Accepted paper:

Occupying one's time: on the medieval counterparts of boredom


Sylvain Piron (EHESS)

Paper short abstract:

Enquiring into the medieval counterparts of boredom, the most obvious case that appears is the monastic sin of "acedia", conceived as a failure to engage actively into the performance of religious duties. The transfer of monastic values in the secular realm presents us with other interesting cases, especially among aristocratic women.

Paper long abstract:

It is always a good test to check whether contemporary categories have any echo in the distant past of Western culture. Although boredom is very much a modern notion, it immediately evokes a major notion of christian monasticism, the sin of "acedia". This complex term can be described as a lack enthusiasm for the performance of religious duties. While it is often translated into psychological terms as depression or melancholy, this behaviour does not necessarily require such a pathological qualification. It would be more neutral to conceive it as a failure to engage actively into performances required by an institution, which could be the very definition of boredom. This requirement was to fully occupy one's time in the praise of the Lord, night and day. During the central Middle Ages (XIIth-XIIIth Cent.), monastic values were transfered in the secular realm. It is well known that sloth then became a major social sin. According to the definition of the three orders of society, some groups were required to work, pray or fight (or hunt or practice instead). Yet some were left out of this scheme. Aristocratic women also had to find a means to occupy their time. In so doing, they practically invented the notion of entertainment (through performances and novels), in order to escape boredom. The necessity of maintaining a fully occupied time thus appears as an overarching medieval christian value that has enduring consequences in the modern age.

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