Research Stream


Robin Macdonald
The University of Western Australia

Laughter and Affect in Seventeenth-Century North America

Drawing on a combination of anthropology and emotions theory, this project analyses the multifaceted roles of laughter in eastern North American colonial encounters.

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Since the European invasion of North America, histories of encounter have been characterised by cultural and linguistic misunderstandings, which frequently prompted laughter. Focusing on seventeenth-century encounters of French, Iroquoian, Algonquian and English people, this project examines the diverse meanings of laughter, both as an expression of feelings and as a tool for change. What feelings might be expressed by laughter? In what ways could it create concord? How could it be used as a tool for resistance? And what are the challenges faced by scholars in identifying and presenting laughter and its meanings and affects? Drawing on recent scholarly work on laughter and, in particular, on Monique Scheer’s theory of emotions as ‘a kind of practice’, this project emphasises the ways in which laughter not only expressed emotions, but could also shape emotions and – by extension – colonial encounters. Through the investigation of broad variety of source materials (letters, travel narratives, missionary accounts, and objects, amongst others), it investigates laughter’s diverse meanings and affects and the ways in which these were shaped by historic, cultural and geographical contexts.

Robin’s research also examines the roles of humour and emotions in seventeenth-century colonial correspondence, in particular, though the examination of texts and materiality.

For more on Robin’s research on laughter see her blog post 'No Laughing Matter? Humour and History' on the Histories of Emotions blog.


Macdonald, R. ‘Sensing Sacred Missives: Birch Bark Letters from Seventeenth-Century Missionaries in New France’. In Sensing the Sacred: Religion and the Senses in Late Medieval and Early Modern Culture, edited by Robin Macdonald, Emilie K. M. Murphy and Elizabeth L. Swann. Routledge, forthcoming 2018.

Macdonald, R.,  E. K. M. Murphy and E. L. Swann. ‘Introduction’. In Sensing the Sacred: Religion and the Senses in Late Medieval and Early Modern Culture. Routledge, forthcoming 2018.

Blog posts

'No Laughing Matter? Humour and History' - Histories of Emotion Blog, 1 April 2016


Encounters and Emotions in Colonial Histories - The University of Western Australia, September 2016

2016 Shaping the Modern Program Collaboratory: Emotions, Materiality and Transformations in the Colonial Contact Zone - The University of Western Australia, March 2016

Image: Buste d’homme riant, vu de trois-quarts, tourné vers la droite, dit, par tradition, Autoportrait de Watteau], by Antoine Watteau (1684–1721), engraving by Benoît Audran (1698–1772) – source Gallica