- Compassion's Edge: Fellow-Feeling and Its Limits in Early Modern France by Katherine Ibbett
The history of social emotions—those that mediate human relationships—is of increased interest as scholars have grown in their appreciation for the significant role that emotion plays in shaping power relationships, for some even acting as a social structure itself. Ibbett's Compassion's Edge is an intellectual history of fellow feeling, particularly compassion and its associated emotions of pity and charitable care, in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century France. If Sarah McNamer's [End Page 219] key insight into medieval compassion was that it was gendered, thus becoming associated with women, Ibbett's is that compassion has an 'edge', a boundary that defines the limits of its operation. In this, she contributes to a history of emotions that rejects a simple emotional valence—positive or negative emotions—for recognition of how they embed within social relationships and are given meaning through their social practice.
If intellectual history is sometimes associated with 'high-brow' knowledges, one of the strengths of Compassion's Edge is the broad diversity of texts that Ibbett engages with as she elucidates the uses and contexts of the language of compassion. She moves from dictionaries and theologies to pamphlets and religious debates to the historical novel, before a concluding chapter takes her to hospital records in colonial Montreal. A key question throughout is the difference that religious positioning makes to the articulation of emotion—is there a Protestant compassion? A Catholic pity? Through a close reading, Ibbett comes to suggest yes, or at least that their deployment is shaped by the religious contexts of the user. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that the 'edge' of compassion is critical for Ibbett—compassion always has its limits, marks boundaries, enables sectarian division. Moreover, this is a limit that causes the actor to pause, with pity and compassion felt by the observer but failing to lead to action. As she acknowledges in the conclusion, a modern reader might find this frustrating, as we do at, say, outpourings of anger at injustice but a lack of practical response. Ibbett asks instead that we take seriously emotion as a form of action, an embodied practice based on an engagement with the suffering other, an acknowledgement of their humanity. In a divided world, this recognition might be enough.
Compassion's Edge's argument is made across six chapters that develop over a rough chronology, but also feature distinct genres. The first half of the book looks at ideas of pity, compassion, and caritas in religious and philosophical writing, as intersecting but distinct emotions, comparable in their capacity to inscribe similarity and difference. The second half seeks to complicate these accounts through their application in the novel, drama, and hospital journals. If the former section seeks compassion and its boundary, the latter half explores compassion's failures—moments of connection between humans missed. The final chapter—examining a colonial compassion marked by its distance in space and time from the preceding discussion—in contrast finds a more active, directed compassion in the care of a nun and her insistence on enacting compassion through the 'caress' (p. 222) of practical action. It is a care actively set against the colonial imposition (harm) of missionary work in the new world, an intimacy of empire that has been subject to significant critique.
Ibbett's analysis is skilful, nuanced, and reflective. Criticism is rather mean-spirited. Yet, as a text with an important argument, I kept wanting her to push back against McNamer a bit more explicitly—did this gendered care in the new world reflect that compassion was womanly, or did its productive use by male authors suggest the limits of this argument for the early modern? What too of work on [End Page 220] charitable care in early modern France—such as that by Susan Broomhall—that shows a similar enactment of compassion in hospitals at home? How...