Battlefield Emotions 1550-1850: International workshop

Battlefield Emotions 1550-1850, an international workshop 
13-15 February, Ghent University, Belgium
http://www.battlefieldemotions.ugent.be

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.

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Battlefield Emotions 1500-1900 Interdisciplinary workshop

BATTLEFIELD EMOTIONS 1500-1900

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)