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      Review (monograph)
      Reviews in History
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      • Boddice, Rob
      Language (Review)
      Language (Monograph)
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      • Holloway, Sally
      • Downes, Stephanie
      • Randles, Sarah
      Feeling Things
      Objects and Emotions through History
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      Oxford University Press
      Emotions in History
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      Intellectual History, Social and Cultural History
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Sally Holloway / Stephanie Downes / Sarah Randles (eds.): Feeling Things. Objects and Emotions through History (reviewed by Rob Boddice)

Historians are good at putting objects in their place. Details about context, manufacture, use, abuse, meaning, significance, decay, and so on are layered so that an object itself becomes a carrier of its moment in history. Putting material back into the fabric of history itself enriches that history. The historians in this volume represent an exemplary range of skills and array of methodological tools for the analysis of historical stuff. Dynamics of power, presences of historical bodies, traces of historical selves, all emerge from material evidence and the ways in which it has been marked, used or applied. As an advertisement for the importance of material history, this book could not have done a finer job. The editors’ introduction alone is an essential primer on work in this field, and recommended as a good place to begin for anyone seeking exposure to the variety of methods historians use to handle the physical stuff of history.

Yet this book has two objects in mind, entangled in a single purpose. Not only does it intend to show the importance of historical materiality, of the vitality of objects, it aims to do this by pointing to the ways in which such objects reveal the history of emotions. The field of the history of emotions, still rapidly expanding, desperately needs substantial work in this area in order to exemplify some of its key theoretical and methodological claims. The addition of material history to the history-of-emotions repertoire has great promise in allowing historians to rebuild contexts of feeling, in combination with other kinds of more familiar sources – intellectual history, life writing, art, etc. Here is an opportunity, through the language and the physical evidence of feeling, to connect the sensory and the affective with the cognitive. The language of feeling, which this book explicitly evokes, promises to break the field out of a categorical binding of its own creation, in order the better to analyse historical experience holistically. The phrase ‘I feel’, after all, can be supposed to mean ‘I think’, or ‘I am having an emotion about’, or ‘I am touching’, and very often comprises an aggregate of all these things, representing the complexity of affective-sensory-cognitive experience. As an impetus to becoming open to and critically aware of the historicity and specificity of forms of feeling in the past, in all their delicious unfamiliarity, it is compelling. On the whole I found this impetus not rigorously pursued.

Where the book succeeds in its theoretical sophistication with regard to the treatment of historical artefacts, it does not always succeed in its attempt to connect this to the affective or experiential life of the past. The chapters are uneven in this respect. In general I missed the theoretical insights of Sara Ahmed in the book, though she is briefly mentioned in a couple of chapters. She is notably absent in Lara Farina’s chapter on Handlyng Synne as a tactile, ‘sticky’ object, and also in one of the strongest chapters, by Alicia Marchant on the Stone of Scone, which deals directly with the notion of ‘sticky-ness’ that Ahmed has developed so thoroughly in The Cultural Politics of Emotion.(1) Marchant’s contribution charts the temporality of sticky-ness, of the connection of the stone’s power to magic, its affective weight being a reification of belief in divine intervention or authority in the matter of kingship. It is caught in a web of myth and legend that, in some moments more than others, make it a physical signifier of past, present, future, identity, belonging and belief. At other moments, more recently, it has become non-stick, if you will, as belief systems and political situations have changed. It is a tourist attraction, a curio, but not much more. At one point (p. 205), Marchant suggests that the crowd assembled to welcome the stone’s return to Scotland ‘did not know how to react or feel’ about it. This is the closest any of the authors come to a genuine disruption of emotion knowledge, raising an awareness of the effort involved, however apparently unconscious, in the formation of feelings in specific temporal spaces and contexts. It is an expression of the uncertainty of evocation. An object does not automatically produce any emotion in a person’s encounter with it. Whatever appears to be affectively projected from an object first has to be projected into it. It is, and this the book as a whole does indeed seem to suggest, a constant dynamic process of movement.

