Affective Piety: Definition, History & Examples in Literature

Instructor: Lindsey Coley
This lesson includes a breakdown of what affective piety is, its history, its fathers, and a couple examples of how affective piety manifests in literature throughout history.

What Is Affective Piety?

To think about affective piety, you might guess it has something to do with religion or that it sounds a bit formidable, and you might wish you didn't have to figure all of this out on your lonesome. Guess what? You don't. Let's begin by breaking down and simplifying the phrase affective piety. Piety is simply the act of being religious or reverent. A pious person might be a person who prays, is faithful to their religion and beliefs, or studies religious texts with fervor and zeal. The affective part is, quite simply, how the person feels emotionally or physically (i.e. how they are affected!). When you put the word affective alongside the word piety you're describing a moment or state where a person is strongly moved by their piety or religion.

History of Affective Piety

Affective piety in connection with literature is where a person might truly find a religious experience through the literature they are reading. They may cry, feel grief, focus on their sinful being in a despairing or sorrowful way, or ask forgiveness because they are that emotionally attuned to and affected by the literature set forth before them.

Affective piety came about as a practice in The High Middle Ages, a European cultural period lasting from 1001 to about the year 1300. It was preceded by the Early Middle Ages and followed by the Late Middle Ages. It was a period identified by a population boom in Europe as well as artistic and spiritual exploration in a more emotional and introverted vein.

The Writers of Affective Piety

Three key players in building the literature of affective piety are: Anselm of Canterbury, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Francis of Assisi.

Anselm of Canterbury


Anselm was a Benedictine monk (Saint Benedict is a Roman Catholic saint who is all about peace, prayer, and work), abbot or head of his monastery, and philosopher. His focus was a following of Saint Augustine's idea that one should believe so that they may understand, not understand so that they may believe. Anselm wrote that 'to me, it seems to be negligence if, after confirmation in the faith, we do not study to understand that which we believe.' He tried to understand his faith by writing about Christ's sufferings in such an emotional way that he ardently felt Christ's sufferings, i.e., in the way of affective piety.

Bernard of Clairvaux


Bernard was a Cisterian monk. These monks believed in the return of the literal observance to the rules of Saint Benedict. They too focused on peace, prayer, and work. It is widely believed by theologians that Bernard built on Anselm's works and continued the tradition of writing as a manner to invoke prayer and empathy with Christ's sufferings.

Francis of Assisi


Francis of Assisi was a Roman Catholic friar and preacher. The language of his writings was so emotional he was often considered the first Italian poet. He believed commoners should be able to pray to God in their own language so that they could be more in connection with their spiritual emotions.

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