Death of her Infant Daughter
Nicole Archambeau

Chapter Three. Fear, Fantasy and Sleep in Medieval Medicine
William MacLehose

Chapter Four. Anger and the Mind-Body Connection in Medieval and Early Modern Medicine
Elena Carrera

Chapter Five. Non-Natural Love: Coitus, Desire, and Hygiene in Medieval and Early Modern Spain
Michael R. Solomon

Chapter Six. A Disease unto Death: Sadness in the Time of Shakespeare
Erin Sullivan

Chapter Seven. Medicine, Psychology, and the Melancholic Subject in the Renaissance
Angus Gowland

Chapter Eight. Music and Spirit in Early Modern Thought
Penelope Gouk



The history of emotions has become a complex field of research since Carol Stearns and Peter Stearns compellingly argued in 1985 that the study of emotional experience in the past needed to distinguish between the prescriptive guidelines provided in advice handbooks and actual experiences and expressions of emotion. William Reddy’s emphasis since 1997 on the performative value of emotional words and gestures (his notion of ‘emotives’) and his historical approach to emotional styles, together with Barbara Rosenwein’s introduction of the concept of co-existing ‘emotional communities’ which change over time, have helped to establish new paradigms for looking at a wide range of sources, beyond advice manuals and books of manners, to find evidence of prevailing sets of emotional norms in different social and cultural contexts from the past. As Reddy noted in a recent interview, the history of emotions has opened up new approaches to social, cultural and political history, rather than producing a specialized field of research. This collection of essays takes a new look at prescriptive and descriptive discussions of emotions in the context of medical advice circulating in Europe between 1200 and 1700 (the gap between the periods studied by Rosenwein and Reddy), also considering some of the co-existing theological, religious and philosophical discursive representations of emotional experience, related to alternative explanatory models of health and well-being.
The proposal made by Peter and Carol Stearns to separate between cultural paradigms and actual experience of emotion was at odds with the Foucauldian emphasis on the self as a discursive construct, and the increasingly audible voices in the 1980s of cultural anthropologists claiming that there is no experience of emotion outside of culture. Among the latter, Catherine Lutz raised serious concerns about the fact that emotions had been primarily conceived of “as pre-cultural facts, as features of our biological heritage that can be identified independently of our cultural heritage,” and urged scholars to expand the domains in which emotions should be studied, shifting away from “the supposedly more permanent structures of human existence –in spleens, souls, genes, human nature, and individual psychology” and looking instead at history, culture, ideology, and transient human goals. In assuming that the existing conceptualizations of emotion had emphasized their status as pre-cultural facts Lutz did take a presentist approach. She did not take into consideration, for instance, the acute awareness of inherited explanatory paradigms of health and well-being shown in medieval and early modern Aristotelian and Galenic discussions of states such as anger, fear, joy, sadness or shame as being related both to transient goals (their cognitive component) and to changing bodily qualities (their physiological manifestation). As this volume will show, medieval and early modern Galenic authors saw physical, emotional and spiritual health and well-being as being based less on innate physiological factors than on a balanced lifestyle. They consciously drew on authoritative texts to account for the ways in which people’s particular experiences of moderate and immoderate passions could both alter and be altered by their fluctuating physiological states.
Since Lutz made her influential claims, a rapidly growing number of historical and cultural studies have recognized the historicity of emotion and have explored a wide range of historical sources in search of clues about the changing ways in which societies (or social groups) have shaped the experience, interpretation and expression of emotions, and about the kinds of emotional regimes they have promoted. It is perhaps time to reconsider the changing historical relationship between categories such as ‘emotion’ and ‘health’ and explore how they have been associated with highly durable (though now obsolete) categories such as the humours, the spirits and the sensitive soul.
