The best books in the history of emotions

Barbara H. Rosenwein Author Of Love: A History in Five Fantasies
By Barbara H. Rosenwein

Who am I?

I am a writer, teacher, and researcher who has always been interested in my own emotions and those of others. But I decided to write about the emotions of the past only after I became a historian of the Middle Ages. My discoveries began with the early medieval period. Now I enjoy looking at the full sweep of Western history. I have come to realize that at no time did we all share the same feelings nor evaluate them the same way. Instead, we live and have always lived in “emotional communities” with others who share our feelings—and alongside still others who do not. I hope my booklist will pique your interest in this new and exciting field.


I wrote...

Love: A History in Five Fantasies

By Barbara H. Rosenwein,

Book cover of Love: A History in Five Fantasies

What is my book about?

My book is about love, of course. But I argue that it is not one feeling but many—a welter of emotions that are both complicated and bewildering. We make sense of love with stories, fantasies that help us shape our feelings and give them meaning. In my book, I explore five of our longest-enduring fantasies of love: like-mindedness, transcendence, obligation, obsession, and insatiability.

Understanding the seductive allure of these five fantasies and how they have changed over time helps us see, enjoy, and perhaps better deal with our own feelings.

The books I picked & why

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Anger: The Struggle for Emotional Control in America's History

By Carol Zisowitz Stearns, Peter N. Stearns,

Book cover of Anger: The Struggle for Emotional Control in America's History

Why this book?

Many historians before the Stearnses thought it would be good to study the emotions of the past, but this book on anger was the first to offer a rigorous and satisfying technique for doing so. By carefully researching the advice books offered to middle-class Americans in the nineteenth through twentieth centuries, the authors show how standards for emotional expression changed over time. Emotional standards are in fact key to understanding how different groups at different times evaluate their emotions, understand their uses, and feel their mental and physical impact.

Anger: The Struggle for Emotional Control in America's History

By Carol Zisowitz Stearns, Peter N. Stearns,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Anger as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this groundbreaking social history, Carol and Peter Stearns trace the two hundred-year development of anger, beginning with premodern colonial America. Drawing on diaries and popular advice literature of key periods, Anger deals with the everyday experiences of the family and workplace in its examination of our attempts to control our domestic lives and lessen social tensions by harnessing emotion. Offering an entirely new approach to the study of emotion, the authors inaugurate a new field of study termed "emotionology," which distinguishes collective emotional standards from the experience of emotion itself.


The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions

By William M. Reddy,

Book cover of The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions

Why this book?

This book electrified the field of the history of emotions. It showed how feelings were not just private but also—and essentiallypolitical. Reddy here demonstrates the utility of his notion of “emotional regimes”—the idea that power involves imposing certain emotional norms on everyone. His book argues not only that emotions are a tool of power but also that they may be so misused and ferociously applied that they give rise to rebellions and revolutions—each, in turn, with its own sets of emotional norms.

The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions

By William M. Reddy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Navigation of Feeling as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions, William M. Reddy offers a theory of emotions which both critiques and expands upon recent research in the fields of anthropology and psychology. Exploring the links between emotion and cognition, between culture and emotional expression, Reddy applies this theory of emotions to the processes of history. He demonstrates how emotions change over time, how emotions have a very important impact on the course of events, and how different social orders either facilitate or constrain emotional life. In an investigation of Revolutionary France, where sentimentalism in literature and philosophy…


The History of Emotions: An Introduction

By Jan Plamper,

Book cover of The History of Emotions: An Introduction

Why this book?

Himself a brilliant historian of emotion, Jan Plamper here surveys the field as a whole.  He notes some little-known predecessors to the Stearnses, and he devotes chapters to the contributions of anthropologists, the findings of psychologists, and modern historical approaches, methods, and theories. Always he “gets behind” the research to discover its underlying assumptions.This is a book packed with hard-won insights.

The History of Emotions: An Introduction

By Jan Plamper,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The History of Emotions as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The history of emotions is one of the fastest growing fields in current historical debate, and this is the first book-length introduction to the field, synthesizing the current research, and offering direction for future study. The History of Emotions is organized around the debate between social constructivist and universalist theories of emotion that has shaped most emotions research in a variety of disciplines for more than a hundred years: social
constructivists believe that emotions are largely learned and subject to historical change, while universalists insist on the timelessness and pan-culturalism of emotions. In historicizing and problematizing this binary, Jan Plamper…


Emotional Arenas: Life, Love, and Death in 1870s Italy

By Mark Seymour,

Book cover of Emotional Arenas: Life, Love, and Death in 1870s Italy

Why this book?

To the many approaches of modern historians—the emotional standards of the Stearnses, the emotional regimes of Reddy, the emotional communities of my own work—Mark Seymour here adds an important dimension, a study of the places and media in which emotions are expressed, from the courtroom to the love letter. He shows not only how emotions aroused by one venue may mean different things to different people, but also how the clash of such emotions may help modify and mold new forms of emotional expression and create new objects of emotional focus.

Emotional Arenas: Life, Love, and Death in 1870s Italy

By Mark Seymour,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Emotional Arenas as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Based on the records of a murder trial that transfixed all of Italy in the late 1870s, this study makes use of a dramatic court case to develop a new paradigm for the history of emotions - the 'emotional arena'. Set in the decade following Italian unification, the context was one of notable cultural variety. An as-yet unexplored aspect of this was that the experience and expression of emotions were as variable as the regions making up the new nation. Through a close
examination of the spaces in which daily lives, loves, and deaths unfolded - from marital homes to…


Medieval Sensibilities: A History of Emotions in the Middle Ages

By Damien Boquet, Piroska Nagy, Robert Shaw (translator)

Book cover of Medieval Sensibilities: A History of Emotions in the Middle Ages

Why this book?

All who are convinced that the Middle Ages was a barbaric period in which emotions were on the whole angry and violent will quickly change their mind as soon as they pick up this book. It shows that, far from being a stagnant interlude between the richly emotional worlds of classical antiquity and our own age, the period we call the Middle Ages was in constant emotional ferment, drawing above all on the implications of Christ’s passion and what it meant for human sensibilities.

Medieval Sensibilities: A History of Emotions in the Middle Ages

By Damien Boquet, Piroska Nagy, Robert Shaw (translator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Medieval Sensibilities as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What do we know of the emotional life of the Middle Ages? Though a long-neglected subject, a multitude of sources - spiritual and secular literature, iconography, chronicles, as well as theological and medical works - provide clues to the central role emotions played in medieval society.

In this work, historians Damien Boquet and Piroska Nagy delve into a rich variety of texts and images to reveal the many and nuanced experiences of emotion during the Middle Ages - from the demonstrative shame of a saint to a nobleman's fear of embarrassment, from the enthusiasm of a crusading band to the…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in emotions, Italy, and anthropology?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about emotions, Italy, and anthropology.

Emotions Explore 112 books about emotions
Italy Explore 265 books about Italy
Anthropology Explore 63 books about anthropology

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Today I Feel Silly & Other Moods That Make My Day, The 10-Minute Refresh for Moms, and The Way I Feel if you like this list.