Tom Kindt

Jutta Eming

The Discussion of Emotions in the Study of Medieval Literature


Full-length article in: JLT 1/2 (2007), 251-273.

Work on the theory and history of emotions is one of several new approaches to medieval studies that are currently the topic of considerable discussion. Research on emotions carried out by medievalists working in the field of literary studies shows certain points of contact with earlier approaches such as historical anthropology, historical psychology, and the history of mentalities; but it differs from them in its methods and in the insights it pursues. The most important difference lies in the fact that it does not see textual analysis as a methodological tool that can be used to arrive at all-encompassing conclusions about the psychological dispositions of historical individuals.

This article attempts to set out some basic features of work on emotions by scholars of medieval literature. A controversial issue is raised in the process, namely the problem of what insights such work sets out to achieve. At times, the impression has arisen that it attempts to derive a phenomenology of historical emotions. To provide clarification on this point, some differences between the approaches of historiography and literary studies are first explained. Then, several methodological premises and areas of interest in a particular kind of work on emotions in medieval studies are considered in more detail and explained with the help of selected textual examples. The line of enquiry chosen here links the study of emotions to that of performativity; Austin's approach in particular has proved to be relevant to work on emotions from the perspectives of performativity and constructivism.

For a long time, the relationship between literary characters and their emotions in the hands of medieval poets was understood in the tradition of Elias as one of passivity. The expression of emotions was described using terms such as ›release‹ and ›overwhelming‹. Work on emotions by medievalists, however, has revealed that emotions can be staged, shown, and brought to the surface. From the perspective of literary studies, furthermore, the insights pursued by medievalists in their work on emotions concern the cultural semantics and (special) logic of emotions, above all in fictional literature. This includes the study of how emotion and body and emotion and language are related, and of the social dynamics associated with emotions. With the help of the latter issue – which involves the social functioning, or performativity of emotions – it is possible to understand conflict scenarios and contexts of action in medieval texts in an entirely new way. Modern approaches to the theory of emotions can contribute to and complement such work. Relevant here is a concept of emotion based on social constructivism, according to which emotions are brought into being on a neurophysiological basis, as reactions to social situations that they evaluate at the same time, as well as being given expression in culturally governed ways. The assumption that there are cultural – and thus historical – conventions and styles for the expression of emotions is of crucial significance for work on emotions in medieval studies. It does not, however, provide a self-sufficient theoretical foundation that could be employed in the analysis of literature.

Methodological reflection on what is meant by a particular emotion from the perspective of emotion theory should be included in analytical practice. In many cases, such as religious and secular drama and meditative tracts, as well as where courtly literature is concerned, investigating the presentation of emotions in literature also requires reflection on the cultural practices in which it is embedded. Moreover, although narrative texts have been at the forefront of attention to date, all genres and text types of medieval literature are potentially relevant – even those anchored in performance situations.

Work on emotions in literary studies refers to emotions as having the nature of signs and codes. This is a way of saying that emotions and their functions in literary texts have the status of signifiers. It does not mean that the signs are being studied as representing emotions located outside them. Literary expressions of emotion can also be understood as signs in pragmatic and functional respects. This is particularly true of medieval texts that focus on modes of symbolic and non-verbal communication. Medieval literary texts contain established ways of expressing emotions and interacting by means of emotions; they are subject to rules that are not immediately obvious but can be reconstructed and described by means of analysis and interpretation. Applying the term ›code‹ in such cases does justice to this fact. The study of literature can also provide, for example, knowledge of the cultural encoding of emotions in samples of period-and genre-specific material.

An analysis of emotions based on functional pragmatics can show the extent to which expressions of feeling do more than make the inner state of a character externally visible. Expressions of feeling carry out a social function and have an effect in time and space; this can be understood as the role they have as actions and their performative dimension. The concept of performativity has the fundamental conceptual advantage of allowing the pragmatic functions of emotions to be treated on different levels. An expression of feeling, for example, is illocutionary and carries out an action in that it makes an appeal, and perlocutionary and followed by an action in that it affects someone. The performativity of literature thus includes the extra-literary performativity of effect. The hypothesis that emotions are not only represented but also produced by literature provides a foundation for describing an intradiegetic level of composition. The emotional affects of characters can be described on this level, which can be analytically distinguished from an extradiegetic level on which those affects have the potential to extend to the recipient. As a level of literature, it is relevant to the analysis of the performativity of literary texts, and also offers a way to conceptualize the long-established assumption in medieval studies that discourses and mentalities are interdependent. These questions do not amount to treating the literary text as a document of real emotions that exist independently of it and are able to provide evidence of that existence.

It is often believed that medieval texts contain only ›simple‹ emotions, or affects; in opposing this view, it is possible to cite the variety of emotional experience that in courtly literature, for example, takes many different forms. The transitoriness of emotional processes, their lack of ambiguity, and not least the connection of rational and emotional factors all form another important area of analysis where medieval texts are concerned. Poetic language would seem to prove itself at precisely those points where it is necessary to make present emotional states and processes that are not transparent, or not fully transparent, as such.


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How to cite this item:

Abstract of: Jutta Eming, Emotionen als Gegenstand mediävistischer Literaturwissenschaft.

In: JLTonline (25.03.2009)


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