Journal of the Northern Renaissance

~ Radical Open Access ~

Conference Report – Myth and Emotion in Early Modern Europe

Katherine Heavey (University of Glasgow)
& Gordon Raeburn (University of Melbourne) 


[1] On 10 March 2016, the University of Melbourne, in association with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE), hosted a one-day seminar on the topic of ‘Myth and Emotion in Early Modern Europe’. The seminar was organised by Dr Gordon Raeburn (University of Melbourne) and Dr Katherine Heavey (University of Glasgow) and was generously supported by CHE and the University of Melbourne. The seminar attracted speakers from across Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, and the keynote lecture was delivered by Professor Cora Fox (Arizona State University).

Lucas van Leyden, Pyramus and Thisbe, 1514

Lucas van Leyden, Pyramus and Thisbe, 1514

[2] Established in 2011 under the Australian Research Council’s Centres of Excellence Program, and based at the University of Western Australia in Perth, CHE has nodes at the University of Melbourne, the University of Sydney, the University of Adelaide, and the University of Queensland in Brisbane. The Centre’s overarching purpose is to recover the history of emotions from Europe between 1100 and 1800. The History of Emotions is a broad field, which has garnered attention in recent years, and attracts scholars from fields beyond the humanities, such as neuroscience and psychology. One of the emerging strengths of the field is the multiplicity of ways in which emotions are approached in relation to other aspects of history and literature, for instance the focus in this seminar upon the place of emotions within early modern reimaginings of classical myth.

[3] This seminar sought to underscore and explore the connections early modern authors perceived between myth and emotion, and explored a range of research questions, including:

  • Which classical myths were most popular, among authors seeking emotional effect?
  • How were myths rewritten to alter or increase the emotional impact? Could comic myths become tragic, or was it more likely for tragic myths to become comic?
  • Why did authors choose to rewrite known stories in this way? How does an iconic reshaping of a classical story’s emotional impact (such as Shakespeare’s rewriting of Pyramus and Thisbe into a comic interlude) affect our perception of the original myth, or hypotext?
  • What might the ‘emotionalising’ of a particular myth (for example by giving the reader access to a character’s previously unspoken thoughts or feelings) have to tell us about the cultural or literary context in which it was written? What might it suggest about attitudes to women; foreigners; or the relationship between reader and audience?

The seminar addressed the marrying of myth and emotion across a wide range of genres (poetry, prose, drama, epic), from the Middle Ages to the early eighteenth century, and in the works of both canonical early modern authors (Shakespeare, Spenser, Jonson) and their lesser-known predecessors and contemporaries (John Rolland, Richard Robinson).Papers approached the topic from a variety of perspectives, asking how myth might be used to intervene in, or contribute to, political or religious debates (for example Gordon Raeburn’s paper on John Rolland, and Brandon Chua’s on Eliza Haywood); how myth might manipulate emotions to entertain as well as educate (Katherine Heavey on Ben Jonson and Richard Robinson); and how female writers received and reworked myths (Bronwyn Reddan on the myth of Cupid and Psyche in the work of Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy).

[4] The event began with the keynote lecture by Professor Cora Fox, entitled ‘Awe, Happiness and Emotive Intertextuality in The Winter’s Tale’. Fox described The Winter’s Tale as ‘Shakespeare’s most mythic play…dependent on a web of fictional and cultural narratives’. Professor Fox provided a reading of the play – in particular Hermione’s climactic and tragicomic transformation – which demonstrated the work’s ‘emotive intertextuality’, its employment of earlier mythic models (such as the story of Pygmalion) not just to provoke emotional response, but to ‘constitute and attach value to emotions’. Professor Fox showed how the creation of emotion – happiness, sadness, awe – was, and is, key to the play’s impact, in Shakespeare’s day and today. The subsequent discussion broadened to consider how the emotions on display in Shakespeare’s tragicomedy had evolved (and often changed entirely) from his most important contemporary source, Robert Greene’s prose fiction Pandosto (1588). This work does not include Hermione’s famous transformation, but nevertheless, at its climax it draws explicit attention to the question of how an author creates emotional response in the reader, and highlights the fine line between tragedy and comedy.

[5] The first session comprised papers from Dr Katherine Heavey and Dr Diana Barnes (University of Queensland). In her paper, ‘Myth and Emotion in Early Modern England’, Dr Heavey showed how a range of authors, from Ben Jonson to Richard Robinson, reshaped classical myth (and the classical adaptations of their contemporaries, such as Christopher Marlowe) with the intention of creating specific emotional responses in readers and audiences. In Bartholomew Fair, for example, Jonson wants at least a section of his audience to appreciate how his lowbrow and scurrilous rewriting of the story of Hero and Leander differs from Marlowe’s popular poem, and to laugh at his irreverent reworking of myth. In work that was written to be read, too, authors saw the potential to heighten the emotional impact of their source myths – in the little-known dream vision poem The Rewarde of Wickednesse (1574), Richard Robinson gives a posthumous voice to Helen of Troy. The poem exaggerates Helen’s grief, as she recalls her sins in the afterlife, and moreover attempts to dictate the emotional response of Robinson’s readers: women in particular, he argues, should weep (and examine their own moral failings at the same time) as they read the (largely invented) grief of a well-known mythical heroine.