Engagement with theory and method in the history of emotions is much less prominent in general than engagement with theory and method in the history of materiality. Across many of the chapters, a tendency to conceive a priori of emotional categories (generally speaking, canonical contemporary categories), projecting them back onto objects and into historical contexts, short circuits one of the history of emotions’ principal aims: to historicise emotions themselves. For all the acute awareness that objects are historical, something called ‘emotion’ is here employed by editors and authors alike as a self-evident category of analysis, appealed to as if the experiential meaning of words – fear, awe, hope, love, etc – is clear and fixed, across time and across languages. The general category of ‘emotion’ gives way to the adjectival form ‘emotional’, which operates as an empty qualifier that serves as self-explanatory analysis. What does it mean to say that an experience or encounter was ‘emotional’, or even ‘deeply emotional’, as Susan Broomhall does here (p. 178, p. 186)? These phrases are the beginning points of inquiry, not the end points of analysis. The general effect is to project a contemporary set of ‘emotions’, conceived of in English, onto the whole set of diverse objects and materials. Those exemplary analyses of historical stuff, therefore, remain stuck to an out-of-place affective language, approaching only with difficulty the contingency and situatedness of historical languages of experience, sense, and ‘emotion’.

To some extent, this appears to be a conscious choice. The most compelling (and best written) chapter in the book is Carolyn Steedman’s extraordinary reflexive account of the act of ‘hearing’ voices in the archive: the simultaneously convergent and divergent practice of being exposed to historical voices alongside the curious realisation that the life given to those voices comes from the mind of the historian. At the core of this reflection is the notion of a ‘project of modernity’ that began with Adam Smith’s ‘empathetic turn’. It is a notion that I do not share, and it makes for an interesting methodological impasse that historians of emotion are clearly not finished discussing. To me, the phrase ‘empathetic turn’ is itself anachronistic. Adam Smith’s account of sympathy is fundamentally not an account of empathy; sympathy has had its own history since Adam Smith; empathy too is a multivalent relative neologism, its meaning difficult to pin down. But I do see the point that the historian wrestles, implicitly or explicitly, with the question of ‘how would I feel if that happened to me?’ when dealing with the experiences of historical actors (p. 211). Short of comprehensive contextual knowledge of the time, place, circumstances, epistemologies and beliefs that are formational of historical voices (and of the affective meaning of objects), empathy lurks, ready to supplant historical experience with the historian’s experience, to cover over the cracks of historical uncertainty with experiential anachronism. For my part, I think it is essential that we do recover the question that Steedman seems to be uncomfortable with, of how the historical actor felt. We must work against our tendency to grapple with how it would feel if it happened to me. It is difficult, but possible, and perhaps begins with such processes as the one Steedman so eloquently presents, of candid and complex self-examination.

The book concludes with a useful afterword by Joanne Begiato, which points forward to future research directions. One cannot help thinking that this book as a whole would itself have benefited from heeding these comments, though clearly they were written when the chapters were already substantially complete. In particular, Begiato’s call to ‘be more experimental about what constitutes an emotional object, incorporating a sensory approach’ (p. 236) is well taken. There are hints at this in the book, especially in Elina Gertsman’s allusion to ‘sensual encounters’ (p. 27) with medieval relics and John Gagné’s chapter on prosthetic hands crafted out of iron. Here, more than elsewhere, the language of ‘feeling’ encompasses touch as well as ‘emotion’, and one detects throughout an opportunity to have complicated the language of feeling, to disrupt the category of the ‘emotional’, and to begin to rebuild past experience in its historical complexity. Yet the extensive and well developed historiography on the senses is, by and large, overlooked.(2) Given that encounters with objects are visual and tactile, and that objects might evoke a response through smell or taste (leather springs to mind, as in Hilary Davidson’s chapter on shoes), and are sometimes defined by what they sound like (bells, most famously),(3) there does indeed seem to be much more to say. My own feeling is that self-conscious attempts to explore the language of emotion, with concerns limited to those things that fall under a presentist understanding of ‘emotional’ categories, can get in the way of reaching a more complete and complex picture of the experiential past.


(1) Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (second edition, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014).

(2) A starting point might be Constance Classen, ed., A Cultural History of the Senses, six volumes (London: Bloomsbury, 2014) or else Mark M. Smith, Sensing the Past: Seeing, Hearing, Smelling, Tasting, and Touching in History (Los Angeles and Berkeley, University of California Press, 2008).

(3) Alain Corbin, Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the Nineteenth-Century French Countryside (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

Author's Response

We are thankful for the opportunity to respond to Rob Boddice’s review of Feeling Things: Objects and Emotions through History. In producing the volume, we set out to show how the history of emotions and material culture history can be brought together most fruitfully to create a new interdisciplinary space in which both objects themselves and their emotional meanings are subject to historical analysis. Feeling Things contains 13 chapters, which, in their totality, examine a wide variety of material sources of emotions history, including books, manuscripts, religious relics, prosthetics, textiles, and stone. Their authors employ a similarly diverse range of theoretical approaches to materiality and emotions from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds. This includes work by but not limited to Sara Ahmed, Alfred Gell, Guy Fletcher, Monique Scheer, Bruno Latour, Jane Bennett, Sarah McNamer, Brian Massumi and Erin Manning, Natalie Zemon Davis, David Miller, Barbara Rosenwein, Oliver Harris and Tim Flohr Sørensen, and Emily Robinson.

