Emotions in Middle Ages

Rosenwien's (2002) exposé on the historical study of human emotions devotes an extensive part that covers emotion in medieval life. From the 40s on, interrogation of the impact of emotion over history has gained momentum, thanks to scholars of the calibre of Febvre, Huizinga, the Sterneses, Elias etc., and what struck me was their way of dealing with the Middle Ages, which resembled the narrow-mindedness of the first 18th-century anthropologist.

This led me to (re)consider the fundamental problem at stake here, which seems to resemble 'presentism', whose effects are still tangible in medievalist scholarship. This is also remarked by Giuseppe Sergi (2005) in a famous book. His point is that Middle Ages is a category containing many clichés, based on the assumption that we like to create common places about that. That's mainly because the idea of being the heirs of an obscure past is fascinating, and this fascination is not without consequences:

[This idea of ​​the Middle Ages] also satisfies a need for exoticism which is typical of the category of distancing, as opposed by psychologists to that, contrary, of assimilation. The Middle Ages affects the current culture more and better if its distance is underlined; if it appears as a container of diversity. (translation mine; 11)

This is especially true after Enlightenment, according to the prejudice that human history must be interpreted as a linear and organic development towards increasingly higher stadia. For Sergi, this fact means that people unconsciously associate a distant past with their everyday life practice, or conversely distance themselves from that same "exotic" past. People find in these distortions of the collective memory a legitimation for their current practices. It is distant and exotic, and therefore comfortable (13-4). The most evident consequence of such a practice is the perpetuation of the historical –and not only historical– stereotypical vision of this epoch of "falsified, wrong memory of the Middle Ages" that is at the same time "also the symbol of the ineffectiveness of professional research" and of "the distortions of collective memory." (12). It also hinders any proactive attempt to produce a corrective, for which the academic practice cannot overcome this fascination toward the maintenance of errors, which is often rooted in their infancy, from the fabulous way they have been acquainted with those myths.

That 'biased' vision of medieval history resembles more a kind of impediment to a deep understanding of what the Middle Ages –in this case- were and still are, as well as -more generally– past. And yet, the question remains: can we really know the psychology of ancient people?


Rosenwein, Barbara H. ‘Worrying about Emotions in History’. The American Historical Review, vol. 107, no. 3, June 2002, pp. 821–45.

Sergi, Giuseppe. L’idea Di Medioevo: Fra Storia e Senso Comune. Ed. ampliata con una nuova introduzione, Donzelli, 2005.

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