Emotional Devotion: Tracking the Roots of ‘Affective Piety’

The ways in which people relate to God has changed over the centuries. Take, for example, the shift to “affective piety,” which saw lay believers develop a more emotional relationship with God.

Affective piety brought about a transition in both prayers and literature that portrayed Christ’s death in more emotional and human terms than before, describing him as suffering on the cross, wounded and bloody. That revision resulted in greater affective devotion.

The shift to affective piety is considered to have taken place in the 12th century, but Brooklyn College Professor Lauren Mancia has long maintained through her scholarship that its roots are in the 11th century. Her new book Emotional Monasticism: Affective Piety in the eleventh-century monastery of John of Fécamp provides a deeper investigation of that assertion. 

Mancia focuses her book on the monastic roots of affective piety, concentrating in large part on John of Fécamp, the second abbot of the newly reformed Norman monastery of Fécamp in France. Living between 990 and 1078, he produced an overwhelming number of documents (liturgical texts, manuscripts, letters, and more) intended to “transform the inner emotional lives of [his] brethren.” As a result, Mancia writes, he “provides us with an unparalleled case study of the earliest moments of affective devotion in the eleventh-century monastic context.”

Though much scholarship has been produced analyzing and annotating Fécamp’s work, Mancia’s book offers the first “holistic picture of the production, the reception, the use, and the immediate legacy of John of Fécamp.”

The picture is an important one. Emotional Monasticism shows “how traditional monks embraced emotional devotion” nearly a full generation before it became more prevalent among lay groups. By revising the narrative about affective piety and monastic practice, Mancia hopes not only to show the monk “as a feeling, prayerful creature,” but develop a new understanding of John of Fécamp “as one of the most important touchstones for eleventh-century monasticism and Christian devotion.”

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Lauren Mancia (Assistant Professor, History) | Profile 1

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Brooklyn College