Report: Training school “Passionate Devotions. Emotions in Late Medieval and Early Modern Religious Texts, Images and Music”, WWU Münster, 26.-28.4.2017

The latest Training school organized by COST Action IS1301 discussed „Passionate devotions. Emotions in Late Medieval and Early Modern Religious Texts, Images and Music“. It built on the impression that the study of late medieval and early modern religious culture and the emerging history of emotions have strong links, and continue to be combined in interesting ways by younger scholars. For the event at Muenster, taking place in the beautiful historical Kaminzimmer of the Haus der Niederlande (see photos on Twitter), ten doctoral or MA participants and five guest lecturers (including my co-organizer Ragnhild M. Bø, my Muenster collaborator Stephanie Kluge and myself) came together for three intense days of discussion (see the programme)

The first day of the Training school was headlined „Emotions shaping texts – texts shaping emotions“, and opened by Christina Lutter’s (Vienna) lecture on „Controlling Passions Through Affective Teaching: The Case of Caesarius of Heisterbach“. Laying groundwork for the following days, Lutter’s presentation on the didactic function of emotions in Caesarius’s Dialogus reminded us of several essential aspects of medieval theorizing of the affects: Generally, emotions were understood as an important nexus of mind and body, and could therefore be used and played upon in both pastoral care for laypeople and religious education for monks and nuns. Caesarius of Heisterbach moreover subscribed to a traditional ideal of ordered and moderated affects. In this scheme, which linked emotions closely to the system of opposing virtues and vices, excessive emotions were seen as problematic and had to be disciplined and mastered. Caesarius therefore sought to encourage a move between two assumed states or levels of affectivity: while his didactic exempla assume a basic pattern of commonly shared emotions to both lay and religious men and women – and often, in fact, instrumentalize this “basic” emotional state for didactic purposes – he also suggested that advanced learners could reach an ideal state of emotional mastery. As Lutter highlighted, however, the role of the community was considered essential to reach and stabilize this delicate balance between emotional extremes.

The ensuing discussion continued to highlight her suggestion that we should assume differences and divergences between different emotional repertoires. On one side, it was noted that God and the saints were allowed to show very strong emotions if these underscored a didactic message – in one story, Christ is shown stepping down from the cross and beating a neglectful monk so violently that he dies shortly after; in another (from a comparable contemporary source), an angry Mary lashes out verbally at an unchaste nun for “cheating” on Christ as her bridegroom. On the other side, Caesarius’s model of disciplined emotions exhibits an interesting ambivalence in its targeted audience. While his proximate audience is to be sought in religious communities, the process of disciplining the emotions to reach a virtuous state of moderation was certainly also applied to laypeople in situations of pastoral care; as participant Andrea Mancini (Leeds) highlighted, a closely related repertoire of emotional norms and ideals can be found in the developing penitential and pastoral literature. This raised the question how laypeople, who could not fall back onto the stabilizing mechanisms of a religious community, were meant to participate in the process of mastering their affects – a question that several participants later took up from the perspective of their research fields.

The presentation of Ella Kilgallon (Queen Mary University, London), who discussed „The role of emotion in the creation of devotional space: the case of early female Franciscan tertiaries”, offered an immediate example for such processes (see abstract). Kilgallon used the lives of two different female religious seekers, the tertiaries Rosa of Viterbo and Angela of Foligno, to highlight the role of space and memory for emotional experience and religious identity. As she demonstrated, the sources concerning Rosa framed her journey to saintlihood as a transformation of her primary space, the domestic room to which she confined herself, into an earthly paradise by way of religious emotional experience. A similar religious journey appears problematized in the sources on Angela of Foligno, who rejected the domestic cell as a space encouraging deceit and false emotions, and instead traveled and engaged with different spaces such as the Porziuncola at Assisi. While the emotions attributed to Angela remain harder to decipher, they also testify to the highly important role of emotional experience in the way individuals ascribed religious meaning to specific devotional spaces.

