A Cultural History of the Emotions in the Medieval Age
A Cultural History of the Emotions in the Medieval Age

Juanita Feros Ruys

Juanita Ruys is Senior Research Fellow at the University of Sydney, Australia. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Clare Monagle

Clare Monagle is Senior Lecturer in History at Macquarie University, Australia. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2019



Middle Ages



Related Content

In Private: The Individual and the Domestic Community

DOI: 10.5040/9781474207065.ch-007
Page Range: 119–132

Prelude: Private or Public, Individual or Communal?

In the contemporary West, we are accustomed to distinguishing between private and public, between the thoughts and behaviors we confine to ourselves or to our immediate circle of friends or family at home and the interactions that we perform in front of others. But this is a distinction that was less clear in the Middle Ages. Matters of state were often discussed in the intimate spaces of the household in the presence of family members, including women and children. Aristocratic women, associated with the “domestic sphere,” were in charge not only of raising children but managing the affairs of a substantial household, making them managers as well as mothers. Personal correspondence, which we largely view as private, was often edited and circulated for others to read. The educated clerics who wrote about political and church life in the eleventh and twelfth centuries envisioned “a profound and divinely ordained resonance between public and private,” and they used the gestures and emotions of family life to construct their image of the ideal Church and describe proper relations between members of lay and religious communities (McLaughlin 2010: 227). A woman’s impassioned pleas to her husband to avenge the death of a kinsman is an event that might happen between spouses behind closed doors, but end up entailing public consequences of great magnitude. With the difficulty of distinguishing between public and private thus understood, this chapter will nonetheless address topics conventionally associated with the private realm—family relationships, friendship and marriage, and parenting—and explore the emotional standards and areas of debate relating to personal relationships.

Another question is how to define “the individual” (Morris 1972; McGuire 2011: 98). Related to the blurring between public and private is the overall tendency for emotions to be construed in the medieval period less as “individual” expressions of “authentic” feelings and more as events situating a person in a network of relationships. Whereas dominant attitudes in the twenty-first century in the West view the individual as having his or her own valid aspirations and ideas, the medieval period saw the individual as intertwined with a web of familial and communal relationships and the responsibilities those entailed. Some scholars of emotion have identified a binary between individualism and collectivism as the most important factor that creates variation in emotions across cultures (Triandis 1994). The choice of life partner, which we think of as an individual choice, was viewed among the European nobility more as a means of creating familial and political alliances. William Ian Miller’s work on honor in the Icelandic sagas suggests that emotions were viewed as a “social state”; the grief of a father who loses a child—which would most likely be viewed today as an individual and private affair—was a condition that positioned him relationally to others, whether in the domestic or public sphere (Miller 1993a: 83). The grief of a wife for her husband in an Anglo-Saxon poem might signify personal individual loss, but also a mourning for kin structures that are decaying as norms of personal loyalty to a centralized sovereign edge out traditional forms of alliance based on family ties (Ingham 2003: 30).

A last dimension related to framing the subject of inquiry in this chapter is that of the influence of religious doctrine. It seems completely reasonable to us to distinguish between emotion and ethics, to view our feelings as separate from our behavior, and to consider religious teachings as a key factor in cultural difference rather than fundamental to our common identity as humans. In the medieval period, however, debates raged as to whether, or at what precise point, a feeling would count as a sin. Building on classical philosophy’s interest in emotions as connected to virtue, early Christian authors begin to categorize some emotions as sins, with Pope Gregory’s development of the Seven Deadly Sins in the sixth century—with pride (superbia) at their root—as perhaps the most notable legacy. As a result, by the early medieval period, some emotion words could do “double duty,” indicating moral states as well as feelings (Rosenwein 2006: 49). And it was not uncommon for advice literature to exhort the individual to avoid not only certain behaviors, but states that we would consider emotions.

The impact of this religious discourse on the lived experience of people throughout the medieval period cannot be overemphasized. Barbara Rosenwein has remarked:

As Christians deliberately turned pagan definitions of good and evil upside down, old emotional habits had to change. Parenting, education, and the availability of hallowed models—first of the martyrs and later of the saints—helped make this transformation possible. Christ’s kingdom was not of this world: that essential fact was absorbed in different ways by different groups. But one thing is certain: Christianity had the potential to effect seismic shifts in the emotions that were valued or disdained as well as the norms of their expression.

 --Rosenwein 2006: 42

Emotions situated the individual in the larger ethical and moral universe, even when those feelings transpired in the domestic rather than public sphere, even in utter solitude in a private chamber. Whether cursing in anger at one’s spouse at home or spewing vitriol at a political enemy in public, an individual’s emotional outburst could be said to be indicative not of his feelings, but of his sinfulness. Under God’s constant watchful scrutiny, emotions at home were always in some sense performed. Most importantly, because clerical discourses increasingly came to emphasize the individual’s guarding against emotions that were sinful, every thought or feeling was not to be “let out” or naturally expressed but rather suppressed or redirected (Knuuttila 2004: 177–255).

