As historians we are often trained to remove emotions from our analyses of the past, whether this be our own emotions or those of the individuals whose lives and experiences we seek to recover. As a researcher whose work centres on the history of emotions, that training can sometimes seem to be in conflict with the retrieval of emotions in archival sources. When emotions are so often considered to be ambiguous in meaning, subjective in understanding, transient and fragmentary in nature, locating analyses of emotions in secondary literature can present an equally mammoth task. Yet, a resource such as the Bibliography of British and Irish History is perhaps one of the most useful online tools available to academics at all stages of their career who are looking to identify what has and, critically, has not already been written about in their particular area of interest. The BBIH is updated three times a year and currently gives access to over 633,000 books, essays, and articles, providing up-to-date academic research from across the world. For those with interests in the history of emotions, for instance, this resource enables historians, researchers, and students alike to unravel the emotional complexity and nuance of the past with user-friendly software and a wide range of search functions that can narrow and define the field of research with relative ease.

The history of emotions is still considered to be a new and developing field of research, although the groundwork was first famously explored back in 1941 by the French historian Lucien Febvre. Amongst other things, Febvre’s essay, ‘Sensibility and History: How to Reconstitute the Affective Life of the Past’, reflected on how emotions are an integral part of the dynamics of group relations, and thus equally integral to how historians view their subjects of study – a little more on why this matters later. Indeed, whilst emotions can feel unique to an individual’s experience of their world, they can also be what Febvre defined as ‘imitative contagion, the emotional complex that corresponds to the event which happened to and was felt by a single individual’.[1] In this way, then, emotions have the capacity to be shared and understood collectively in ways that bring meaning to the social and cultural fabric of specific periods, people, places, and spaces in history.

As Susan Matt notes in her overview of the field of emotions history, Febvre was not alone in making a plea for the emotions to be taken seriously in academic research with notable works by his European contemporaries in the Annales School, such as Norbert Elias, Johan Huizinga, Marc Bloch, Fernand Braudel and Philippe Ariès, each pursuing a similar trajectory due to their collective interest in the mentalities of past societies[2]. Thus the Annales School sought to inhabit the daily lives of ordinary people in the past, and whose analyses of mentalities (including habits, customs and rituals centred on marriage, religion, and the family, for example) enabled historians of all periods to dramatically widen the research questions they posed. Ironically, despite such rigorous calls to an emotional arms, reason over emotion triumphed for several decades before the pioneering work of the Annales School received the attention it was due – resulting in the now seminal research of Peter and Carol Stearns, Barbara Rosenwein, and William Reddy, respectively. It is by using the BBIH that the trajectory and subsequent development of emotions history can be traced from Febvre and his contemporaries to more recent responses covering topics as wide as love, melancholy, joy, shame, enthusiasm, tears, and grief.

Revisiting historical periods through an emotional lens brings with it a specific set of challenges, not least of which are questions of how to recover traces of emotions that may not be recognised or expressed in the same way today as they once were. Indeed, Febvre’s observation that ‘any attempt to reconstitute the emotional life of a given period is a task that is at one and the same time extremely attractive and frightfully difficult’ remains accurate.[3] Yet, surely, acknowledging that emotions are not ahistorical, but are instead often shaped by the social and cultural conventions of a given time and place is precisely what make them so valuable as the focus of historical research. Thinking about the process involved in the development of my own project on experiences of late-Georgian grief, for instance, what became clear is how emotions permeate every aspect of our lived experience, and as a result they are ever present in the social and cultural histories of the family and the home, gender and identity, poverty, class, health and wellbeing, and of the lifecycle, to name just a few compelling possibilities. In my own experience, using the BBIH served as a critical gateway towards mapping out the evolution of not only the history of emotions as a subfield of historical research, but also in the many ways it revealed how emotions are suffused into what it means to be human not only now but also throughout history.

[1] Lucien Febvre, ‘Sensibility and History: How to Reconstitute the Emotional life of the Past’, in Peter Burke (ed.), A New Kind of History; The Writings of Febvre (London: Routledge, 1973), 12-26, p.14.

[2] Susan Matt, ‘Current Emotion Research in History: Or, Doing History from the Inside Out’, Emotion Review, 3:1 (2011), 117-124, pp. 117-118.

[3] Febvre, ‘Sensibility and History’, p. 19.

Helen Metcalfe is a Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellow in the department of History at the University of York. She works on the social, cultural, and emotional history of late-Georgian Britain within the context of family dynamics, friendship groups and gender. Helen’s new research project seeks to explore the many facets of how grief was experienced in late-Georgian society to show how understandings of grief extended far beyond the immediate emotional upheaval associated with death, encompassing much wider definitions than those we tend to attribute to grief today. Helen aims to re-evaluate current perceptions of grief as unhealthy, and hopes to broaden the way we think about grief by demonstrating how it was awarded social, emotional, and material value in the past, thereby helping us better understand the hidden layers of grief today. Email: University of York staff page: Dr Helen Metcalfe. Department of History. York ORCID Profile: Twitter: @HelenR_Metcalfe