Forms of Suffering: Chaucer, Aesthetics, and the Invention of Pity

Herr Konrad von Altstetten, Große Heidelberger Liederhandschrift, UL Heidelberg, c. 1300-1340

In the opening scene of Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale, the marquis Walter is confronted by his subjects who beg him with “meeke preyere” and “pitous chere” to marry and produce an heir. In this moment, they seek from Walter something he is reluctant to give. Walter, an avid hunter and a confirmed bachelor, exclaims, “Ye wol...myn owene peple deere, / To that I nevere erst thoughte streyne me.” Despite his lack of desire to constrain himself in marriage, however, Chaucer writes that the meek prayers and piteous appearance of Walter’s people “made the markys herte han pitee.” He subsequently vows to marry. The force of “made” is important here for it suggests that pity acts in such a way that it compels the pitier to act counter to his or her desires. In the moment of experiencing pity, traditional power structures such as those of gender and social status are temporarily suspended or even outright reversed. Walter, who typically wields power over his people, comes under their power as his pity transforms his desires and overcomes his will.

My monograph, Forms of Suffering: Chaucer, Aesthetics, and the Invention of Pity, examines the development and transformation of the language of pity in medieval English literature and culture through a study of the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer. I argue that Chaucer reformulated trans-European pity discourses for an English audience, and, in the process, made pity into a central ethical and aesthetic concern in English literature. The fin’amor tradition, Passion meditations, hagiographies, political treatises about common profit, all were concerned with the ways in which pity was formed and the effects it had on those who felt it. Chaucer drew on these traditions to craft his poetry, and he was one of the earliest English vernacular poets to make extensive use of the language of pity. He refers to it more than 200 times throughout his poetry and does so in a wide variety of contexts. Pity is the primary virtue of Criseyde in Troilus and Criseyde; it is one of Chaucer’s keywords for describing the sorrowful lives and deaths of female martyrs in the Legend of Good Women, and it is Walter’s response to his people in the Clerk’s Tale. Forms of Suffering traces how Chaucer’s fascination with pity developed out of larger medieval conversations about the ethical and affective work of responding to the suffering of others.

In my monograph, I show how individual discourses offered distinctive accounts of the formation and effects of pity. A pitying woman in fin’amor might come to love her male lover as in the Roman de la Rose; a pitying ruler might offer a pardon for offenses, such as in Richard Maidstone’s Concordia. The common thread in medieval treatments of pity, however, was an understanding that it contained the possibility for suspending or obliterating traditional power structures that schematized gender and social status. This capacity is foreign to our contemporary conception of pity. Today, pity frequently suggests contempt for its object. This association is so culturally embedded that in “Compassion: the Basic Social Emotion” Martha Nussbaum spends most of her essay discussing the historical emotion of pity, but she changes her vocabulary when writing about the contemporary. She notes that pity “...has acquired nuances of condescension and superiority to the sufferer that it did not have formerly,” and thus she “...shall switch over to the currently more appropriate term ‘compassion’ when...talking about contemporary issues.” Medieval pity with its challenge to the social order is a lost concept. In my research, I am thus interested both in rediscovering the nature of that concept and in charting the ways power was represented in early accounts of pity. Through an examination of the function of power in medieval pity, I contend that we can better understand how pity has come to suggest superiority or disdain for its object.

Chaucer is central to rediscovering the forgotten concepts attached to pity. He wrote more about pity than any other fourteenth-century English author, and the scope of his influence on English literary representations of pity can be seen in Robert Henryson, John Lydgate, and William Shakespeare. I show how Chaucer’s incorporating distinct treatments of pity from fin’amor, Passion meditation, hagiography, and political treatises brought to the fore the modes and effects of pity’s work in challenging power structures. In doing so, I argue that Chaucer is also one of the first authors to explore the limitations and dangers of pity. In my dissertation, I show that this exploration culminates with the Legend of Good Women and the Parson’s Tale in a disavowal of an aestheticized pity, one not explicitly linked to acts of charity. This disavowal is unusual. Pity in works such as Maidstone’s Concordia or even the Roman de la Rose is enthusiastically embraced. But by reading Chaucer’s poetry alongside Christine de Pizan’s critique of the Roman de la Rose and Julian of Norwich’s revision of affective meditation on the Passion, I argue that Chaucer is participating in a developing critique of pity taking shape across Europe. The difference between Chaucer and Christine de Pizan or Julian of Norwich, however, is that his critique addresses pity not within one medieval discourse such as fin’amor or Passion meditation but across many. In critiquing pity across discourses, I argue that Chaucer develops the pity discourse in England and reformulates it to include a new examination of the dangers of its aestheticization and its limited power for social change.