By Mary Garrison
Early Medieval Europe, Vol.10:2 (2001)
Introduction: The various problems cited by Airlie, Cubitt and Rosenwein as besetting the study of emotions of early medieval people are obstacles to a larger challenge: that of understanding past individuals and grasping both the particularity of their emotional experience – their inner worlds – and setting those insights into an informed view of the emotional context of their external worlds. Even for those intent on constructing master narratives, the experience of individuals must have a role as a component of that project and as a touchstone for evaluating its success. The challenge of making sense of the emotional worlds of past individuals and cultures see, as first, to be particularly acute for the early Middle Ages. ‘Das portratlos Jahrtausend’, or ‘the millennium without portraits’, as Gerd Tellenbach has characterized it. And as Caroline Walker Bynum reminds us, ‘it is extraordinarily difficult to determine the basic characteristics of the personalities of medieval people.’
But, of course, the first millennium was not an era entirely without portraits, and though one might deplore the lack of ‘intimate’ personal sources, I believe that there are many insights to be won from sensitive and theoretically informed readings of the sources which do exist. It is salutary to remember, too, that even in this present age of Oprah Winfrey and insatiable for personal revelations from celebrities, the study and indeed even the intuitive understanding of present-day emotions is characterized by competing paradigms: witness the disparity between the everyday understanding of the word emotions and the definitional aporia cited by Rosenwein, or Susie Orbach’s emphasis on the need for emotional literacy in both the private and the public spheres.