- Gardens as “Emotional Communities”: Three Medieval French Examples
Recent work on the history of emotions, particularly by Barbara Rosenwein, has explored the idea of “emotional communities” as a means of uncovering the complex layers of identity and self-definition among individuals in past societies. Here I wish to explore three brief examples from French texts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in the light of this enquiry. Two are from well-known literary figures (Chrétien de Troyes and Marie de France) while the other is by Guillaume le Breton, biographer and panegyrist of the French king Philip II Augustus (r. 1180–1223). Each writer uses the image of the garden to illustrate the emotional standpoint of prominent individuals and communities within his or her text. The range of emotions on display—jealousy, grief, anger, fear, love, and even something we might label “national pride”—attests to the power of the garden image as a conveyor of meaning for medieval authors and audiences alike.
Developments in the history of the emotions during recent years have largely overturned earlier models of thinking about the topic and have been especially influential in the premodern context. In an important 2002 article and subsequent book, Barbara Rosenwein has rejected the traditional “hydraulic” view of emotions history that could be detected in an earlier generation of seminal works such as those by Lucien Febvre, Johan Huizinga, and Norbert Elias (Rosenwein, “Worrying” and Emotional Communities). This hydraulic view posited, to put it crudely, that emotions were largely fluid, irrational and uncontrollable features of human nature. The so-called “civilizing process” outlined by Elias entailed a progressive degree of restraint within human society that valued reason and control over outbursts of unhelpful and intense feelings. This older view is encapsulated by the famous opening paragraph of Huizinga’s Waning of the Middle Ages, which describes a medieval world where: [End Page 253]
All experience had yet to the minds of men the directness and absoluteness of the pleasure and pain of child-life. . . . All things . . . tended to produce that perpetual oscillation between despair and distracted joy, between cruelty and pious tenderness which characterise life in the Middle Ages.(Huizinga 9)
Instead, influenced by more modern approaches to cognitive psychology and social constructionism which question these received ideas and which reject the notion of some sort of grand narrative of progressive Western social advancement from childlike outbursts into a modern, grown-up emotional straitjacket, recent scholars have developed other views (Burke; Reddy). Rosenwein has called for an investigation into “emotional communities,” by which she means the variety of networks of mental and emotional (rather than, say, economic or political) relationships which people entered into at different times and in different situations. To quote Rosenwein:
These are precisely the same as social communities—families, neighborhoods, parliaments, guilds, monasteries, parish church memberships— but the researcher looking at them seeks to uncover above all systems of feeling: what these communities (and the individuals within them) define and assess as valuable or harmful to them; . . . the nature of the affective bonds between people that they recognize; and the modes of emotional expression that they expect, encourage, tolerate and deplore.(Rosenwein, “Worrying” 842)
I wish to explore some of the possibilities of this concept of “emotional communities” here, by looking briefly at three examples where strong emotions are linked to a garden setting. Two are from well-known literary figures (Chrétien de Troyes and Marie de France) while the other is by Guillaume le Breton, biographer and panegyrist of the French king Philip II Augustus. Each writer uses the image of the garden to illustrate the emotional standpoint of prominent individuals and communities within his or her text. What I hope to show is that the image of the garden is used in a variety of ways in these texts to convey interesting and revealing messages about the emotional links between characters within the social world on display, or between author and audience. The garden, in other words, becomes a sort of visual or metaphorical shorthand for the nature of the emotional communities being explored within each text.
The first example is in fact the latest chronologically. Guillaume le Breton...