Research Programs

Grammars of Emotion: Shame and the Social Economy of Honour in Medieval Heroic Literatures

Grammars of Emotion: Shame and the Social Economy of Honour in Medieval Heroic Literatures

Grammars of Emotion: Shame and the Social Economy of Honour in Medieval Heroic Literatures

Postdoctoral Research PNRR-III-C9-2022 – I9

Romania’s Recovery and Resilience Plan | Ministry of European Investment and Projects – Government of Romania | #NextGenerationEU – European Union

1 February 2023 – 31 January 2025

Project Leader:
Cătălin ȚĂRANU, PhD, NEC Scientific Researcher

Photo: “Apparition de Dieu”, Apocalypse of Saint Sever (

Photo: “Apparition de Dieu”, Apocalypse of Saint Sever (

This project explores the social function of emotions (in particular shame) in a range of Old and Middle English genres, from heroic verse and chivalric romance to homiletic prose. My approach combines sociological and cognitive methodologies with reader-response theory and digital humanities to provide a novel account of medieval emotional vocabularies and functional structures of honour by using shame, the most social and most intimate affect, as a privileged entry-point.

GRAMMOTION aims to open new horizons in the history of emotions by approaching emotional performance as structured social action whose rhythms and order can be extracted from a range of literary and devotional sources in a way that allows tracing patterns of change over time and in adaptation to various socio-political needs. This project will set the standards for more sophisticated approaches to analysing emotion in the study of language and literature. Its main output will consist in four articles providing a methodological toolkit for future researchers investigating emotions in premodern corpora (whether literary scholars, social historians, digital humanists or philosophers) and an interdisciplinary workshop bringing together scholars in all of these areas.


Emotions Through History Working Group


Photo: Chute d'Adam et Eve - Adam et Eve chassés du Paradis (France, Paris, Bibliothèque Mazarine, Ms 38 f. 006v) |

Photo: Chute d’Adam et Eve – Adam et Eve chassés du Paradis (France, Paris, Bibliothèque Mazarine, Ms 38 f. 006v) |

In the cultural production of past societies we encounter emotional landscapes that appear alien to our sensibilities. Inspired by the recent growth of research dedicated to exploring the inner worlds of people in the past, Emotions Through History is a cross-disciplinary working group dedicated to discussing the recent developments on this topic. We warmly welcome all scholars and students interested in the theoretical issues arising from the understanding of past affects, passions, sentiments – from antiquity to the modern era, in history, literature, philosophy, and beyond.

The Emotions Through History Working Group is the product of the collective interests and expertise of its convenors and participants, so please share any ideas, questions, and suggestions you might have at Depending on interest and subject to your suggestions, we can organize additional meetings, change some of the topics or have you present your work in progress.

Please do not feel that, in order to attend, you must already be well-versed in the history of emotions, or in any particular historical methods, philosophical enquiries, or theoretical debates. Our monthly meetings are a venue for open and frank discussions of recent scholarship, readings of primary sources, and presentations of work in progress. Working languages are Romanian and English.

We meet in a hybrid format: in person, at New Europe College (Plantelor 21, Bucharest) and online on Zoom – links and readings are shared well in advance via email, so please write to us if you are interested in attending online.

2023/ 2024 Academic Year

22 July 2024 – Shame in Classical Sanskrit Literature

Our next meeting will take us on a less beaten path. Dr. Rainer Grafenhorst will kindly introduce us to the world of emotions in Classical India. In his intervention, he will share with us some of his – until now mostly empirical – findings from his research into the concept of shame in Classical Sanskrit literature. He will present a number of examples from various registers and texts of the use of the principal terms in Sanskrit that mean (or at least are usually translated as) ‘shame’. He proposes that we simply read through these specimens and jointly comment on them, eventually bringing in notions and ideas from the amassed treasure of theoretical reflections on the nature and history of shame (Simmel, Elias, Schnell, Neckel, Goffman, Rosenwein etc.). Comparative perspectives from the cultural spaces on which the other participants are experts are most welcome!

17 June 2024 – How to Study Historical Trauma

Trauma, the emotional response to distressing events that are outside the usual range of human experience, is only slowly beginning to be recognized as a legitimate subject of historical study, meeting even more scepticism along the way than the general topic of historical emotions. And yet, throughout the past and all over the world to this day, distressing circumstances have never been far, and if responses like grief, mourning, and anger are more readily detected and thus have been more thoroughly studied, trauma is still a more elusive emotional experience. In this meeting of our working group we will explore the understudied and controversial topic of historical trauma.