This collection of essays examines some of the significant roles attributed to the emotions in pre-modern Europe. For instance, while Aquinas saw the emotions as signs of virtue, the Neostoic approaches revived in the late Renaissance saw them as signs of moral impairment. In the Galenic medical approaches prevailing well into the seventeenth century they were considered as lifestyle factors which could be beneficial or harmful to health, depending on their intensity. The essays thus seek to revisit some of the most longstanding conceptual structures within which the medieval and early modern notions of emotion were inscribed. In using the label ‘emotions’ in the title of the volume, the contributors do not assume that it refers to a universal and ahistorical set of categories or a universally recognizable set of states. The label, however, provides a practical means of examining pre-modern discussions of the prevailing medical and philosophical categories of ‘passions,’ ‘accidents of the soul,’ ‘passions of the heart,’ ‘movements of the soul,’ ‘affections of the mind,’ ‘affects’ and ‘perturbations,’ as well as descriptions, formulations and evaluations of states conventionally referred to in terms such as grief, sorrow, sadness, despair, anxiety, fear, terror, anger, wrath, pleasure and joy in Latin or in other medieval and early modern European languages. In this introduction, I aim to show how this collection of essays contributes to furthering the vibrant field of the history of medieval and early modern ‘emotions.’ After mapping out the most significant recent publications in the field, I will provide an outline of each of the essays, and then go on to draw out the key themes and arguments with which the volume as a whole engages.
Reddy’s approach to the history of emotions since the Enlightenment fruitfully crosses traditional disciplinary boundaries between history, anthropology, cognitive psychology and neuroscience. The essays edited by Penelope Gouk and Helen Hills establish insightful links between the ways in which emotions have been represented in art, music and medicine from the fourteenth to the twentieth century. The collection edited by Susan Broomhall explores the affective ties and displays of emotion within extended domestic communities in central and northern Europe between the thirteenth and the eighteenth centuries. Looking at the early modern contexts of politics, art, literature, medicine, religion, philosophy and education, the volume edited by van Jan Frans Dijkhuizen and Karl Enenkel shows how, in this period, emotional suffering was inextricably linked to physical pain. The collection edited by Jonas Liliequist examines medieval and early modern repertoires and representations of emotion, primarily in French and English literature, though it also offers some insights into art and music theory, and covers the less studied geographical areas of Greenland, Sweden and the Ottoman Empire. Reddy’s most recent contribution to the history of emotions focuses on the courtly love phenomenon in twelfth-century Europe, contrasting it to the representation of sexual practices in twelfth-century South-East Asia and in Heian Japan. The present collection of essays seeks further to contribute to the opening up of the fields of medieval and early modern history of the emotions and medical history by exploring their intersections with theology, religion, history of beliefs, drama, music, and moral and natural philosophy. It focuses on views and practices in western Europe, though it also seeks to acknowledge the huge influence of Islamic medical authors like Avicenna.
In discussing the pre-modern understanding of the emotions as movements of the sensitive soul within the body, this collection of essays builds on the existing scholarly explorations of the link between emotions and the body, such as Gouk and Hills’s, Dijkhuizen and Enenkel’s, and Bound Alberti’s. In seeking to provide a greater understanding of the medieval and early modern perceptions of the interaction of body and soul than is currently available, it takes into consideration the most influential monographs on emotion in the pre-modern period. In covering both the late medieval and early modern periods, it aims to show the continuity of ideas on the interaction of body and mind, and on the embodied soul as a purposeful composite, across a wide range of cultural discourses: scholasticism, Galenic medical texts, popular accounts of visions and experiences involving the imagination, religious narratives related to canonization inquests, moral and philosophical texts drawing on Aristotelian, Neoplatonic and Neostoic traditions, discussions on music, and ephemeral publications such as the London Bills of Mortality.
In the first essay in the collection, Nicholas Lombardo offers an overview of the key concepts of passion and affection in Aquinas in their historical context, and analyses how they relate to Aquinas’s larger theological project and his understanding of psychological health and virtue. He shows how Aquinas defined the passions as involving both the soul and the body (producing bodily alterations) in prompting action in response to a perceived good or evil, and distinguished them from intellectual affections, which only involved the soul (the will), though he also stressed the interaction between affections and passions in experiences like wilful joy. He demonstrates that, while endorsing the Aristotelian notion of passion as receptiveness to being acted upon by a perceived stimulus, Aquinas emphasized that the passions are also active expressions of the sense appetite’s inclinations and movements oriented towards a telos. In response to the existing evaluations of Aquinas’s views on the passions as negative, Lombardo furthermore argues that Aquinas understood imperfection and deficiency in Aristotelian terms as potentiality, allowing for movement and dynamism, and notes how he even claimed that, when oriented towards human flourishing, pleasure can strengthen the use of reason, while moderate fear can focus the mind, and that sorrow and anger, if moderate and appropriate, can be marks of virtue.
