The Emotional Intelligence of Medieval Didactic Literature for Children

By Juanita Feros Ruys (The University of Sydney)

Didactic literature of the Middle Ages might seem a strange place to look for instruction in emotional intelligence. After all, medieval didactic literature is renowned for being dry, prescriptive (‘Do…’), and proscriptive (‘Don’t…’). In good fifteenth-century parlance it is ‘dull’, meaning both worthy and apparently lacking in that spark that ignites imagination. But I think we do a disservice to medieval didactic literature if this is all we see in it.

Codex Manesse or Great Heidelberg Book of Songs, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 217r, Die Winsbekin,  c. between 1305 and 1315. © Heidelberg University Library.
Codex Manesse or Great Heidelberg Book of Songs, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 217r, Die Winsbekin, c. between 1305 and 1315. © Heidelberg University Library.

It is true that word searches for what we now call ‘emotions terms’ will turn up little material. Perhaps the odd injunction such as ‘Do not be quick to anger’ or ‘Do not give yourself over to sadness’, but no complex analysis of what emotions actually are, how they can be categorised, and how these defined feelings might impact on the life of the interior person. In the medieval period, such considerations were the property first of the monastic mystical thinkers of the twelfth century, who were concerned with how personal experience and affectivity might impact on the individual soul’s approach to God, and subsequently of the Scholastics who were interested in creating a functional understanding and hierarchy of all that existed in the cosmos, from God through the angels to the ‘passions of the soul’ residing in every human.

And this, perhaps, is where the problem lies. We have become so used in the Western world to the Scholastic conception of emotions as things inside people that we have missed that the writers of didactic literature were dealing with emotions in an entirely different way–as things between people, created by societies and inculcated in humans so that they could participate effectively in that society. This is a way of viewing emotions that is currently undergoing a surge of interest, with scholars theorising that emotions are better understood as functional processes taking place in specific social contexts. Or as Michael Boiger and Batja Mesquita phrase it, they are ‘in the moment’ as opposed to ‘in the head’.[1] This can be characterised as an ‘ecology of feeling’ approach to emotions.

Similarly, if we turn to the modern concept of emotional intelligence (which only dates as a term from the 1990s), we can see that many of its defining features align with the medieval didactic approach to the self-formation of the individual. Indeed, emotional self-regulation, a much-derided feature of medieval didactic literature, is one of the key platforms of emotional intelligence. It is understood as enabling the child not only to control their own emotions, but by extension, those of others around them, and even to perform such emotions as social situations require. Concepts of ancient and medieval self-formation long since derided as constrictive and passé, such as virtue ethics, the role of example and habitus, are now coming into their own again in understanding and optimising a child’s experience of the classroom and learning process. It has been shown for example, that for children, self-regulation of affective states is more important than, and likely a prerequisite for, successful cognitive processing of classroom material.[2]

So what kinds of advice do we find in medieval didactic texts that might fit the bill in terms of education in emotional intelligence? I have looked here particularly at didactic texts written by parents for their own children, since we can see the advice offered as being immediately relevant to the child’s specific social situation (in comparison with more general didactic literature aimed at a broad but impersonal audience that had to cover a range of contingencies).

King James I of England and VI of Scotland after John De Critz the Elder oil on panel
King James I of England and VI of Scotland after John De Critz the Elder oil on panel, early 17th century, based on a work of circa 1606 NPG 548 © National Portrait Gallery, London

For James VI and I, for example, his advice to his son Henry to rule his own passions is given not only for his own sake, but because such regulation is a feature of the political role that Henry will one day play as king of England (an eventuality that sadly never came to pass). Thus James distinguishes between the good ruler who can ‘subiect his owne priuate affections and appetites to the weale and standing of his Subjects’ and the tyrant who ‘thinketh his people ordeined for him, a prey to his passions and inordinate appetites’ (Basilikon Doron, 1603).[3]

Although Dhuoda, a Frankish noblewoman writing in the mid-ninth century, would have been heavily influenced by the Stoic inheritance that recommended the extirpation of emotions in the pursuit of a good life, she does not necessarily pass on this injunction in the text of advice she wrote to her absent teenage son, William, in around 843. Instead, in dealing with the subject of sadness, she advises William to examine the sadness he finds within himself, and to distinguish its causes. Carnal sadness, such as arises from a frustration of wants and desires, for example, should rightfully be regulated, but spiritual sadness is a sign that the soul is not right with God. Such a feeling should not be repressed, but rather viewed as prognostic and actioned appropriately. Indeed, Dhuoda advises William to ‘summon and staunchly embrace the sorrow that profits the soul’ (Liber manualis).[4]

Both Christine de Pizan, writing to her son Jehan in 1399,[5] and James VI and I advise their charges to make sure that they pay their soldiers well–not because it’s the right and moral thing to do, but because liberality manufactures loyalty in one’s followers. Indeed, James goes further in this direction, educating Henry in how to construct an image of bravery that will inspire his followers while not putting himself in greater danger than necessary. Both Christine and James advise their addressees to be aware of the emotional makeup of their followers when it comes to meting out discipline. It is better to take account of fragile human nature, Christine suggests, than to be too harsh. James similarly advises Henry to deal with his courtiers not only in strict terms of moral right, but also with an understanding of human frailties, such as ‘their nature may beare with’.

