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  • Devotion and Emotion: Creating the Devout Body in Late Medieval Bruges
  • Andrew Brown

The words emotion and devotion are used as terms of convenience by modern historians when discussing various aspects of late medieval religion. The phrase emotive devotion has been used to describe an affective form of piety, focused on the sufferings of Christ, that is often regarded as the dominant form in fifteenth-century towns. However, if closer attention is paid to late-medieval usage of the terms devotion and emotion (or rather the “passions”) a different picture emerges. This article uses evidence from Bruges, then one of northern Europe’s most important towns, to argue that the “devotion” most favored, at least among those in authority, was one that was tied to social order. Descriptions of rebellion within the town in 1488 are semantically linked to a familiar scholastic discourse regarding the nature of the body and its “passions.” They are also linked to a vocabulary relating to order—and a “devotion” that in this period was specifically connected with “general” or supplicatory processions. The increasing use of this type of procession in the fifteenth century represents a qualitative change in the way that the citizen body was managed by civic authorities in Bruges and, by implication, in other late medieval towns.

In January 1488, according to Jean Molinet, the people of Bruges were moved to sedition.1 It began at the end of January with “whirlwinds of furious commotion” when Maximilian, king of the Romans, was captured and a “very arrogant and coarse band of workers” occupied the main market-place.2 “Coarse insolences and horrible excesses” then ensued.3 Peace eventually came on May 16, when Maximilian was released and oaths were sworn by ruler and townsmen. But disorder had come to an effective end at the beginning of April, at Easter, when masses were sung by “devout” people and a procession was mounted in which each guild dean appeared in the accustomed order.4

Molinet’s courtly background makes his hostility towards urban rebels entirely unsurprising.5 That his account of events moves from [End Page 210] the fury of the initial uprising to the order of a procession also seems unremarkable: the end of discord and the advent of peace would often be marked by liturgical rites. Nevertheless, it is worth investigating further his choice of words in describing the rebellion, and the turn of events that to him signaled the beginning and the end of it. The vocabulary used by Molinet and other contemporaries to describe order and disorder within Bruges is of wider significance: it drew from various traditions of thought, and in the late medieval and civic context it had particular meaning that did not relate simply to the immediate circumstances of rebellion.

Bruges was a volatile place in the fifteenth century, oscillating more than once between revolt and peace. The 1488 rebellion was the fourth major uprising during this period, and as on previous occasions, the ruler of Flanders found himself pitted against townsmen. But confrontation between “state” and “town” was not the sole cause of social unrest.6 Like many other towns in late medieval Europe, civic magistrates often struggled to maintain conditions of peace, partly to ensure the survival of their own political and social positions. Faction divided town councils; guildsmen, especially those below the rank of master, were not always obedient to municipal authority; inequalities of wealth sharpened unrest among the urban poor. One of the many ways in which civic authorities strove to uphold peace was through display of ceremonial order, especially in processions. One type of procession was the kind that Molinet associated with the return to order in 1488. The significance of the “general procession” (as this type was often called) repays further attention: its use in fifteenth-century Bruges has much to tell about the priorities and piety of the town’s authorities—and given Bruges’ importance in late medieval Europe,7 possibly therefore about those of other towns in late medieval Europe, where similar rites took place. Of particular interest here is the nature of “devotion” that such processions were intended to encourage.

“Emotion” and “devotion”

Molinet chose the word esmouvoir...


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pp. 210-234
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