The Sincere Body: The Performance of Weeping and Emotion in Late Medieval Italian Sermons
Lyn Blanchfield (Binghamton University)
Quidditas: Journal of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association
In 1493 the well-known and controversial Franciscan preacher Bernardino of Feltre gave a series of Lenten sermons to the people of Pavia. On March 11 he dedicated an entire sermon to the necessity of contrition—or perfect sorrow over sin—in the rite of confession. Speaking to a large audience of both men and women, rich and poor, and the local ecclesiastical and civic authorities, Bernardino discussed how one should behave when contrite: “If you cannot feel sorrow of the body, then at least [feel it] in [your] heart, and if you cannot weep with [your] bodily eyes, then at least [weep] in [your] heart.” In this brief statement Bernardino instructs his audience on how he believed one should express sorrow over sin and weep during confession. According to him, sorrow and pain over sin must be located inside or out- side the body and these emotions must come from the heart, that is, they must be sincere. Bernardino did not explain how one “feels sorrow…[or] weeps in [the] heart,” yet his reliance on the heart as a site for emotion and weeping suggests that he believed the heart was crucial in assuring that sorrow and tears in confession were true. In the same series of sermons, Bernardino recommended that confessors not absolve sinners unless assured of their sincere repentance. His statement on contrition indicates that he believed weeping from the heart was physical and visible proof of sincere repentance, proof that confessors could use during con- fession. Bernardino does not reveal how a confessor could recognize sin- cere repentance and “true” weeping of the heart, yet his need for “truth” in the confessional seems to demand some guidelines.
Bernardino’s ideas about weeping were not unusual. In fact, he was adhering to commonly accepted constructions of weeping that had been in existence for centuries. Only a century before Bernardino’s sermon, the fourteenth-century Spaniard Juan Ruiz commented that “the Church cannot judge such hidden things [sincere contrition of sin]; thus it is also necessary for him [the sinner] to make, either by gestures or by groans, some sign showing that he has repented…. [T]he best sign of repentance [is] weeping.”
Bernardino’s views of the connection between weeping, the heart, and the necessity of proving sincere repentance were not unique. Many other preachers and theologians were concerned about how to prove a sinner’s “true” contrition during the ritual of confession. Although weeping served a practical need by “proving” repentance in confession—the most important function given to this behavior—weeping also served as a sign of various emotional states in other religious rituals such as the sermon, mystical exercises, sacred representations, processions, and prayer. To legitimize and incorporate weeping into these rituals that appear to require emotional as well as behavioral participation, medieval and early modern theologians and other writers used the authority of the Bible and other texts in order to define weeping as the “true” physical and visible manifestation of emotion.