Renske Hoff: I could cry over that: an anthropological approach to the arousal of affectus in vernacular songs of the Devotio Moderna

The Devotio Moderna has left us with an extensive textual heritage of various sources that offer us insight into the norms, values, devotional practices and daily life in this religious movement of the 14th and 15th century. Among the texts are vitae, sermons, theoretical texts and prayers, of which many are written in the vernacular. Part of this heritage is also a large and varied corpus of vernacular, devout songs. In spite of their popularity, we know very little about the way the songs have functioned in devout life in the late Middle Ages. What made them ‘work’ so well as instruments in devotion and why have they been so surprisingly widespread?

I think the answer to these questions can be found in the exceptional qualities of songs in the invocation of emotion and the shaping and formation of communities. The unique combination of music, rhetorical means, and a devout content makes the songs very powerful instruments in the devotion to Christ, Mary, saints, or God. The idea that texts can help in the invocation or strengthening of emotion and, therefore, in devotion is acknowledged in theoretical texts of the Devotio Moderna, especially concerning prayers. The concept of affectus is a central theme in these writings, as has been shown by, amongst others, Heiko Oberman and John van Engen (1988). Affectus is translated in Middle Dutch as ‘begheerlicheid’: a longing, wishing and striving towards God. This longing asks for a specific emotional state that is fully focussed upon the Divine. All emotions, sensations, and passions have to be gathered around the ‘fireplace’ of the devotion towards the Divine. Earthly desires need to be displaced by spiritual, higher desires and ‘usual’ emotions such as love and sorrow have to gain a divine meaning and goal. Texts, images, stories, and prayers can all help in raising this all-inclusive desire for God.

The ability to invoke, shape and organise emotions, feelings, and sensations and therefore to arouse affectus is – in my opinion – not restricted to the genres of prayers or images. I think the ‘functionality’ of these devout songs lays especially in their ability to invoke emotion in their users and to confirm and shape the community in which they function. Both aspects are closely related, as the term emotional communities – introduced by medievalist Barbara Rosenwein – confirms. Emotional communities share a system of feeling, which defines what emotions these communities (and the individuals within them) value, devalue or ignore, what the nature of the affective bonds between people is, and what modes of emotional expression they expect, encourage, tolerate, and deplore.[1] Songs confirm and shape this emotional community through the use of emotional discourse: emotion words, metaphors, imaging, and references to the senses are all used to confirm and thereby form the system of feeling that is the backbone for the desired devotion.

But how do the invocation of emotion and the arousal of affectus take place? Anthropological research has focussed on these questions before, and the emotional community, religious experience and its connection to senses and sensation, the transmission of affect via identification and the use of narratives and imaging have shown to be important notions in discussing these issues. In my lecture, these notions will serve as the theoretical framework for a close reading of the emotional discourse in the songs. Problems I will concentrate on in my lecture are the relationship between affectus and emotion, the emotion invoking quality of language and, more general, the use of anthropological notions about emotion and religion in the study of medieval sources.

Renske Hoff (

This post forms part of an open mini-series published in preparation of the COST Action IS1301 Training School “Passionate Devotions. Emotions in Medieval and Early Modern Religious Texts, Images and Music” (see announcement with details about submissions here).

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[1] Rosenwein 2010: 11.

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