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The Physicality of Anger in the Middle Ages

The Physicality of Anger in the Middle Ages

By Ben Zweig

Published Online: I.B.Tauris, 2012

Introduction: Out of all the emotions, anger is the one most closely connected to our bodies. Of course love makes the heart flutter, and sorrow brings forth tears and wails; but there is something very different about the physicality of anger – you feel it deep in your muscles and veins, emanating from your eyes, lips, and hair. The corporeal expression of anger has long carried deep cultural values. This was especially true in the Middle Ages, when anger was understood and valued through the physiognomy of the human body.

During the Early Middle Ages, influential scholars such as Pope Gregory the Great distinguished between two general types of anger: self-destructive anger and righteous or zealous anger. Self-destructive anger was a vice. It was easily excitable, uncontrollable, and irrational. Gregory writes, ‘By anger wisdom is parted with… life is lost… wisdom is abandoned.’ In contrast, righteous anger as exercised by God, clerics, and kings was a virtue marshalled to combat sin and vice.

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