Un compte-rendu de “Le Sujet des émotions” paru dans “The Medieval Review”

Nagy, Piroska and Damien Boquet, eds.  <i>Le Sujet Des Émotions Au Moyen Âge</i>. Beauchesne: Paris, 2008. Pp. 519. 76 €.  ISBN: 978-2- 7010-1522-4.

Reviewed by Daniel E. Thiery

Iona College

A clear distinction between human emotions and reason is one of the defining characteristics of western philosophy.  From Plato, to Descartes, to Kant, our possession or pursuit of pure, powerful and superior reason has been sharply contrasted with our proclivity to be moved by base, blinding and animalistic passions. Yet, recent research from a wide variety of cognitive, bio-behavioral and social sciences has belied the centuries-long contention, most forcefully espoused by Enlightenment philosophers, that reason, removed from emotional and instinctual influence, is capable of catalyzing everything from our ideas about political life to our moral choices. [1] As the long- standing dichotomy between reason and emotions has come into question, the need for careful, and reasonably objective, studies of the emotions–their origins, influences, definitions and descriptions–has grown in importance. [2] In short, emotions are a more valid subject of scholastic scrutiny than they were even fifty years ago. In December 2005, the EMMA (Les Emotions au Moyen Age) Research Program was established under the direction of Piroska Nagy (Université du Quebec a Montréal) and Damien Boquet (Université de Provence) in order to “study the emotions in a medieval period in view of exchange between the humanities and social sciences…to question the alleged emotional immaturity of medieval societies…[and to question] the whole process of the rationalization of western culture.” [3] <i>Le Sujet Des Émotions Au Moyen Âge</i>, a collection of 19 essays (16 in French, 2 in English and 1 in Italian), spanning psychology, literature, philosophy, hermeneutics, lexicography, religious, art and cultural history, is one of the fine fruits of this project.  Overall, the collection provides a good example of how interdisciplinary collaboration can illumine the complexity and depth of the study of emotions.

The text is split into five sections, including the thoughtful introductory and concluding essays. The introduction contains two essays that provide the reader with an overview of scholastic approaches and contributions to the study of the history of emotions.

This introduction makes clear the difficulty of studying emotions in the past because the medievalist is mainly compelled to grapple with texts, and hence the meaning of “emotion words” over a vast swath of time and space. One does not have recourse to analysis of body language, only, at times, the textual record of such language.  The first essay by Nagy and Boquet (“Pour une histoire des émotions.

L’historien face aux questions contemporaines”) contends that, despite the many dangers of cultural bias or anachronism, an objective study of the history of emotions can be accomplished if one sets aside the traditional contentions about the “triumph of reason” and “civility”

and one avoids blindly imposing modern classifications and definitions of emotions onto the past. The second essay by Annie Piolat and Rachid Bannour (“Émotions et affects. Contribution de la psychologie

cognitive”) seeks to provide scholars with some relief from the daunting task of deciphering actual emotions from emotion words.

Piolat and Bannour’s overview of a highly complex field of study provides both a solid perspective of the range of approaches in cognitive psychology for outlining the different affective manifestations of emotions and an outline of how emotions are verbalized by detailing the links between the unconscious impulse of emotions, their conscious processing, and their articulation.

The first section, <i>Penser et Dire les Émotions au Moyen Age</i>, is mainly devoted to the treatment of emotions by medieval theologians and philosophers, in particular their connection to the soul, their ability to influence or generate behavior and their culpability for sin.  The section notably commences with an essay by one of the leading scholars of the history of emotions in the medieval period, Barbara Rosenwein.  Rosenwein’s essay (Emotion Words) reveals a simple, but by necessity, painstaking method for generating lists of emotion words from early medieval writings rather than imposing an anachronistic list of terms.  By employing a list of emotions from a roughly contemporary theorist, e.g. Cicero, and then by exploring how the listed words are used in other sources and what new words appear to be linked in a clear grammatical or logical manner to already established terms, one can increase their list of recognized emotion words. This manner of deriving a contextually accurate list of emotion words could be employed by scholars of any era and should prove helpful to further study of emotions by medievalists. The content of the five remaining essays in this section is intriguing, though quite dense, as they all, in some manner, address philosophical and theological conceptions of the emotions, their origins, influences and relationship to reason, the will and the soul. Many of the essays note the importance of the change in outlook, an “anthropological turn,” in the High Middle Ages, when emotions were recognized as a defining subject of humanity and affective piety, centered on contemplation of Christ’s humanity, made some emotions commendable vehicles for connection to the divine.  Carla Casagrande and Silvana Vecchio summarize this movement well in their essay by stating “The passions of man, legitimized by the Passion of Christ” (109). These two authors, tracing the theories of the passions in medieval culture until Aquinas, make clear that Christian thought on the emotions could not remain rooted in the Stoic emphasis on <i>apatheia</i> because Christ himself wept. Therefore, medieval theologians following Augustine’s recognition of the merit of some emotions began to delineate how and when emotions could be a hindrance or commendable for salvation. Damien Boquet’s essay on the preaffects elaborates on this delineation further by detailing how medieval thinkers tried to grapple with the moral culpability of initial emotional responses; in essence, a seemingly unconscious impulse. Boquet reveals Aquinas’

reconciliation between those thinkers, who argued that initial impulses were sins, even if only venial ones, and those, who argued that without consent, such impulses were not sins, by recourse to the division of the soul, and consequent placement of preaffects into the animal part of the soul.  Boquet argues that this theological nuance became part of a high medieval discourse on piety, one focused on an intense engagement of the body and the emotions. Writers, such as Jacques de Vitry, emphasized the ability of holy men and women to tame and channel their impulsive passions into pious practices through a sharpening of their will and reason. Like Boquet’s essay, the studies of Emanuele Coccia, Irène Rosier-Catach and Alain Boureau bring into further relief the efforts of medieval writers to assess the value of emotions–so easily capable of inducing sin, yet so apt and so blessed when experienced by a prelapsarian Adam or Christ himself–and their efforts to divulge how emotions were processed from their initial impulse in the soul to their expression through action or exclamation.

