Shame: The difficulties of moving backwards from modern to medieval



In a recent blog post for Impressions: Ceræ, Sarah Russell ably pointed out that it would strongly curtail historical research if all modern theories were dismissed as anachronistic in their origin. She also made the valuable point that the term “passions” was as much subject to change over the medieval period as the modern term “emotions” continues to evolve today. With this in mind I considered the idea of shame in the wake of a fascinating lecture by ARC Centre for the History of Emotions, Early Career Researcher, Dr. Mary Flannery.

The modern Oxford English Dictionary defines shame as ‘the painful emotion arising from the consciousness of something dishonouring, ridiculous, or indecorous in one’s own conduct or circumstances or those of others.’[1] The modern definition unselfconsciously uses the term “emotion” and links shame to an awareness of dishonourable behaviour. Shamefastness is dismissed as an archaic term rooted in medieval examples. Turning to the Middle English dictionary shame is here revealed as having more catholic meanings. It can be ‘the feeling of having offended against propriety or decency; the feeling of having done something disgraceful; embarrassment or revulsion caused by awareness of one’s own behavior; remorse, contrition’ but also ‘regard for propriety or decency; modesty; shyness, bashfulness.’ It can mean ‘the state of being in disgrace; ignominy, humiliation; the disgrace of physical harm or injury; the disgrace of sin or punishment in hell; destruction, ruin; also, physical damage’. It is also classified as an active condition where the person indulges in ‘disgraceful conduct, immoral behavior; with ill-will, with malicious intent’ and encompasses the act of losing one’s virginity.[2] While shamefastness on the other hand means modesty, soberness, seriousness; bashfulness, shyness; also, mental confusion, coupled with a feeling of having disgraced oneself. Shame and shamefastness are explained more extensively in medieval terms and are linked to a need for remorse or contrition to balance the shame. There is an overwhelming need for the subject to make amends. The medieval definition is also grounded in “feelings” and the idea of “passions”. The complex medieval version appears to respond well to a consideration of the nexus between the work of Louis C. Charland and Anna Wierzbicka.

In Middle English shame is linked closely to the idea of feelings and to an active, “doing” state. Anna Wierzbicka provides one research framework that allows closer examination of the concept of shame that has moderated its meaning over time. Wierzbicka states that the ‘concept of “feeling” is universal and can be safely used in the investigation of human experience and human nature… [while] the concept of “emotion” is culture-bound and cannot be similarly relied on.’ [3] She continues by saying that ‘when we want to talk about “humans”, we are always on firmer ground if we refer to what people think, what they feel, what happens in their bodies, and what they do and say to one another, than if we speak about their “emotions”.’[4] We should be relying on solid “experience-near” concepts ‘like FEEL, THINK, WANT, BODY, DO, and HAPPEN.’[5] I was struck with the idea that coupling Wierzbicka’s ideas with Louis Charland’s theory of an organizing passion which controls feelings could help me understand ideas of shame. The feelings that arise and can be described using Wierzbicka’s theory can, then, be seen almost consequential to shame as a controlling passion which motivates actions and responses.

Returning to Dr. Flannery’s lecture, a discussion of her forthcoming book proposal presently named “The Effects of Feeling: Shame and Emotionality in Middle English Literature, Dr. Flannery began by illustrating the various forms of shame evident in medieval literature, once again revealing the diversity associated with the concept at this time. In Piers Plowman, shame was a personal affliction but one which was also sensible and discernable to others. The agony of shame was evidenced in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  But what about that shamefastness, how does this fit into the Dr. Flannery’s research? The description of Virginia in Chaucer’s The Physician’s Tale exemplifies this intriguing idea, ‘Shamefast she was in maydensshamefastnesse’.[6] This example shows how one can become fast within one’s fear of shame and, for Dr. Flannery, this becomes altogether a more rewarding and interesting line of research. Shamefastness shows ways of feeling about feeling and shapes behavioural responses to shame. Shamefastness in a woman can be a defining factor which allows both shame and shamefastness to become more gendered towards the woman. Indeed in Chaucer’s work shamefastness can be a guiding principle in a woman whilst conversely in men, shamefastness can expose them to ridicule. Modest, humble and chaste behaviour is controlled by a fear of shame. Shame becomes protection against an attack and in actuality the guiding passion like in Louis Charland’s theory. For maidens there are only two options when shame is present –death or dishonor. While men have a few more option to win back honour. Dr. Flannery then pondered questions such as how does the prospect of shame make people feel and how does it affect their behaviour? How do people feel their shame was affected by gender? Avoiding shameful behaviour had an everlasting reward as it was taught that a wife would receive a 30-fold reward, a widow a 60-fold reward and a virgin a 100-fold reward when they entered Heaven. The reward system acknowledges the practical actions a person needed to undertake in a world where shame was a multifaceted controlling concept. The concept is more readily understood in a framework which acknowledges shame as a passion controlling feelings and actions. For me this allowed illuminating reflection on Dr. Flannery’s work in this area.

[1] The online Oxford English Dictionary available at

[2] The online Middle English Dictionary available at

[3] Anna Wierzbicka, Emotions Across Languages and Cultures: Diversity and Universals (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 13.

[4] Anna Wierzbicka, Emotions Across Languages and Cultures: Diversity and Universals (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 22-3.

[5] Anna Wierzbicka, Emotions Across Languages and Cultures: Diversity and Universals (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 23.

[6] The Physician’s Tale, VI. 55.