The central argument of the book is explicitly twofold: we aim to demonstrate how objects reveal histories of emotions; and assert that considering emotions enhances our understanding of historical material culture (p. 2). Further, we contend that such understanding must be historicised clearly and unambiguously:

‘That objects shape emotions, and emotions shape objects, is as true of the pre-modern era as of the present, but the specific attitudes and emotions associated with objects – both in general and in the case of particular items – have changed over time, in response to a range of political, cultural, social, environmental, and technological factors’ (p. 2)

Several of the essays in our collection highlight the ways in which objects evoke transhistorical and transcultural emotional change, such as Alicia Marchant’s chapter on the emotional history of the Stone of Scone, or Susan Broomhall’s study of how artefacts from Dutch East India Company (VOC) vessels have undergone profound shifts in emotional meaning when viewed from the perspective of modern Australia. Helen Hickey likewise charts how the meanings associated with la Sainte Larme (the ‘Holy Tear’) have shifted across medieval and early modern France, beginning with its encasement in rock crystal during the 11th century and subsequent concealment in monasteries, where it inspired sonnets and was venerated in processions until its eventual disappearance during the Revolution.

The ‘historicity and specificity of forms of feeling’, however, is not limited to what Boddice has called ‘the language of feeling’ and ‘language of emotion’ in history. Feeling Things aims to move beyond the primarily linguistic work of a field which has hitherto relied heavily on texts, and challenges the view that a history of emotions may only be excavated in their expression or translation into words. Rather, we maintain that:

‘Objects are a major source for emotions history. They are like texts, in that they offer us access to an emotional vocabulary, but unlike texts, in that they need not suggest specific words.’ (p. 10)

Monique Scheer conceives of emotions as practices occurring in the material world. By examining objects and the ways in which people have behaved around them, we have the opportunity not only to bypass labels and linguistic definitions – as vital as these studies may have been to the early development of the field – but to develop a new, non-verbal, material vocabulary of emotions, based not on what people said or wrote about what they felt, but what they did, and what they did it with.

These actions, and the material traces they leave behind, are by no means ahistorical. They are subject to emotional ‘styles’ (Gammerl) and ‘regimes’ (Reddy), and are performed and understood within emotional communities in the same way that textual, visual, auditory and other expressions of emotion are.(1) Our object-centred approach to the history of emotions has allowed us to consider largely undocumented artefacts, like the shoes discussed by Hilary Davidson, the pilgrimage tokens studied by Sarah Randles, and the foundling tokens considered by Sally Holloway. These undocumented historical ‘things’ are precisely those that provide insight into the quotidian emotional experience of the non-literate, non-elite who are so often absent from written sources. Even if we are not always able to provide linguistic labels for the contemporary emotions which formed or responded to these objects, we can frame them within a vocabulary of emotional practice which ‘allows us to widen the way we write or speak about the material world’ (p. 71).

Written evidence of emotional responses to materiality, where such evidence exists, offers critical insight into human actions and interactions with objects; but remains necessarily at a remove from both the objects themselves, and from the emotions of the people responding to and conveying them. Diana Barnes’ chapter on the ‘emotional debris’ evident in early modern letters illustrates the tension that sometimes exists between material and textual forms and the literary tropes and metaphors which respond to it, starkly evidenced in the difference between a letter as a material object and a printed version of its text. Similarly, Lara Farina’s exploration of both the literary and material versions of Robert of Brunne’s devotional work Handlyng Synne unpacks the somatic experience of reading a manuscript written on skin.

Where we and the contributors to Feeling Things use modern terms such as ‘fear, awe, hope, love, etc’ to describe the emotions of medieval or early modern people as they interacted with these objects, it is not because we believe that the meaning of these terms is ‘clear and fixed, across time and across languages’; that we suppose people used these precise labels to describe their emotions; or even that we think the modern lexis provides an accurate description of the range of feelings they experienced. In that respect, the problem for the historian of material culture resembles that of the documentary or literary historian, for whom the imperative is to historicise, and to decipher the lexical ranges of emotion within their historical contexts. For the historian of materiality and emotions, however, our tools and our primary evidence are distinctive; we need to understand a vocabulary of emotion expressed not in words but in stuff.

