A Research Workshop on Medieval Emotions and Contemporary Methodologies

Giovanni Pisano, The Crucified Christ, c.1285-1300. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

By Rebecca F. McNamara, CHE Honorary Research Associate

What are the methodological and scholarly challenges of working in the history of emotions? What theoretical tools do we bring to bear on medieval emotions, and which have we tended to neglect? These questions guided the ‘Medieval Emotions and Contemporary Methodologies’ research workshop held at Birkbeck, University of London, on 8 July 2016. This workshop was organised jointly by CHE Director Andrew Lynch and Anthony Bale of Birkbeck. Six speakers, myself included, all hailing from different universities and with different research projects, gave short presentations to accompany previously circulated source texts, and each presentation was followed by an extended discussion amongst the participants. The day focused on emotions in the Middle Ages, but contributors reached back to antiquity and forward to the contemporary frontiers of artificial intelligence in order to illuminate some of the methodological issues associated with studying medieval emotions.

Rita Copeland, from the University of Pennsylvania, began our conversation by introducing us to her project on emotion and the history of rhetoric. She showed how emotions in the Middle Ages were informed by a narrow band of rhetorical instruction from antiquity, specifically, Cicero’s De inventione. This popular rhetorical treatise shaped medieval conceptions of emotion in rhetoric, but, surprisingly, it did not use emotion to elucidate style. Rather, emotion was positioned as a resource for, and a product of, invention – the way in which the rhetorician builds an argument. The topics of invention included three items relevant to emotion – habitum, affectio and studium. Rita teased out the ways in which affectio, defined by its impermanence, was distinguished from the abiding conditions of habitum and studium. These distinctions between permanence and impermanence in relation to emotions served as touchpoints for the discussion that followed, and they were echoed throughout the day as participants sought clarification on how to better theorise approaches to lasting emotional states as well as short-term emotional events.

The front of the Basilica San Francesco in Assisi, Italy. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Experiences punctuated by strong emotions were then taken up by Ella Kilgallon of Queen Mary, University of London, who used two moments in the Vita of Angela of Foligno, a late thirteenth-century mystic, to discuss how space informed emotion in the Middle Ages. The thresholds of two churches, one expansive and gothic, the other humble and small, invited two contrasting emotional experiences for Angela. Upon entering encountering the scale and grandeur of the Basilica San Francesco in Assisi (pictured above), Angela shrieked – a response to the space that served as the prompt for her Vita, as the scribe recording her life questioned whether she was actually inhabited by the devil. But at the entrance of the diminutive Porziuncola, Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi, Angela’s body froze as she saw the church suddenly expanded by God. Ella contextualised these moments of emotional experience informed by spaces within the contemporary tensions of how Francis of Assisi’s life related to the architecture of the two churches. Francis’s poverty and humility informed the ways in which church architecture was interpreted, and Angela’s emotional responses, as recorded by the writer of her Vita, play into these tensions. Participants discussed how architectural thresholds and other kinds of holy or everyday spaces were informed by gender during the period, and how medieval emotions can be interpreted via gendered spaces.

Porziuncola, Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi.jpg
The Porziuncola, Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi, Italy. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

After Ella moved the methodological focus from texts to space, Stephanie Downes, CHE Postdoctoral Research Fellow at The University of Melbourne, expanded the extra-textual approaches to the history of emotions with a discussion of ‘feeling objects’. Using as her source text the introduction to a forthcoming volume titled Feeling Things: Objects and Emotions through History, which she is editing with Sally Holloway and Sarah Randles, Stephanie proposed ways in which a focus on materiality can de-textualise historical and literary approaches to the history of emotions. Stephanie discussed how, for example, faces drawn on the pages of medieval manuscripts function as mediators between scribe and reader and act as emotional indicators, much like the emoticons we have become accustomed to seeing and using in text messages and online communications. Layered into the experience of reading these scribal faces, Stephanie noted, is the issue that the parchment of the text itself has a material face that is made of skin. The text speaks from the page, then, through multiple ‘faces’: the face of the page, the illustrated scribal face and, in many reading communities the text would have been spoken aloud (by a living face). By re-directing our interpretive focus onto the object and materiality of the medieval book, then, historians of emotion can detect the imaginative processes of reading fiction in the faces drawn on manuscripts. In the discussion around the idea of ‘feeling objects’, participants thought about how the faces in medieval manuscripts were designed to be interpreted. We asked whether responses to literary texts as captured in drawn faces were ‘programmed’, and whether the faces could be read as people’s experience of style. More broadly, participants used this turn towards materiality to ask whether a focus on the text ‘blocks’ other interpretations of medieval emotion. Certainly, the use of objects and materiality as starting points for the history of emotions opens up different kinds of evidence for feeling in the medieval past, and thus provides us with a richer picture of emotional life in the Middle Ages.

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A face drawn onto the manuscript page in Laurent de Premierfait’s French translation of Boccaccio’s Des cas de nobles hommes et femmes. The Huntington Library, San Marino, California, MS HM 937, f. 40v, c. 1461–1462, Flanders. Image courtesy of the writer.

