Battlefield Emotions 1500-1900 Interdisciplinary workshop


Friday, 18 January 2013, Amsterdam (Vrije Universiteit)

Early modern authors of military memoirs rarely commented upon their emotional involvement with combat or suffering. Their reports are usually very factual and in many cases do not even mention their own experiences.  According to historians like Yuval Harari this changed from the late 18th century onwards, when soldiers started to describe their battlefield experiences as revelatory, unique experiences that change the self. In art and literature the focus similarly switched from heroic facts to individual emotions; even heroes had to be seen to be human, and reveal their inner experience of war.

The eighteenth-century culture of sensibility and the ‘humanization’ of the image of the common soldier in cultural and political discourse indeed had a major impact on the manner in which military matters were discussed in the public sphere. It created a new common language about the experience of combat and introduced intimate images of the battlefield, a process that may have bridged the gap between civic and military imaginings of combat. These images and stories enabled the public to imagine what an individual soldier experienced in military combat and what it was like to kill and suffer in the name of the nation. According to Mary A. Favret these images also created a certain distance towards war experiences, since the battlefield itself is removed from immediate perception, and only available to the public through media forms.

In the military sciences, too, there was an increasing awareness that common soldiers were not machines but feeling bodies with emotions. From the eighteenth century onwards, it went hand in hand with ‘modernization’ of the military, the introduction of military service and with the rise of military education. While military theorists propagated a rationalisation of military organisation, they also became aware of the importance of morale and motivation for the individual soldier, irrespective of their rank. Empathy and enthusiasm were important notions in military theory of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which placed the emotions of the armed individual, rather than his commanders’ sublime reason, at the centre of war strategy.

But when and where can this growing interest for emotions first be observed? And how can we explain this? Should we explain the absence of individual emotions in early modern memoires, poems and theatre texts about combat, with reference to concepts of the self and the body, to religious beliefs or to the conventions of genre? Are these emotions the creation of rising states and nationalism? Should we look for explanations in medical sciences, in the organization of the military, in military theory and strategy or rather in developments in the arts themselves? This interdisciplinary workshop will not only study the emotions associated with combat experience as expressed in all possible media and social spheres, and chart the changes that can be observed over time. It will also try to shed light on  the social and cultural developments that brought these changes about.

Battlefield Emotions 1500-1900 is organized by: Amsterdam Centre for Cross-Disciplinary Emotion and Sensory Studies (ACCESS), Group for Early Modern Studies Ghent University (GEMS), History Department Leiden University.
Coordination: Erika Kuijpers (Leiden University) and Cornelis van der Haven (Ghent University)

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