The Affective (Re)turn and Early Modern European History

in Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques

The call to attend to a history of affect is hardly a new one in the profession: in 1941, in a classic essay entitled “La sensibilité et l’histoire: Comment reconstituer le vie affective d’autrefois?,” Lucien Febvre laid out an agenda for just such a historiographical turn. His reasoning, however, had less to do with the need for a history of affect per se than with the belief that the history of ideas or of institutions, both of them mainstays of traditional historiography, “are subjects that the historian can neither understand nor make understood without this primordial interest that I call the psychological.” In a perceptive review essay of the historiography of emotions that marked the beginning of the current affective turn in historical inquiry, Barbara Rosenwein argued that Febvre’s turn toward such a history was less a repudiation of the political focus of history than a belief born from observing the rise of Nazism: “politics itself is not rational, not unemotional.” As Rosenwein notes, Febvre answered the skeptics in his own essay: “The history of hate, the history of fear, the history of cruelty, the history of love; stop bothering us with this idle chatter. But that idle chatter … will tomorrow have turned the universe into a fetid pile of corpses.”

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