Dorottya Uhrin (ELTE Budapest) presented an analysis of The Cult of the Virgines Capitales in Late Medieval Hungary, focusing on representations of emotions contained in the early sixteenth-century codex of Érsekújvár, a manuscript written in the Hungarian vernacular and intended for being read aloud in a convent of Dominican nuns (see abstract). As her analysis showed, there were distinct registers of affectivity ascribed to the Pagan protagonists and to the proto-Christian converting virgins. While in some cases, virgins like St. Margaret wished for extreme pain and persecution to demonstrate their extreme love of Christ, it is generally the Pagan persecutors who are shown as immoderate in their emotional behaviour, while the virtuous virgins are shown to restrain their feelings. Uhrin’s suggestion that the military confrontation with the Turks might have been an immediate backdrop for the contrast of Christian and Pagan emotions led to a discussion of the ascription of uncontrolled emotions to cultural “others” and the cultural variations of ideals of “mastering oneself”.

Andrea Mancini’s (Leeds) presentation on „Emotions and Penance. The penitential summa of the Franciscan Observant Nicholas of Osimo” revisited the ideal of ordered emotions in a study of Nicholas of Osimo’s as yet unedited Supplementum summae pisanellae, dating from the first half of the fifteenth century (see abstract). Mancini’s discussion of the semantic and conceptual register of emotions in this penitential summa, which was intended as a tool for confessors, demonstrated how specific ideals and concepts of ordered emotion may have reached lay comunities. Drawing on both legal and theological discourses, pastoralia of this type problematized “inordinate” or “excessive” emotions by linking them to sin, and would have been a principal channel of communicating ideals of ordered affectivity to the laity.

Joanka van der Laan (Groningen) then presented on “The performance of emotion in late medieval Passion mediations” (see abstract). Her focus on late medieval Dutch prints containing passion meditations introduced us to another genre intended to shape the religious emotions of the laity. Her analysis showed a framework with strong accents on the transformative nature of religious affectivity: the practical guides for meditation often suggested prayer as a way to attain a “warming” of the religiously inert and therefore “cold” heart of the believer. Yet within this emotional repertoire, burning, “fervor”, appears as a heigthened state of religious affectivity rather than as an undesirable extreme. The meditation texts offered guidelines for performances meant to help ingrain this and other patterns of desired religious emotions. Their use gives insights into the way lay communities stabilized ideals of religious affectivity.

A visit to the Universitäts- and Landesbibliothek Münster, where we viewed manuscripts of devotional texts – among them prayerbooks, vernacular spiritual exempla and collationes, Passion meditations with a Devotio moderna context and vernacular penitential texts – concluded the day.

The second day of the Training school, with a focus on “Physicality and materiality”, was opened by Ragnhild M. Bø (Oslo). Her lecture, entitled “Being mindful of thy tears: The Lachrimose in Late Medieval Altarpieces”, drew attention to the close relationship between emotions and the material/phyiscal world, highlighting how “Emotions are materially constituted and material culture is emotionally constituted“ (Gosden).[1] She departed from the intriguing fact that tears, conceived as a medicine for sin and marker of emotional authentictiy, only appeared in paintings very late during the medieval period. In her discussion of the conceptualization and representation of tears in late medieval altarpieces, Bø then highlighted their close connection to ideas of materialization, which also influenced the representation of Mary Magdalene and St. Veronica, two saints transformed by their close physical contact to Christ. As her analysis showed, weeping figures on altarpieces also offered a theologically legitimated pattern for imitation, which directed viewers in their perception of legitimate emotional reactions to the death of Christ.

The discussion touched upon the authenticating nature of tears and their (real or imputed) traces on material objects, but also returned to the underlying question of the ordering of emotions: The appearance of tears in devotional art could very well be interpreted as a reinforcement of the emerging positive attitude towards tears in the face of criticisms, which may have viewed tears as excessive. Bø in fact cited Michelangelo’s alleged slur about the religious art of the late medieval Netherlands as something for women and „men without a sense of balance“, a description which may also be based on different norms and ideals of affectivity. The foray into art history was enriched by a tour of the medieval collections of the LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur, expertly guided by custodian Petra Marx.

