16.03.10, Lazikani, Cultivating the Heart

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Albrecht Classen

The Medieval Review 16.03.10

Lazikani, A. S. . Cultivating the Heart: Feeling and Emotion in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Religious Texts. Religion and Culture in the Middle Ages. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2015. pp. xvi, 155. ISBN: 978-1-783-16261-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Albrecht Classen
University of Arizona

In this book, based on her dissertation submitted to the University of Oxford in 2013 (here not mentioned), Ayoush Lazikani explores how emotions and affectivity come to the foreground first in two Middle English homiletic texts, the Lambeth and Trinity homilies, then in the South English Legendaries, subsequently in the Wooing Group, and finally in English Passion lyrics. This proves to be very much in conformity with latest trends in medieval studies, following the new approach in the field of history of emotions. As she notes, all these texts and their great emphasis on emotions could only have been possible because they were the outgrowth of the establishment of emotional communities, as Barbara H. Rosenwein has called it recently in her Emotional Communities (2006) and now in her Generations of Feeling: A History of Emotions, 600-1700 (2016). She rightly highlights in this context: "Reading is a nurturing of affective literacy, but it is also itself enhanced by the affective-literate behaviours brought to it" (4).

All her text selections confirm this phenomenon, underscoring how much a communal approach to the religious and spiritual experience determined the creation not only of such communities, e.g., anchoresses, but also of such shared emotions within a religious context at large. However, Lazikani notes that there is not available any specific theoretical model defining affectivity, which requires her to go through each one of those texts and read it in light of this investigative approach. Theologians such as Anselm of Canterbury (Oratio ad sanctum Paulum) implied with their reference to affections a softening of the soul to ready it for repentance, confession, and hence spiritual cleansing, which would lead to the inflaming of the soul with love for the Godhead. Compassion proves to be one of the critical tools for the members of the affective communities, always keeping Christ's Passion in front of their eyes.

In fact, this can be understood in very concrete terms because late medieval churches, chapels, and anchoritic cells were regularly decorated with corresponding wall paintings serving this very specific purpose, some of which Lazikani discusses here in greater detail (color photos provide some samples, but they are mostly too dark to allow us to decipher the details). In fact, the critical analysis of the various texts highlights this emergence of emotional communities more than anything else. The individual chapters elaborate on this phenomenon at greater length, even though the author then does not reveal really additional insights. Instead, she offers excellent discussions of the various forms of emotional compassion, highlighting specific features of the various texts. Major topics prove to be the sorrowful heart and hands, bodily pain disintegrated into spiritual narrative, the affirmation of pain and its spectation, which is all rather typical of hagiographical literature both in England and on the continent, especially if we think of Jacobus de Voragine's Legenda aurea, apparently here only touched upon in passing.

Pity and compassion, only slightly different in their deeper meaning, permeate such works as the Ancrene Wisse and the texts in the Wooing Group. Lazikani also suggests that "co-feeling" represents a slightly different emotional experience, though it would be difficult to affirm this precisely, unless we go so far as to accept that it led to a kind of identification with Christ and His Passion, and the Virgin Mary, since the anchoresses endeavored to recreate the historical experience through their spiritual reading: "The anchoress hungers for the special participation and access the Virgin Mary has with and to Christ, in all her mother’s agony" (91).

Finally, the author turns to late medieval religious poetry both in Anglo-Norman and in Middle English, observing very similar phenomena, that is, a very strong emotional culture, probably rather typical of the late Middle Ages at large. To quote Lazikani one more time, "Christ's Wounds are also vocal sites of pain and mercy in the Anglo-Norman lyric 'Vous ke me veez'" (97). And: "All three passages are marked by visual-tactile feeling: beholding the Face...and the tilting head" (103). She even includes a thirteenth-century Welsh religious lyric to confirm her overall findings ("A'r gwaed yn gired â'r dydd y croged" by Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch).

The analysis of all the texts presented here is satisfactory, though not particularly profound or innovative. The author offers a solid reading, albeit it does not always steer clear of simple paraphrasis. In light of the massive amount of new research literature on the history of emotions and on late medieval religious literature, the presented results do not push us really beyond the current state of the arts and only expand our understanding of emotional communities as reflected in the religious narratives and poems presented here to some degree. The endnotes contain considerably more critical reflections than the actual text would have revealed. The volume concludes with a very short, select bibliography, which leaves out more than it includes, and a most welcome index.

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