By Maria Chiara Di Francesco – Skill Up
“Grief must never escape/
A man’s heart too quickly unless with his might like a true
“So spoke the wanderer”: thus one of the most extraordinary products of Old English literature begins, a song of grief and longing that has kept scholars debating for over two centuries. In its 115 verses the unknown author laments the loss of friends and kinsmen, which has forced him into a powerless exile, and the might of the sorrow he tries to keep at bay “binding the ties of his heart”, while contemplating the fragile and transitory nature of life, joy and glory. A sombre reading, but a surprising one, for it represents one of the clearest examples of emotional expression and processing in early European literature.
Attention to the themes of emotional intelligence and to the modes and benefits of emotional awareness has characterised psychological discourse for many decades now, but it has only become truly relevant during the last two or three, as mental health and the crucial role of emotional training in developing social and relational skills is slowly but surely gaining the spotlight in public debates. This significant shift in public perception has had ripple effects in academic research as well, with the rise of a field of study, the history of emotions, in charge of reconstructing the emotional attitudes of past cultures and communities.
While all human products, if seen in the right light and through the right lenses, speak about emotions and emotional processes, this category is particularly fructuous when applied to literature. Fructuous, yes, but also slippery, for «how mistaken it would be to assume that emotions are unproblematically translatable from one culture or historical period to the other».(2)
Our contemporary perception, of which the division between “sense” and “sensibility”, thinking and feeling, is a structural pillar, is a product of European Romanticism; we feel art and literature, especially poetry, to be the most natural place to talk about emotions, and we are less preoccupied with censoring and controlling emotional expression than any other culture in western history. This relative freedom in speaking of what goes on in the mind and in the heart, and the privileged relationship between feelings and artistic production, is rarely displayed before the 18th century, and almost unknown to the Middle Ages or to the Ancient times. While it is reasonable to assume that the way we, as humans, feel has stayed -and will stay- unaltered for all of our history, society and social expectations will always condition how emotions are processed and represented. Emotions are highly culturally variable: neurological and bodily mechanisms connected to joy, anger, fear, sadness, shame, are the same through time and space, whereas cultural thought structures can and will influence the rise of certain emotions and the way they are expressed and represented, both in real and in fictional worlds.
It is crucial to remember this cultural specificity of emotional expression when dealing with texts from Ancient times and Mediaeval times. A controversy of this kind arose in 2015 in the study of an interesting set of XII century love letters from the monastery of Tegernsee (DE). While a love letter is, in the eyes on a modern reader, a most intimate document of private and sensitive content, love letters were a very popular literary genre in the late Middle Ages and during the Renaissance, so much so that many manuals were written on how to show off one’s ability and mastery of language and poetic expression for the purpose of entertainment- the artes dictaminis. It is doubtless that real, heartfelt and private letters were exchanged as well: but how to tell them apart?
The matter becomes relevant given that at least two of the Tegernsee love letters are written by a woman to another woman. As argued by Peter Dronke, the language of love, tenderness and even physical intimacy that is used in these documents is unmistakable (3); understanding the culturally accepted way of showing affection and love in a wider Mediaeval context is then vital to the correct interpretation of these letters. One will find that displays of fervent affection and grief for abrupt or prolonged separations are rather common in monastic poetry: an in-depth study of language and cultural cues is of the essence in understanding whether to read these dynamics as genuine evidence of homoerotic relationships, or rather as ‘emotional communities’ i.e. socially defined groups of people who adopted specific styles and a specific language, shared by all members of the group, to talk about emotions and common situations.
Detecting emotional cues in texts, and understanding emotions as culturally defined, enables scholars to fill the gaps, to gain closeness with individuals who have lived a long time ago without superimposing our contemporary categories on what they produced and lived. It is in the nature of emotions, as cultural concepts, to be linked to goals and values, and ultimately to ethic systems: all cultures legitimate and de-legitimise specific emotions and their expression and representation, and this gives precious insight into a culture’s values system.
In the aforementioned Old English poem, The Wanderer, the richness in expressions of grief, loneliness and separation is conveyed through an impressive sequence of poignant imagery. The exile «laments his woes at dawn (4)», unable to sleep, condemned to sail from one country to the other looking for friends with the only company of sea-birds. When he falls asleep, he dreams of his past life, when he enjoyed the affection and protection of a powerful and wealthy lord. The heroic lifestyle, made of camaraderie among warriors, gifts and feasts in the lord’s hall, is evoked as an image of joy, prosperity and youth, a summer of life and of the soul compared to the winter that has engulfed the wanderer, a stark metaphor for loneliness and sadness.
