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Barbarian Affectivities

March 11, 2013 @ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

Portrait image of Mary Agnes Edsall outdoors wearing glasses and a flower-patterned shawl

Monday Seminar

Mary Agnes Edsall

Solmsen Fellow (2012-2013)

Independent Scholar


Late medieval affective piety was a style of highly emotional devotion to the humanity of Jesus, particularly in his infancy and his death, and to the joys and sorrows of the Virgin Mary. Most accounts of affective piety have located its beginnings in the twelfth century and trace it as it developed in Cistercian and Franciscan spirituality; but scholars have recently begun to question this narrative. My research takes this questioning a step further and suggests that affective speech and texts were part of Western philosophical and, then, Christian traditions from the earliest centuries on.

This presentation is part of a chapter that asks if there was any discernable “affective piety” between the fifth and the eleventh centuries. By the end of the patristic period theories of conversion and catechesis had been consolidated and affective rhetorics of Christian pedagogy had been developed. The monasteries would preserve these through the long centuries during which the western Roman Empire slowly turned into medieval Europe. Another story runs alongside this, however: the story of appeals to the emotions in the evangelization and ongoing Christianization of sub-Roman populations and of the barbarians from east of the Rhine who settled in formerly Roman colonies. Drawing on current work in the fields of psychology, history of the emotions, and medieval history, this presentation will speculate on the effects on character and emotions of the “culture of violence” of tribal Europe, effects including desensitization to violence, lack of compassion, and paranoia that fueled irascibility. In it, I will explore how earlier affective Christian rhetorics may have been adapted to persuade the people of these “cultures of violence” to take on different ways of being and feeling—beyond just offering “emotional refuges,” places where alternative ways of feeling and living were learned.


Mary Agnes Edsall, Solmsen Fellow, has recently held positions at University of Massachusetts Boston (visiting) and at Bowdoin College. Her interdisciplinary scholarship focuses on the literatures and practices of Christian catechesis and devotion of the European Middle Ages, with attention to memory (personal and cultural), mnemonics, rhetorical theory, and the role of images and the emotions. She has recently published on early copies of Anselm of Canterbury’s Prayers and Meditations as exemplars of practice that drew their power from the way that they reproduced the charismatic presence of their author. Forthcoming articles address the patristic prehistory of medieval Arma Christi imagery and the connections between monastic anthologies for novice formation and household devotional anthologies of late medieval England. Her research interests also include Hugh of Fouilloy, an under-studied writer whose works were widely read in his time (mid-twelfth century) and beyond.


March 11, 2013
3:30 pm - 5:00 pm
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University Club, Room 212
432 East Campus Mall
Madison, Wisconsin 53703 United States