The social dimension of emotional experience, its expression and its amenability to change is the focus of Nicole Archambeau’s essay, which looks at first- and third-person accounts of the inconsolable sorrow and inner struggle of Lady Mathildis de Sabran (a noblewoman in mid-fourteenth-century Provence who lost her baby daughter) in the context of the canonization inquest which shaped the narratives. Archambeau discusses the inquest descriptions of this noblewoman’s extreme sadness, and her avowed desire to kill the wet nurse, against the background of references to sorrow and despair as causes and symptoms of insanity produced in Montpellier in the early fourteenth century. She also refers to prevailing aristocratic social codes and practices related to revenge, and to spiritual discourses of sin and forgiveness which might have shaped Lady Mathildis’ interpretation of the desire to kill as a sinful temptation, helping her to transform her sorrow into a healthier, more acceptable mental state.
Taking a close look at the history of medical ideas on fear, William MacLehose examines the discussion in medical texts written between the first and the fourteenth centuries of the relation between body, mind and accidents of the soul in the disease known as ‘incubus.’ He shows how the medieval medical approach to the ‘incubus’ saw it as a nosological category which included both bodily sensations (suffocation, paralysis, inability to speak) and mental and emotional responses (particularly fear), and how medieval medical authors sought to explain the somatic and emotional aspects of the condition through the role of the brain and fantasy or imagination. While the literary and folkloric traditions of a demon known as an incubus who attacks people in their sleep are well-known, MacLehose’s analysis focuses on the connections made in scholastic medicine between sleep and emotions, and between the humoral composition of the body and the functionings of the mind and soul.
In view of recent scholarly debates about emotions as either biological phenomena requiring interpretation or as mental processes based on cognitive evaluations, Elena Carrera argues that medieval and early modern medical writers tended to stress the two-way interaction between cognitive processes and physiological alterations in the events they referred to as ‘accidents of the soul,’ ‘passions of the heart’ or ‘affections of the mind.’ Departing from the existing critical emphasis on explaining the early modern passions as the effect of humoral imbalances and temperament, she discusses medieval and early modern medical accounts of the passions as movements of spirit (a subtle bodily substance distilled from the blood), which could cause significant temperamental and bodily changes. She examines in particular the views on anger, its dependence on physiological disposition, and its effects on bodily and mental health discussed in handbooks for physicians, manuals for surgeons, regimens of health and plague tracts, circulating in Latin, English, Spanish, French, German, Catalan and Portuguese between 1250 and 1700. Analyzing the nuanced distinctions made in some medical texts between different types of anger, their qualities, intensity and external manifestations, she demonstrates that, despite the general view that excessive anger was detrimental to health, the therapeutic value of moderate anger was also acknowledged.
Focusing on the vernacular dissemination in late medieval and early modern Spain of medical ideas on the seemingly related concepts of coitus and love, Michael Solomon points out that traditional medical advice on coitus did not usually refer to love or desire, but simply stressed the need for regular and moderate evacuation of bodily fluids as part of a healthy lifestyle or regimen. By contrast, plague treatises tended to emphasize the detrimental effect of excessive coitus, either arguing that it made people more susceptible to contagion, or simply recommending complete sexual abstinence without any further explanation. Regimens of health typically referred to happiness, sadness, anger and fear as the movements of the soul which should be regulated as part of a healthy lifestyle, and very few medical texts mentioned love among those movements of the soul. When medical authors discussed love, they presented it primarily as a disease or ailment, characterized by an obsessive fixation on the beloved, which could be treated through a number of distracting techniques such as travelling and spending time with friends. Solomon suggests that the rise of vernacular medical treatises in the late medieval and early modern period tended to conflate the medical distinction between love and coitus, providing new health-preserving imperatives that allowed lay readers to
All interested in the history of the emotions, medical history, medieval and early modern European cultural history, history of psychology, and the history of ideas and popular beliefs.