Prof. Jon Whitman from HUJI Lectured on Late Medieval Literature and the History of Sympathy


On the afternoon of March 31, Prof. Jon Whitman from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, was invited by the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, School of International Studies, Zhejiang University, to deliver an online lecture entitled “From Passion to Compassion: Late Medieval Literature and the History of Sympathy”, which is the 37th lecture organized by the Center. The lecture was presided over by HAO Tianhu, director of the Center and a Distinguished Professor of ZJU, and attended by nearly 100 people on and off campus. The two-hour-long lecture was supported by the Basic Research Business Fund of Universities under the Direct Administration of the State Council.

A renowned scholar of medieval literature, Prof. Whitman received a bachelor’s degree with the highest honors from Columbia University, an M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University, and is currently Prof. Emeritus of English at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he chaired the Center for Literary Studies for many years. His works include Allegory: The Dynamics of an Ancient and Medieval Technique (published jointly by Oxford University Press and Harvard University Press, 1987) and Romance and History: Imagining Time from the Medieval to the Early Modern Period (ed., Cambridge University Press, 2015).


Prof. Whitman


In this lecture, Prof. Whitman explored the connection between passion and sympathy in late medieval literature. According to him, passion in medieval literature is not only a burning lust but also an impulse to inspire and evoke noble ambition. A warrior is not good if he does not go to war as well as to love. In the romantic sagas of the 12th century and beyond, noble ladies are the source of noble ambition, and knights are expected to be not only chivalrous but, more importantly, deeply passionate. These romantic sagas mark the first sexual revolution in the West and laid the foundation for the literature of love that followed. However, since passion is constantly at odds with reason, medieval literature depicting passion is often filled with transgressive desires. These desires, though they begin with passion, can provoke sympathy. While it has been argued that the late medieval imagery of the crucifixion of Christ endows “sympathy” with a profound religious significance, Prof. Whitman is more concerned with secular passions. He argued that compassion was often triggered not by piety, but by transgressive passions.

How do transgressive passions evoke sympathy? How do literary texts shape emotions through forms? To explore these questions, Prof. Whitman examined the connection between passion and compassion in detail, using five of the most influential works between the 13-15th centuries in France, Italy, and England as examples. The works include Lancelot-Grail Cycle in the 13th century, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde in the 14th century, and Malory’s Morte D’Arthur in the 15th century. Each of these works, in his words, is unique, yet all deal with transgressive desires.


Prof. Whitman using late medieval literary works as examples


To start with, through a comparative reading of the Divine Comedy and Lancelot-Grail Cycle, Prof. Whitman explained the relationship between piety and pity, erotic transgression, and compassion in a religious context. He recited with deep emotion the encounter between Francesca and Paolo in the fifth chapter of Dante’s Inferno, and then vividly recreated the kiss scenario between Guinevere and Lancelot in Lancelot-Grail Cycle. He pinpointed the tension between the secular and the religious in both works and discussed how Dante used literary devices to make readers sympathetic to transgressors.

Then, he proceeded to introduce three narrative features of the Divine Comedy: textuality, subjectivity, and relationality. The first feature, textuality, refers to the nesting of multiple narrative layers within the text, which makes the emotions overlap and prolong, bringing closer the psychological distance between Francesca and Dante, and the distance between the poet and the reader. The second characteristic, subjectivity, refers to Francesca’s first-person narrative and intimate introspective tone which are strongly infectious. The third characteristic, relationality, refers to the empathy and interconnectedness of one subject in interaction with another. Prof. Whitman asserted that these three narrative characteristics worked together to promote sympathetic feelings.

Next, he investigated passion and compassion in a secular context. Similarly, he analyzed the textuality, subjectivity, and relationality of Boccaccio’s Decameron, which, according to him, has more emotional value than the Divine Comedy in terms of soothing and relieving passions rather than generating them, and is therefore more likely to evoke a softer sympathy. Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde is more profound: passion is placed in a complex textual and historical context, and sympathy is not just an emotional response to transgressions and infidelities, but a reflection on the ever-changing human nature. Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, the last panoramic depiction of King Arthur’s legend in the 15th century, is a nostalgic and poignant re-creation of Guinevere and Lancelot’s shocking love affair, which expresses the complex passions and desires of human nature that are difficult to be suppressed by religion and disciplined by society.

    Prof. Whitman concluded that the history of emotions was constantly changing and that late medieval literature redefined lust and passion, evoking sympathy for transgressive passions. Although the imagination of literary works could not solve the moral and ethical problems or social issues raised by passions, they contributed to an emotional revolution, prompting us to think about the nature of compassion and explore the infinite possibilities of compassion in the historical writing of passions, and thus have important practical significance.


Moderator Prof. HAO Tianhu interacting with Prof. Whitman


Prof. HAO Tianhu highly appreciated the lecture and inquired Prof. Whitman about the meanings of “passion” and “crucifixion of Christ”. Prof. Whitman used the example of Morte D’Arthur to indicate the religious devotion of the lust between Guinevere and Lancelot, and by extension, the interplay of passion and martyrdom in works such as Tristan and Isolde. The two Professors also discussed the secular love and divine love in Milton’s Paradise Lost as reflected in Adam’s choice. Prof. FENG Wei of Northeast Normal University also raised questions about love and divine love in the Song of Songs, and together with Prof. Whitman, they explored the use of allusion and intertextuality in several texts of the Song of Songs. Prof. Whitman also responded to questions from other students and teachers, including Prof. ZHANG Yating from Shaanxi Normal University and Dr. ZHANG Lian, a researcher from Zhejiang University and a fellow of the “Hundred Talents Program”.

At the end of the lecture, Prof. HAO Tianhu welcomed Prof. Whitman to Hangzhou, and the latter also expressed his sincere gratitude to the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies of Zhejiang University.


A screenshot of the attendees



Text: ZHONG Kailai

Photo: ZHANG Lian

Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies

Translated by ZHOU Dandan

Proofread by XU Xueying

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