At the same time, we must be cautious not to universalize specific clerical pronouncements about emotional states, since variations in emotional standards occurred not only across time but geographical region. As Rosenwein notes, there may be a common set of “building blocks” in Christianity, but like the notes of a musical scale, they can be rearranged in different ways to produce different musical expressions among different “emotional communities.” Moreover, an individual can navigate between these communities, adapting to the different standards and norms of expression (Rosenwein 2006: 201). Rather than attempting a chronological account of shifting emotional standards, the rest of this chapter will lay out a conceptual framework for interpreting emotion discourses in individual accounts. Contemporary readers must then determine the available networks of emotional communities at play in any given “private” moment of domestic experience.

Affective Ties and the Concept of Family

The modern notion of family in the West typically denotes a private unit of people related to each other by blood or marriage. The term familia in the medieval period, by contrast, encompassed a wider group of servants and dependents. Authors of texts of moral instruction in the Carolingian period, for example, emphasized the responsibility of the man or woman of the house for the welfare and instruction of the wider household (Stone 2012: 175). Studies of family structures, particularly in the early Middle Ages, have only recently started to emerge, and rarely are the affective ties between household members analyzed, a lacuna explained not only by the difficulty in locating evidence that demonstrates these ties (particularly in peasant families, for which there are fewer records), but also the assumption that emotions are either universally shared or unworthy of attention (McLaughlin 2010: 12). Specific examples of the affective ties between spouses and between parents and children will be discussed below. Before examining these, however, it will be useful to consider some overall features of the concept of the family in the Middle Ages.

Generally speaking, the medieval family was hierarchical and relations between family members reflected a worldview in which hierarchy was fundamental to a well-ordered universe. There was an asymmetrical view of affective bonds, whether in family or society, and relationships of emotion and power were differential, juxtaposing the “humility, fidelity, and obedience of subordinates and the justice, generosity, and discipline (tempered with mercy) of their superiors” (Stone 2012: 213). Gender was one key dimension of this hierarchical view. Beliefs about women’s innate weakness calling for their subordination to men, inherited from classical Antiquity and refashioned by Christian thinkers, tended to view women as more susceptible to their emotions, especially vulnerable to excessive or inappropriate laughter or weeping (Perfetti 2005). Writing aimed at women, whether as wives, mothers, or daughters, therefore, emphasized the importance of controlling emotion. This was not limited to women, of course—every Christian was required to monitor closely thoughts and feelings that could be sinful or lead to sin—but beliefs about women’s susceptibility to the passions meant that they were expected to be especially vigilant.

A good example may be found in a set of German poems between aristocratic parents and their children commonly called Der Winsbecke and Die Winsbeckin, possibly dating around 1210 (see Figure 7.1) Whereas the father’s advice to his son is rooted primarily in practical advice about an array of responsibilities (warfare, behavior at court, household management), the mother’s advice to her daughter is primarily oriented toward her domestic role as a virtuous woman to be sought by men; whereas the son is viewed as an active agent, the daughter’s agency “is largely confined to imposing self-control and restraint upon herself” consisting more of an “honorable passivity” (Rasmussen 1997: 140). Regarded as less in control of their emotions generally, women were consequently urged to suppress emotions, such that the ideal woman might be described as either lacking in emotion or feeling primarily on behalf of others.

Figure 7.1. Mother instructing her daughter, Die Winsbeckin, c.1300–1340. Große Heidelberger Liederhandschrift (Codex Manesse), Zürich. © Heidelberg University Library (Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg), Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 217r.

The representation of women sacrificing their own desires out of feeling for the wants and desires of others runs counter to twenty-first-century sensibilities which accord more importance to defining one’s aspirations, fulfilling one’s dreams, and seeking happiness. Yet the self-abnegation of women in medieval texts is inflected by medieval notions of sacrifice that determine virtue. An instructive example comes from one of the lais of the twelfth-century author Marie de France. Often thought to be the last and culminating of the twelve lais in the manuscript, Eliduc tells the story of a woman, Guildelüec, in a marriage of mutual love and respect whose husband, Eliduc, unwittingly falls in love with another woman. When Guildelüec comes to understand the love that has arisen in her husband, she neither feels jealousy nor sees herself as wronged. Rather, she orients her emotion toward both her husband and his beloved, who appears to be dying. When the maiden is miraculously revived, Guildelüec explains: “Truly, I am his wife and my heart grieves for him. Because of the grief he displayed, I wanted to know where he went, and came after him and found you. I am overjoyed that you are alive and shall take you with me and return you to your beloved. I shall set him free completely and take the veil” (Marie de France 1999: 125). Notable in this passage is how the emotion words are those of others (her husband’s grief) or on behalf of them (she grieves for her husband and is overjoyed that the damsel is alive). The convenient solution of retiring to a convent—although not permissible at any point in Christian teaching (Stone 2012: 267–74; McLaughlin 2010: 43–7)—seemingly demonstrates the wife’s abnegation of her individual happiness. Yet it is telling that the end of the lai, when Eliduc and his beloved are older, Eliduc builds a church, founds an order and enters it, while his second wife leaves her marriage to join Guildelüec in the convent. Marie concludes that “Each one strove to love God in good faith and they came to a good end thanks to God, the true divine” (Marie de France 1999: 126). Human love has been redirected toward love of God, and whereas the lai began with a married couple and was then complicated by an adulterous triangle, it ends with the pairing of two women. As Marie notes early in her narrative, it is the two women who are actually the central characters: “From these two the lay of Guildelüec and Guilliadun takes its name. It was first called Eliduc, but now the name has been changed, because the adventure upon which the lay is based concerns the ladies” (Marie de France 1999: 111).