Boddice’s review of our work is substantially concerned with how ‘better to analyse historical experience’ in order to recover the full ‘complexity of affective-sensory-cognitive experience’. We would caution, however, that the material history of emotions (or the emotional history of material culture) is not interchangeable with the history of human experience. As the chapters in Feeling Things make clear, objects are neither passive nor inert, but have what the anthropologist Alfred Gell calls ‘agency’, which includes (but is not limited to) a capacity to produce and transmit feelings.(2) The idea that ‘whatever appears to be affectively projected from an object first has to be projected into it’, is a modern one, and not necessarily relevant to objects situated within the cosmologies of medieval and early modern Europe. In particular, religious and supernatural objects resist this passivity and attribution, as the ‘potent things’ of the first section of our collection make clear. While in theory, the relics and pilgrimage badges which feature in these chapters merely channelled the power of God, they, like the shoes used for ritual purposes discussed by Davidson, were perceived as embodiments of power, with the ability to effect physical and emotional change.

Situating things and materialities in their historical, social, political, cultural and religious contexts is essential to understanding how they functioned as emotional objects. The objects in Feeling Things all originate in medieval and early modern Europe, and it is in this context that they have been historicised, both materially and emotionally. As we argue, the objects at the centre of each the volume’s chapters are ‘markers of status, identity, and gender,’ which also ‘embody […] memories of the rituals, ceremonies, and pageants for which they were produced or in which they were used… [E]motions and emotional relationships materialize in the objects that facilitated them’ (p. 20). The material substances from which they are made are also understood in historically specific ways during a time in which all objects were made by hand: crystal, gold, lead, skin, iron, cloth all carry physical and metaphysical properties which affect their emotional abilities and value. Gertsman puts it succinctly in her chapter title: ‘matter matters’.

Even for more mundane objects it is useful to think about the ‘experiences’ of the objects themselves, in particular how they might be created or remade, undergo erosion or accrete material, or be destroyed as a response to human emotions. John Gagné’s chapter on iron hands, brought into being as prostheses for men dismembered in war, shows how these objects ‘helped to answer that unsettled question of being’, in which men asked who they would be without their hand or arm (p. 146). In our introductory essay we cite cultural studies theorist Jo Labanyi, who makes the point that to understand the place of objects in human experience, we must also accept their agency by studying what things do to people.(3) The chapters in the second section of Feeling Things, ‘Binding Things’, concentrate on the roles of specific items in interpersonal relations, especially those which commemorate and symbolize the affective bonds between people, both as expressions of the self and in the creation of emotional communities.

The sensory experience of objects, as Boddice points out, is indeed a significant part of the process of emotional interaction with them. Elina Gertsman demonstrates this in the startling description of Hugh of Lincoln’s devotional interaction with a bodily relic of St Mary Magdalene with which her chapter begins:

‘When he put it to his lips to kiss it, he undoubtedly inhaled its odour; when he chomped down on the bone and bit off two pieces, he added a gustatory experience to the visual, the haptic and the olfactory.’ (p. 27)

Sarah Randles explores the material evidence for the way that a pilgrimage badge embodies its experience of touch to the extent that the high spots of the design have been worn smooth, indicating that it has been ‘subject to rubbing and perhaps kissing, in the same way that wear on images in books of hours can serve as an index to devotional practice’ (p. 56). And, indeed, as Carolyn Steedman’s chapter shows, the original sensory experience of the spoken word may be reconstructed from the visual experience of words in the archive. Having said this, not all emotional uses of and responses to objects are primarily sensory. Sally Holloway’s analysis of the tokens created during the birth and renunciation of infants reveals that the ‘material vocabulary of emotion was often a symbolic language, enabling women to convey love, hope, or sorrow through widely recognized maternal motifs’ (p. 157). Here, emotions were materialised through crowns, snowflakes, blossoming flowers, and hearts pinned to the cross or broken in two. Many of the objects in Feeling Things work through the evocation of the human body, implicit or explicit, relying on memory and imagination rather than sensory perception for their emotional effects.

