I have this week buckled down to thinking more fully about the conference paper that I am going to be presenting at the New Chaucer Society meeting, to be held in Portland, OR in July. I am going to be talking about the relationship between memory and emotion in The Doctrine of the Hert, a fifteenth-century translation of the thirteenth-century Latin treatise, De doctrine cordis.
The doctrina was what we might call a medieval bestseller. Originally written for members of the religious orders, it was translated into six different languages and circulated throughout Europe between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. The text is split into seven books, each of which focuses on one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit as given in Isaiah 11: 2-3; Book 1 considers ‘þe yifte of drede [fear]’; Book 2, ‘þe yifte of pite’; Book 3, ‘þe yifte of kunnynge [knowledge]’; Book 4, ‘þe yifte of strengthe’; Book 5 ‘þe yifte of counseile’; Book 6, ‘þe yifte of undirstondyng’; Book 7, ‘þe yifte of wisdom’ (Doctrine, p. 4). The English version survives in four fifteenth-century manuscripts and a fifth one (no longer extant) is referred to in the will of Margaret Purdans.
In the Prologue, the writer states that ‘hertly redyng is a gracious meene to goostly felyng’ (p. 3), and the phrase wonderfully captures much of what the rest of the text expands upon. It is through reading such texts as the Doctrine that one might prepare the soul for God, and come to spirituality (‘goostly felyng’). Indeed it is the ‘gracious’ method of doing so. For the conference paper, I’m interested in how the Doctrine prescribes feeling as a way of achieving a contemplative union with God, and the importance of reading ‘heartily’ is fundamental to this for it relies on emotion and affect as a way of learning and remembering. Eric Jager has discussed how the heart had a long association with memory, stemming from the Latin tradition of the heart (cor) being used as a synonym for ‘thought, memory, mind, soul, and spirit’, as well as ‘for the seat of intelligence, volition, character, and the emotions’. In relation to the heart being used to refer to the memory, modern parallels remain: we still refer to being able to recite something without thinking about it as having learned it ‘by heart’.
So to read ‘hertly’ suggests not only should one read with sincerity or zealously but also with a view to memory. It is by remembering the gifts of the Holy Spirit and living by the messages of the Doctrine that the reader shall have ‘an opyn clere knowing of perfit love, and of þe goodness of God, and siker [security of] possessioun of everlastyng blisse’ (Doctrine, p. 92). The Doctrine is neither unique in its message, nor in the way that it communicates with its readers. Indeed the idea of ‘hertly redyng’ is characteristic of the affective approach to spirituality put forward by religious thinkers such as St Anselm and St Bernard of Clairvaux. In fact, I think one of the best uses of affect is in the York Play of the Crucifixion, in which Christ calls upon the audience to look at his wounds, meditate upon his death and, through pity, be prompted to a more spiritual life. I am intrigued, though, by the relationship between the emotions and memory and how these work in devotional practice. Why is feeling so important to a sense of spirituality? Why is it so overwhelming? In relation to memory, what is so powerful about stirring our emotions that leads us to active contemplation – that the mind (and/or the body) is stimulated to action?
Margaret Purdans, St Giles’, Norwich, Widow 1481 (Dioc. Reg. Caston 163), quoted in H. Harrod, ‘Extracts from Early Wills in the Norwich Registries’, Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society, 4 (1855), 335-6.
 Eric Jager, The Book of the Heart (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2001), xv.