The implication of this tale for an understanding of twelfth-century values regarding women’s emotion is that women’s capacity to feel on behalf of others both removes them from the affairs of the world and endows them with significant moral and ethical standing (Gaunt 2006: 138–67, esp. 150–5). The notion that women are especially likely to be praised for their compassion is related to the recent work by Sarah McNamer, who has argued that by the thirteenth century, images of a fragile and vulnerable Christ had come to dominate textual and pictorial representations of the Passion and that “to perform compassion—in the private drama of the heart that these texts stage—is to feel like a woman, in particular medieval iterations of that identity” (McNamer 2010: 3, see also 5–10). McNamer argues not only that the feminization of compassion is not ubiquitous (contrasting the gendering of compassion in medieval Christian thought with Ifaluk, Tibetan Buddhist, and Greek attitudes toward the emotion), but also calls for an analysis of this feeling that puts theological discourse into the larger context of a history of emotion.

The reorientation of worldly affection between spouses to the love of God recounted in Marie’s story leads to another factor in understanding affective relationships in the medieval family. No matter how strong one’s affection for spouse or child, the loyalty and love owed to God took precedence. Augustine’s statement in his treatise on marriage (De bono coniugali) that “the coming of Christ is not served by the begetting of children” permeated the thinking of writers for centuries afterward (Stafford 2001: 260). In her instruction manual of 843 for her son William, Dhuoda wrote that love and loyalty to God should come before that of family (Stone 2012: 206–7). Crusading documents in the following centuries echo the view that familial bonds are to be subsumed to relationships with God. Sermons and literary texts portrayed wives as an impediment to crusading because their husbands might be drawn to stay at home either out of love or a sense of obligation to their spouse. In a thirteenth-century sermon by Gilbert de Tournai, a crusader asked that his children be brought to him before he departed so that his anguish in leaving them would enable him to “count for more with God” (Maier 2000: 203).[1] Clerical writers often wrote of the obedience that children owed to their parents and took an active role in attempting to shape familial relations. They instructed children to honor their parents, but this instruction was accompanied by reminders that loyalty to God must come before loyalty to parents (McLaughlin 2010: 111).

However, the relative importance of mortal affective ties and obligations could vary from one Christian community to the next. For example, Pope Gregory may have downplayed the hierarchy of celestial over human bonds because the political structures of the Merovingian world were such that fragile familial ties needed to be emphasized to preserve political harmony (Rosenwein 2006: 129). Religious discourse likely influenced familial relations, but clerical writers of the eleventh and twelfth centuries actually drew heavily on familial relations in the construction of their ideal portrait of the Church. For example, whereas even non-Catholics today are accustomed to addressing members of the clergy as “father,” this was not such an easy move in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries where it was still a political statement to use such a title for a spiritual leader: “It was precisely because images of fathers carried such a powerful rhetorical and emotional charge that they were able to shape discussions of ‘right order’ within the Church and within Christian society during the central Middle Ages” (McLaughlin 2010: 187). To understand the emotions between individuals, then, we need to observe the various interrelationships between Church and state, between the private and the public, and the other social structures and values that inform attitudes toward the family.

An individual’s social standing and the way she is able to navigate political relationships is a powerful shaping force for emotion. If medieval texts often characterized women as being more emotional, or less in control of their emotions, one might suggest that this comes as much from women’s reduced autonomy in domestic and public affairs as it does from any dominant views of women’s innate inferiority. A noblewoman with property and political power could in some measure enjoy the respect accorded to men. The feelings of a wife for her husband or a father for his son would depend, too, on how that family member reflected traits that were valued in that particular social system. In Icelandic sagas, for example, such traits as courage, pride in family, generosity, independence, and an ability to navigate the social scene were valued: “When a father or son perceives these features in the other, the emotional connection is a positive one; and saga authors draw our attention to it by describing cooperative, affectionate relations” (Itnyre 1996: 191). Changes in social status, such as inheritance, political ties with other powerful individuals or families, and shifts in social values, all inflect interpersonal relationships and shape how individuals feel toward members of their domestic community.

