Book Review: Wounded Feelings: Litigating Emotions in Quebec, 1870–1950

Several times each month, we are pleased to republish a recent book review from the Canadian Law Library Review (CLLR). CLLR is the official journal of the Canadian Association of Law Libraries (CALL/ACBD), and its reviews cover both practice-oriented and academic publications related to the law.

Wounded Feelings: Litigating Emotions in Quebec, 1870–1950. By Eric H. Reiter. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019. xiii, 482 p. Includes illustrations, bibliographic reference, and index. ISBN 9781487506551 (hardcover) $55.00; ISBN 9781487526986 (softcover) $44.95. 

Reviewed by Mary Hemmings
Law Librarian and Instructor
Faculty of Law, Thompson Rivers University
In CLLR 46:2

Wounded Feelings: Litigating Emotions in Quebec, 1870–1950 examines “moral injury litigation” dealing with affronts to reputation, breaches of promise, compulsory medical examination, and other emotionally charged circumstances governed by private law. This book masterfully blends jurisprudence and legislation, with emphasis on the Quebec Civil Code, to elucidate how the subjectivity of emotions has been legally interpreted over time.

The author, Eric H. Reiter, is an associate professor in the Department of History at Concordia University and co-editor of the Canadian Journal of Law and Society. He is the winner of the 2020 Canadian Historical Association Prize for the Best Scholarly Book in Canadian History and the 2020 Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Scholarly Research for this title.

Based on jurisprudence from Quebec, the title explores how the courts have responded differently to diverse states of emotional distress in conjunction with norms that have changed over time. The title contains an introduction and eight chapters, inclusive of a conclusion, that reflect on the intersection of social environments, judicial dispositions, and human emotions. 

The concept of injure, which is based on Roman law, had long been recognized in Quebec law as a moral injury caused by insult or defamation. This notion of “wounded honour” serves as a fundamental theme throughout the work. By establishing the existence of moral rights in a courtroom setting, the author exposes and discusses the underlying and interrelated issues of class, gender, race, ethnicity, and cultural values. 

This title explores a time wherein the actions of an individual often reflected on the family name. Loss of reputation and family dishonour were paramount considerations at the turn of the century, and acts of public humiliation against an individual, in turn, reflected on the reputation of the family. In one case, a churchwarden who had forced a young adult to stand and kneel throughout a service brought into question the religious devotion of the entire family. By extending the idea of “family” as well as recognizing antisemitic speeches and calls to boycott Jewish businesses, the courts were able to acknowledge the collective injury inflicted upon a group of Quebec families.

Bodily intrusion, a broad category of unwelcome touching, is discussed in its own chapter. This category encompasses unsolicited medical procedures, a jostle by a stranger in the park, unreasonable handling by the police, and the grief over an unauthorized autopsy of a family member. The courts developed a theory of droits personnels, or personal rights. 

Betrayal, which may result from the emotional investment in a spoiled personal relationship, also receives its own chapter. Here, the author examines cases of broken commitments that include unfulfilled promises to marry, alienation of affection, adultery, and the perceived failure of another person to honour their word. 

In the chapter on grief and mourning, the author examines a spectrum of issues encountered by parties surviving the death of a loved one. These include emotional responses to accidental death, arguments over where to bury the deceased’s body, and even the selection of appropriate clothing for the funeral. The final chapter on indignation, anger, and fear deals with the mental harm of discrimination on individuals and social groups. 

Wounded Feelings: Litigating Emotions in Quebec provides a uniquely Canadian perspective on the interrelated topics of litigation, social history, legal history, and human sentiment. Upon reading, it is clear why this book has been so well received. This book comes highly recommended for academic law libraries, as well as the history collections of academic libraries. 

The book provides an invaluable bibliography for those seeking to do further research. One article, “La réparation pécuniaire du dommage moral,” written by Armand Dorville,[1] provides readers with an early historical perspective on the subject. For those seeking other books that explore perspectives on the social history of emotions, I would recommend investigating the works of Natalie Zemon Davis, William Reddy, and Daniel Lord Smail.


[1] (1928) 6:9 Can Bar Rev 670.

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