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A Brief History of Shame in Premodern Societies

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This section draws from historian Peter Stearns’ (2017) work Shame: A Brief History.

The first signs of shame appear as a pedagogical and disciplinary framework in the education system in ancient Egypt, where students who performed poorly were put in public stocks. In ancient Europe, the Romans, British, and French overemphasized shame as a form of social control, particularly in private homes, where caregivers and guardians relied on shame as a form of correction, and corporal punishment was used to keep children in order, often in front of other people (Stearns, 2017).

In trying to understand the origins of shame, scholars have put forward a number of theories, arguing, for example, that shame emerges from toddlers’ shameful experiences of wetting or soiling themselves (an origin story that was later debunked). Or, that infants first experienced shame when their caregivers failed to mirror their facial expression, which the child internalizes as misrecognition. A sense of powerlessness that draws shame. However, though scholars have posited many theories, there is no answer to where shame begins.


Stearns is clear that no conclusive global account of shame exists in scholarship, leading to gaps in the research. Similarly, in Fear: A Cultural History, Joanna Bourke (2005) said, “The reluctance of many historians to analyze emotions stem from problems of nomenclature. Looked at historically, subjective feelings are invisible. We can identify publicly choreographed panic reactions but how do we know what individuals ‘really felt?’” (p. 6).

In any case, the word shame is said to have first appeared in the eighth century, and was, Stearns noted, part of premodern societies like ancient Egypt, classical Greece, Confucius China, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, India, and Burma, as well as parts of the Middle East, Eastern Africa, different parts of Polynesia, Micronesia, Mexico, Peru, Western Europe, the Balkans, and colonial America.

Anthropological studies show mixed results for how shame was used among Indigenous community’s precontact.

Stearns cited that the Ilongot people of the Philippines, the Bengkulu of Indonesia, and the Masai of Kenya relied heavily on shame in childrearing and regulating sexual behavior. While the San people of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana and Angola, the Semai people of Malaysia, the Tahitians, and the Utku Inuit group rarely used shame at all (Stearns, 2017).

Instead, these latter groups utilized milder forms of shame. Like embarrassment, teasing, humor, and boasting (Stearns, 2017).

When European colonizers first arrived on Turtle Island, they considered Indigenous peoples emotionally inferior because they did not blush. The Europeans thought the original people of North America were shameless, and therefore, untrustworthy. “How can he be trusted, who knows not how to blush?” wrote Stearns, quoting a settler (2017, p. 39).

Later, the same was said about Black people, because they too could not blush. Thomas Jefferson is said to have thought that Black people were inferior for their inability to blush, believing that white women were modest for being able to do so (Harris-Perry, 2011). Similarly, according to Stearns, the Bengkulu of Indonesia were suspicious of those who did not show the appropriate signs of shame, finding them untrustworthy and unpredictable and calling them “thick-eared.”

These are some of the communities I read about and how they made sense of shame. Check out the previous post on a brief history of public shame. The next post will look at shame in modern societies.

Until next time, in solidarity.

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