Love and Passion, Friendship and Marriage

To ascertain what emotions existed between spouses or might lead to the formation of a marriage, we must investigate the intersection of the many factors discussed above: beliefs relating to Christians’ obligation to orient their emotional universe toward God, political and social relations shaping domestic relations, and social values that were dominant in contemporary discourses. The contemporary narrative dominant in the West of the individual who seeks out the ideal life partner, falls in love, and then celebrates this emotional attachment in the culminating act of marriage runs up against two powerful social forces in the medieval period: the use of marriage to cement ties between families or political entities, and clerical discourses on love human and divine. Whether subordinated to the wish of one’s family or the requirements of a religion that expected absolute devotion, emotional attachments to another human being, no matter how deeply felt, were not considered to be a domain for merely private or individual determination.

The long-lasting medieval debate on consent in marriage testifies to the interplay between clerical and secular frameworks subordinating the individual to communal concerns (McLaughlin 2010: 25). Anti-marriage tracts encouraged young women and men to pursue celibacy by portraying the married state as both a life of subjugation of one spouse to the other and a worldly encumbrance distracting the Christian from higher spiritual union with God. Such writings also served to keep property in the hands of the Church as the lack of spouses or children made it more likely that lands or goods would be bequeathed to monasteries and convents rather than passed on to family members (Livingston 2012: 22). However, with the growth of patrilineal inheritance in this period in which only the eldest son would inherit, monasteries provided an option for younger sons who had no lands or property of their own with which to build a family; celibacy thus served to preserve the patrimonies of families as well as of the Church (McLaughlin 2010: 32).

Passionate love” is a term we sometimes use to distinguish this form of love from other kinds of emotional attachments, yet our contemporary hierarchy, which accords more emotional power to a life partner as opposed to someone with whom we are “just friends,” was not operative in this way in the medieval period. Friendships were often described with language that we would view as highly passionate. Thus Alcuin can speak to a fellow cleric of love penetrating his breast with its flame, and poets write of the kisses and embraces from their male friends for which they long. While a modern reader might view such accounts as evidence of homosexual desire, for the elite male audiences of such texts, it was evidence of “ennobling love,” based on the love of virtue in another person, which elevates both the lover and the object of his devotion. A carefully cultivated and refined form of feeling, ennobling love was a mark of social distinction that functioned to enhance reputation (Jaeger 1999: 13–17).[2] In heroic literature from the Middle Ages, men going into war march resolutely to their death with little visible sign of emotion, yet shed tears when confronting displays of friendship and loyalty by their companions (Classen 2012). Friendship between women, however, was less often portrayed, with one scholar contrasting the “verbose” discourse on male friendship with the relative silence regarding friendship and love between women (Lochrie 2003: 70).[3] This can be attributed, in part, to the fact that the authors of most of the written records were men, and to the lesser value accorded to the affairs of women. A range of didactic and literary texts point rather to the anxiety created when women gathered together, gossiping about men, or leading other women to immoral behavior, an anxiety linked to beliefs about women’s weakness and greater susceptibility to carnal desires. However, we do find evidence of attachments in a variety of sources. Female religious communities, as suggested in Marie de France’s tale above, likely functioned as places where women could live together as sisters, sharing affection (Lochrie 2003: 83–4). Some clerical writers raised concerns about friendship both in male and religious houses, as any love between individuals could distract the Christian from complete devotion to God (Jaeger 1999: 50). But views of monastic friendships varied widely across the Middle Ages, and the affections between individuals (“brotherly or sisterly love”) could often be said to exemplify, rather than threaten, love for God.

Passionate love also bespeaks one of the central cultural preoccupations of the medieval period relating to love. Sexual desire, viewed in some cultures as a normal and natural feature of relationships between spouses, was most often viewed as sinful, a passion that the Christian must continually master and control. Augustine, in the fourth century, explained that the sinfulness of sexual desire resulted from the Fall, a punishment (along with the pains of childbirth) for human disobedience and disloyalty to God (McLaughlin 2010: 221–2). While clerical writers might argue over the value of marriage in channeling sexual desire, there was little dispute that sexual feelings were to be suppressed rather than celebrated. The implications of this are significant, as the physical desire accompanying passionate relationships could engender the experience of shame rather than deepen feelings of love. As Jerome, one of the most widely disseminated authors and the author most hostile to marriage expressed it: “The wise man loves his wife with judgment not with affection. Let not the impulse of pleasure reign in him, nor the proclivity toward intercourse. Nothing is more foul than to love a wife as an adulteress” (Baldwin 1994: 120). Jerome’s statement not only characterizes sexual desire as shameful, but also suggests that love itself is suspect, and we might wonder whether the emotion of love was recognized or valued as part of the bond between spouses. While it is true that clerical writers ranked celibacy and chastity over marriage, and exalted divine love over human love, their views of what constituted legal marriage were informed by the presence of emotional attachments that bound spouses. The presence of true affection (maritalis affectio) defined the difference between concubinage (what we might call cohabitation) and marriage. While it began as a term to define intent to engage in a marriage, maritalis affectio gradually took on an emotional tone similar to “affection” or “love” and was meant to indicate not simply consent to be legally joined and to cohabit, but a commitment to care for one’s spouse (McNamer 2010: 47–9).

