Battlefield Emotions 1550-1850, an international workshop
13-15 February, Ghent University, Belgium
In modern Europe we are daily confronted with images of ‘our’ soldiers in action in faraway warzones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Modern media explicitly pay attention to not only the problems of desperate relatives at the home front, but also the intimate feelings like fear and dejection of the military subject itself. The ‘emotional soldier’ however is a very complex figure, since military discipline does not allow for emotions to be displayed as openly as they are in civil society today. Representations of ‘battlefield emotions’ in the past open up the long history of this complex relation between two overlapping yet different emotional cultures: the military and the civic public sphere. Moreover, it will contribute to the current debate in the humanities concerning the historical and cultural origins of modern emotions.
We call ‘battlefield emotions’ the emotions of the individual in the face of violence and death as they are expressed and represented in text and image, songs and gestures, rituals and objects. ‘Battlefield emotions’ have long been considered absent in battle reports, memoirs and artistic representations of the battlefield experience from before the rise of romanticism and nationalism in the 18th and 19th centuries. Moreover, it is assumed that the 18th century was the age of sentimentalisation that altered the representation of battlefield experiences. According to historian Yuval Harari, this change began in the late 18th century, when soldiers started to describe battlefield events as revelatory, unique experiences that transformed the self. In art and literature also, the focus is assumed to have switched from heroic facts to individual emotions; even heroes were human and their image had to reveal their inner experience of war. Newspapers would no longer restrict their war reports to military facts and figures but also published personal letters from the front.
This workshop seeks to problematise the idea that 16th- and 17th-century war experiences did not foster emotions or that the early accounts do not contain emotional elements. Instead of using the paradigms of ‘absence’ in the 16th and 17th century and ‘birth’ of emotions in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, this workshop aims to explore battlefield emotions in the light of an on-going clash between emotional cultures or communities of soldiers and civilians and to recognise early battlefield emotions as such, even when they are no longer familiar to us. Honour, desire for glory, patriotism, love of knowledge, truth and order, are notions that are deeply emotional in nature and very important to the early modern soldier. In this workshop we plan to map and understand a broader spectrum of emotions that are related to the battlefield in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries and to find explanations for variations and changes in emotional culture. The battlefield thus serves as a case to enhance our theoretical and methodological approach of emotions in history.
For more information and registration, visit the workshop’s website.