Whose emotions matter? Grief as power

By Megan Moore (University of Missouri)

There is a curious scene in many medieval romances, so striking that it stayed with me for twenty years and I had to write a book to think it through. As in the image from Tristan et Yseut, a young woman wails beside the body of her recently-slain lover. Another knight invariably hears her cries and rides up to inquire what has happened. Almost immediately the newcomer makes sexual advances towards the bereaved widow, and he either cajoles or compels her into becoming his lover, often claiming that she’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. Why? What about the snotty, dishevelled, deeply intimate act of grieving a beloved is so charged, so erotic in the medieval imagination? And why is the lady’s grief less important to the storyline than the knight’s desire?

Image from a MS page
BNF Français 102, fol. 247v, Tristan et demoiselle se lamentant

I set off to answer this question in my book The Erotics of Grief (Cornell, 2021), and I expected the response would turn around some dynamics of the gendering of emotion inherent to the medieval. But, as I read and researched, it became clear that just as grief announces a relation between the living and the dead, between a mourner and the mourned, it also announces community and becomes a politics. Who is a worthwhile griever? Whose lives are worth grieving? The more I read, these questions were transformed: whose emotions matter? Whose deaths matter? It might seem anachronistic to turn to the medieval to ponder these questions, but the inequities of class and power indigenous to the common folk of the medieval period resonate with the inequalities we experience today. What, then, can we learn about how emotions become power in highly stratified societies?

Our attention to language has, perhaps, waned in light of the highly visual culture of social media platforms such as Tik-Tok and Instagram, as well as the Internet more widely – we have become rather less preoccupied with how words encode meaning and where the slippages occur. It is easy to suppose that the ways we “read” or “decode” faces—and their emotions—in images is a constant, because the visual dominates culture now, and we assume that images are given meaning the same way in a global media culture. Yet, this isn’t true now, and it wasn’t true in the medieval, which was also highly visual – explanations, context, and narrative have always been necessary to describe what it is we think we see in another’s feelings. This negotiation between someone’s outward performance of a feeling and another’s read of that performance creates community. It creates and depends upon a relationship between feeling-emitter and feeling-reader, turning the inward into something shared.

What happens when the reader and the emitter are on two different pages? Or, when one person’s grief is another person’s desire, as in the illustration above? Not only does grief create community, it reveals the precariousness of human emotions: they are easily misinterpreted or misperformed: one person’s love is another person’s failure to connect meaningfully. And because they are an act of translation—of translating interior reality to exterior, verbalized communication—emotions teeter on the brink of mistranslation and of misunderstanding. Hence the possibility that one person’s grief is another person’s erotic: that for some, grief goes beyond grieving.

In my book, The Erotics of Grief, I explore cases in which grief delineates communities by becoming a way of enacting power. For example, Philomena, the twelfth-century Old French retelling of a sexual assault first detailed in Ovid portrays grief as a way of pitting the individual against the collective, permitting a querying of whose emotions matter, whose emotions become power. Is it the seemingly-powerless Philomena’s grief and outrage that matter—an appeal to the collective sensibilities of sorrow and despair around rape, and the collective, agreed-upon regulations of desire within elite medieval circles—or is it the singular desire of her rapist, Tereus (he actually calls it ‘love’ – in the Old French “amor”), whose emotions will ultimately prevail? Reading with emotions permits us to focus on whether the medieval text imagines community (the collective, the agreed-upon, sanctioned practices of desire, love, and grief) or individualism (an almost Sadean liberty to impose one’s emotions and desires, irrespective of the consequences to others and in defiance of communal regulations) to more forcefully articulate noble power. The text ultimately opts for censure, as all who transgress are silenced, metamorphosized into birds and banished from the human. The punitive metamorphosis suggests that power resides in the collective practice of emotions, in their force as community, as a practice negotiating collective power. In Philomena, the communal re-norming of desire achieved through the metamorphosis recalibrates the community violated through the rape, infanticide, and cannibalism of noble youth that structures a terribly violent erotics of desire in the text.

Image from a MS page
Bibliothèque Municipale Rouen MS 0.4 (1044), fol. 177r Metamorphosis

‘Whose emotions matter?’ is a question about the very nature of community – it’s a contested, multivalent thing, often formed around competing desires, competing practices and collectives, and it requires balancing multiple interests. What happens when we privilege one set of emotions over another? Whose experiences get marginalized, forgotten, abandoned and devalued? These questions are of utmost importance to us today.

Reading with medieval grief reminds us that some of the questions of power in community are always about the positionality of a voice – and so, a question emerges as to whether women’s grief, for example, functions differently than men’s (something I explore in chapters 2 and 3, where I explore the grief of widows and emperors) or whether the poor can even be imagined to grieve within a political and literary landscape dominated by the forces of wealthy patrons. We can turn to sources that detail widow’s wailings or depict a weeping Arthur or Charlemagne, but whose grief is ultimately valorised by the texts? What does the desirability of some people’s grief—but not others—reveal about power? Why is some grief eroticized and other grief rendered invisible?

As Judith Butler reminds us in her compelling study Precarious Life (2006),

Normative schemes of intelligibility establish what will and will not be human, what will be a livable life, what will be a grievable death. These normative schemes operate not only by producing ideals of the human that differentiate among those who are more and less human.[…] [S]ometimes these normative schemes work precisely through providing no image, no name, no narrative, so that there never was a life, and there never was a death. (146)

For the medieval texts I read in The Erotics of Grief, only noble lives are worth grieving – it’s a question of power and status. One of the most memorable examples in the Song of Roland depicts the Frankish emperor Charlemagne and his 20,000 men mourning Roland by fainting and crying and pulling out their hair – yet, pointedly, nobody mourns the thousands of anonymous, fallen conscripted soldiers littering the battlefield before them. Mourning—and the erotics of witnessing and desiring it—produce certain kinds of subjects, certain kinds of power. The gaze of the mourner tells us whose life must be commemorated, whose sacrifice extolled and whose life mattered. And, by reading the space around that gaze, where the text refuses to look, we see what isn’t mourned and what isn’t part of the “normative schemes” through which communities of power are constituted, regulated and reproduced. The medieval invites us to consider what we won’t look at today—all the bodies and the stories of the lives untold—and how the untold, ungrieved, uneroticized lives are still invoked as a way of creating communities of power.


Works cited

Butler, J. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. Verso Books, 2006.


Megan Moore is Associate Professor of French at the University of Missouri, where her teaching and research focus on cross-cultural encounter and the politics of identity in sources as diverse as medieval manuscripts and cyborg film.

Email: mooremegan@missouri.edu

Twitter: @mmooremedieval


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s