Even clerical discourse on celestial rather than human unions can be said to be imitating, rather than repudiating, beliefs about attachments between spouses. Early church writers like Fortunatus and Gregory liken love for Christ to a wife’s passionate love for a spouse, thus transposing an emotion already seen as positive to a higher plane (Rosenwein 2006: 118–19). Women putatively fleeing marriage and human husbands sought to demonstrate an emotional attachment that made them not only symbolically but legally married to Christ, and “marriage to Christ was understood to have an exceptional emotional intimacy at its core. This is what is yearned for, hoped for, promised” (McNamer 2010: 42). Conventional wisdom would have us see the bride of Christ as seeking a superior emotional state that is unavailable in human relationships, but it may be more accurate to see this state as a mirroring or replication of both the emotional and legal qualities defining human marriage.

Because so many sources on medieval marriage come to us from documents written by the clergy, it is not surprising that the accumulated evidence regarding love between spouses appears relatively indifferent to such emotional attachments. Megan McLaughlin has argued that the increasingly emotional language clerical reformers used to talk about the plight of the Church in the eleventh and twelfth centuries was accompanied by a relative absence of attention given to the experiences of actual husbands and, particularly, wives:

Honor—scorn—mockery—longing—anger—shame: such highly charged words electrify reform rhetoric during the central Middle Ages. Writers like Humbert, Geoffrey of Vendôme, Ranger of Lucca, and Placidus of Nonantola present their demands for ecclesiastical reform with legal precedents attached, but above all with heartfelt pleas for the relief of the suffering Bride. The sympathy they fail—for whatever reason—to express for ordinary wives, they pour out for the Sponsa Christi.

 --McLaughlin 2010: 87

Other sources of information available to us come from personal letters (relatively sparse in this period), historical records relating personal relationships that led to issues of public concern, and literary texts. Emotion in medieval literature is the subject of a different chapter in this volume (Chapter Six), but there are two brief points worth considering here. First, written texts, literary or otherwise, are not so much evidence of how medieval people felt, as descriptive of values and norms relating to emotions and their expression. Rosenwein, speaking of a celebratory poem written in 566 by Fortunatus on the occasion of the marriage between King Sigibert and Brunhild, asks:

Did Sigibert really love Brunhild? It is impossible to know . . . Certainly we can be sure that Sigibert liked to hear that he loved his bride, that he was glad to have those assembled at his wedding imagine that he did, and that Fortunatus’s poem evoked an emotional scenario pleasing to all. His epithalamium tells us about the image of married love prized at Sigibert’s court. That is information enough for the historian. Indeed, it is more valuable than knowing whether Sigibert loved Brunhild.

 --Rosenwein 2006: 120

The account of Fortunatus’s poem, which describes Cupid’s arrows of love inflaming both the king and his bride, suggests the degree to which passionate love between husband and wife could be extolled even by an author who composed poems celebrating virginity, and one could argue that church writers borrowed from the passionate language of human relationships in their account of divine love (Rosenwein 2006: 119).

Literary texts of the medieval period were interconnected with religious discourse, and while there may be significant differences in orientation of these two (toward heaven or toward human society), it is difficult to separate one from the other. This is what limits the most recent and ambitious attempt to analyze the emotion of love in the medieval period. In The Making of Romantic Love, William M. Reddy argues that the set of regulations regarding sexual desire and sexual acts from the Gregorian Reform of 1050–1200, the culmination of a centuries-old tradition of viewing desire as a kind of appetite and equating it with sin, created the conditions for the invention of courtly love (or fin’amors), which functioned as an escape or refuge from the unrealistic and harsh view of human relationships promulgated in reform writings. Even to use the term “love,” argues Reddy, is to be hopelessly entangled in a dualistic worldview that opposes desire and lust (a bodily appetite) with love (a purely spiritual emotion that cannot be sullied by bodily attachments). He therefore invents the term “longing for association.” Reddy helpfully demonstrates the force and omnipresence of the equation between sexual feelings and sin in the medieval West by contrasting writings about love from this context with Heian Japan and twelfth-century India (Bengal and Orissa) where this dichotomy does not operate. He therefore argues that the dualism in the Christian West led to a “shadow religion,” with “a heroic ethic of courage, self-denial, self-discipline, and devotion to the beloved every bit as demanding and rewarding as the spiritual career of Christian asceticism” (Reddy 2012: 167).[4]

