Research Stream


Amy Milka
The University of Adelaide


Professors of Feeling: Emotion and the English Criminal Courts, 1700-1830

Aristotle famously claimed that 'the law is reason free from passion'.  However, the eighteenth-century courtroom was often a stage for various displays of emotion and feeling. This project considers the affective language of the courtroom in criminal trials, as it was enacted and represented in eighteenth-century legal and print culture. 

Professors of Feeling: Emotion and the English Criminal Courts, 1700-1830

Image: "A legal faint i,e, a feint" by Thomas Erskine 1791. Copyright The British Library. Used with permission.

Throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the language and discourse of criminality and legality were in flux. The project considers the shifts in language and addresses which accompanied the introduction of lawyers into the criminal courts from the mid-eighteenth century, the changing role of the jury, and new approaches to prosecution and defence.  It also aims to situate these ideas within a changing cultural and intellectual landscape, considering the impact of moral philosophy, literature and politeness upon the workings of the law.

In the courtroom, at the level of local justice, and in wider intellectual and print culture, attitudes to the law, the government and individual rights were subject to significant change.  This project investigates the role that emotion played in the language of the law as spoken by legal professionals, and the way that ideas about performance, oratory, and sympathy influenced their address.  It will consider how changes in the discourse of sympathy and sensibility, in the way people perceived the role of government and their own natural rights, impacted on emotional language within the law.  

Further, this project is concerned with representation and reception, thinking about emotional engagement with the law outside the courtroom.  How was criminal justice represented in private accounts and in print culture, and to what extent did emotion play a part in the interpretation of crime, punishment, and the workings of the law?  How did factors such as class, gender, or the nature of the crime affect sympathetic responses?   The project aims to consider a cross-section of material engaging with criminal justice, to situate the changing language of the law within an affective landscape, and within a broader understanding of eighteenth-century culture.