Joanka van der Laan: The performance of emotion in late medieval Passion mediations

Late medieval devotional literature was one of several interacting media (images, preaching, drama, sculpture etc.) through which the late medieval believer could engage with the figure of the suffering Christ. These texts may function as scripts: often written in the first person singular, they provide the reader with the appropriate words and sometimes postures or gestures for their time of prayer (McNamer 2010). My research looks at a broad range of devotional texts from the long fifteenth century, written in the vernacular. I examine how a mode of reading that I call ‘performative reading’ involves the reader in a process that ultimately contributes to the development of religious knowledge. This knowledge is certainly not limited to intellectual knowledge; it includes learning of specific habits and skills that make up the identity of a religious reader within his/her community. An important component of this knowledge is the use of the body and emotions in devotional practices.

In my paper I will introduce some fifteenth and sixteenth century Middle Dutch devotional texts that focus on the Passion of Christ. Although different in form they all implicitly or explicitly instruct the reader in the proper ways of emotionally engaging with the material. One of these texts, entitled the Fasciculus Myrrhe, or ‘Bundle of myrrh’, makes clear that meditating on the Passion of Christ is an exercise, even an art. The anonymous author compares it with other arts or crafts: they all have certain rules and in order to be successful the artist/craftsman has to live by and practice his art according to those rules. The same holds for the art of meditation, which has its ultimate goal the complete immersion of the believer in Christ’s suffering. The text continues by listing the rules of meditation, which all serve to train the reader in the right circumstances for effective meditation. Interesting are the instructions given in case the reader’s ‘heart cannot be moved to compassion.’ If this happens the reader must not stop practicing the exercise: he should patiently wait for the Lord while persevering in thanksgiving and petitioning. The reader should also make use of the body: stretching out the hands and arms, beating the chest, kneeling, disciplining himself until tears will flow from the heart again. Emotions can thus be generated through the careful manipulation of the body, a process that is collaborated by modern empirical research (McNamer 2007; Harkins 2015). It is clear from this text that emotions are not necessarily spontaneous outbursts that reflect an interior state of being, but are means for the devotee to arrive at a transformative experience. In other words, the reader involves him/herself emotionally in the events of the Passion of Christ, if necessary by the aid of bodily movement; he/she then arrives at a deeper understanding of the significance of salvation history and subsequently realises the need for self-reform.

In my paper I will introduce more texts like the Fasciculus, which were widely available during the long fifteenth century, especially after the introduction of the printing press. I will analyse both the contents of the texts as well as their material form to demonstrate how the emotional engagement they invite can be described as performative. The texts stress the importance of practicing, of performing, the exercises, allow for different levels of competency and frame the exercises within the ultimate goal of coming closer to the divine. As previous research has made clear that emotions are intricately connected with space and materiality, I also aim to further investigate these texts by contextualising them within the broader performative culture of the time. These observations lead to some questions, for example concerning the role of emotional communities, which I hope will contribute to the broader thematic and methodological discussion during the Training School.

Joanka van der Laan (

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).

It is published under


Angela K. Harkins 2015, “A Phenomenological Study of Penitential Elements and Their Strategic Arousal of Emotion in the Qumran Hodayot,” in: Ancient Jewish prayers and emotions: emotions associated with Jewish prayer in and around the Second Temple period, ed. Stefan C. Reif and Renate Egger-Wenzel, Berlin.

Sarah McNamer 2007, “Feeling,” in: Middle English: Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature, ed. Paul Strohm, Oxford.

Sarah McNamer 2010, Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion, Philadelphia, Pa.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.