Josephine Spelsberg, King’s College London

Masculine Compassion in the Middle Ages: A Comparative Study of Medieval Literature

‘There is nothing clear about compassion’ is what Lauren Berlant claimed in one of the few studies concerning this emotion (Lauren Berlant, Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion, 2004, p. 1). At the simplest level, compassion is evoked through an act of suffering that is witnessed or communicated, and the figure, group, state, community, audience doing the witnessing is the one that experiences the emotion. Therefore, in order to trigger this emotion, at least in a western context, an act of suffering is needed with at least one witness. There is little academic consensus about what the emotion compassion actually entails, or how it differs from emotions such as empathy, pity, or sympathy.

The history of emotions, steadily increasing as an academic field since the 1970s, has given this emotion little explicit attention. There are also issues of translation and terminology: empathy, for example, can be translated into German quite straightforwardly as Empathie, yet compassion does not have an exact German equivalent. The closest fit would be the term Mitgefühl, which could also be used as a translation for the English term sympathy. Anyone analysing this emotion will quickly realise the omnipresence of the emotion yet also the problems of terminology, and the difficulty of pinpointing it in conversations, behaviour, texts, films, music, theatrical performances or even languages. Lauren Berlant’s above-cited claim, therefore, seems a fitting characterisation of the emotion. Whether compassion is learned in a cultural and social setting or, as Martha Nussbaum claims, a biologically inherited, basic, intuitive emotion, is another question that remains unanswered.

Certainly, compassion has multiple nuances and expressions and is voiced through different gestures, mannerisms in different national, cultural and communal settings. Not least has compassion in the rise of cinema, television and news reporting become a powerful political and commercial tool.

In order to increase our understanding of this complex emotion, my doctoral project will analyse the way in which compassion is used in later medieval texts between male figures and evoked from a potential audience/reader. In medieval studies, compassion has almost exclusively been linked to the piety of the period and has not been illuminated in secular or non-devotional sources. I hope to fill this gap by comparatively analysing secular and popular medieval texts, exploring how compassion is rhetorically created – if not explicitly stated – in these texts, and what persuasive purposes this emotion is used for. Through this analysis, I aim to contribute to the field of the history of emotions, gender studies and literary studies.

By assessing different genres and texts in different languages, I aim to offer a comparative study which will give insight into generic and linguistic nuances. The focus on masculine verbalisations and expressions of compassion in later medieval texts will convey the way in which same-sex relationships were performed and fictionalised, and offer insight into notions of gender of the time. Because of their popularity, the genres I will be focussing on for primary material will be the romance genre, in Middle High German, Middle English, Middle Dutch and Middle French, and the genre of the tale/fabliaux/Märe. Not only do these genres and linguistic communities offer substantial primary material, their popularity and enduring circulation into later centuries also imply a somewhat substantial readership. Topical subjects in the above-mentioned genres include, crusading, othering, proto-nationalism, romance, knightly quests, war, marriage, betrayal and kinship, all of which are highly informative for a societies’ notions of compassion.

Essentially, my project will illuminate to what extent compassion is utilised in later medieval secular texts as a rhetorical device and what it tells us about medieval community, masculinity and emotionality. Moreover, I will assess the usefulness of the term for an analysis of medieval sensibility.