Emotion and medieval 'violence': the Alliterative Morte Arthure and The Siege of Jerusalem

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Susan Broomhall has remarked of the work of Johan Huizinga and Norbert Elias that ‘[b]oth appeared to understand the violence and the affective behaviours of medieval people as one and the same phenomen[on]’. Broomhall stresses the key role of conceptual definitions in establishing the relation of emotion to violence, ‘for these terms cannot be assumed to have shared meanings among disciplinary traditions, nor indeed among past and present populations’. In this paper, as an attempt to add clearer definition to the medieval concept of ‘violence’, or at least to avoid some confusion, I discuss the place of emotion in the construction and evaluation of ‘violent’ bodily actions in later medieval English war writings.

I pay special attention to two texts. One is the Alliterative Morte Arthure, a late fourteenth-century poem in the Arthurian tradition stemming from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1130s Historia regum Brittanie. The second is The Siege of Jerusalem, another anonymous alliterative poem, variously dated between 1370 and 1400. It describes the total destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE after a siege led by the Romans Vespasian and Titus.
In analysis of these texts, I suggest that although medieval ‘violence’ is notionally a category established on ethical grounds, assessing permissible or wrongful uses of physical force, the first question to ask about an instance of extreme force in a medieval text is not whether it is justified or condemned on ethical grounds, as if one were discussing a case in abstraction, or even by ‘by the way [it] derive[s] its meaning from larger systems of honor’ (Di Marco, 2000, pp. 29–30). What matters most is what kind and what degree of emotional engagement its written form is designed to display and to attract in situ. ‘Violence’ and its opposite, ‘just force’, are poetic achievements rather than consistent cognitive categories. The meaning and evaluation of extreme bodily force in later medieval English literature has less to do with the general nature of the force involved than with its poetic expression, with the links between aesthetics, ethics, and action formed in texts, and creating a process of emotional affiliation for their readers.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWriting War in Britain and France, 1370-1854
Subtitle of host publicationA History of Emotions
EditorsStephanie Downes, Andrew Lynch, Katrina O’Loughlin
Place of PublicationAbingdon
ISBN (Electronic)9780429446245
ISBN (Print)9781138219168, 9781138314139
Publication statusPublished - 2019

Publication series

NameThemes in Medieval and Early Modern History


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