- Passion and Order: Restraint of Grief in the Medieval Italian Communes
In commenting on the need for contrition as part of the penitential experience, Thomas Aquinas urged a path of moderation. He warned against the dangers of excessive sorrow, arguing that ‘a man cannot easily measure his own emotions’. Aquinas is an especially fitting commentator on the subject, for in the early 1260s he lived and preached in Orvieto, the central Italian commune whose archives provide the raw material for Professor Carol Lansing’s study of medieval grief. Aquinas’s viewpoint (to which Lansing refers at pp. 134–5) hints at several of the book’s major themes: the social practices surrounding the expression of grief in medieval Italian communities; the progressive restraint of these practices over the course of the thirteenth century, particularly by male mourners; and the gendered nature of medieval thought surrounding the public display of sorrow.
The study of medieval emotions has proliferated in recent years and Lansing’s work makes a worthy and absorbing contribution to the field. Her central argument is that the promulgation of laws concerning funerals and public grief in Orvieto, and elsewhere in Italy, during the thirteenth century indicates a growing desire to discourage emotional outbursts that were perceived as a potential threat to public calm. This change was driven not so much by moral or religious principles (although these remain relevant as [End Page 179] part of the cultural background) as by the demands of civil society in its quest for order and peace.
In this sense, the author is attempting one of the more challenging tasks available to cultural historians, the identification of shifting meanings attached to particular emotions (and their public display) over time. Peter Burke has noted the importance of understanding the rules or codes applied to certain emotions, and how these might change. This is precisely what Lansing attempts and it leads her to the intriguing conclusion that, since there is substantial evidence of elaborate mourning rituals by notable men in the earlier period, it was the very upholders of patriarchal authority who were now potentially fining themselves for breaches of funeral etiquette.
Lansing’s argument therefore seeks to link the cultural understanding of mourning rituals to a broader historiography concerning state formation in later medieval Italy, and specifically to the gendered nature of that process. Scholastic philosophy influenced the actions of lawmakers and civic leaders since, in Lansing’s view, it encouraged an attitude that ‘the coercive power of the state [was] needed to quell impulses that were often coded as feminine’ (p. 173). An increasing emphasis on the histrionic display of grief as a specifically feminine pursuit thus signalled both a reduction in the possibilities for women to contribute to civic leadership and the rejection of overt male grief as acceptable behaviour for those whose functions included the maintenance of civic order. In a world where excesses of emotion were becoming associated with femininity, ‘the perceived threat was male grief’ (p. 188).
This is not at all to say that Lansing wishes to resuscitate the concept of a ‘civilising process’ marked by increasing self-restraint, a grand narrative in the tradition of Norbert Elias from which the author explicitly distances herself (p. 221). Rather, her study builds on the ideas of Barbara Rosenwein in seeking to examine the nature of one particular ‘emotional community’, and to explore how and why that community’s internal dynamics (in other words, its understanding of the meanings attached to displays of emotion by its own members) appear to have changed so substantially.
Can the argument be sustained, given the nature of the available evidence? Studying the history of emotions is always a fraught affair, and Lansing is scrupulous in pointing out the limitations of her own methodology and the difficulties of reaching a conclusive position. While the rich archival material, such as the set of legal sentences from Orvieto based on the...