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Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion

By Sarah McNamer

Publication Year: 2010

Affective meditation on the Passion was one of the most popular literary genres of the high and later Middle Ages. Proliferating in a rich variety of forms, these lyrical, impassioned, script-like texts in Latin and the vernacular had a deceptively simple goal: to teach their readers how to feel. They were thus instrumental in shaping and sustaining the wide-scale shift in medieval Christian sensibility from fear of God to compassion for the suffering Christ.

Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion advances a new narrative for this broad cultural change and the meditative writings that both generated and reflected it. Sarah McNamer locates women as agents in the creation of the earliest and most influential texts in the genre, from John of Fécamp's Libellus to the Meditationes vitae Christi, thus challenging current paradigms that cast the compassionate affective mode as Anselmian or Franciscan in origin. The early development of the genre in women's practices had a powerful and lasting legacy. With special attention to Middle English texts, including Nicholas Love's Mirror and a wide range of Passion lyrics and laments, Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion illuminates how these scripts for the performance of prayer served to construct compassion itself as an intimate and feminine emotion. To feel compassion for Christ, in the private drama of the heart that these texts stage, was to feel like a woman. This was an assumption about emotion that proved historically consequential, McNamer demonstrates, as she traces some of its legal, ethical, and social functions in late medieval England.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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pp. vii-viii

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Introduction: Intimate Scripts in the History of Emotion

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pp. 1-21

At the center of medieval Christian culture, there was a human figure— male, once beautiful, dying on a cross. This book is about the feelings elicited toward that suffering figure through one of the most popular and influential literary genres of the high and later Middle Ages: affective meditations on the ...

PART I: The Origins of an Affective Mode

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1. Compassion and the Making of a True Sponsa Christi

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pp. 25-57

In the quiet, well-lit comfort of the modern British Library, with its clean architectural lines so conducive to attentive study, it is possible to examine a thirteenth-century manuscript made for a group of anchoresses living in the borderlands between England and Wales. Small in size, this manuscript (British Library MS Cotton Titus D.xviii) invites easy handling and use, as befits ...

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2. The Genealogy of a Genre

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pp. 58-85

‘‘How did it happen," ’Emile Male asked in his early and influential study of religious art, ‘‘that, in the fourteenth century, Christians wished to see their God suffer and die? . . . Who had released this gushing spring? Who had thus struck the Church in its very heart? This problem, one of the most interesting presented by the history of Christianity, has never been resolved, nor, to tell ...

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3. Franciscan Meditation Reconsidered

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pp. 86-115

In 1207, after sixteen years spent serving lepers in Liege while begging alms for her sustenance, Marie d’Oignies retired to the priory of Saint-Nicholas at Oignies-sur-Sambre, in what is now Belgium. Fame had become too great a burden: the example she had set, living in poverty because Christ had lived in poverty, serving lepers because she saw Christ in them, had attracted ...

PART II: Performing Compassion in Late Medieval England

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4. Feeling Like a Woman

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pp. 119-149

Around the time the anonymous author in Italy sat down to write the original version of the Meditations, another momentous event took place across the English Channel: Richard Rolle quit his course of study at Oxford and ran off to the woods to become a hermit, wearing a patchwork garment hastily assembled from two of his sister’s dresses. ‘‘My brother’s gone mad,’’ his ...

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5. Marian Lament and the Rise of a Vernacular Ethics

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pp. 150-173

Compassion is not only an emotion but also potentially the foundation for an ethic. The cultivation of compassion in the devotional realm, then, clearly had the potential to effect ethical thinking and behavior on a wider scale, and the rare autobiographical writings that survive from late medieval England reveal that in some cases meditation on the Passion did indeed ...

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6. Kyndenesse and Resistance in the Middle English Passion Lyric

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pp. 174-206

Although ‘‘Come over the burne’’ circulated mostly as a secular song and was printed as such, two allegorized versions survive. The shorter of these appears in the Ritson manuscript (British Library Additional MS 5665), where it is scored for three male voices. The single stanza recorded here lays out the allegorical ...


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pp. 207-269

Works Cited

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pp. 271-297

Index of Manuscripts

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p. 299


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pp. 300-306


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pp. 307-309

E-ISBN-13: 9780812202786
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812242119

Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 10 illus.
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 794700575
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • Emotions -- Religious aspects -- Christianity -- History -- To 1500.
  • Compassion -- Religious aspects -- Christianity -- History -- To 1500.
  • Devotional literature, Latin (Medieval and modern) -- History and criticism.
  • Devotional literature, English (Middle) -- History and criticism.
  • Devotional literature, Italian -- History and criticism.
  • Jesus Christ -- Passion -- Prayers and devotions -- History and criticism.
  • Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Devotion to -- England -- History -- To 1500.
  • Femininity -- Religious aspects -- Christianity -- History -- To 1500.
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