Emotions medieval and modern

The last seminar of the term was a very good one: Barbara Rosenwein on ‘Merovingian passions’. She’s been working on the history of the emotions for some time and argues specifically for three different ‘emotional communities’ visible in Merovingian court culture of the late 6th to late 7th centuries. Particularly interesting is that she sees the first community, around King Sigibert, represented textually by Fortunatus and Gregory of Tours as having a particularly strong emphasis on familial love, and by extension, other forms of love. As she points out, this is very unlike general views of the Merovingians. (Unlike the Carolingian moral texts, this emphasis on love also wasn’t linked to a need for discipline).

There was a lot of discussion about the extent to which ‘emotional communities’ did really exist, and whether they were ‘rhetorical communities’ or not, but I think her central point did stand up: there are clusters of texts which share a particular emotional style and vocabulary, and which differ from one another noticeably.

It would be very interesting to take some of her work and combine it with something I’m interested in: lay masculinity and self-control. Conrad Leyser has done studies of how the focus of male religious asceticism changes in the fifth and sixth centuries from control of the genitals to control of the tongue. I’d like to look at how Stoic/Stoic derived Christian ideas of apathia are taken up (or not) for laymen in the successor states. There’s stuff in the mirrors for princes, but it hasn’t been looked at from that angle. But it would be a major piece of work.

Meanwhile, from the ‘mater’ side, there was some interesting material about the current research thinking on emotions. This no longer sees them as bubbling under rational thoughts, so that the civilizing process means learning to control them. Instead Barbara was using a model drawing on cognitive psychology and social construction. The cognitive psychology side is that emotions work in a two stage process: an emotional assessment of a situation (a lion has come into the room, this is frightening) and then a reaction (hide under the table). The social construction side is that both the assessment and the reaction are culturally-determined: a Masai warrior who saw the lion as a chance to demonstrate his warrior prowess would assess the situation and react differently.

All this suggests that when trying to teach toddlers to cope with emotions, it isn’t just a matter of teaching them ‘to control their emotions’, i.e. alter their reactions. Possibly more important is trying to get them to assess the situation differently. In other words, when the toddler falls over and yells, maybe ‘you’re not really hurt’ needs to come before ‘don’t cry’. On the other hand, how you do this in practice is a different matter. Once when my husband was trying to comfort L after a tumble and telling her ‘It’s OK’, she turned round to him and replied: ‘No, it’s not OK.’ Any parenting experts: what does the adult say then? Answers in the comment field to the Magistra.

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