Compte rendu de « Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion » de Sarah McNamer paru dans « The Medieval Review » (20.06.2010)

McNamer, Sarah,  Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion,  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.  Pp. viii, 309.  $59.95/£39.00.  ISBN: 978-0-8122- 4211-9.

Reviewed by Ineke van ‘t Spijker

Independent scholar, Cambridge, UK

The Medieval Review

The affective devotion so characteristic of the later Middle Ages, and the literature of affective meditations, centering on the Passion of Christ, are phenomena which have been widely discussed, most recently and elaborately by Rachel Fulton.  The origins of this devotion are less easily explained.  Fulton attempted to do so by connecting it with the expectations and fears surrounding the year 1000.  The book under review engages this issue with refreshing élan.  More modest in scale than Fulton’s work, it is not more modest in its scope and purpose.  McNamer also attempts to explain the origins of affective meditation, and, in doing so, she situates her study at the intersection of the history of emotion, gender, and devotion.

This is a history of affective meditation as a literary form, where the history of emotion provides an additional framework. In these meditations, compassion is « a historically contingent, ideologically charged, and performatively constituted emotion…gendered as feminine…To perform compassion…is to feel like a woman » (3).  Moreover, it was in this form that these meditations influenced later notions of compassion.  This, and the explanation of the origins of this compassion in the desire of women to prove their legal status as <i>sponsa Christi</i>. by enacting compassion with the suffering Christ as the fulfilment of their <i>maritalis affectio</i>, is the bold thesis of the book.

From this perspective, the meditations can be seen as scripts for performance meant to bring about the desired emotional experience.

Implying that feeling compassion is feeling like a woman makes it into a historically contingent gendered performance, rather than one, for example, inflected by class, as in ancient Greece.

As an alternative to Caroline Walker Bynum’s effort to decode symbolic roles, McNamer asks for the motivation behind the performance of compassion by women: what could women gain which men could not (28)? One of the paradoxes of the twelfth century would be that, while legal thinking gained ground, inner dispositions were seen as more important than outward manifestations like, for example, physical virginity. In this context, « loving rightly, » as the content of the <i>maritalis affectio</i>, became part of the canonical/legal condition for marriage, and this could prove a woman’s status as <i>sponsa Christi</i>, a proof to be performed as a lifelong process.

In the first chapter, this thesis is probed via the example of a thirteenth-century text, the <i>Wooing of the Lord</i>.  Its flawed structure has often been acknowledged.  Here, it is explained–and a unifying principle is offered–by pointing to the way in which meditation on Christ’s suffering, leading to compassion, functions as the content of the <i>maritalis affectio</i> in the second part of the work.  Only on this basis can the nun claim to be a true bride of Christ, a condition which is the subject of the first part.  By appealing to the reader as eyewitness, and positing her in the first person, the prayers and meditations of this work offer her a script to enact.

The second chapter goes back in time, to trace the origins of this bridal thinking in texts by John of Fécamp and Anselm of Canterbury long associated with the beginnings of affective meditation, but the author also brings in the works of Peter Damian.  She constructs an alternative to the genealogy which speaks of Anselmian, Bernardine, and later Franciscan affective devotion.

Instead of seeing John’s or Anselm’s prayers and meditations as self-expressions, McNamer argues that these writings are not only written for, but elicited by women.  The « I » in these works is not autobiographical, but is offered as a performance position, similar to that in the Psalms (66).  A reconsideration of the order in which John of Fécamp wrote his works strengthens the role of women in their production: she inverts the traditional relationship between the <i>Libellus de scripturis et verbis patrum collectus</i> and John’s better known <i>Confessio theologica</i>, suggesting that the <i>Confessio</i> may have been derived from the <i>Libellus</i>.  Instead of seeing these texts as generating a new affective devotion, they are seen here as textual siblings of existing practices (81).

The third chapter explores the pseudo-Bonaventuran <i>Meditationes vitae Christi</i>, commonly seen as epitomizing Franciscan affective devotion.  McNamer sees the work’s origin in an Italian version, written for, and probably by, a woman (95).  She attributes the truly Franciscan elements, such as the ideal of poverty, to a later redactor, and she contends that these modifications somehow counter the revolutionary nature of the original work, and seem designed to arrest rather than foster the feelings of compassion.  The redactor seeks to reinstate an image of Christ as king, lord, and teacher (101): apparently the compassionate aesthetics at the core of women’s devotion was already a contested ideology.

Turning to Middle English literature in chapter four, McNamer argues that the genre remained deeply inflected by its gendered origins, even after its adaptation for a new readership of lay men and women.  Feeling compassion is feeling like a woman, a performance position open to women and men with the help of meditation.  Works by or attributed to Richard Rolle, meant to be read by men and women, present compassion « as an intimate eroticized response yielded by a woman to her lover » (125).  For religious women these meditations could provide the tools for scripting feelings which helped enact a legal marriage. For a mixed readership, however, the image of the spouse functioned as « a fictive image, a role readers are invited to perform to cultivate compassionate response » (127).  Aside from the later theological digressions, Nicholas Love’s translation of the <i>Meditationes vitae Christi</i>, <i>The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ</i> is framed by a prologue which states that the work was first written for a woman, thus enabling the male reader to assume this female role during his meditational reading.  It especially calls attention to Mary’s role as mother.  This « feeling like a woman » is preceded by seeing like a woman or beholding, that is, a way of seeing which implies an ethical imperative (137) of empathizing, or holding with the eyes.  The divide between male and female, however, seems to increase here.  Men such as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus are portrayed as onlookers whose compassion is mediated by being directed first to Mary (140).  The figure of John, portrayed with feminized features, but capable of adopting a male role, is especially apt for enabling men to feel like a woman, while acting as men.

