Damien Boquet & Piroska Nagy, Medieval Sensibilities

This extensive study is attempting to do two things: provide a history of cultural medieval affect in particular, and rehabilitate the status of affect studies in general. Arguing that emotion has been neglected, especially in the premodern period, it focuses on the study of “sensibility”, or the sensible, which includes not only feelings but moods and atmospheres. Although I find the sensible as a category to be incredibly useful– I want to focus on atmospheres in my own work– I am also unsure where the category of the sensible comes from beyond Fevbre, and why it drops out in favor of emotion in the rest of the book.

The book travels through a history of Christian emotion from the third century to the fifteenth, focusing on the transition from ascetic emotion (emotion as a sin or distraction) to emotion as a natural state. Evagrius of Pontius in particular thought separation from the body was essential, and blamed sloth on the “noontide demon” that attacked the soul, a belief that is the origin of the seven deadly sins. In the 1100s, Abelard posits that emotional personalities are natures, not faults; thus consent and intent are the deciding factor in whether an emotion is a sin. This conflict between spiritual and physical concepts of emotions happens at the same time as “a rise of the medieval science of the emotions” (135), a greater interest in emotion as the subject of sustained thought. Avicenna proposed a difference between intentio (an impulse or response to external stimuli) and estimativa (a human decision-making response, which this text seems to imply is shared by the highest-order animals). Emotions are a process, and the actions they lead to can be controlled through reason. This also led to the question of whether body and soul were entwined, or whether they were totally distinct.

This chapter also contains an aside about melancholy that I found to be quite vague. It argues that melancholy was not a salient category, which I agree with, but then goes on to argue that the treatments for it, which it limits to dancing, music, friendship and company, etc., would have only been available to the upper classes. It also claims that melancholy became a marker of elite status at the same time, which is an Aristotelian viewpoint that in my previous opinion only becomes apparent in the early modern period. I am open to being convinced otherwise; others like Rufus of Ephesus write about scholarly melancholy in a way that is not completely negative but also not positive but could perhaps be interpreted as positive?? Regardless, I found myself wishing melancholy were more than just an aside here.

The rest of the book focuses on more secular emotion.The expression of feeling in 11th century poetry, especially in the fin amor, and its makeup of three categories of mezura (measured emotion), joy, and morosa or morose delectation as a hallmark of love poetry (the delay or interruption of love or joy) is used to express the focus on emotion as an expression of social power: literary emotion is what a character wants + what social or societal ideas the character reveals. In the social body, emotions are threatening to the whole. It moves on to assert that the twelfth century renaissance, concurrent with the creation of these romances, has been seen as the site of the beginnings of anthropology, or reflections on the emotions (I’m unsure why this isn’t phenomenology but regardless); however, Avicenna’s innovations were actually preceded by thinkers in the eleventh century like Abelard that moved emotion from a spiritual to a physical/natural quality.

The conclusion of this book makes it clear that its project is to encourage modern readers to take emotion seriously, but this is a project that is only present in the introduction or the conclusion. I did not come away from this book with a sense of why I should care about monastic emotion (other than that I, uh, need to professionally) and I think this is because that’s an enormous task. This book is trying to provide a comprehensive emotional history and also transport that history up into the 21st century, and I think this would be possible if its scope were smaller, but in my reading I did not see it. Given the book’s focus on sensibility, I wanted to see more of a focus on affects that are not included within emotion– atmospheres, for example– and their absence motivates me to write about them in my own work. The main thing I am taking from this book is the sensible as a comprehensive term to refer to the many sides of affect, and I am interested to see if other histories of emotion approach this differently. However, I also appreciate the attention paid to emotion as a way of forming political community, and also the encouragement to see emotions within the medieval period as complex.

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