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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.
In this closing chapter, Kristine Steenbergh compares early modern configurations of compassion to contemporary notions of fellow-feeling in multispecies relations. The chapters in Compassion in Early Modern Literature and Culture: Feeling and Practice foreground how the emotion was a situated practice shaped by the religious battles of the Reformation. Like the Reformation, the Anthropocene is a fault line urging a rethinking of ideologies, values, and practices. Humankind’s impact on the earth’s ecosystems shapes a need for new worldviews which are less anthropocentric and more attuned to the interconnections between different life forms on our planet. Steenbergh demonstrates that in the work of Donna Haraway, Deborah Bird Rose and Thom van Dooren, compassion is envisaged as central to posthuman affective relations. In these relations, compassion is inflected similarly to early modern definitions of compassion as a literal ‘suffering-with’.
Kristine Steenbergh argues that the Reformation impacted traditional practices cultivating compassion. Late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century sermons reveal a concern over the disappearance of traditional habits of charitable giving and affective meditation, and explore new forms of nurturing a capacity for sharing in the suffering of others. Clergymen thought that a mollified heart requires constant practice. With the loss of traditional habits of charity, they feared their congregations’ hearts were in danger of hardening against the sight of suffering. These concerns are expressed in a recurrent image: in their sermons, preachers worry that the members of their congregation suffer from hardened, closed and dry bowels. The concept of the ‘bowels of compassion’ is central to early modern practices of charity and fellow-feeling: these organs need to be soft and moist to open and stretch towards those in need, to share in their suffering. The active process of compassion was seen as a long-term process of softening the bowels – a concept that brings together religious terminology with humoral and bodily notions of the workings of compassion.
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.
People [in the Middle Ages] are wild, cruel, prone to violent outbreaks and abandoned to the joy of the moment. … Not only among the nobility were there family vengeances, private feuds, vendettas. The towns were no less rife with wars between families and cliques. The little people, too – the hatters, the tailors, the shepherds – were all quick to draw their knives.
These are the words of Norbert Elias, in the first volume of his Civilizing Process, published in 1939. In Elias's widely influential view, anger in the medieval period was unconstrained. Only with the arrival of the absolutist court and the modern state in the early modern period did people learn to control their emotions and to adjust their conduct to that of others. Objections have been raised against Elias's teleological representation of historical emotions. Barbara Rosenwein has argued that this model, which views emotions as frothing fluids that need to be repressed and controlled, is no longer tenable in the context of modern cognitive theories in which the emotions play a key role in rational processes. Moreover, Elias's model represents the Middle Ages as a period of childlike, uncontrolled anger – a representation vigorously contested by medieval historians. Besides the role of anger, Elias's portrayal of the role of revenge in medieval society also invites scrutiny.
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