In Search of Pity: Chaucer Poetics and the Suffering of Others

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

In the opening scene of Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale, the marquis Walter is confronted by his people 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 social status temporarily reverse. Walter, who typically wields power over his people, comes under their power.

My dissertation, In Search of Pity: Chaucerian Poetics and the Suffering of Others, considers 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. Chaucer 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. In Search of Pity 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. The fin amor tradition, passion meditations, saint’s lives, 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.

Different discourses offered distinctive accounts of both 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 that they contained the possibility for suspending or obliterating traditional power structures such as those of gender or social status. This capacity is foreign to our contemporary understanding of pity. Today, pity frequently suggests a contempt or disdain 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.

In rediscovering the lost concept of medieval pity, Chaucer is an important figure. He wrote more about pity than perhaps any other 14th 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 bringing together treatments of pity from fin amor, passion meditation, hagiography, and political treatises put under a microscope 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.  As much can be seen in The Clerk’s Tale.  Walter yields to pity and his people’s pleading, but he spends the majority of the tale engaged in acts of tyranny.  In my chapter on The Clerk’s Tale, Facing Suffering, I argue that after Walter experiences pity in the encounter with his people he attempts to avoid ever feeling pity again by forbidding them and his wife from expressing sorrow and unhappiness. Pity in the poem might contain the possibility for reversing social status, but it is a force that can be manipulated and controlled by those in power.  And the example of The Clerk’s Tale belongs to a larger trend in Chaucer’s work of delineating the limitations of pity. In my project, I show that this exploration culminates with The Legend of Good Women and The Parson’s Tale in a disavowal of any pity that is 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 connecting Chaucer’s poetry to 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 newly developing critique of pity taking shape across Europe at the turn of the 14th century.  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 both develops the pity discourse in England and reformulates it in order to include a new examination of its limited social power.

Passionate Language

Miniature from the Gough Psalter, 14th cent. Bodleian Library, MS Gough, liturg. 8, fol 61 r.

My interest in the history and use of the language of pity has led me to an interest in the social and gender politics of the particular vocabulary that developed in Passion narratives in the 14th and 15th centuries. To that end, I am now beginning work on a second project: Passionate Language: Constructing a Vocabulary of the Passion in Medieval and Early Modern England. In this project, I trace how keywords in Passion narratives such as glory, reuthe (“sorrow”), and compassion came into the English language and how they were deployed for political purposes. I explore how writers from Nicholas Love and Thomas More to Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich use these terms to craft their own particular language of the Passion. This project seeks to show the ways in which each author marks themselves as orthodox (and thus aligned with those in political power) even as they claim for themselves a particular and unique intimacy with God.