14.03.11, Morrison and Bell, eds., Studies on Medieval Empathies

Main Article Content

Lauren Mancia

The Medieval Review 14.03.11

Morrison, Karl F. and Rudolph M. Bell. Studies on Medieval Empathies. Disputatio 25. Turnhout: Brepols, 2013. Pp. xxxii, 352. ISBN: 978-2-503-53031-4.

Reviewed by:
Lauren Mancia
Brooklyn College, City University of New York

For the past decade, medievalists have become increasingly interested in the history of emotions. But, even before the "history of emotions" was the subject of conferences, webinars, and AHR Roundtables, Karl F. Morrison was interested in the question of empathy. Studies on Medieval Empathies is not a traditional Festschrift for Morrison, but it is a volume hatched from a conference, Experiments in Empathy: The Middle Ages, held in Morrison's honor in May 2008. Rudolph M. Bell opens the volume with a biographical note on the life of Karl Morrison, reflecting on how Morrison's scholarly commitment to empathy was shaped by the historical milieu in which he came of age. A chronological bibliography of Morrison's publications follows, and then the volume begins.

Rarely does one find such a strong collection of essays. Each re- envisions a particular medieval concept, genre, character, or text through an historical application of the idea of empathy. Often the essays build on one of Morrison's past theses or interests (for example, the hermeneutical construct "I am you," or the curative power of medieval images). "The history of empathy has yet to be written," Morrison says (1), but this constellation of scholarly essays certainly gets that project off to a good start.

"Framing the Subject: Humanity and the Wounds of Love," Karl F. Morrison's introductory essay, presents an essential thesis: in imitation of the divine archetype, medieval empathy was paradoxically expressed by both love and cruelty (hence the wounds of love). Morrison notes that, while the name "empathy" (German: Einfühlung; Greek: Empathie) really emerged in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a "consciousness of that feeling" was fundamental in the classical and medieval periods (46). Morrison determines that, in antiquity, kinship was often kindled through an understanding of mutual humanity, while in the early Christian and medieval periods, all human relationships were based on the love of God. This, Morrison keenly observes, is a vital difference: Aristotle's love for his fellow human is predicated on a love of himself and his own humanity, while Anselm's love of his fellow is modeled on a perfect love of God, and therefore requires a "forgetting of self" on Anselm's part (46). Christian anthropology--the "co-inherence" of Christ and human--was thus central to the process of empathy in the Middle Ages. Morrison shows how this essential relationship between man and God created a medieval strain of empathy that was filled with "dissonance" (26): just as God sometimes used punishment and cruelty for love (Christ's crucifixion being the paradigmatic example), so too did medieval people use punishment when engaging in empathy (e.g. an abbot corporally correcting his disciple's behavior to save his soul). Hence also the mystical processes fostering an "empathetic cognition" of God (43): people like Hadewijch who, in desiring to know God, attempted to destroy their self-will and reconstruct themselves in the image of God, moving through a process of (cruel) suffering towards a transcendent divine love. Empathy in the Middle Ages was thus not "dispassionate" or "philanthropic" as we might see it today (47): it was active, passionate, and essential to the Christian project.

The subsequent essays are organized into four parts, though they easily recombine to connect on additional levels (Morrison suggests a few of these alternative constellations at the end of his introduction). Part I, "Empathy before the Word?," is composed of three essays which look to define the mechanisms of empathy in various early and central medieval texts. Giselle de Nie, in " Mutatio sensus: Poetics of Holiness and Healing in Paulinus of Périgueux's Life of Saint Martin," shows how Paulinus' revision of the vita of St. Martin in 460-470 C.E. humanized the saint to make it easier to empathize with him. This revision, de Nie notes, invited readers of the vita to participate in an "imaginative, affective mimesis" (64), one that led them to better understand the saint's compassionate actions; in fact, the text re-performed these actions to affect the reader's own healing. Relying on perceptive textual analyses to recreate the medieval experience of reading, de Nie traces the way that the vita generated a transformation in the reader's awareness (a "mutatio sensus"), and shows how Paulinus' visual-poetic presentation of spiritual healing promised a simultaneous physical healing in the reader. Constance B. Bouchard also focuses on hagiographical texts in her "Reconstructing Sanctity and Refiguring Saints in Early Medieval Gaul," specifically the sixth- century revisions of the vitae of Martin of Tours, Germanus of Auxerre, Caesarius of Arles, Genovefa of Paris, and Radegund of Poitiers. While de Nie shows how a vita created a visual- empathetic experience for its reader, Bouchard is more interested in how each vita was customized to a particular audience, and how each medieval author anticipated the empathies of his particular readers. When Bishop Cyprian of Toulon (476-546 C.E.) and several episcopal co-authors retold the life of Caesarius of Arles, for instance, they deemphasized Caesarius' asceticism in favor of creating a consummate bishop-saint with whom the lay-readers of Arles (and the bishop-authors of the vita) could both empathize and whom they could "realistically imitate" (103).

