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  • Introduction: Devotion and Emotions in the Middle Ages
  • Tracy Adams, Guest Editor

We might point to any number of statements as heralding the rapid rise of the history of emotions as a subfield of history over the past few decades, but an observation by Peter Gay in 1985 seems especially apt: the professional historian, whether consciously or not, “operates with a theory of human nature; he attributes motives, studies passions, analyzes irrationality, and constructs his work on the tacit conviction that human beings possess certain stable and discernible traits, certain predictable, or at least discoverable modes of coping with their experience” (6). In other words, the history of emotions has rendered self-conscious a type of theorizing that historians had always done without acknowledging it. Gay’s point was to emphasize that a sea change had taken place since 1961, when, at the annual meeting of the Society for French Historical Studies, he had proposed that the period between Louis XVI’s flight to Varennes and his execution had aroused communal emotions “bearing the lineaments, and producing the guilt feelings, of parricide.” What had seemed to his audience an egregious transgression, the equivalent of speaking of witchcraft at a medical meeting, Gay observed, was accepted as normal practice by 1985 (12–13).

Accepted as normal practice in 1985, or to borrow Barbara Rosenwein’s words, “as a focus rather than as a colorful aside” (Emotional Communities 5), the history of the emotions now thrives with centers devoted to the field spread throughout the world. Moreover, the study is no longer carried out only, or even primarily, by historians, but has become a truly interdisciplinary area of research. The sheer number of monographs, collections, and articles devoted to the subject by researchers from different disciplines bears witness to the now virtually unanimous assumption that such studies are not only legitimate but necessary: human action cannot be grasped fully as the product of rational decisions made by people acting according to conscious beliefs. [End Page 173]

The essays in this collection aim to explore some of the work to which our medieval forebears put what we today think of as emotions: how they used emotions for making sense of human nature, keeping the peace, educating communities, marking social distinctions. The essays are diverse, representing several disciplines. However, in their reflections they address some common themes. One is the concepts through which medieval men and women thought about what we call “emotion.” The word “emotion” and its cognates take on their present meaning only in the eighteenth century, and thus it is necessary to make sense of different vocabularies in exploring how our early counterparts understood the phenomenon (Harré and Gillett 152–53). Another is the vitality of medieval interest in the relationship between emotion and devotion: the perceived need for regulation of devotion through various emotional regimes. Still another is the variety of ways in emotion was understood as a communal rather than private phenomenon. The essays all build on recent work on emotions in the Middle Ages, which, ever since Rosenwein made clear in the early years of this millennium the need to revise the common notion of medieval men and women as given to the naïve and violent expression of their passions, has spread in many directions. Several overviews of the scholarship devoted to the history of medieval emotions have laid out the major developments in this relatively new field.1 I will not recycle these useful introductions here. Rather, to situate the essays of this volume, I will describe some of the basic assumptions about emotions with which medieval theoreticians, both theologian-philosophers and lay people, were working and on which the authors here construct their analyses.

Important to note is that medieval conceptions of emotion derived from a wide variety of sources, and that, depending on who they read, medieval theoreticians can be sorted roughly into two groups, one emphasizing the irrational aspect of emotion and the other the rational. The first, a tradition traceable to Plato, imagined emotions or passions, pathē, as wild perturbations that arose in the irrational part of the soul and needed to be mastered; the most frequently cited passage for this definition...


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