Introducing the topic, we are pleased to have Dr. Roman Shliakhtin share some of his work on Byzantine trauma relative to the Battle of Manzikert. Then, Catalin will briefly discuss trauma in the Old English elegy ‘The Wanderer’. In similar fashion to our May meeting, we invite participants to share episodes, vignettes, anecdotes from the sources they work on that relate to trauma.

20 May 2024 Shame: A Kaleidoscope

Shame is the most intensely social and deeply intimate of emotions. A crucial ingredient in all social interactions and central to how we construct our self (always living in the minds of other people, per Cooley and Goffman), shame is also a protean emotion, found in so many shapes and contexts across cultures and societies that all of us have encountered it in our work at some point.

Hence, the next meeting will be a bit different. We will start with a series of 3-5-minute interventions (volunteers welcome!), each sharing an excerpt/episode from their sources or informants that they found intriguing, puzzling, or just funny. The central topic is shame in all its forms and linkages (embarrassment, humiliation, violence, honour, respect etc.). There will be a lot to learn from each other, and it will make for a more dynamic experience.

Reading: Thomas J. Scheff, ‘Looking Glass Selves: The Cooley/Goffman Conjecture’,  (paper given at the American Sociological Association’s 98th meeting, 2003)

22 April 2024 – The ‘Civilisational Process’: Do Emotions Evolve?

If emotional norms change over historical time, can we talk about a progressive refinement of emotion, a betterment of affective capacities and manifestations? In his grand synthesis of the 1930s, Norbert Elias argued for a civilisational process taking European society from a childish, unrestrained medieval emotionality, to the cool-headed reasonableness of modernity. His vision has had many critics, yet it has proven to be a very successful narrative, especially for the larger public, confirming popular ideas about a benighted pre-modernity contrasting with the benefits of the Enlightenment project. But beyond Elias, we find a recurring tendency to assess emotions on a moral scale even among researchers of emotion (e.g., shame-based cultures are developmentally inferior to guilt-based cultures). Should the history of emotions be guided by a moral compass – if so, on what basis, and using which methods?

Reading: Barbara Rosenwein, Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages (Cornell University Press, 2006), pp. 5-25

25 March 2024Is it Even Possible to Study Historical Emotions?

From its relatively recent beginning, the history of emotions has been met with scepticism, sometimes implicit in the work of some of its practitioners: how can one study such an elusive phenomenon as emotion, a private event that is almost impossible to represent through language, a physiological impulse best left to the research of psychologists? Once again, we reach the issue of defining what it is exactly that we study: a mere linguistic shadow of an essentially embodied reality?; a set of scripts that we absorb from the culture surrounding us?; a tool for socialization? What do we talk about when we talk about emotion? In our conversation, we will be engaging with a very recent survey of the debates in the field and the possibilities of going forward despite a fundamental scepticism built in many of the approaches and definitions we use when studying emotion.

Reading: Douglas Cairns, ‘Emotions through time?’, in Douglas Cairns et al., eds., Emotions through Time: From Antiquity to Byzantium (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2022), pp. 3-34

23 January 2024 – Affect Theory

Historians of emotion have only recently begun to engage with this alternative paradigm to emotions, which foregrounds intensities of feeling that go beyond (or come before) language and that engage the bodily senses. Hence, breaking with psychoanalytic or psychological frameworks, affect theory is not concerned with discrete emotions constructed through words via cognitive faculties but with studying affectivity expressed in spaces outside human subjectivity or interiority. We will discuss the potential of this framework to cast light on previously unconsidered issues in studying feelings in the sources of the past.

Readings: * Yael Navaro-Yashin, ‘Affective spaces, melancholic objects: ruination and the production of anthropological knowledge‘ (Malinowski Memorial Lecture 2007), Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15.1 (2009), 1-18

*(Optionally) Brian Massumi, ‘The Autonomy of Affect‘, The Politics of Systems and Environments 31 (1995), 83-109

28 November 2023 – Authenticity and Convention

One of the biggest obstacles in studying emotions represented in historical sources appears to be their authenticity. How do we know whether this king’s anger or that mother’s grief was sincere or went no deeper than a rhetorical commonplace? What is the relationship between the performance and verbal expression of emotions and what people actually felt? Perhaps authenticity itself is a paradigm that needs to be historically contextualized and seen for the post-Romantic expectation that it is. Our discussion will focus on these issues and will partly aim to tease out more productive ways of investigating emotions in the past that bypass a perceived disjunction between sincere inner feeling and conventional outer expression.

