Conference report: ‘Criminal Law and Emotions in European Legal Cultures: From the 16th Century to the Present’

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 14.55.27I’m just back from Berlin after an excellent few days attending the ‘Criminal Law and Emotions’ conference at the Max Planck Centre for the History of Emotions. I presented a paper on the case of Franca Viola, the 17 year old Sicilian woman who was kidnapped by her ex-fiancé in 1966 with the intention of forcing her into marriage, and became the first woman to refuse the so-called reparatory marriage offered to her, forcing her kidnapper and rapist Filippo Melodia to be tried and sentenced for his crimes. I’ve written more about her case here.

The conference itself drew together both historians and legal scholars whose work intersected with emotions and the law, leading to some fascinating interdisciplinary conversations. Quite a few papers drew attention to how emotions were and are expressed in the courtroom, both by defendants, judges and legal teams. Katie Barclay’s paper on masculinity in the 19th century Irish courtroom drew attention to the fact that judges were not always expected to be impassive in court, with tears actually expected from a judge meting out the death sentence in early 19th century Ireland. Both Shira Leitersdorf-Shkedy and Terry Maroney, who spoke about their on-going work with judges in Israel and the US, highlighted however that much still has to be done to persuade the contemporary judiciary to move past the ideal of impartiality and to acknowledge the role of their own emotions in the courtroom. In general the conference highlighted the importance of the courtroom as a physical space – which was of course not static but changing considerably over time – in which emotions might be experienced and performed.

Other papers focused on different confined spaces, and on the petty conflicts and emotional displays they might provoke, often ending in some time in court. Camilla Schjerning examined tight urban spaces in 18th century Copenhagen, and the petty quarrels between neighbours and families that often spilled over into violent exchanges, while Alllyson Creasman explored the crowded spaces of early modern German cities. In both papers, anger and honour were the key emotions and it was interesting to see how both intersected with the law. In such crowded living spaces, the body was crucial and there was a fine balance between appropriate and excessive displays of emotion – pride, honour, anger – and violence. Since honour is crucial to my own work, it was interesting to see how the concept was played out in different time periods and contexts, and how deeply connected it always was to other emotions such as pride and anger. Although not exclusively bound up with women’s sexuality as it was in the context of the Viola case, the link with masculinity and pride was constant.

In all, my few days in Berlin have given me a lot to think about, whether it is how emotions are performed in physical spaces – both within and outside the courtroom – the role of the emotions in the work of legal professionals as well as defendants, or my own need to develop a much broader understanding of honour in the context of the law.

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