Report: Symposium on Emotions in the Courtroom

On 3rd-4th May, a one and half day symposium on the theme of Emotions in the Courtroom was held at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. The symposium was a joint venture between the ARC Centre for the History of Emotions (CHE); The Centre for Mediaeval and Early Modern Law and Literature at the University of St Andrews (CMEMML) and the Marie Curie research network Power and Institutions in Medieval Islam and Christendom (PIMIC). Funding was also received from the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE). The symposium was co-convened by Kimberley-Joy Knight (CHE, The University of Sydney), John Hudson (University of St Andrews) and Jamie Page (University of Durham).

This interdisciplinary symposium brought together an international field of scholars of law, literature, and history whose research intersects with emotions and the law. The papers explored the ‘theatre’ of justice in which spontaneous, provoked, faked, and repressed emotions played an important role in legal conduct and procedure. Using Anglo-Norman court cases, John Hudson analysed clerical stratagems that provoked lay frustration, which manifested itself in anger. A keynote lecture delivered by Stephen D. White (Emory/Harvard) entitled ‘Trying to Keep Emotions Out of the Courtroom: Courtliness and Good Counsel in Girart de Roussillon’, challenged the view of medievalists such as Stephen Jaeger that unruly medieval nobles could learn to control their emotions and their violent impulses only from courtly clerics, courtly romances and Christian moralists. Several papers, including those given by Hans Jacob Orning (University of Oslo) and Susanne Pohl-Zucker, explored changes in emotional expression and regulation, demonstrating the importance of moving beyond Elias’ civilizing process.

Law courts could also play an important role in shaping emotional culture. Merridee L. Bailey (CHE, the University of Adelaide) presented late medieval and early modern cases heard in England’s Court of Chancery to investigate the emotional culture of urban London and whether law courts played a role in shaping moral, emotional and economic community norms. Ian Forrest (Oriel College, the University of Oxford) examined faith and feeling in late medieval litigation involving marriage and debt. Such litigation often involved powerful gestures and this highlighted the importance of reading the body and face. In his discussion of fear and anger in high-stakes lawsuits in the Icelandic sagas, William I. Miller explained how swelling, fainting and bleeding could all be read as expressions of vengeance and can give vital clues as to inner emotional states.

The expression and use of anger was explored in papers given by Elizabeth Papp Kamali and Susanne Pohl-Zucker who examined the use of anger as a mitigating circumstance in legal practice. Kamali excavated the understandings of anger that informed jurors’ attitudes toward felony defendants through an analysis of English legal records, religious writings, and literature. The complexity of anger in felony adjudication was made evident with examples that showed it could be aligned with both moral blameworthiness and the loss of reason. Using sixteenth-century trial records from the duchy of Württemberg and the imperial city of Reutlingen, Pohl-Zucker showed how anger was used both to establish and to undermine claims, and that its use as a mitigating circumstance in legal practice had to be negotiated with cultural ideals that valued emotional balance and viewed uncontrolled anger in a negative light.

The rich papers given at the symposium made it clear that the court space could be a locus for emotionally charged events in which anger in particular played a critical role. Discussions arising from the closing roundtable made it clear that legal records and legal historians have much to contribute to the History of Emotions. The symposium will be supplemented by a panel (809) and roundtable discussion (909) at the Leeds International Medieval Congress this July. Speakers will include Paul Hyams (Emeritus Professor, Cornell/Oxford); John Hudson; Matthew McHaffie (Kings College London); Will Eves (University of St Andrews); Jamie Page and Kimberley-Joy Knight.

Selected papers from Emotions in the Courtroom are available via the CHE SoundCloud page.


Conference report provided by Kimberley-Joy Knight (CHE, The University of Sydney)