The Medieval Review 17.12.15

Delaurenti, Béatrice. La Contagion des émotions - Compassio, une énigme médiévale . Savoirs anciens et médiévaux, 4 . Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2016. pp. 338.

Reviewed by:

David Appleby
Thomas Aquinas College

Delaurenti studies the trajectory of a word, a notion, namely compassio, and the explanations it received in the learned medical and university cultures of western Europe of the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries. The author concentrates on a narrow, technical sense of the word, but compassio appeared often enough before the thirteenth century in a wider, non-technical sense of "suffering with," or somehow vicariously experiencing the emotional state of another. This study on the "contagion of emotions" finds its context within the history of emotions in the Middle Ages as this has been charted in the post-Huisinga and post-Freudian setting by scholars such as Damien Boquet, Piroska Nagy, C. Stephen Jaeger, Barbara Rosenwein, and Gerd Althoff, among others, as well as collective entities such as "Les émotions au Moyen Âge" (EMMA).

In a very broad (and therefore very helpful) overview of the history of emotions in the medieval West, Boquet and Nagy identify a conspicuous vertical tension in Christian culture throughout the period in which all affectivity was taken either to draw human beings upward toward salvation or downward to perdition. [1] Although human passions, whether by their nature or through corrupt usage, were viewed with suspicion, the Passion showed that the body and its affective states could be an instrument of redemption. This tension structured the uses of affectivity, both emotions and sentiments, throughout the Middle Ages. In the early period, stretching from late antiquity through the eleventh century, there was a tendency to try and spiritualize the material, the carnal, by using affectivity to convert the human being from a downward to an upward orientation; later, from the twelfth century onward, we find a second movement, that of incorporation or incarnation, in which affectivity became a means of investing the body with the spiritual. A third path presented itself only after the discovery and reception of Aristotelian thought in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Within a general movement that more and more found an autonomous value and intrinsic interest in the domain of the terrestrial, the body along with its affects and passions received scrutiny apart from the vertical tension between salvation and perdition. This was especially the case in medical schools and universities, and it is in these environments that the narrower, technical sense of "compassion" made its appearance.

Delaurenti focuses on the discovery and reception of one part of the Problemata physica, which, though now considered spurious, in the Middle Ages was taken to be one of Aristotle's writings. A little-known Latin version of the work produced by David of Dinant in the twelfth century was superseded by a much more successful translation made by Bartolomeo da Messina, working at the court of King Manfred of Sicily in the mid-thirteenth century. This version was known at the University of Paris and elsewhere in the West, and it attracted commentators, the most important of whom was Pietro d'Abano, who finished a commentary on the whole, Expositio problematum, in 1310.

In the second century, when the Problemata was given the form and order in which we find it now, Section VII received a title that included the Greek word "sympathy," a term that does not appear elsewhere in the Problemata, and which Bartolomeo translated as "compassion." As Delaurenti puts it, "when Greek sympathy became Latin compassion, the ancient notion was enriched with specifically Christian resonances and became the matrix of philosophical and medical inquiry that was characteristic of the scholastic period" (25).

In Section VII of the Problemata the idea of shared affective states appears in several forms. An example of this occurs when one experiences sadness or psychic pain at the sight of the physical suffering of another. Again, the viewer may experience a physical reaction to an external stimulus, whether human or not. Yawning begets yawning; sexual arousal occurs in response to the sight of people making love; seeing or hearing flowing water prompts the desire to urinate. In these cases, the mimicked behavior is pleasant or relieving, but in others it may be displeasing, as when one cringes or shudders at a strident noise such as high-pitched scraping. Section VII also gives some attention to certain illnesses, which may be transmitted from person to person by sight, smell, or contact, though sound health never is transmitted in this way. The underlying common feature of these instances of sympathetic movement is a passive and involuntary response, which modern people might term reflexive, and which brings the patient into relation with the person or things whose condition he or she comes to share. In its technical sense then, compassion meant a certain movement of imitation of the exterior world, proceeding spontaneously from the body or the soul in response to the perception of some sensible object. It is the reception and recontextualization of this narrower sense of compassion that Delaurenti traces.