The question of the relation between compassion for the suffering Christ and more general compassion is raised in chapter five, « Marian Lament and the Rise of a Vernacular Ethics. »  Although there are signs that Passion meditations made cruelty more acceptable, an alternative investigated here is that they may also have fostered protest against such cruelty, echoing Mary’s laments, where Mary voices protest against her son’s suffering.  Christ’s innocence is not the reason for Mary’s protest, but his status as her child.  Her compassion and suffering is contrasted with the Father’s acceptance of his son’s suffering, as part of a universal salvation.  Such protest also resonates in criticism of the spilling of Christian blood in the wars of the period, as when Philippe de Mézières urges King Richard III not to renew hostilities with the French.  In the end, however, the laments undermine their own protest by submission to the Father’s will.

In the later Middle Ages, as the last chapters argue, it became increasingly difficult for men to « feel like a woman. »  The contested position of feeling compassion, seen first in the context of the Franciscan adaptation of the <i>Meditationes vitae Christi</i>, surfaces more strongly in the later Middle Ages.

Love’s <i>Mirror</i> was endorsed by Church authorities as a rather safe sort of devotion compared with the heresies of the time.  For women, this confirms their subordination, although it also left a space for experiment.  For men, it meant a gap between what they were supposed to feel in their devotion and how they were supposed to act.  The emphasis on the mother’s role makes it yet more difficult for men to identify fully with Mary.  The gap mentioned before widens further in some lyrics which are the subject of the last chapter.  In these, a growing male resistance to compassion is voiced, reflecting the intensification of competing demands on men to act according to a newly masculinized ethos, in which compassion was left to women.  Stephen Jaeger’s <i>Ennobling Love</i>, which was congruous with the earlier mode of compassion, gave way to a climate where friendship between men was eyed with suspicion.

Christ’s laments about man’s <i>unkyndeness</i> leave men with a conflict between their devotional obligations to be kind, and a suspicion of man to man <i>kyndeness</i> that was assuming the character of a taboo.  A fragmenting of tradition thus appears at the core of devotional orthodoxy.

This summary cannot do justice to McNamer’s far-ranging arguments, but it may suffice to illustrate the wide scope of a book densely packed with astute observations.  The medieval assumption that actions and emotions are of a piece (50) underlies the importance of, for example, Clare of Assisi’s externalisation of emotion in ascetic action (although, one could add, there is an equally widespread suspicion of a potential for an underlying disconnect between actions and inner attitudes).  As another example, a remark at the end of the book points to different ways allegory can work:

it may « enrich and extend the affective power of the image of the suffering Christ, » but it also has the « power to divert or deflect affective response precisely by requiring the intellectual work of decoding » (205), as it did in some of the lyrics discussed in the last chapter, where the body of Christ is allegorized as an « ere of whet. »  Sometimes the argument is perhaps a little rash.  The Countess Blanche to whom Peter Damian’s Letter 66 is addressed is identified with Agnes of Poitou, the recipient of the work of John of Fécamp (and of other letters by Peter Damian), although the note in Owen Blum’s translation to which a reference is made, only suggests this possibility (233, n. 72).  Moreover, there are no more letters to Blanche in Peter Damian’s collection, rather Peter refers to his own letter to Blanche in other letters.  More importantly, the letter contains not just an appeal to the reader as bride of Christ, but is equally or more insistent on the importance to imagine the Last Judgment, in line with Peter Damian’s emphasis elsewhere.  Viewing these texts as scripts rather than as self-expression has been considered previously, and the dichotomy may perhaps be slightly overemphasized.  It is difficult, in these texts, to separate the rhetorical aspect and the intended emotional experience, and that applies to the authors as well as to the readers/performers of their scripts.

<i>Maritalis affectio</i>, consisting of <i>compassio</i>, is perhaps too fragile a concept to bear the weight of causal explanation, especially as it receives its more strictly legal connotations somewhat later in the twelfth century, that is, after the letters of Peter Damian, John, and Anselm, even if their Italian background would not have made them strangers to legal thinking (231, n. 57).  Fortunately, the author does intermittently qualify its explanatory power, as when she says that « the site of origins is capacious enough to admit multiple explanations » (62); that the attention to the polysemy of nuptial language is not meant to reduce it, but to honor this element more fully (35); or that marriage to Christ does not provide a single, comprehensive explanation for the origins of affective devotion.  Instead it must be seen as a « generative matrix » whose significance for the history of devotion as well as the history of emotion has been missed so far (80).

One might also question the view that in our Western culture compassion is seen as a predominantly feminine emotion (8).  In this connection, the issue of wider, less « selfish » compassion, discussed in chapter five, raises the question of whether this sort of compassion is not also the heir of an earlier medieval tradition of compassion, as it was propagated strongly in the works of, for example, Gregory the Great, and in many saints’ lives.  In those lives, it is by definition somehow extraordinary; in the works of Gregory it is meant to be cultivated, especially by preachers and pastors, but also by all Christians.  If emotional experience, including that of compassion, is shown in this book to be pre- eminently cultural (120), it can also be multifaceted.  This book has certainly dug deeply and provocatively into some of compassion’s important facets.

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