Environment, Emotion and Early Modernity: An Interview with Sasha Handley and John Morgan

by | Aug 30, 2022 | Uncategorised | 0 comments

This blog post presents an interview with Professor Sasha Handley (Manchester) and Dr John Morgan (Bristol), editors of the special journal issue Environment, Emotion and Early Modernity published in Environment and History 28, no. 3 (2022).

Sasha is a founding member of The Bodies, Emotions and Material Culture Collective’s predecessor network Embodied Emotions, and John is a former member of our research collective who continues to give important input.

Their recent work presents a fascinating array of path-breaking conversations between environmental history, the history of emotions, and material culture studiesboth in terms of content and methodology. Environment, Emotion and Early Modernity now continues such interdisciplinary debates on early modern history; an opportunity for us to ask for more information!


Stefan Hanß (STH): Congratulations on the publication of this fascinating special issue! It is such an important contribution to a variety of current debates in early modern history, and beyond, and a real joy to read!

I am sure our readers long to hear how such an ambitious project came to life? What was the role of The Bodies, Emotions and Material Culture Collective’s predecessor network, the Embodied Emotions research group, in shaping your research agenda?


Sasha Handley (SH): The Embodied Emotions group provided a crucial framework for starting conversations about the interactions between environmental history, material culture studies, and the history of emotions and these themes have ultimately underpinned our special issue. I remember colleagues having chats in offices and corridors and exchanging reading suggestions—Timothy LeCain’s The Matter of History helped to build bridges between us, as did an existing collaboration with history of emotions colleagues at the University of Melbourne. Two workshops, one in Manchester and one in Melbourne, also helped shape our early thoughts about the volume.


John Morgan (JM): The research group was indeed crucial. It provided the initial spark for thinking about these things together—environment, emotion and early modernity. When I joined the History Department at Manchester, I found my way into the Embodied Emotions group not because I was conducting research that was directly related to the theme, but because the group was welcoming, open minded and curious about environmental history, and I was curious about embodied emotions in return. So it is bittersweet to publish this volume having left Manchester and the group, but I have learned so much because of it, and questions of bodies, emotions and environments continue to shape my research.


STH: In the introduction you state your fascination for approaches with “a consistent emphasis on materiality, on non-human forces, and on objects as more than mere props in the performance of emotion.” You also explain that you are “interested in how concerns with the physicality of things can be extended beyond individual objects into the wider, wilder physical environment,” referencing the works of Karen Barad and Timothy LeCain. I love this sentence for many reasons! Could you elaborate a bit more what is meant, and how these works have shaped your approach to the combined study of early modern emotions and environments?


SH: We were very interested in the work of Barad and LeCain because their work chimes so well with the acutely embodied nature of early modern environmental sensibilities. For early modern communities, the mind, spirit, body and its emotions were all influenced by the physical characteristics of particular places. We wanted to show how the characteristics of a local ecology, whether a boggy fenland or a temperate marine climate, were perceived to shape the physical and emotional health of people and animals, and the material properties of its flora and fauna. Recovering the complexity of this web of material interconnection and interdependence is crucial for understanding the multispecies emotional communities that came into being at particular times and in particular places.


STH: What do you consider the publication’s most relevant historiographical interventions?


SH: In this collection we insist on the importance of an early modern environmental (and embodied) history of emotions. Early modern ways of understanding environments, bodies and practicising emotions not only differ from modern and contemporary approaches, but they also point towards ways of knowing and living with the world which do more than prefigure the domination of nature. In other words, the volume offers a more-than-human view of early modern emotional practices, regimes and communities that resist categorising this period as one dominated by the arrival of ‘anthropocentric thinking’ associated with early modern colonial and scientific ventures. Instead, we uncover different scales of thinking and feeling about diverse environments by a wide range of historical actors.


JM: Very broadly, we’re doing a couple of things for a couple of different audiences. For the environmental historians, we are asking them to think about environments and emotions before the ‘modern world’. Environmental history is a very chronologically top-heavy discipline, so we are showing that you can bring forth thematical and methodological innovation when focusing on a period that has not been core to the sub-discipline thus far. For historians of emotions, we’re picking up the baton from our colleagues in Australia and taking thinking about materiality and emotions and carrying it out into broader conceptualisations of environments. We were really enthused by the conversations we had at a workshop in Melbourne a few years back, and I like to think a few seeds were planted there, some of which are coming to fruition in this special issue.


SH: I agree entirely with John here on the main interventions that we hope the special issue will make. I would also just add that our shared research interests also encouraged many of our authors to take a multispecies approach to their essays and to think beyond an anthropocentric box when framing the ways in which early modern communities understood their environments and indeed their emotions.



STH: What are the topics, research questions, and arguments of your own contributions to the special issue?


SH: My paper recovers the materials, animals, expertise, and multispecies relationships that were needed to produce a successful batch of ‘sack posset’—a heady dairy-based beverage that was the culinary pinnacle of a wedding day in early modern England. Using evidence from early modern recipe books, surviving posset pots, agricultural treatises, and a remaking experiment, I argue that the cultivation of affective relations between ‘kindly’ dairy cows, their milkers and owners, was vital in securing a safe and stable foodway on a wedding day. The better these affective relationships were, the more potent the effects of the sack posset, which was believed to play a role in rousing the passions of the newlyweds and in securing their fertility fortunes. I have tried to expand the range of materials and agents that have typically been recognised as crucial to the formation of early modern marriage. 


JM: My paper explores how people felt about pigeons and how people’s affective relationships with pigeons shaped their feelings about place and landscape in the early modern Atlantic. I say people and early modern Atlantic for shorthand, but the paper is really just about rural England and the eastern half of what is now the United States, focussing almost exclusively on English settler colonists there. There is a deeply fascinating history of Indigenous relationships with Passenger Pigeons that I don’t yet know well enough to discuss appropriately. The paper tries to read across some of the ways in which people felt about pigeons in England to settler colonies in North America, tracking how emotions suffused relationships with pigeons in very different contexts. It argues that emotions can be understood as being formed, felt, practised, etc., not just with inanimate things, but with wider ecologies—here the movements and behaviours of different pigeon species and their relationships to their landscapes.


STH: This is all super fascinating! The special issue’s article also lead readers to early modern Apulia, Korea, Rome, and Virginia; a series of snapshot essays reflect on the Anthropocene and energy futures; and book reviews discuss geographies ranging from Brazil and Russia. Much to dive into for readers! Warm congratulations again to the editors and contributors!