Christine de Pisan instructs her son, Jean de Castel. Collected Works of Christine de Pisan, c.1413. © British Library Board.
Christine de Pisan instructs her son, Jean de Castel. Collected Works of Christine de Pisan, c.1413. © British Library Board.

One of the most interesting pieces of advice we find in medieval didactic texts in terms of emotional intelligence is the warning to beware of flattery. This may not on the face of it appear to have anything to do with emotions, but when we unpack the processes required to enact such advice, we can see that it supposes great emotional literacy in the child. They need to be able to look beyond the literal meaning of the words spoken and intuit the intention of the speaker (which might be contrary to the words spoken). They then need to consider the emotional disposition in the speaker that may have prompted those words (for instance, jealousy), recognise what the speaker intends their own response to be, and regulate their response (by dampening their pride, perhaps) to avoid being coerced into acting contrary to their own best interests. This is emotionally complex work.

Most surprising, perhaps, to readers not expecting to encounter emotional intelligence in a medieval text, is Dhuoda’s analogy of how a herd of deer cross a stream. Taking inspiration from an exegesis of Psalm 42 (‘As longs the hart for flowing streams…’), Dhuoda describes how deer work together as a unit, each one laying its head or antlers on the back of the one in front in order to ford the stream, with the last-placed one swimming up to take the lead as the first one tires of making headway into the current. Interestingly, Dhuoda does not ascribe this behaviour simply to animal instinct. Instead, she describes it both as a deeply emotional interdependence–‘a brotherly compassion of love’ (compassio dilectionis fraterna)—and also as a form of intelligence (intellectus) and wisdom (discretio). Indeed, the behaviour Dhuoda outlines combines cognitive and affective components to produce a successful group outcome, and so meets current definitions of what constitutes an ‘intelligence’.

Even these few brief examples allow us to see that when we look at didactic literature written for children in the Middle Ages from the point of view of emotions as socially contextualised processes, it is not so devoid of emotional literacy as we might think. Sure, there may be a dearth of explicit ‘emotions words’, but the advice itself is deeply founded upon the understanding of the emotional construction of human beings and the necessity of regulation of one’s own emotional complexion. It is a literature that assumes social good as the primary outcome–strategies based on the emotional understanding of oneself and others are most effective in furthering one’s individual ambition when they are undertaken for the greater good of society.

Dr Juanita Feros Ruys is Director of The University of Sydney node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. Her work on medieval emotional intelligence has been published as ‘From Virtue Ethics to Emotional Intelligence: Advice from Medieval Parents to Their Children’ in Affect, Emotion and Children’s Literature: Representation and Socialisation in Texts for Children and Young Adults, ed. Kristine Moruzi, Michelle Smith, and Elizabeth Bullen (Routledge, 2017). She gave a version of this paper at ‘Childhood and Emotions– A Study Day’ convened by Melissa Raine and Stephanie Trigg at The University of Melbourne on 22 September, 2017.

[1] See for example Michael Boiger and Batja Mesquita, ‘The Construction of Emotion in Interactions, Relationships, and Cultures’, Emotion Review, 4:3 (2012), 221–229; Mesquita and Boiger, ‘Emotions in Context: A Sociodynamic Model of Emotions’, Emotion Review, 6:4 (2014), 298–302; and Mesquita, ‘Author Reply: The “Social” Is Not Merely Another Level of Reality’, Emotion Review, 6:4 (2014), 327–328.

[2] P.A. Graziano et al., ‘The Role of Emotion Regulation in Children’s Early Academic Success’, Journal of School Psychology, 45 (2007), 3–19.

[3] King James VI and I, Political Writings, ed. Johann P. Sommerville (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), Basilicon Doron, pp. 1-61.

[4] Dhuoda, Handbook for her Warrior Son / Liber manualis, ed. and trans. Marcelle Thiébaux (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[5] Christine de Pizan, Les enseignemens moraux, in Œuvres poétiques de Christine de Pisan, ed. Maurice Roy, 3 vols (Paris: Librairie de Firmin Didot, 1896; repr. New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1965), Vol. 3, pp. 27-44.

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