In his lecture on „Routinized ecstasy?: emotional arousal in the late medieval English cult of the Holy Name of Jesus”, Rob Lutton (Nottingham) invited the participants to reflect on cultures of intense emotional experience by presenting both theoretical models contrasting „routinized“/„doctrinal“ to „charismatic“/„imagistic“ religiosity, and a collection of different sources concerning devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus (manuscripts, printed texts, images and film clips showing modern-day reenactments of a Holy Name Mass). On one hand, his lecture showed the transformations and complexity of devotion to the Holy Name: it first became popular as a religious practice aiming to generate intense, joyful and even ecstatic religious experience of dulcor, fervor and canor (sweetness, heat and song), but also generated forms of devotion which appear strongly routinized. Some observers, among them Carthusian monks, also held reservations about the participation of laypeople in the devotional practices. The discussion centered on several questions raised by Lutton, concerning both the sorts of experiences generated by devotions to the Holy Name of Jesus and the possible social and institutional settings for them.

Frances Cook’s (Reading) presentation on „Sanctity and Material Culture: Female Saints and their Devotees in Late Medieval England” shifted the focus to material objects but also raised questions about social situations in which religious art was used (see abstract). Cook introduced a cycle of murals on the Passion of St. Margaret in the parish church of St. Mary the Virgin in Battle, Sussex, and a sixteenth-century book of hours containing a Life of St. Margaret, and reconstructed the possible contexts of their uses. While the murals of St. Margaret, which included her slaying of demons, may have been used as didactic material in specific ritual situations such as baptisms, the book of hours took on a role in the family history of the noblewoman it was commissioned for. As St Margaret became a patron of childbirth, the book may even have been used as a quasi-relic in birth situations.

Renske Hoff’s (Utrecht) presentation on “The arousal of affectus in 15th century Middle Dutch, devout songs” drew on Birgit Meijers concept of “sensational forms”, presenting songs as relatively fixed, authorized modes of invoking and organizing access to the transcendental. As Hoff showed, however, the vernacular songs connected to the Devotio moderna may have had different contexts (see abstract). It is generally difficult to separate songs from prayers, and to ascertain the social situation in which songs may have been sung. As her analysis showed, the songs clearly offered idealized versions of emotional expressions, but there were different types of material, ranging from songs about the Passion to Christmas songs apparently performed in social, largely domestic settings.

Matko Matija Marušić’s (Zagreb) presentation on “Thirteenth-century Crosses and the Strategies of Affective Piety” returned to devotional objects (see abstract). As his discussion of their inscriptions showed, two monumental crosses from Zadar seem to have invited performative forms of contemplation and devotion and at the same time offered patterns for emotional responses. As Marušić’s reconstruction showed, the meaning of one inscription (“Rex obit, hec plorat, carus dolet, impius orat”) referenced both the secondary figures depicted with Christ, Mary and John, and the praying devotee at the foot of the cross, allowing the latter to include him- or herself into a pattern of desired emotional response through mimetic behaviour and close-range engagement with the depiction of Christ on the cross.

The third day, headlined „Emotions debated and instrumentalized“, opened with a final lecture by Stephanie Kluge and myself (both Muenster), on „Fear and loathing in the Middle Ages. Politicized emotions in the secular-mendicant conflict”. The presentation discussed the polemical appeals to emotions made in the context of the escalating tension between mendicant friars and secular clergy in France during the 1250s and 1280s. As Kluge’s discussion of mendicant exempla and my discussion of the sermons of William of Saint-Amour and a lament by the French poet Rutebeuf showed, the contestants of the conflict not only followed Aristotelian rhetorics by instrumentalizing pathos. It rather appears that both sides consciously activated the emotional responses and norms tied to pre-existing emotional “scripts”. Rutebeuf for example drew on the emotional repertoires of hagiography in describing the champion of the secular side, William of Saint-Amour, as a quasi-martyr. While the success of such strategies may have been varied, the strongly emotionalized rhetoric of the conflict certainly played a role and offers insights into its social contexts. The discussion returned to the issue of overlapping emotional communities or repertoires dealt with on the first day, and to the ways we might be able to assess the impact of one set of emotional norms or scripts upon another.