[6] Dr Barnes’ paper, ‘Myth and Emotion “clowdily enwrapped” in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene’, argued that the piece in question was a kaleidoscope of myth generating an array of emotional effect. In The Faerie Queene Spenser sought to lay claim to inherited literary traditions, and to build something new in the process. In so doing he drew threads from a wide range of classical and medieval works, representing his literary inheritance as a repository of myth, resulting in a digressive, episodic, allegorical, and incomplete heroic romance constituting six books and fragments of a seventh. Barnes argued that despite the narratives being bound together by the myth of King Arthur’s service to the Faerie Queene this work was in no way unified by a singular mythic or emotional drive. Dr Barnes highlighted the lack of focus by Spenser scholars upon the relationship between myth and emotion. Finally, she argued that a theory of emotion and its proper governance was at the centre of Spenser’s view of the function, responsibility, and scope of a heroic poetics that serves the commonwealth.

[7] The second session comprised papers from Dr Kirk Essary (University of Western Australia) and Dr Gordon Raeburn. Dr Essary’s paper, ‘Proteus in the Renaissance: Myth and Emotion in Erasmus’, addressed how Erasmus of Rotterdam, a voracious reader of classical myth, recast tales from Greece and Rome within a wide variety of emotional contexts and forms, such as his metaphorical invocation of the shapeshifting Proteus in the Enchiridion, or his use of the battle of Achilles and Hector in the Iliad to instil fear into the Christian soldier through rhetorical amplification. Elsewhere, in the Ecclesiastes Erasmus warned the prospective preacher against the Scylla of arrogance and the Charybdis of despair. Erasmus, of course, was not unfamiliar with irony and laughter, and in the Praise of Folly he employed twisted retellings of ancient myth to such an end. Conversely Erasmus emphasised the pathos of Ovid’s Nux to show how an ostensibly playful poem actually induces pity. Dr Essary ultimately highlighted how Erasmus’ willingness to interact with ancient myth in a variety of emotional contexts over his career reveals his own protean tendencies.

[8] Dr Raeburn’s paper, ‘Myth, Emotion, and Identity in Rolland’s The Court of Venus’, examined the allegorical use of the myth of the court of Venus to describe the state of Scotland and the Scottish church during the period of the European Reformation. The idea of Rolland’s work being allegorical is not new, but it was previously believed to be an allegory for the state of the Scottish law courts at the time. Dr Raeburn demonstrated that Rolland had a deeper layer of allegorical meaning, arguing for reform of the Scottish church from within the pre-existing Catholic structures. Rolland, a Catholic priest until at least 1554, ultimately converted to Protestantism by 1560. It is possible, however, that during the intervening years Rolland recognised the need for the Church to change, without going so far as to embrace Protestantism. Throughout Scotland this would, of course, have been a tumultuous time for both Rolland and others affected by the growing winds of change. As such, in this paper, Raeburn described Rolland’s work as an allegorical description of the emotional state of mid-sixteenth-century Scots.

[9] The third and final session comprised papers from Ms Bronwyn Reddan (University of Melbourne) and Dr Brandon Chua (University of Queensland). Ms Reddan’s paper, ‘Reimagining Cupid and Psyche in the fairy tales of Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy’, considered d’Aulnoy’s version of the Cupid and Psyche tale in her 1697 work, Serpentin Vert. This work retells and revises the Cupid and Psyche myth in order to address the question of whether or not it is possible to love without knowing or seeing the beloved. Unlike Psyche’s perfect physical beauty, d’Aulnoy’s heroine Laideronnette is cursed with a profound ugliness. Laideronnette, like Psyche, marries an unseen husband whom she is prohibited from looking upon, a prohibition she disobeys, resulting in her punishment. Ms Reddan argued that when read in light of d’Aulnoy’s representation of love in her other tales, Laideronnette’s failure to obey is inevitable, because d’Aulnoy suggests that sight is imperative to love. As such, Laideronnette cannot love her husband without looking upon him. Her curiosity is not emblematic of female weakness; it rebalances the relationship between husband and wife.

[10] Finally, Dr Chua’s paper, ‘Myth, History, and the Orient: Eliza Haywood’s The Adventures of Eovaii (1742) and the Politics of Sinophilia’, examined the fusion of Greco-Roman myth with the oriental tale in the Secret History, a subgenre of historiography that thrived in the Restoration and the eighteenth-century print market. The form of the Secret History was shown to have exploited the growing appetite for political scandal in the period following the English Civil Wars, using the distancing frames of classical myth and the oriental tale to demystify the secret workings of the state by publicising and politicising the private lives of the chief players at court. Dr Chua’s paper, employing as a case study Eliza Haywood’s scathing history of the Walpole administration, considered how the transportation of classical myth into the oriental tale enabled the genre of the Secret History to register the representational crises at stake in a public sphere undergoing profound reconstitutions by new forms of political literacy.

11] ‘Myth and Emotion in Early Modern Europe’ showed how early modern myth might be outward-facing and dynamic, reflective of the present moment and contemporary concerns as well as of the past. Simultaneously, it showed how for hundreds of years, authors have been preoccupied with using literature to explore the nature, creation and expression of emotion. The range of papers and critical and theoretical approaches demonstrated the centrality of myth to the early modern literary imagination, but also its flexibility. Myth was adopted and adapted in a myriad of ways to reflect and to shape both individual and collective emotion in early modern Europe.

[12] The organisers would like to extend their thanks to all participants, and to the University of Melbourne and the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. Further information about the Centre and its work can be found here: and you can also follow its research activities on Facebook and on Twitter: @ThinkEmotions.

Next Post

Previous Post

Leave a Reply

© 2023 Journal of the Northern Renaissance

Theme by Anders Norén