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In the early modern period, the feeling and practice of compassion were recalibrated in a pressure cooker of social, religious and political changes. The rich philosophical heritage of classical ideas about the role of pity in virtuous citizenship and prudent statesmanship and the embodied practices of late-medieval affective meditation on compassion with the suffering of Christ jostled against new contexts of civil war, colonisation and capitalism. Notions of neighbourliness, charity and compassion became elastic as communities changed shape. Much of today’s critical impatience with compassion is predicated on its failure to follow through on its rhetoric, its incapacity to practice as it preaches. Yet early modern compassion was not merely an erudite textual tradition: it was also a set of practices that took on differing importance in different social and religious groups. These practices were impacted by and in turn shaped textual representations of compassion. The chapters in this volume analyse a broad range of sources to access the interplay between texts and practice in the early modern period.
This collection is an enquiry into compassion as an early modern emotional phenomenon, situating it within the complexity of European economic, social, cultural and religious tensions. Drawing on recent work in the history of emotions, leading scholars consider the particularities of early modern compassion, demonstrating its entanglements with diverse genres and geographies. Chapters on canonical and less familiar works explore tragedy, comedy, sermons, philosophy, treatises on consolation, medical writing, and dramatic theory, showing how early modern compassion shaped attitudes and social structures that remain central to the way we imagine our response to suffering today, and how such investigations can ultimately provoke new ways of thinking about community in contemporary Europe.
Katherine Ibbett analyses the place of the self in compassion as explored by three key writers of the European Catholic Reformation, and suggests that attention to the contours of the compassionate self provides an important perspective on the relation between the Christian and the world. The chapter focuses on three texts: the French devout humanist François de Sales’s Introduction à la vie dévote / Introduction to the devout life (1609), the Italian Jesuit Roberto Bellarmino’s De gemitu columbiae, sive de bono lacrymarum /The Mourning of the Dove, or the value of tears (1617) and the French Jesuit Pierre Le Moyne’s La dévotion aisée / An easy devotion (1652). The writers of the Catholic Counter-Reformation looked to draft a new understanding of compassionate social interaction. This model pointed to a new and more worldly form of Christian civility, generated and underwritten by a sweet management of our own self.
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