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Generations of Feeling, Barbara Rosenwein

In her book Generations of Feeling, Barbara Roswenwein is interested in providing a history of emotions that crosses the medieval/modern divide, giving us a genealogy of different ways of conceptualizing emotions. While she explicitly wants to follow this over the medieval/early modern divide, in order to show that concepts like rationality have a much longer history and are not exclusively modern, she implies and even states that her goal is to do the same for contemporary (20th/21st c.) modernity, too. She centers her analysis around what she calls “emotional communities”, groups of people who have their own feelings and ways of expressing those feelings. “Generations of feeling” are the ways that those feelings are passed down from one group to another, in a process that she likens to genomic change in cells. I wonder why there are so many (medieval and modern) bodily metaphors for emotion and the emotional resonances/affects of new media.

Central to her discussion of emotion is the concept of rhetoric. She goes so far as to say that there is no difference between felt emotion and expressed emotion, because even private emotions involve interpreting yourself to yourself (9). She uses William Reddy’s concept of “emotional regimes” to cement this: he argues that political groups have been in charge of sublimating and tamping down emotions, and deciding who can feel what, meaning that political regimes determine emotional norms and who lies outside of them. This concept ties back in to the social body, a medieval, early modern, and modern concept, which I think is especially useful when thinking about the “health” of the body politic– if the “head” determines what emotions the “body” can feel, what impact does that have?

Rosenwein’s ultimate goal is to use small communities to map out the ways emotions were passed down and used even as they changed over time. Her trajectory begins with Augustine, who breaks with the Stoics in identifying pre-passions and passions as both being in the realm of emotion. Human reason, which separates animals from people, allows humans to examine their own emotions and turn feelings like desire (bad) into longing for God (good). This is the first point when all or nearly all emotions have the potential to be good; human will is the determining factor in whether an emotion is good or bad. This thread is picked up by Aelred in the 1100s, who was convinced by Augustine’s idea that emotion could be divinely inspired. Aelred’s intervention (as Boquet notes) is the idea that emotions are natural; that humans are not at fault for having them, and their value is in how they respond. This uses Augustine’s concept of human will while also even more explicitly separating feeling from intent; action is more important than feeling in a divine sense. Aelred’s emotional community (and maybe emotional regime) was focused on convincing other monks to regulate their emotions and value love and friendship.

The third figure in this nexus who is interested in emotions as something that can be controlled is Alcuin (c.800), a deacon from York who wrote the therapy manual Virtues and Vices for Wido, a count and miltary leader in Charlemagne’s court. The manual was a guide to the emotions, and was translated into over 140 editions. Synthesizing Christian and pre-Artisotelian Stoic thought (though it also dovetails with Aristotle), the manual is largely concerned with negative emotions like sorrow and anger, and argues that because people are able to change their emotions when they wish to, they are responsible for managing them. One example that demonstrates his approach is that of sorrow: good sorrow is sorrow that does something, as in sorrow that contemplates Christ’s passion and makes the supplicant more holy, but bad sorrow is for nothing and does nothing. This example is extremely important for my own continuing question– what do we do with melancholy that doesn’t do anything, both in the context of a story and on an individual level?

On the other hand, Rosenwein uses Margery Kempe as an example of someone who cultivates an emotional regime that is outside the norm. In her estimation, Margery’s excessiveness and focus on public emotion let her create a scattered emotional community of just a few sympathetic people. Her emphasis on despair and (holy) joy as interconnected and mutually reinforcing feelings was at odds with the “normal” courtly atmosphere of the fifteenth century. Rosenwein goes on to argue that melancholy was the reigning emotional regime of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, although not everyone experienced it, a shift she sees as connected to Margery but filtered through a Protestant lens. I both am interested in this claim and have a hard time buying the connection, mostly because I’m not sure Margery’s (not huge) renown and/or her gender would have been a great starting point for the scholarly melancholy that permeates the early modern period. As I noted in my earlier post, despayr and sorrow are two different things, and Margery’s coverage (at least now) tends to emphasize her sorrow.

(She also makes a related claim that I want to remember— that “a whole society does not become melancholy without the claim bringing some advantage” (319). I know this is about scholarly melancholy and prestige, but uh… climate despair?)

I found Rosenwein’s connection of feelings’ evolution to cell division resonant with several other things I have read, notably with Shane Denson’s concept of metabolic media. In her conclusion, Rosenwein claims that “emotions are reused and redeployed, not invented” (320). This seems like a great argument against the “normal is modern” claim that I have been yelling about since forever. It also made me think of Amy Hollywood’s use of Derrida’s concept of differance to comment on how traditions change over time; they are the same but with a difference, which is what makes them distinctive. Traditions can’t always remain the same, even if they are done in the same way for centuries, because the location, time, and people participating are different. I wonder if she believes the same is true of emotions. If you experience despair in the medieval period, is that or can that be the same as experiencing despair in a linked emotional community now?

I am also interested in how this concept stacks up with Rosenwein’s earlier writing, particularly the essay of hers I read in Crying in the Middle Ages. In that, she takes up Margery Kempe’s despair and ends by essentially saying that modern media (i.e. Twitter threads) can’t capture the same depth of feeling as Margery’s book. I was confused by this then and I am even more confused by it now, after reading this book that seems to suggest such a direct connection between medieval and modern feeling (and even states that its aim is to connect the two more explicitly than ever before.


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