The second section of this collection, <i>Une Fabrique de L’Intime</i>, explores how medieval individuals experienced, interpreted and communicated their own emotions or those experienced by another. All five authors in this section, Pierre Levron, Jean- Francois Cottier, Monique Gruber, Nagy and Veerle Fraeters, emphasize the importance of an examination of the vocabulary of emotional experience as well as the necessity of minding the gap between actual emotional experience and the recollection of it in hagiographic and literary narratives. The essays by Cottier and Nagy offer clear examples of the careful scrutiny of vocabulary.  In his study (Saint Anselme et la conversion des émotions), Cottier analyzes the phrasing and vocabulary, concerning Anselm as a subject and object of emotions, in both his letters and the <i>Vita Anselmi</i>.  This analysis reveals the profound influence of the Benedictine rule and the notion of a “spiritual community” on the discourse of emotions employed by monastic writers for a monastic audience. Nagy’s well developed study of the anonymous vita of the Cistercian Lukardis of Oberweimar argues that Lukardis’ affective piety, and her conveyance of her emotional experiences through words and posture, created a strong connection to her fellow nuns, allowed for an escape from the rigors of the monastery and her debilitated body, and lastly, gave her a sense of connection to Christ, the god-man who also suffered. The initial point is particularly striking, Lukardis, unadmired and unappreciated upon her entry into the monastery, became a central part of the life of the convent; an intermediary to God, providing comfort and counsel to her fellow nuns, and a point of pride worthy of their care, protection and recollection.

The third section of this collection, <i>Les Contours du Sujet Émotionnel</i>, explores the materials or occasions that induced emotions. The essays of Anna Caiozzo, Brigitte d’Hainaut-Zveny and Federica Veratelli reveal the enduring ability of medieval art to induce a vast array of emotional responses and remembrances, from affective piety to social sympathy. In both an entertaining and enlightening article, Martin Roch explores the ways that early medieval writers recounted their own and others’ emotional reactions to the odors [dubbed the “odor of sanctity” in the 9th century] emanating from the bodies of holy men or women. The sweet perfumes emanating from the living or dead bodies of holy men and women induced a range of emotional responses: a sense of awe, manifested through physical gestures like prostration, a sense of comfort and peace in times of trouble or bodily distress, and a sense of confirmation of an already accepted holy status. Early medieval writers, evincing the contention of modern science that olfactory impressions are the most enduring, vividly recalled the emotional responses induced by holy odors as well as the power of such odors to act as agents unto themselves, e.g. admitting individuals into their presence (438). In a refreshing shift away from evidence derived from and about religious men and women, the final essay by Naama Cohen-Hanegbi (The Emotional Body of Women) shows how the relationship of emotions to gender in Italian medical <i>consilia</i> from the 13th to the 15th centuries stands in sharp contrast to the centuries old stereotype of women as far more vulnerable to and affected by emotions than men. When treating an issue like melancholy in men or women, the <i>consilia</i> do not appear to regard this emotional state as different in kind or intensity, nor do they advocate different treatments. Remarkably, the seemingly uniform analysis of men and women in these texts not only contrasts with medieval stereotypes, but also contrasts with modern medical practice, which embraces the differences between men and women in order to provide more accurate diagnosis.

Though one collection of essays could never cover every facet of such a broad and fascinating topic, this collection could have provided a more clear perspective of the range of medieval emotionality by the inclusion of more essays concerning the laity. Most of the studies in this collection are based on clerical sources and concern religious figures, ideas and texts.  What about the emotions of king’s and princes, in ideal and praxis, or the emotions of lay medieval folk, such as yeomen, artisans or villeins, as found in narratives from pardon tales, slander cases or other legal proceedings?  An essay which employed, as evidence, narratives from court records or chronicles concerning lay men or women would have provided readers with a more complete picture of the history of emotions in the medieval period. Even so, this collection does reveal well the depth of the subject of the history of emotions.  It also makes clear that, for a subject so vast and complex, the most fruitful yield comes from an interdisciplinary exchange of ideas. Let us hope that this study is just the beginning of EMMA’s harvest.

NB (D. Boquet et P. Nagy) : “Le Sujet des émotions” n’est en effet qu’un volet du programme éditorial EMMA. A ce titre, les sources narratives et les sources de la pratique, qui permettent d’explorer plus spécifiquement  les émotions des laïcs, seront à l’honneur dans notre prochain livre “Politiques des émotions au Moyen Âge”, à paraître dans quelques mois dans la collection “Micrologus Library” (Florence, SISMEL)



1. See for instance, two recent articles reviewing studies in the cognitive and social sciences on instinctive morality: Benedict Carey, “Citizen Enforcers Take Aim,” <i>New York Times</i>, October 6, 2008, Health Section; Steven Pinker, “The Moral Instinct ,” <i>New York Times</i>, January 13, 2008, NYT Magazine.

2. For a clarion call for further, careful, study, see: Barbara Rosenwein, “Worrying About Emotions in History,” <i>American Historical Review</i>, 107 (2002): 821-845.

3. http://emma.hypotheses.org/le-projet

Citer ce billet
Damien Boquet (2010, 8 juin). Un compte-rendu de “Le Sujet des émotions” paru dans “The Medieval Review” Les émotions au Moyen Âge, carnet d'EMMA. Consulté le 22 mai 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/o7g2

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