Compassion's Edge

Fellow-Feeling and its Limits in Early Modern France

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Katherine Ibbett
Haney Foundation Series
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , November
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Katherine Ibbett’s new book manages to gracefully do many things at once. In the introduction, it provides an overview of the many current and historical understandings of “compassion,” “pity,” and what she so rightly calls a “synonymically sticky cluster of terms” (9). Here we note that Ibbett, though fully conscious that pity and compassion are often pitted against one another, respects their historical entanglement, distinguishing them or using them interchangeably on a case-by-case basis. In doing so she not only demonstrates the enduring importance of this field of research at the intersection of the history of emotion, religion, literature, gender, and medicine, but also makes it clear why those who have paid attention to compassion within one discipline (in my case, literary history) should take a broader view. Her book also shows the way that within the French tradition, a certain set of views about compassion is rooted historically in the murderous religious civil wars of the 16th century and the shaky political compromise that followed. Her work also pries open the many paradoxical evaluations of compassion that appear in texts of Christian writers who, at first glance, would seem to belong to the same camp. It is impossible to summarize a study of this breadth and subtlety, but here are some points I found particularly striking. 

The religious wars in Europe seem to have promoted Christian compassion not as a way of bridging the gap between the Catholics and the Calvinist Huguenots, but rather as a way of binding together the members of each of the separate camps. Paired with horror and gestures toward the gruesome physical mutilations inflicted in the name of Christ, compassion becomes the intense feeling of sharing with those who, like the beholder, are suffering at the hands of the horrible Other. In the midst of this conflict, the foundation for the cultural productions of the 17th century, Montaigne attempted to escape from this binary of pity and horror by praising an alternative virtue: clemency. He is not alone in complexifying the conceptual landscape. A century later the Protestant preacher Jurieu, though following the established model that Ibbett calls a “sectarian sorting mechanism” (compassion for Protestants and pity—that is, contempt—for Catholics), makes use of mercy (miséricorde) to counter the argument that one should feel compassion for opponents. That, Jurieu thinks, would be to confuse the human emotion (or practice) of compassion, which is not merited for abject heretics, with the solely divine prerogative of mercy. 

Marriage, too, is a battleground, as Ibbett shows, and one often intertwined with the religious wars in the novels of the 17th century. She coins the term “miscompassion” for deep misperceptions that seem to be the norm within married couples. The institution of marriage, as Ibbett reminds us, does not suppose mutual affection between partners, and indeed, as her examples from the work of Lafayette show, conjugal love can do more harm than good. In several of the key novelistic scenes that she reads to good effect, the experience or functioning of compassion or pity spectacularly misfires because all of the persons involved are in “pitiful states.” It’s likely that many generations of readers have passed over such descriptions without weighing, as Ibbett does, their full significance. Who, after all, within the world of the novel, is able to feel compassion (or pity) when all of the characters are consumed by their individual miseries? One might suppose that the reader bears the burden of compassion in such cases, but Ibbett’s reading shows that the sentimentalizing of such scenes (of the sort that we find in 18th century fiction) is blocked. In Lafayette’s work, “fellow-feeling makes an appearance only to falter and collapse” (145), and it may be that readers experience more dramatic irony than compassion.

Many strands of the book come together in the last chapter, which concerns care for the sick in early French colonial Montreal. Compassion is sometimes presented as being a universal—one could perhaps say natural—characteristic of human beings (a position represented by some religious writers studied in chapter 3, “Caritas, Compassion, and Religious Difference”), but among the Native Americans, the French missionaries felt its absence and perceived the need to impart this virtue by providing examples to imitate. As was the case during the religious civil wars of the 16th century, the enemies of the colonial project—the Iroquois—were perceived as incapable of compassion in any positive sense, while the Huron allies of the French were able to acquire this emotional response to the extent that they were Christianized. Paradoxically, the Iroquois were seen as insightful and attentive to the feelings of their enemies. Perhaps compassion, in the sense of awareness of the emotions felt by another person (emotional literacy, so to speak), is universal after all. 

However, in the case of the Iroquois thus depicted, it seems that compassion and kindness can be quite separate, since the Iroquois enemy was said to have a “cruel compassion” through which they were able to gauge the effect of torture so as to inflict the longest and most painful suffering. The ideal colonial Other of the Iroquois were the hospital missionaries from France. Here, as is often the case, compassion is primarily assigned to women, though in the colonial hospitals this is not the “weak” form, often called “pity,” that was shunned in the more stoic or Cartesian circles (64), but rather a strong, embodied form in the daily labor of nursing under harsh conditions. However, in order to be effective, the nurses’ compassion had to be trained, refined, and detached from spontaneous feeling and thus rendered impersonal. So in Québec, the insightful Iroquois concentrated on the finest nuances of suffering in order to exacerbate it, while the charitable nurses had to depersonalize their perceptions in order to provide consistent care.

Katherine Ibbett’s rich and thought-provoking study is a major contribution to the history of emotion in a decisive period of cultural transition.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John D. Lyons is Commonwealth Professor of French at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
June 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Katherine Ibbett is professor of French at the University of Oxford and Caroline de Jager Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.