To this heroic lifestyle of songs and sagas the wanderer opposes his attitude in the face of troubles:
«The wise must be patient,/ Never too hasty with feelings nor too hot with words /Nor too weak as a warrior nor too witlessly brash /Nor too fearful nor too ready nor too greedy for reward /Nor even too feverish for boasting until testing his fibre (5)». Considering all the instances in the text where the speaking voice recounts binding fast his own breast, or tying his own heart with ropes, like a treasure chest, the message appears clearly: wisdom, and therefore the true heroic attitude, is control over one’s emotional world. Strong emotions, especially anger and grief, can overheat the heart to the point of spilling over, and this must be avoided at all costs. The Wanderer becomes then not just an expression of human feelings, such as grief and loneliness and despair for the fragility of human life, but also a masterclass in how to handle all of that, on how to face woes and loss with wisdom, as a true hero. Perfect balance and steadfast control, even in the face of pain and loss, is the ethic system that emerges from this beautiful piece of Medieval poetry: an ethic, one should imagine, shared and approved by the cultural (and emotional) community -or communities- in which The Wanderer has been composed, copied, and most of all, read.
Two things are, in fact, universally true about human nature: we feel, and we tell stories. Although modes and models differ, sometimes dramatically, we all share the somatic and psychological responses to external stimuli that we call emotions, and a keen desire to give narrative order to outer and inner life. «A core degree of intelligibility remains [between different cultures] because we share the human experience of an embodied mind and […] a hard wired predisposition for narrative, a distinctly ‘narrative sense of self’, and reliance on narrative structures for memory and imagination (6)».
Besides a ‘narrative sense of self’, with telling stories being an indispensable part of how we develop and remember, as individuals and as groups, fiction is closely linked to emotional processes as well: narrative is, has always been, our first ‘sentimental education’. Texts represent, simulate and cause emotions: emotions are a part of the process of meaning-making. The brain cannot distinguish between real situations and simulated ones: the emotional response to fiction is very similar to the response to reality. That’s why literature fosters empathy.
Through stories and through literature we learn to interpret emotions, both others’ and our own. From myths recounted around a fire to bed-time stories, from poetry to the ‘bildungsroman’, the tales we tell as communities show and express how to identify and cope with different emotions and their different outlets, what is appropriate to do when angry, when grieving, when in love, how to deal with loss, with guilt, with separation, and the dangers of failing to control our own emotions. Through stories and their textual representation we grow as humans, absorbing the referring values of our ‘emotional community’ and developing an emotional landscape.
Sometimes, when we are very lucky, works like The Wanderer or the love letters of Tegernsee give us a glimpse of the emotional education and the emotional community of people from a long time ago, providing a surprising and invaluable instrument to understand them and, at the same time, cementing the blissful insight that we are never truly alone.
Maria Grazia Cammarota and Gabriele Cocco, Le elegie anglosassoni. Voci e volti della sof erenza,
Meltemi, Milano, 2020.
Peter Dronke, Women’s Love Letters from Tegernsee, in Christian Høgel and Elisabetta Bartoli,
Medieval Letters: Between fiction and document, Brepols, Turnhout, 2015.
Patrick Colm Hogan, Af ective Narratology. The Emotional Structure of Stories, University of
Nebraska Press: Lincoln and London, 2011.
Alice Jorgensen, Frances McCormack and Jonathan Wilcox, ed., Anglo-Saxon Emotions: Reading the
Heart in Old English Language, Literature and Culture, Farnham: Ashgate, 2015.
Leslie Lockett, Anglo-Saxon Psychologies in the Vernacular and Latin Traditions, University of
Toronto Press Incorporated, 2011.
Barbara H. Rosenwein, Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages, Cornell University Press,
New York, 2006.
1 The Old English Wanderer, trans. J. Hopkins, University of Virginia: The Virginia Quarterly Review, vv.
2 R. A. LeVine, Afterword, in H. Wulff (ed.), The Emotions: A Cultural Reader (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2007), p. 398.
3 P. Dronke, Women’s Love Letters from Tegernsee, in C. Høgel and E. Bartoli, Medieval Letters: Between fiction and document, Brepols, Turnhout, 2015, pp. 215-246.
4 The Wanderer, vv.8-9a.
5 Ivi, vv.65b-69a.
6 A. Harbus, Af ective Poetics: The Cognitive Basis of Emotion in Old English Poetry in A. Jorgensen, F.
McCormack and J. Wilcox, ed., Anglo-Saxon Emotions: Reading the Heart in Old English Language, Literature
and Culture, Farnham: Ashgate, 2015, p. 29.
The Old English Wanderer, trans. Jeffrey Hopkins, University of Virginia: The Virginia Quarterly
last consulted May 12th 2023.