I then turned our attention to the methods that can be used to discover medieval emotions via legal texts. Using as my source text an article I wrote on the ways in which infirmity was used in legal cases of suicide in late thirteenth-century England, I showed how the tools that I have developed as a linguist and literary scholar were applied to my interpretation of emotions in legal texts. The ways in which sickness and suffering were a part of emotional practices more widely in medieval culture offered an interpretive framework for recognising that the English Crown’s responses of ‘pity’ and ‘compassion’ to petitioners of suicide cases were influenced by the suffering said to be endured by the person whose death had been ruled a suicide. My method of reconstructing these broader cultural ‘contexts’ of emotional practice with which the legal texts participated was supported by understandings of how language operates in the transmission and practice of ideas. Important to this approach were J. L. Austin’s idea that we can ‘do things’ with words and Monique Scheer’s application of Bourdieu’s habitus to conceptualise emotion as practice. The language of pity and compassion used in legal texts related to suicide is evidence of emotional practice, and it raises questions about how we might interpret the emotional practice of the ‘hidden’ voices in the legal process. The petitioners of the suicide cases, for example, are also implicated in the emotional practice of pity and compassion prompted by sickness and suffering, yet we do not have access to their language, since their original petitions are lost. Participants discussed how various modes of language (such as the Stoics’ language of philosophy, or the formulaic nature of some legal records) were meant to be emotionless, and yet some of these modes of language nonetheless show emotion via the subjects that they engage with, even if they do not convey emotion via emotion words or an ‘emotional’ style of language.

Anke Bernau, from the University of Manchester, then moved the conversation on tools for interpreting medieval emotions to a different kind of ‘feeling’ – that of touch. Anke traced metaphors and depictions of craft – making, touching – from the medieval to the present day in order to raise a number of ethical and aesthetic questions that focused particularly around relationships (between humans and God, humans and the world around them, humans and each other and humans and artificial intelligence). Medieval imaginations of craft, such as God creating man, or Pygmalion sculpting his ivory woman, raised questions about whether humans’ uses of tools were orderly or unruly – were humans acting as craftsmen and agents themselves, or were they agents of God’s will? Lurking behind depictions of craft in the Middle Ages, Anke pointed out, was the danger that human craft can get ‘out of hand’, beyond the control of the human – concerns that are no less central to craft today. Haptic technology (based on touch) has superseded virtual reality technology, and there remains a fixation on touch as humans create and manage new technologies. Anke concluded her presentation by showing videos of robots that are being taught to learn through touch, noting that some robots are being taught to ‘feel pain’ – with the logic that pain intelligence will create robots that are ultimately safer for humans, as they would be less likely to cause harm. In the discussion following Anke’s talk, we teased out the differences and continuities between medieval and modern craft, for example, how craft indicates worth or value, as it still does today. Anke’s project also foregrounded for participants how the absence of touch impoverishes human creativity and that touch reminds us of the embodied emotional life in the medieval past.

Aquamaline, MetMuseum hb_1975.1.1412.jpg
Aquamanile in the form of Samson and the lion, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, New York, 1975.1.1412, ca. 1380–1400, Northern European, bronze and quaternary copper alloy. An aquamanile is a vessel crafted for the use of pouring water in hand washing and was used in religious and secular rituals in the Middle Ages.

We concluded the day by returning to a very medieval practice – the liturgy – to think about the sources and methods through which we can uncover emotions in the Middle Ages. Bruce Holsinger, from the University of Virginia, introduced us to his project on liturgy and emotions, using the text of the Septuagesima in William Caxton’s 1483 printed translation of the Legenda Aurea. By design, Bruce noted, liturgy is restrained, but it is also emotion – though emotion under control. The Septuagesima was designed as a period of sorrow, in order for medieval Christians to signify and experience the tribulation and despair of their Biblical predecessors and to amplify the joy of God’s promise of redemption. Liturgical events like the Setpuagesima marked emotional life in the Middle Ages, and thus they have an important role for historians of emotion. The history of emotions tends to point to emotional styles or regimes that mark periods of historical change – the liturgy, then, is a revealing mode of inquiry, for liturgy affords emotional access to practices that often sparked reform. We have historical evidence, for example, of reform springing from liturgy and liturgical practice that was seen as too emotional. In the discussion that followed, participants considered how lay private devotion affected liturgy, and Bruce remarked that we have records of people owning complicated service books as well as more contemplative books of hours – indicating that the liturgy did play a part in private devotional life, which is so often connected with emotional practice by historians of emotion.

The workshop concluded with reflections on points of convergence between the various methodological approaches to the history of emotions covered by day’s discussions. These shared points included: the variety of medieval emotional experience (we have truly moved on from thinking of people in the Middle Ages as having a ‘set’ of emotions or as having ‘naïve’ emotions), the importance of gendering emotion, the issue of pedagogy in emotional practice, emotion as a learned experience, the interconnections between religious and secular sources for studying the emotions and the exploration of emotional life beyond language and text – through objects, places, images and sounds. The evidence of interdisciplinarity in the speakers’ approaches to studying emotions showed that, while methodologies based in history and literature maintain a strong presence in the field, there are productive methods and tools for the history of emotions to be found in other areas of the humanities and social sciences – such as object-oriented ontologies and cognitive psychology. In bringing these varied methods to the table at Birkbeck, participants demonstrated that the history of emotions has expanded considerably, while retaining a core focus on the cultural and historical distinctiveness of emotions, but that it still has new ways to teach us about feeling in the medieval past.

Explore more from the ‘Medieval Emotions and Contemporary Methodologies’ workshop through live tweets under #medievalemotions.

Dr Rebecca F. McNamara is a CHE Honorary Research Associate and former CHE Postdoctoral Research Fellow at The University of Sydney. She researches emotions related to the suicidal impulse in late medieval English literature and culture. She recently completed a Mayers Research Fellowship at The Huntington Library in San Marino, California, and is now a Lecturer in medieval literature at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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