Medieval Sensibilities: A History of Emotions in the Middle Ages, by Damien Boquet and Piroska Nagy

Becket’s murder is dissected in a study of 1,000 years of the Christian West, says Rachel Moss

September 13, 2018
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All experience had yet to the minds of men the directness and absoluteness of the pleasure and pain of child-life,” wrote Johan Huizinga in his magisterial The Waning of the Middle Ages, published in 1919. For Huizinga, and for many writers after him, the medieval period was characterised as much by its surfeit of emotions as it was by its courtly ideals: a bold and brilliant age where men felt too much and without restraint.

Henry II’s furious question to his court, of why no one had yet rid him of Thomas Becket, seems a prime example of the maelstrom of medieval emotion. Four of Henry’s knights set out at once to carry out what they saw as a royal command, and murdered the priest in Canterbury Cathedral. On hearing the news, Henry apparently collapsed, claiming that he had never sought Becket’s death. Since then, he has been memorialised either as lacking the necessary regal control over his temper, or as a hypocrite.

Yet as Damien Boquet and Piroska Nagy argue, understanding the emotional landscape of medieval Europe allows a more nuanced reading, where kingly rage – ira regis – was less spontaneous than political, where anger functioned to guarantee stability. It was not just one outburst from Henry that sealed Becket’s fate, they claim, but rather signals that over time built up the impression that the king would authorise the murder of his own archbishop.

Becket’s assassination occupies only two pages of Medieval Sensibilities. The book is vast in scope, covering a millennium of western European history – yet once the notes are excluded it is a mere 250 pages. Historical episodes remain anecdotes, making way instead for intense analysis of theological treatises on the nature of emotion. For Boquet and Nagy, it was in the “monastic laboratories of the patristic era” that the emotional framework of the Middle Ages took shape. They see these monks as scientists and sociologists as much as theologians, carefully building a Christian model of affectivity that would ultimately permeate every aspect of medieval society. The monks began with the most fundamental question – what emotions could an omnipotent, omniscient God feel? – and, in their answer that feeling was essential to the nature of God, set the course for a theology built on the principle of God as love, Jesus as passion incarnate and affectivity as key to the Christian life. The authors explore how this framework influenced the development, too, of social and political bonds: friendship, kingship, feudal relationships and courtly love all come under consideration in this volume.

Medieval Sensibilities endeavours to cover so much that it seems a little churlish to complain about what it doesn’t include. But as the global Middle Ages gain conceptual pace, the lack of attention to a world outside the Christian West seems a significant gap. Boquet and Nagy fail to consider how Christians responded emotionally to Muslim and Jewish neighbours, business partners, allies and adversaries, or to think about what other models for emotions may have co-existed alongside the Catholic forms. There was indeed an “immense weight of Christian normativity” in the medieval West, but it was not a monoculture. Nonetheless, this is a serious contribution both to the history of emotions and to medieval history.

Rachel Moss is a research fellow in medieval history at the University of Oxford.


Medieval Sensibilities: A History of Emotions in the Middle Ages
By Damien Boquet and Piroska Nagy, translated by Robert Shaw
Polity, 392pp, £55.00 and £18.99
ISBN 9781509514656 and 4663
Published 22 June 2018

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Print headline: How did that make them feel?

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