We all get angry, but in the Middle Ages anger , if channelled correctly, was considered a virtue.
Out of all the emotions, anger is the one most closely connected to our bodies. Of course love makes the heart flutter, and sorrow brings forth tears and wails; but there is something very different about the physicality of anger – you feel it deep in your muscles and veins, emanating from your eyes, lips, and hair. The corporeal expression of anger has long carried deep cultural values. This was especially true in the Middle Ages, when anger was understood and valued through the physiognomy of the human body.
During the Early Middle Ages, influential scholars such as Pope Gregory the Great distinguished between two general types of anger: self-destructive anger and righteous or zealous anger. Self-destructive anger was a vice. It was easily excitable, uncontrollable, and irrational. Gregory writes, ‘By anger wisdom is parted with… life is lost… wisdom is abandoned.’ In contrast, righteous anger as exercised by God, clerics, and kings was a virtue marshalled to combat sin and vice.
Gregory and subsequent medieval thinkers inherited many of their conceptions about anger from ancient Greek and Roman medical theories and philosophers, who prized reason and logic over emotion. The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca had written a long and influential work on the subject, appropriately entitled On Anger. Seneca thought anger was the most dangerous emotion in humankind – indeed, that it was a kind of madness. The Roman physician and philosopher Galen likewise thought that an angry man had lost all his natural faculties for reason.
All three authors agreed that anger was distinguished from other vices and emotions by its physical embodiment. Seneca notes, ‘Other vices may be concealed and cherished in secret; anger shows itself openly… and the greater it is, the more visibly it boils forth.’ Galen comments, ‘They [angry people] strike and kick and rip their clothes; they shout and glare… they become enraged at doors and stones and keys, smashing one thing, biting another, kicking a third.’ And Gregory writes, ‘For the heart that is inflamed with the stings of its own anger beats quick, the body trembles, the tongue stammers, the countenance takes fire, the eyes grow fierce…’
The medieval physiognomy of anger was partly based on observation and partly on the ancient theory of the four humours, as seen in this late medieval illumination (Figure 1). Divided into contraries of hot/cold and moist/dry, the humours’ various combinations were thought to result in four fluids called black bile, red or yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. Each person carried a dominant fluid, which affected both character and physical appearance. People with red hair or ruddy complexions were thought to be quick to anger because they had an abundance of yellow bile in their body. They were choleric. This caused them to be hot and dry and made their blood active and restless. One who was quick to anger simply overheated. A person’s angry demeanour was thus written on their body before they ever actually became agitated. And someone with red hair was literally fiery.
Medieval scholars also thought that certain gestures also revealed the state of one’s soul. The twelfth-century theologian Hugh of Saint Victor wrote a manual for young monks where he identified ‘turbulence’, or agitated gestures, as evidence of a person beset by the vice. He and other scholars saw such gestures as evidence of their core being rather than a temporary malady or emotional state.
Medieval artists incorporated and expressed these ideas in visual images. In his long and popular poem the Psychomachia (Battle for Man’s Soul), the fifth-century author Prudentius describes the personification of the vice Anger (Ira in Latin) as ‘showing her teeth with rage and foaming at the mouth’ who picks up a sword and stabs herself after being unable to defeat her opponent Patience. At the church of Saint Madeline in Vézelay, France, a twelfth-century sculpture influenced by the poem depicts the vice with wild, flaming hair, sharp teeth, a visible tongue, wide-open staring eyes, and a tail (Figure 2). Her body is severely contorted, twisting in on itself, as if unable to contain the bursting rage within. Her uncontrollable wrath has nowhere to turn and concaves inwards, and concludes with the ultimate act of self-destructive anger: suicide.
Another twelfth-century sculpted capital at the church of Saint Lazarus, Autun, France, depicts the monstrous, twisting, screaming, and self-destructive personification of anger (Figure 3). At the bottom right of the capital, she is hunched over and impaled on a sword. Above the vice stands the angelic looking virtue of Patience. On the left side of the capital is another monstrous vice crouched down and holding a money purse. She is the vice Avarice, who is trampled by the virtue Charity.
While the basic concepts behind anger did not change dramatically throughout the Middle Ages, the monstrous, distorted images of the twelfth-century gave way to more social and naturalistic images. A thirteenth-century relief on the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Paris, depicts anger as a fight between a woman and a monk (Figure 4). Traces of earlier imagery remains, such as the woman’s flame-like hair and the presence of the sword. But now she is a tall, quivering figure, dressed in a long elegant robe of a wealthy noblewoman. The sculpture speaks more of anger against another than oneself – about laity against clergy, women versus men, virtue against vice, individual emotion versus social harmony. As the sculpture flanks the main entrance to the cathedral, it was, and continues to be, an unmistakable warning to those entering: control yourself!
Medieval artists and thinkers gave concrete form to something that all of us have to contend with: the intangible feeling of being angry, and its almost indescribable sensations. By making it monstrous, fiery, grotesque and self-destructive, they got as close as anyone to capturing anger’s essence and its danger. And this is why these images still speak to us. People have not changed that much. We all get angry. ■
Top image courtesy of My name’s axel.
Ben Zweig is a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Art and Architecture at Boston University. He’s currently writing his doctoral thesis on representations of suicide in medieval art. He also dabbles in the relationship between the arts, the history of emotions, and neuroscience.