In translating the evidence of the material past into words, we are, necessarily, as Steedman puts it, ‘hearing voices’; or, rather, giving voice to that which was not voiced in the past. This, however, by no means equates to being ‘ready to supplant historical experience with the historian’s experience, to cover the cracks of historical uncertainty with experiential anachronism’, as Boddice suggests. The historian of emotions who uses as her source physical objects and their representations rather than written words has no less a responsibility to her archive than the documentary historian of emotions. The interpretation of material forms in their historical contexts and the drawing of inferences from them about emotions and emotional behaviour, require that they be tested against the weight of the historical evidence, just as when those sources are written. The skills and techniques necessary to do this work are familiar to art historians and archaeologists already, and underpin the fundamentally interdisciplinary approaches which characterise Feeling Things. Indeed, as Steedman demonstrates, the certainties that written texts appear to provide are by and large illusory: ‘A piece of written language may be a reasonable model for what a speaker said, but it is pretty useless for conveying what the speaker meant’ (p. 219). In unpacking the experience of the historian in the archive, including its emotional and material aspects, Steedman, like Sarah Tarlow and Emily Robinson(4), allows for the personal experience to be adequately theorised. Far from eliding the distance between the historian’s experience and the historical experience, this allows that distance to be seen and acknowledged in ways that are particularly important for our (that is, modern historians’) understanding of surviving historical objects.

We were always aware that while we intended this collection to be a broad investigation of the objects and emotions of pre-modern Europe, it could only provide a jumping off point for further research into other times, places and cultures. For this reason, we invited Joanne Begiato to write an afterword reflecting on the critical possibilities raised in Feeling Things and to think about ways in which its approaches might be more widely applied. In reflecting on ‘Future Research Directions’, the explicit purpose of the afterword – as the subtitle declares – should negate the circular idea that contributors to the volume might have heeded comments expressly designed to take their work forward, as Boddice suggests. Begiato suggests that other researchers might yet consider the role of machine-made items, or of hand-made objects in an industrial or post-industrial context, and to expand the definitions of emotional materiality beyond the possible scope of the present volume, to encompass the ephemeral or transitory and to include such things as music, food and smell.

Since Feeling Things was published in January 2018, the field has continued to strike out in new directions: Maya Wassell Smith has considered how sailors hand-crafted objects such as stay busks, decorated boxes, and children’s toys to build significant relationships in the long nineteenth century, which strengthened interpersonal bonds both on ship and on shore;(5) while Joanne Begiato has incorporated buildings and spaces into her analysis, exploring the material and sensory ways in which people remember their childhood homes as a way of making sense of themselves and their place in the world.(6) And we are continuing to develop our own approaches: Sarah Randles has explored how the materiality of stone has allowed the emotions of Norse crusaders to become part of the cultural heritage of Orkney;(7) and Sally Holloway has outlined how sensory interaction with love tokens in Georgian England both created and expedited feelings of love, and charted the new ways in which consumer goods were invested with affective value.(8) Our hope in compiling Feeling Things was to foster and encourage new discourses on both the affective meanings of objects and the material aspects of emotions – without necessarily eliding one or the other – in a rapidly evolving field.


(1) See Benno Gammerl, ‘Emotional Styles – Concepts and Challenges’, Rethinking History, 16, 2 (2012), 161–75 and William Reddy, The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions (Cambridge, 2001).

(2) See Alfred Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (Oxford, 1998), discussed in Feeling Things, pp. 11, 29, 51.

(3) See Jo Labanyi, ‘Doing Things: Emotion, Affect, and Materiality’, Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies 11, 3-4 (2010), 223–44, cited in Feeling Things, p. 22.

(4) See Emily Robinson, ‘Touching the void: affective history and the impossible’, Rethinking History 14, 4 (2010), 503–20, and Sarah Tarlow, ‘The archaeology of emotion and affect’, Annual Review of Anthropology, 41 (2012), 169–85.

(5) Maya Wassell Smith, ‘“The fancy work what sailors make”: material and emotional creative practice in masculine seafaring communities’, Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, Special Issue Making Masculinity: Craft, Gender and Material Production in the Long Nineteenth Century ed. Freya Gowrley and Katie Faulkner, 14, 2 (2018).

(6) Joanne Begiato, ‘Selfhood and “nostalgia”: sensory and material memories of the childhood house in late Georgian Britain’, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies (2019).

(7) Sarah Randles, ‘Carved in stone: engaging with the past in medieval Orkney’, in Historicising Heritage and Emotions: The Affective Histories of Blood, Stone and Land, ed. Alicia Marchant (London, 2019), pp. 19–33.

(8) Sally Holloway, The Game of Love in Georgian England: Courtship, Emotions and Material Culture (Oxford, 2019), chs. 3–4.