Part One of Delaurenti's study focuses on the commentary on Bartolomeo's translation of the Problemata written by Pietro d'Abano in the first decade of the fourteenth century, which set the tone of many subsequent medieval discussions of compassion. Pietro was trained in medicine and philosophy at the University of Padua, and then studied and taught at the University of Paris, and he brought that scholastic training to bear in his references to nature and imagination in a philosophical examination of Section VII of the Problemata. An anonymous commentary with connections to the universities of Oxford and Paris from the first half of the fourteenth century was written and circulated in England. Another commentary from Erfurt was completed no later than 1364 and associated with a mendicant and university setting. A third anonymous commentary, also from the fourteenth century, was produced in a monastic or canonical milieu in Bavaria. In 1355 a master of medicine at the University of Perugia, John of Spello, considered sympathetic yawning in a set of disputed questions which were intended for use in medical school. Toward the end of the fourteenth century Évrart de Conty, physician of the future Charles V, produced a Problemes in French which comments on the phenomenon of compassion.

Delaurenti considers the themes of suffering at a distance, contagious yawning, compassionate shuddering, and transmission of illness as they appear in each of these commentators. The comparison reveals a remarkable cross section of high medieval learned culture, based largely on ancient Greco-Roman astronomical, philosophical, and medical texts, but also on more recent Arabic sources, folk remedies, and western proverbs. (Et mulieres condolent uitulis interfectis [50, n. 1] reminds us of Chaucer's Prioress [General Prologue 144-145].) Among the important themes of these chapters are the pivotal role of imagination as the conjunction of body and soul, the force of cosmic affinity and the human person as microcosm, the operation of sight and hearing as triggers of various passions, and the pleasure or pain associated with various senses and sensible objects. Of particular interest is fascination as one sort of action at a distance, a subject on which Delaurenti has written previously. This is the possibility that through the imagination and the gaze, one may deliberately exercise motive action upon another person or in some cases upon nature itself (82-89). This idea was unacceptable by the standards of Aristotelian and Thomistic physics, according to which the mover must touch the mobile. But those who have seen a border collie at work will affirm the power of that particular canine gaze.

In Part Two Delaurenti investigates whether the sort of compassion found in the commentaries appears in other spheres as well, both before and after the "moment of Bartolomeo da Messina and Pietro d'Abano." Her survey of the appearance of compassion in theological and pastoral discourse before the diffusion of the Problemata emphasizes its similarity to misericordia as a spontaneous reaction to another's suffering based on one's own similar experience. St. Bernard thought of compassion as a shared experience and a sort of exchange of two subjectivities. Delaurenti identifies a few convergences with compassion as it is presented in the Problemata, but overall the treatment of the idea in these authors is spiritual and metaphorical, not physical and psychological.

The natural philosophers of the high and later Middle Ages took little notice of compassion. Even Albert the Great, who had access to an incomplete translation of the Problemata, apparently did not know Section VII, and his references to the co-suffering of animals and the operation of internal organs stay clear of the lexical field of compassion (280-281). Compassion of the sort described by Pietro d'Abano only became prominent in natural philosophy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and then it did so under the name of "sympathy" (295).

In the Middle Ages it was the scholastic medical authors who showed most interest in compassion. There are traces of knowledge of the Aristotelian view of compassion in late twelfth-century Salerno some sixty-five years before Bartholomeo's translation of the Problemata. References to yawning, goose flesh, and shuddering as instances of psycho-somatic activity may be related to the Latin translations of texts of Galen and Avicenna, some of which employ compassion in a medical context. Certainly the phenomena later described by Pietro d'Abano under the heading compassion were known and occasionally remarked upon throughout the Middle Ages, and twelfth-century doctors thematized those phenomena as an autonomous form, though they did not designate it compassion. The same was true, Delaurenti shows, even after the Problemata had been translated and commented upon: the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century medical authors (Gentile da Foligno, Tommaso del Garbo, Jacques de Forli, Ugo Benzi, and Jerome Torrella) who made use of Pietro d'Abano's work in their own investigation of the soul's ability to cause bodily change through imagination and the "species of the soul" did not refer to that collective category as compassion, and they did not consider it to be a type of action at a distance of one person upon another. They regarded the process as a purely internal, psycho-somatic matter. The enigma of compassion in the Middle Ages is the failure of the idea and the terminology of the commentators to take hold even among the learned writers who knew them.

-------- Note:

1. Damien Boquet and Piroska Nagy, "Une histoire des émotions incarnées," Médiévales 61 (2011): 5-24, at 22.

Copyright (c) 2018 David Appleby

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