Readings: *Mary Garrison, ‘The study of emotions in early medieval history: some starting points‘, Early Medieval Europe 10 (2001), 243–50
*Stuart Airlie, ‘The history of emotions and emotional history‘, Early Medieval Europe 10 (2001), 235–41

31 October 2023 – Non-human Emotions

Animals, gods, swords, forests: narratives from all ages and places are full of non-human agents that have agency and feel or express emotion. However, the history of emotion has yet to acknowledge this rich corpus of evidence for affect that does not have a human subject as its source or that does not recognize the subject-object distinction. We will discuss various theoretical frameworks that might enable us to account for these non-human emotions (animism, mimesis, extended mind theory, cognitive metaphor, actor-network theory etc.) and what we can do with feeling subjectivities outside /beyond a human self.

Readings: *Rane Willerslev, Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs (University of California Press 2007), pp. 73-79; 97-100; 105-114; 181-188
*James Paz, Nonhuman Voices in Anglo-Saxon Literature and Material Culture (Manchester University Press, 2017), pp. 1-4; 17-24

*(Optionally) Ellen Arnold, ‘Environmental History and Hagiography‘, in Hagiography and the History of Latin Christendom, 500–1500, ed. by Samantha Kahn Herrick (Brill, 2020), pp. 351-71 (especially pp. 365-370)


2022/ 2023 Academic Year

17 July 2023 – Emotions in Translation
Does emotion reside anywhere else but language? From the (im)possibility of translating the verbal expression of emotion to power structures shaping emotions through discourse, we will discuss the role of language in shaping, expressing, concealing, and translating emotions.

Reading: Language and the Politics of Emotion, ed. by Catherine A. Lutz and Lila Abu-Lughod (Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 1-22

19 June 2023 – Visual Emotions
Hand gestures, blushing, blood rushing out of the hero’s ears out of anger. Emotions are not just felt or practiced, but seen. There is a visual grammar of emotions peculiar to each society and cultural community that, for past eras, we glimpse in iconography whose relationship to lived reality is much debated. How are emotions codified visually and what is the connection between visual representations of emotion and social reality?

Reading: Giuseppina Brunetti, ‘Pathosformeln. Iconographie et représentation verbale des émotions dans les Romans de Tristan (XIIe -XIII e siècles)’ [en ligne], conférence tenue dans le cadre du séminaire Le Corps régulé. Du biologique au culturel, ed. by A. Carol and I. Renaudet (Maison Méditerranée des Sciences de l’Homme d’Aix-en-Provence)

15 May 2023 – The Seat of Emotions
In this first informal get-together we will discuss various theories of emotion, focusing particularly on the locus where affects arise: various regions of the body, the soul, the heart, the brain, touching upon Classical as well as vernacular/folk theories of emotion.

Reading: Leslie Lockett, Anglo-Saxon Psychologies in the Vernacular and Latin Traditions (University of Toronto Press, 2011), pp. 1-53

24 April 2023 – Subjectivity, Selfhood, and Emotion
The discovery of the individual self (pushed back by successive generations of scholars from the Renaissance to the High Middle Ages to Classical Antiquity and out of Western Europe to other cultures and societies) appears to be central to the narrative framing of emotions, and vice versa: emotions are central to the construction of selfhood. And yet, are there other ways of conceptualizing emotion which do not presuppose a subject/self at the centre of the world?

Reading: Antonina Harbus, ‘Anglo-Saxon Perspectives on Autobiographical Memory and the Self’, in Cognitive Approaches to Old English Poetry (D. S. Brewer, 2012), pp. 130-161
Discussion preceded by a Work in Progress presentation by Cătălin Țăranu: Do Emotions Need a Self?

27 March 2023 – Emotion as a Social Practice
Emotion is often conceptualized in the terms of a post-Romantic and post-Freudian discrepancy between the private, ineffable feelings of one’s inmost being and its outward expression fraught with the dangers of misunderstanding and repression by other people. The conversation will revolve around newer theories of emotion bypassing this binary logic: emotion seen as a system of social practice, action, and gestures, as a performance determined by cultural scripts, as a phenomenon that emerges out of the interactions with other humans and objects.

Reading: Monique Scheer, ‘Emotions as a Kind of Practice: Six Case Studies Utilizing Monique Scheer’s Practice-Based Approach to Emotions in History’, Cultural History, 7.2, 226-38