Medieval honour and emotions

I’ve started reading a very interesting book: William Ian Miller, ‘Humiliation: and other essays on honor, social discomfort and violence’. A very readable blend of anthropology, medieval history (he’s an expert on Icelandic sagas) and psychology and I think potentially useful for my project. It brings together three things I’m currently thinking about in respect of masculinity: emotions, honour and violence. I need to think about gendered honour in the Carolingian world, but it’s such a slippery concept, especially when ‘honor’ is a word of such multiple meanings. I’m not sure whether in itself talking about ‘honour societies’ is helpful, or whether it’s just a black box explanation: one that slots in an anthropological concept without actually giving much more insight. There’s an awful lot of difference between bushido and chivalric codes, even if they’re both codes of honour. I think to be useful, you need to look at the details of honour: what events count, who counts and what the response ought to be. The problem is how to do that when the sources don’t often specifically discuss honour. This is where a comment by Stephen White in a paper in ‘Anger’s Past’ (edited by Barbara Rosenwein) comes in. He suggests:

‘One important step to taking in explaining lordly anger during the central Middle Ages would be to treat “the sense of honor” as something that mediates between the inner emotional worlds of upper-class males and the outer world of politics, where, at critical junctures, anger and other emotions have the potential to become powerful political forces.’

If honour is a filter through which emotions and reactions (such as violence) are expressed, then working back through such expressions (which narrative sources do often give) may help reconstruct at least the outlines of any code of honour. It seems one approach at least, so I’m off to look at texts and trace emotions.


5 thoughts on “Medieval honour and emotions

  1. Are there different names (in English) for the “external” kind of honour that’s basically about reputation, public perception, name, face; and the other, “internal” do-the-right-thing-regardless-of-what-people-think kind of honour? These seem to me to be, if anything, antithetical; they just happen to be stuck under the same noun in English.


  2. The nearest equivalent to internal honour would probably be something like ‘conscience’. There has been a lot of anthropological study of the opposite/negative view of this distinction, between ‘shame cultures’ and ‘guilt cultures’, particularly with respect to Japan and the Mediterranean as shame/honour cultures. However, the relevance of this model is now being questioned. There’s an overview (which I found useful, not being an anthropological expert) in Millie R. Creighton, ‘Revisiting shame and guilt cultures: a forty year pilgrimage’ Ethos 18 (1990), 279-307


  3. Thanks for taking the time to reply to my reply, Magistra. I will look up the reference. I dunno, I’d have thought “conscience” to be more along the lines of empathy/sympathy/guilt in relation to another individual: honour…something more in the ballpark of “shame” and more in relation to regard (ie the notion of being regarded by others, even the “other” in your own head.) At least in some English-speaking countries, that is. Maybe this is exactly the stuff that is most culture-specific, that might even be one of the biggest things that makes cultures distinct. I’ve found your blog to be really interesting and well written too.


  4. A lot of conflicts and war start over national pride and
    or perceived injusteses.many colonies don’t improuve economicly after independence.Hitler made the French surrender in the same railwaycar where Germany surendered
    in the first WW.Jailtime is now all about shaming the guilty
    without harming him physicly or even financialy.
    In the Orient it is mostly family-honour that is at stake
    in personal vendetas.The bombing of hiroshima and Dresden
    is more about humiliating the civilians than destroying
    the industrial capacity.
    Heinz Spall


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