Katherine Ibbett, Compassion’s Edge: Fellow-Feeling and Its Limits in Early Modern France – U Penn Press, 2017

15747.jpgKatherine Ibbett, Compassion’s Edge: Fellow-Feeling and Its Limits in Early Modern France – U Penn Press, 2017. Late coming to this one, which won the 2018 Society for Renaissance Studies Book Prize.

“This is in every respect a brilliant and path-breaking book. Katherine Ibbett is ferociously smart, wonderfully humane, a gloriously playful and lucid writer, and a genuinely gifted close reader. Compassion’s Edge will provoke a great deal of discussion and debate, opening new avenues of reflection and research.”—Christopher Braider, University of Colorado at Boulder

Compassion’s Edge is an intellectually invigorating and original study. Its finely shaded and relentlessly probing investigation never ceases to interest. Katherine Ibbett is astonishing in her ability to synthesize, in a nuanced yet dynamic fashion, a broad spectrum of critical approaches and theoretical angles on the one hand and, on the other, to draw together an impressive range of historical documents and primary literary sources.”—Larry Norman, author of The Shock of the Ancient: Literature and History in Early Modern France

Compassion’s Edge examines the language of fellow-feeling—pity, compassion, and charitable care—that flourished in France in the period from the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which established some degree of religious toleration, to the official breakdown of that toleration with the Revocation of the Edict in 1685. This is not, however, a story about compassion overcoming difference but one of compassion reinforcing division: the seventeenth-century texts of fellow-feeling led not to communal concerns but to paralysis, misreading, and isolation. Early modern fellow-feeling drew distinctions, policed its borders, and far from reaching out to others, kept the other at arm’s length. It became a central feature in the debates about the place of religious minorities after the Wars of Religion, and according to Katherine Ibbett, continues to shape the way we think about difference today.

Compassion’s Edge ranges widely over genres, contexts, and geographies. Ibbett reads epic poetry, novels, moral treatises, dramatic theory, and theological disputes. She takes up major figures such as D’Aubigné, Montaigne, Lafayette, Corneille, and Racine, as well as less familiar Jesuit theologians, Huguenot ministers, and nuns from a Montreal hospital. Although firmly rooted in early modern studies, she reflects on the ways in which the language of compassion figures in contemporary conversations about national and religious communities. Investigating the affective undertow of religious toleration, Compassion’s Edge provides a robust corrective to today’s hope that fellow-feeling draws us inexorably and usefully together.

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