Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

Renaissance Concepts of Shame and Pocaterra's 'Dialoghi Della Vergogna.' (1592 Book by Annibale Pocaterra)

Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

Renaissance Concepts of Shame and Pocaterra's 'Dialoghi Della Vergogna.' (1592 Book by Annibale Pocaterra)

Article excerpt

PERSONS OF AUTHORITY in early modern Europe--whether parents, preachers or princes--knew well that among the resources available to them for controlling behavion and maintaining hierarchies, there was always shame. Humankind, to its woe, had experienced shame in the Garden of Eden. Noah had been shamed by his nakedness, Sarah by her barrenness, Jacob by his effeminate body, Potiphar's wife through her brazen advances. Hesiod had introduced two sorts of shame: the right kind, derived from modesty; and the wrong kind, produced by poverty. These instances, and many others from ancient and medieval sources, lay at hand for easy use by Renaissance moralists, and who is not a moralist? Applying their own imaginative skills to techniques and rituals of humiliation, medieval and early modern people devised such innovations as the pitture infamanti, the dunce cap, the stocks, the charivari, the yellow badge. The "civilizing process" that transformed manners toward the end of the period introduced further refinements, and later ages have continued to elaborate and embellish the dubious attainments of the ancients in this area.

This article has two purposes. The first is to describe and begin to analyze a virtually unknown but extremely interesting and thoughtful treatise on shame, emanating from an Italian court toward the end of the Cinquecento. The second, which will be tackled first, is to construct an intellectual context for this late Renaissance discussion of shame by surveying a number of earlier instances in the literature that would have been familiar to any educated reader in the sixteenth century. A completely different group of exempla might serve just as well, but those offered here should convey a general sense of the scope and scale of shame and shaming in the consciousness of literate Europeans. Vast chapters of the history of the emotions remain unwritten. This essay is meant to be part of one of them.

Shame functions as one pole on several different axes. Probably the most familiar of these is the shame-guilt axis, which is examined frequently in both scholarly and popular contexts. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict contributed to the reification of these categories in her post-war work on Japan by positing a fundamental distinction between "guilt cultures" and "shame cultures."(1) Shortly thereafter E. R. Dodds applied this model to the Greeks and proposed that the shame culture of the archaic period evolved into a guilt culture by the fifth century B.C.(2) Neither of these scholars seems to have realized that when it comes to shame and guilt, on both the personal and societal levels, one can have it all. That perception, which seems obvious in a period more attuned to the polysemous than to the polis, was first introduced for the Greeks in 1971 by Hugh Lloyd-Jones, who observed that from the beginning Greek culture involved important elements of guilt, and even in the Hellenistic period it continued to preserve many elements of a shame culture.(3)

A second axis, carefully noted by early commentators on shame, both links and contrasts this powerful emotion with fear. A common explanation for this conjunction is that the absence of shame--what we call shamelessness--results in behavior indistinguishable from fearlessness. Robert Burton makes this point vividly: "I know there be many base, impudent, brazen-faced rogues, that will ... be moved with nothing, take no infamy or disgrace to heart, laugh at all; let them be proved perjur'd, stigmatized, convict rogues, theeves, traitors, loose their eares, be whipped, branded, carted, pointed at, hissed, & derided ..., they rejoice at it, what care they? We have too many such in our times."(4) These miscreants are contrasted with modest men, sensitive to their reputations, people who would rather die than "suffer the least defamation of honour, or blot in [their] good name."

Burton's use of the word honour prepares us for yet another polarity. …

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