Review: Dr Thomas Dixon on Weeping Britannia – How and Why to Write the History of Tears

birkbeck_research_6Sarah Watkins attended last week’s Research Student Seminar by Dr Thomas Dixon on ‘Weeping Britannia – How and Why to Write the History of Tears’: this is her review of the evening.

The latest instalment in the Research Student Seminar series was an emotional event. Thomas Dixon, historian of emotions, gave a talk entitled Weeping Britannia: Why and How to Write the History of Tears. The talk covered 600 years of crying, in a very condensed version of his forthcoming book, also called Weeping Britannia. Dr Dixon stopped off at five particular historical milestones to illustrate the nation’s changing attitudes towards public displays of crying.

First, he tackled the ‘why’ of the talk’s title. This served as a wonderfully personal introduction to both the topic and speaker starting with the research as a form of therapy! He also admitted to being a fairly frequent weeper himself; his work is in some way stimulated by his own emotional responses. Obviously it is also a chance for fame and fortune; Britishness and the emotions are both hot topics almost guaranteed to bring riches to the historians studying them. Well, we can all dream… Weeping is an incredibly intellectually fascinating subject to study and Dr Dixon introduced the links between the intellectual, social, and bodily aspects of crying. It is an active process involving both body and mind, and one that needs to be considered within particular social contexts.

The book is split into 23 short chapters, each a work of microhistory, or a ‘historical teardrop’ (how I love that phrase), discrete but connected. It starts with Margery Kempe, known for her bouts of religiously inspired weeping in the fifteenth century, and ends with the tears George Osborne shed at the funeral of Margaret Thatcher earlier this year. The talk began in the late sixteenth century to look at the impact the Reformation had on attitudes to weeping. Dr Dixon argued that the Reformation fundamentally altered the way the British cried. The 1591 pamphlet Marie Magdalens Funeral Teares was used to illustrate that tears became associated with Catholicism. In particular, the weeping and rending of the body performed at funerals became a thing of suspicion. There was no longer a need to weep copiously for the soul of the departed to ease its passage through Purgatory. Such displays of grief came to be viewed as heathenish, and it is during this period that the terms blubbering and maudlin took on their contemporary meanings.

The second pitstop looked at the development of a Protestant theory of crying. Protestants did cry, but they now wept differently. Weeping in repentance for one’s sins became modish, and Oliver Cromwell wept during the opening of the Barebones Parliament. Witches, however, did not cry. It was one way of identifying them. And beware, because even if they did manage to squeeze a tear from their dried-up deceitful bodies, it was most certainly faked. In the eighteenth century Methodism became associated with public displays of weeping. George Whitfield was a veteran crier and could get a congregation weeping along with him. Not everyone was comfortable with such excessive emotion, and the taint of enthusiasm gathered around the wrong type of crying. The cult of sensibility called for a more refrained ‘moist eye’.

The next marker we heard about was the impact of the French Revolution. This is an important point of change, but the reasons why are not clear-cut. People of all opinions about the events across the Channel make anti-weeping statements. Tears become less acceptable during the 1790s, and the idea that it is unmanly to weep starts to creep into the national consciousness. By the 1870s the ‘stiff upper lip’ has become something quite British. In 1872 Darwin published The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, in which he wrote that Englishmen rarely cried though restraint could be difficult. This attitude can be seen exemplified in the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ (however real) or the stoicism of those kept in Japanese PoW camps during the Second World War. But, certain types of crying were acceptable, for example sobbing at the cinema was common in both men and women.

And so to the more recent past and the end of the stiff upper lip in 1964 or thereabouts. Movements and sensibilities such as Romanticism, the Bloomsbury Group, psychoanalysis, all converged in the opinion that emotions ought to be expressed openly. During the 1970s football became one arena in which men could cry, for joy or in sadness. Perhaps one of the most iconic modern images of a man in tears is that of Gazza (Paul Gascoigne) during Italia ’90. It’s certainly one I’ll never forget.

Tears found their way back into politics too. A Daily Express article from 1978 entitled ‘Why I Cry’ was an interview with Margaret Thatcher showing her more fragile and sensitive side. More recently both David Cameron and Gordon Brown have welled up when talking about their tragic loss of a child. In this instance we most likely feel empathy, but tears can also provoke jeers. Mrs Thatcher’s emotional display when leaving Downing Street once ousted as Prime Minister did not gain her universal sympathy (I am indeed mistress of the understatement). George Osborne was roundly mocked in the press for his sadness at her funeral.

These final examples led us into an interesting and lengthy Q&A session. The topic stirred up some strong opinions and personal responses amongst the audience. One aspect that I found especially thought-provoking was our own preconceptions about fake versus real tears. How we judge the person weeping involves the norms of social behaviour, our own feelings about that individual, and what they are crying about. Dr Dixon’s approach, which sees all weeping as acts of social performance, helps move away from the need to assess crying in such a way. Each bout of weeping can be investigated contextually, and be threaded together to reveal more about how and why we cry.

The next Research Student Seminar – Dr Hugh Bowden (King’s College London) on ‘History and the heroic individual: the difficulties of writing about Alexander the Great’ – takes place 6-8pm in Malet Street room G15 on Tuesday 18 June. 

Read Sarah Watkins’ review of Professor Cornelie Usborne’s seminar on women’s experiences through hostile sources here

We’re looking to publish reports from seminars and workshops on birkbeckhistoryphd.org – please email Emma (elundi01@mail.bbk.ac.uk) if you’d like to contribute.

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