Reddy is certainly correct to highlight the parallels between clerical and secular discourses and the qualities of self-denial and heroism associated with love, whether human or divine. But the considerable variety of articulations of love in both courtly and clerical contexts, and the fact that the same author could provide remarkably different accounts of passionate love, suggest less a cause-and-effect relationship than an interplay of debates about the nature of longing and ethical standing that operate in a variety of discourse and genres throughout the period. Simon Gaunt, in his study of love and death in medieval literature has, like Reddy, been struck by the quasi-religious flavor of courtly love literature, asking: “What is the import of the use of Christian imagery in erotic contexts, and what is its affective value? What did fictional scenarios in which lovers abased themselves before their ladies and worshipped them as quasi-deities mean to medieval readers and listeners?” (Gaunt 2006: 7). Like Reddy, Gaunt sees a tension between the courtly and the clerical, and views courtly literature as “an ethical system that parallels and mimics religion, incorporating religious elements, but remaining nonetheless sharply distinct,” yet his reading accounts more thoroughly for the interplay of religious and secular vocabulary, the irony and self-awareness of much medieval literature, and the multivalence of literary language (209). Rather than seeing courtly love as a refuge from oppressive clerical discourse, his study suggests the way in which the discourse of courtly love itself can be viewed as a symptom of deeper questions about the forces that drive human actions and the psychically and emotionally fraught process of becoming an ethical subject.

It is difficult to know the extent to which everyday people in the Middle Ages found religious ideals about love and sexuality oppressive, and we can do little more than speculate about whether the spectrum of feelings medieval husbands and wives experienced for each other corresponds to the same kind of “love” felt in other times and places. There is less doubt, however, that an important emotion standard of the period was that a wife should subsume her own emotional disposition to the desires of her husband. Jerome, the father of the anti-marriage tradition, remarked in Against Jovinianus (1.47):

Men marry, indeed, so as to get a manager for the house, to solace weariness, to banish solitude; but a faithful slave is a far better manager, more submissive to the master, more observant of his ways, than a wife who thinks she proves herself mistress if she acts in opposition to her husband, that is, if she does what pleases her, not what she is commanded.

 --Jerome 1893: 383

By the thirteenth century, conduct manuals and literary texts were painting the model wife as a woman who demonstrates her love for her husband through her complete submission to his wishes. In the first romance by Chrétien de Troyes, Erec and Enide (c.1180), the heroine proves to her husband that she loves him by obeying everything he asks of her. Yet her deep grief when she believes her husband to be slain endows her with a depth of feeling and internal complexity that demonstrate her character. The love-equals-obedience motif also had public consequences. In the late thirteenth-century German narrative The Ladies’ Tournament, a group of women live apart, desiring to establish public honor equivalent to men’s by creating their own jousting tournament. The men, learning of this female community, worry that if women can joust just as men, this must mean that men might have to do the housework, a threat to the natural order of the whole community; ultimately, the women must learn that loving men faithfully is what constitutes honor for them, and they are safely married off, dissolving their female community (Westphal-Wihl 1994). Ambition, the desire for honor, is defined as a domestic, rather than a public emotion for women. However, although the wife’s ambition was generally confined to the home or family, her ability to use her persuasive abilities to shape the emotional disposition of her husband could ultimately lead to better public behavior by her husband; through her persuasive powers, she could “soften the heart” of her husband if he was neglecting his duties (Farmer 1986). She must not express her own anger to her husband, even if his behavior toward her was unjustified, but rather patiently endure and use her skills pragmatically to steer him back on the right path. In describing the trials of his mother in living with the quick temper of his father, Augustine noted in his Confessions (9.9.19), “She knew that an angry husband should not be opposed, not merely by anything she did, but even by a word” (Augustine 1991: 168). While the unhappy wife motif of much literature suggests the emotional suffering of actual wives forced into marriages by their families, or forced to endure a less than ideal husband, the model of the wife as a positive force of social change likely functioned for many women as a means of imagining their own emotional autonomy.[5]