The presentation of Antonio Chemotti (Warszawa), on “Music and emotions at exequies in Italy (1550-1650): official regulations, social meaning, and affects” then turned to debates on the emotional impact of music (see abstract). As his analysis showed, the surprisingly frequent use of elaborate polyphonic music at exequies was complicated by a set of tensions concerning its interpretation and its imputed emotional impact. On one side, ecclesiastical regulations had long prohibited the use of polyphonic music at exequies and linked it to secular pomp. On the other hand, the emotional impact of music was problematized, as human grief about death was supposedly in tension to Christian values and should not be encouraged. As Chemotti showed, however, these problems could be solved by interpretations and situational solutions which harmonized tensions: Important contemporary commentators like Borromeo legitimized the use of elaborate music by describing it as conducive to both human grief and sadness and Christian consolation. Still, the perception of elaborate music as pomp continued to pose a problem, and led to instances where the symbolic use of silence or ostentatively muted trumpets prevailed instead.

Lauren Mulholland’s (Queen Mary University, London) presentation on “The Marian Lament as Jerusalem Lament: Grieving the Holy City in thirteenth-century Occitania” discussed the instrumentalization of emotion in linking Marian laments to laments for Jerusalem, but also returned to the issue of emotional responses already discussed on Thursday (see abstract). Mulholland pointed out that Marian laments not only offered an “intimate script” for emotional responses, appealing particularly to women to identify with the grieving Mary. A particular poem may also have used a strongly interlinked structure (coblas capcaudadas) to ensure the correct sequencing of the emotional progression of the text.

The presentation of Rouven Wirbser (Bielefeld) on “Ad poenitentiam movere. The Role and Use of Emotions in Jesuit Mission” closed the last day with a particularly well-documented debate on the instrumentalization of emotion (see abstract). Wirbser discussed the “Apostolic method” of Jesuit missionaries, which included dramatic performances and practices of self-flagellation of the missionaries and male audience members, originally developed in accommodation to the preferences of Italian rural audiences for high emotional and physical engagement. Transplanted to the “inner” mission in the Holy Roman Empire, this method proved highly successful in eliciting strong religious responses. Yet it also attracted criticisms, which again seemed related to the interpretation of strong emotions as excessive and disorderly.

The Training school concluded with a round of feedback, which mainly indicated that the different but complementary approaches of the participants and the mix of different disciplinary perspectives helped to provide inspiration and new, broader contexts to many participants. Over the following days, concluding reflections of several participants will be posted on this blog.

One definite result of the discussion must indeed be an insistence that a broad array of complementing disciplinary perspectives seems necessary to grasp the complex subject of religious emotions. As an overarching issue, the discussion also raised the question of how we can construe and map changes in specific communities of religious emotions: Many papers documented how intensely religious emotions were discussed and how consciously they were scripted and influenced, suggesting a trajectory of shifting themes, emphases and involved audiences over time. More specifically, however, several papers converged in the suggestion that the particular culture of intense religious emotionality connected with late medieval devotional practices of Western Europe (e.g. the examples of the English Holy Name devotion practices and Dutch Devotio moderna) was debated and problematized more explicitly, suggesting that this type of religious emotionality, which shows something of a departure from the traditional ideals of ordered and moderated emotion, was viewed as exceptional and generated open debate.

The way religious emotions were shaped and debated during the late medieval and early modern period altogether proves closely connected to the study of lay religious culture central to COST Action IS1301, and invites further, more systematic study. As the lively discussions showed, there seems to be substantial room for further exchange among younger scholars interested in related topics.

[1] C. Gosden, “Aesthetics, intelligence, and emotions. Implications for archaeology,” in E. Demarrais, C. Gosden and C. Renfrew (eds.), Rethinking materiality. The engagement of mind with the material world (Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research Vols., 2004), 39.


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