The final essay in Part I, Rachel Fulton Brown's "Anselm and Praying with the Saints," breaks new ground by revealing the precise dynamics at work in Anselm's prayers to the saints. Fulton Brown explains that Anselm's prayers move beyond simple intercession by using the mechanism defined by Morrison in his introductory essay: in Anselm's prayers to the saints, the speaker-sinner dissolves himself into the saint and the perfect love that the saint has for God. Fulton Brown here notices a syllogism worthy of Anselm's more "rational" treatises, like his Monologion: in loving the saint who loves God, the soul of the sinner can love God. The diversity of saints allows the sinner to have a variety of "lens[es]" (124) of "exemplary lovers" (126); the medieval sinner could use a prayer to Peter if s/he wanted to come in contact with the merciful God, a prayer to Mary if s/he wanted the Creator God, etc. Like Bouchard, Fulton Brown thus shows how the mechanism of empathy customized prayer for a particular audience. But Fulton Brown's most insightful argument goes even further: she shows that the saints that most contrasted with the sinner's identity (different in profession or gender, for instance) were the ones who could prove most helpful in revealing God to the sinner. The saints who were most identifiable to the sinner (e.g. St. Benedict to Anselm) served as models for sure; but the saints who most contrasted with the sinner's identity (e.g. Mary Magdalene for Anselm) could best show God, the ultimate "Other" (123), who was to be found in the unknown and not in the familiar. In perhaps the most Morrisonian essay in the collection, Fulton Brown's work proves that paying careful attention to the dynamics of empathy can revolutionize what we as historians often assume we understand--in this case, the role of the saints in intercessory prayer.

Michael Allen's essay, "Lupus, or the Wolf in the Library: New Commentary, Edition, and Translation of Lupus of Ferrières, Epistola 1," begins Part II of the volume, entitled "Performing Empathy: Learning by Practice." Through his new edition of Epistola 1, Allen models "philological empathy" (142), showing how editors can discover their texts "from within" (142) by paying attention to an author's native grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, as well as to textual traditions and medieval theorizations of prose rhythm.

Herbert L. Kessler's "A Sanctifying Serpent: Crucifix as Cure" plays well alongside de Nie's essay, as it also explores the curative power of empathetic visualization. Kessler examines the well-known opening in the Prayer Book of Charles the Bald, tracing the visual "reciprocity" (162) between Charles' worshipful form (fol. 38v) and Christ's crucified corpus (f. 39r), and between Christ's serpentine crucified body and the body of the twisted snake curled at the foot of the cross. These visual empathies, Kessler says, affect a curative property for the crucifixion image. Christ's snake-like form reveals him as a "sanctifying serpent" who serves as "an antidote to the poison of original sin" (177), embodied by the snake at the foot of the cross. Charles' portrait serves as proof of the crucified Christ's ability to cure: the shape of Christ's wounds are inscribed, as celestial signs of salvation, as gold ornament on Charles' robe; they are Morrison's "wounds of love" in visual practice, proof that a medieval viewer's "empathetic participation" in the image would likewise be curative (180). Kessler's essay implicitly provides an exciting new explanation for the medieval progression towards the Christus patiens image: artists began to break Christ's crucified body from its early, frontal, rigid Christus victor mold in order to allow Christ's form to reflect and visually create his curative purpose as "sanctifying serpent."

Part III, "Assimilations of Empathy into Theology," contains three essays that examine the role of empathy in theological texts. Barbara Newman's "Indwelling: A Meditation on Empathy, Pregnancy, and the Virgin Mary," highlights the importance of "co-inherence" in the mystical experience of God. Centering on texts by Meister Eckhart, Hadewijch, Ida of Leuven, and Julian of Norwich, Newman shows how pregnancy served as a foundational metaphor for the language of mystical union. The "indwelling" of God in Mary's pregnancy especially inspired later medieval thinkers to crave their own kind of "God- bearing"; imitating Mary, they invited and created God within themselves "cultivating devotion to Christ through empathy with [her]" (196). As Fulton Brown does for Anselm's prayers to saints, Newman uses her essay to unpack the exact mechanism for the "internalization of God" among late medieval mystical writers (207).