Parents and Children

Did medieval parents love their children? For many decades, historians of the family viewed the Middle Ages as lacking a concept of childhood—it was assumed that caring bonds between parents and their children would be lessened by high infant mortality rates and large families where attentions were divided among numerous children, and that such weaker emotional bonds would lead to the exploitation or abuse of children. Recent scholarship has revised this bleak family portrait, pointing out both the limited use of actual medieval evidence by the studies and the presentist narrative of modern progress informing them (Hanawalt 2002). The evidence for bonds of affection in the early medieval period can be more difficult to ascertain because there are fewer written accounts available, but historians have been resourceful. Rosenwein has examined the language of tombstones in Germany from 350 to 750, highlighting emotion words like “sweet” and “dear” used by spouses, children, and parents to express their fondness for family members (Rosenwein 2006: 68). Sally Crawford has examined not only legal codes and narratives of the Anglo-Saxon period, but also burial mounds where mothers are buried cradling their children (see Figure 7.2), and visual images of women holding the hands of older children (Crawford 1999: 10–11, 115). The letters, poems, and saints lives we do have use emotion words that indicate feelings we would regard as affection and love, particularly in accounts of grieving parents. In the late ninth century, King Alfred asked: “What sight is more intolerable than the death of a child before its father’s eyes?” (Crawford 1999: 117). The late tenth- or early eleventh-century book of miracles of Saint Foy describes a woman who, faced with her dying son and “overcome by immense grief,” begs God, “Do not deprive me of the sweetness of my son, whom I love in the depths of my heart more than all my desire to live” (McLaughlin 2010: 102). References to fathers and sons in Icelandic sagas demonstrate that fathers were expected to be nurturing and supportive of their sons, and numerous fathers grieve deeply when their sons die (Itnyre 1996: 174). Children, too, grieved deeply for their parents; even Augustine speaks of his “life torn to pieces” upon the death of his mother, and how he wept for his loss (Cooper 2011: 19–20).

Figure 7.2. Mother buried cradling a child. Grave 81 (Grave 1006 in the original excavation notes) from the cemetery at Butler’s Field, Lechlade, Gloucestershire, excavated in 1985. © Oxford Archaeology.

The recurrent images of grieving parents and children clearly contradict earlier beliefs about cold and unloving parents and abused children. But these views might be partly attributable to two central beliefs about family structures in the Middle Ages described above: the subordination of human affairs to the spiritual world, and the hierarchical view of human society. In her discussion of funerary epitaphs in Vienne, for example, Rosenwein considers one epitaph that reads: “Let her children cease to be troubled by tears and lamentation [lacrimis planctusque]. It is not right to groan [gemere] about that which ought to be celebrated.” The emotions of grief are recognized, argues Rosenwein, yet “redirected from worldly things to celestial, and death was transformed from a sad to a happy event” (Rosenwein 2006: 75–6). Rosenwein also provides the example of Gregory the Great’s story of Saint Felicity whose seven sons were condemned to death for refusing to sacrifice to the emperor. Whereas most mothers fear the death of their children, says Gregory, Felicity was no ordinary woman, for she feared for their souls, that they might live beyond her but lose their path to God. While this makes of her an extraordinary, even unnatural mother, Gregory noted that she nonetheless felt pain. It was precisely in overcoming the pain of losing her sons that her extraordinary love made her heroic rather than inhuman (Rosenwein 2006: 93).[6] The practice of oblation, offering up one’s children to live in a monastic community, may seem to us a heartless act of abandoning children, yet in the Middle Ages it could signify parental concern for their children’s well-being (Crawford 1999: 122–38).

Parents’ love for their children, therefore, must consistently be oriented toward their eternal salvation, and their most important role was to train them to love God and live a moral and a well-ordered life on earth. Just as husbands were to govern their wives, so parents should ensure the obedience of their children. Early Christian writers like John Chrysostom argued that a father should be “stern and unyielding” with his son, but “gracious and kind” and reward him when he was obedient. This reflected a well-ordered universe, for “Even so God rules the world with fear of Hell and the promise of His Kingdom. So must we too rule our children” (John Chrysostom 1951: 113). In the Carolingian period, moralists worried that excessive parental love that expressed itself in indulgence would harm children by leading them into sin or immoral behavior or create political instability; by contrast, discipline, including corporal discipline, was viewed as fundamentally related to a parent’s love for a child (Stone 2012: 206–8). Parents wrote “lay mirrors” or handbooks on conduct to counsel their children. In her handbook of 843, the Frankish noblewoman Dhuoda devoted a chapter to obedience owed to fathers, telling her son William that he “should fear, love, and be faithful” to his father (Stone 2012: 206–7). Her tone of instruction is mingled with words that convey her depth of love for her son. Separated from him, and fearing his imminent death due to the political turmoil of the time, she notes, “my firstborn son—you will have other teachers to present you with works of fuller and richer usefulness, but not anyone like me, your mother, whose heart burns on your behalf” (Dhuoda 1991: 13). Thus, while a stern teacher to her son, Dhuoda also displays here the love that guides her efforts.