Serving as the second part of a "co-inherence" diptych with Newman's essay, Bernard McGinn's survey of medieval mystical thought shifts the focus from "indwelling" to "love." In "Love: Active, Contemplative, Essential," McGinn outlines the empathetic potential of love for medieval mystics to (in Morrison's words) "break through the separateness of individual personality" and to create an empathy between man and neighbor, and man and God (213). Here, McGinn delineates two schools of mystical thought in the Middle Ages. Working from Augustine's example, early monastics like Gregory the Great and Bernard of Clairvaux saw limitations on the extent to which humans could experience the infinite love of God; they instead prescribed an active love of neighbor as a means to (vicariously) experience God's love. In contrast, later medieval mystics like Hadewijch, Meister Eckhart, and Jan van Ruusbroec, following Pseudo-Dionysius, saw the overwhelming potential of love to instigate a fusion of identities; for them, love had such "essential" power that it could create both active and contemplative union between humans and between humans and God. In accordance with Morrison's frame, McGinn shows how love functioned as key in medieval empathy.

Marcia L. Colish's "Ramon Lull's Book of the Gentile and the Three Sages: Empathy or Apology?" brings Part III to a close, considering the potential ecumenical empathies of the theologian. In an expert examination of Lull's manipulation of dialogue form and the logic of the arguments contained therein, Colish determines that Lull's empathy for the Jewish and Muslim sages in his Book is limited. While he seems to put the three faiths on equal footing in order to present an (empathetic) inclusive portrait, Lull ultimately "under report[s]" the strengths of Judaism and Islam and (apologetically) favors Christianity (248).

The book's fourth and final part, "Humanism and Humanity: Testing the Limits of Empathy," elaborates on the "dissonance" of medieval empathy by showing the interplay between empathy and antipathy in various cases. Sabine MacCormack shows a change between late antique and late medieval conceptions of the torments of hell in her fascinating "Hell and Punishment, Pain, and Salvation in Augustine and his Commentator Juan Luis Vives." First, MacCormack shows how, in De Civitate Dei, Augustine depicts the torments of hell to be real, eternal, and inescapable, and claims that even those saved in heaven remained aware of these potential miseries and thus were continuously thankful for the "mercies of the Lord" (258). MacCormack attributes Augustine's position to his context: he emphasized these punishments to inspire the conversion of pagans and the correction of contemporary heretics like the Donatists. Vives, in contrast, spoke of hell as a metaphor, not a real place of punishment, moving away from the language of "sin," and the permanence of last judgment. In MacCormack's view, Vives modified Augustine's concept of hell because, like his contemporary Erasmus, he was interested in helping Christians sculpt their daily practice, not in threatening them with damnation. Supplementing his revised notion with humanist-friendly ideas from non-Christian philosophers, Vives effectively "rese[t] the limits of empathy" (280). This was, in part, because he was grappling with the nascent question of the salvific fate of the peoples of the New World. The movements of historical time, MacCormack effectively shows, can open or close the valve of empathy.

But, for Thomas F. X. Noble, the limits of empathy can also remain constant over the course of history. In his essay "Rome and the Romans in the Medieval Mind: Empathy and Antipathy," Noble argues that the idea of Rome persisted throughout the Middle Ages as both a sacred, "living reality" (293)--in other words, he contends, a space eliciting empathy--and as a den of vice and sin. Noble demonstrates that, from Virgil to Jerome to Dante to Gibbon, wonderful visions of Rome's eternality and splendor were consistently paired with antipathies about the decadence and corruptibility of its inhabitants.

The volume concludes with Richard Kieckhefer's "Empathy for the Oppressor," which, along with Michael Allen's, is one of two essays actively commenting on the necessity of empathy in the historian's practice. Opening with a gripping anecdote about his own encounter with a group of neo-Nazis in a German train station, Kieckhefer discusses how an historian must learn to cultivate an empathy for people who "themselves seem to lack empathy" (319). He takes as his example medieval inquisitors, and models how historians have worked to understand this unsympathetic group of people. Historians typically express empathy for inquisitors in four ways: they consider the charismatic character of the inquisitor; they show how medieval Christianity valued the principled conviction exhibited by inquisitors; they demonstrate that inquisitorial behavior stemmed from wider medieval cultural phenomena (like R. I. Moore's "persecuting society," for example); and they note the role of inquests in the construction of the cults of certain saints.

Empathy, to Kieckhefer, is the job of the historian. It is certain that the remarkable collection of essays in Studies on Medieval Empathies will inspire many readers to take up the charge.

Article Details

Author Biography

Lauren Mancia

Brooklyn College, City University of New York