The assumption that parents would display their love by disciplining their children applied regardless of gender, but accounts of emotional relationships between mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons have a gendered dimension. Broadly speaking, mothers were associated more with nurturing and fathers with disciplining. Archaeological evidence for Anglo-Saxon England suggests that mothers were the primary caregivers, although fathers, too, appear to have been actively engaged and emotionally invested in the rearing of children (Crawford 1999: 117). In the Carolingian period, fathers were given more advice on the rearing of sons than of daughters, and the advice typically centered on preserving chastity and fostering female modesty (Stone 2012: 208). In the central Middle Ages, while both fathers and mothers weep for ill or deceased children, it is the grief of mothers that is most usually emphasized, and images of grieving women were used to critique military campaigns, famine, or other sources of social decay (McLaughlin 2010: 93). As head of the house, a father was more often than not associated with discipline, and his authority was more likely to be viewed as unproblematic and definitive. A mother would likely be invested with a more authoritative role if she were a widow or governed the house in the absence of her husband. McLaughlin notes, “If some clerical writers attributed to mothers the potential to command and discipline their households, motherhood was more often associated in our sources with love, affection, and nurturing” (2010: 101; see also Garver 2009: 8). Yet a mother’s role as nurturer often made her a powerful force for moral instruction. Prominent Christian thinkers such as Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux wrote of the powerful moralizing influence their mothers had in their spiritual development and displayed their own devotion to their mothers in the vocabulary they used in their writing (Cooper 2011; McGuire 2011). In both clerical and lay communities, women were entrusted with ensuring virtuous households and were also viewed as potential agents of moral reform (Garver 2009: 122–69).

Likewise, the expectation of filial obedience applied more heavily to daughters than to sons. Unlike daughters, who more often stayed at home with their mothers as they grew up, sons were drawn into the world of men and separated from their mothers. A son’s disobedience could even be depicted positively if it were seen as a sign of him developing his autonomy and progressing into adulthood. It may also be that, among households with significant property, inheritance laws had an effect on the way children identified with their parents. The most severe penalty for a son’s disobedience was disinheritance, which may well have “raised the emotional and social temperature of the relationship between fathers and their sons” (McLaughlin 2010: 92, 165). Finally, children’s more unruly emotions and disobedience could be endorsed when oriented to celestial rather than social ends. For girls, this was most often visible in accounts of daughters refusing to marry so that they could remain brides of Christ. A girl’s anger toward her parents, which would otherwise be harshly condemned, could, in the account of a virgin martyr, be seen as proof of her sanctity (Peyroux 1998).


The study of emotions in the medieval family is still in its infancy. The interest in affective relationships between friends, spouses, parents, and children has gained increased currency and there is growing recognition that the love, anger, shame, grief, and pride occurring in private relationships are worthy topics of the scholar’s attention. Few studies, however, have engaged in the kind of sustained analysis of emotion vocabularies and relationships between social structures and their influence on emotion standards that we need to understand fully the role emotions played in the cultural norms in various times and places across medieval Europe. Scholarship on emotion in medieval domestic communities has a long period of growing up ahead of it.

[1] Whereas in 1095 Pope Urban II had urged clergy to counsel men leaving for the Crusades to get permission from their wives, in 1209 Innocent III declared that husbands could go without such permission; see Brundage 1969: 77, and for other sermons that represent a wife as impediment to crusading, see Maier 2000: 121 and 133.

[2] For Jaeger’s distinction between homosexuality and passionate friendship between men, see Jaeger 1999: 13–17. Although beyond the scope of this chapter, numerous books have investigated a range of texts where same-sex desire and love is expressed, and while homosexuals as a category did not exist, this is not to say that men and women did not experience deeply felt attachments among members of the same sex. To this, we could add a wide body of scholarship pointing to malleable views of gender in the medieval period that complicate a simple male/female binary.

[3] Lochrie also refers to condemnations of sex between women as early as the seventh century, although this was less frequent than references to sexual acts between men; see Lochrie 2003: 77–8.

[4] Reddy’s argument about courtly love could be seen as an extension of Jaeger’s claim that “The cult of high, ennobling, spiritual love was at least in part a response to clerical fear and mistrust of passionate love and human sexuality” (Jaeger 1999: 164).

[5] The distinction between emotional autonomy and economic economy is suggested by Sally Livingston’s analysis of female authors who critique marriage as an institution that makes women the property of men. One example is Heloise, who even as abbess, claims provocatively in her letters to Abelard that she would rather be a whore or lover than a wife, which “redefines the conjugal debt as based not on marriage, but on consent freely given and unencumbered by external forces. He ‘owes’ her because she has selflessly given him her love” (Livingston 2012: 41). Thus, although it is true that Heloise’s letters defy conventional Christian morality, her critique is oriented more toward defending the selfless, yet free, giving of her affections—which runs counter to both secular and clerical notions of the legal obligations of spouses—than they are a defense of sexual passion per se, as Reddy would see it (Reddy 2012: 99).

[6] It is important to note that Rosenwein contrasts this show of motherly affection with the tendency in the Neustrian court of the early seventh century to portray mothers’ love as exaggerated and petty, a reflection of the ascetic traditions of the male elite rulers of the period and perhaps a response to the previous rule dominated by Queen Brunhild. This distinction is yet another illustration of how we should not overlook significant differences in how emotion standards are expressed in specific communities within the large geographical and chronological span of the Middle Ages.