ANZAMEMS Reading Group: Session 1 ‘Compassion’ Summary

The first session of the ANZAMEMS PGR/ECR Reading Group took place on Zoom on Tuesday 28 February. The topic was ‘compassion’, and the readings were Diana Barnes’s introductory article on ‘Cultures of Compassion’ from the latest (39/2, 2022) issue of Parergon, and Katherine Ibbett’s chapter on ‘The Compassion Machine’ in her 2017 Compassion’s Edge: Fellow-Feeling and its Limits in Early Modern France. There were twelve attendees, and we enjoyed a great discussion on the two readings.

There was discussion over whether understanding and reason must precede feelings of compassion, or whether compassion was a pre-rational response to others’ pain. The readings brought in the idea that compassion was fellow-feeling for those suffering undeservedly, implying that a judgement must be made as to whether a sufferer was deserving or not. This linked to whether there was a boundary between the self and object of compassion. Selfishness was a common theme which kept appearing in our discussion. Wrath and despair were noted as opposites of compassion.

A major theme in the readings was the rational or self-managing versus the excessive or spontaneous. Barnes quoted Milton, showing unmediated compassion as divine rather than human, while humanity’s compassion was deemed rational. Our discussion teased beyond the Christian roots of the concept of compassion, noting the links to Stoicism in the Barnes reading, and Aristotelian links in Ibbett. Comparison was also drawn to the Buddhist notion of the selfishness of suffering which will benefit the self.

We then turned to the Reformation and differences in compassion in Catholicism and Protestant thought. There was particular discussion on how suffering can be seen as good or as bad. It could signal a lack of predestination, or a purging to bring the sufferer closer to God (such as in purgatory or the Crusades). This led to the question of whether others can feel joy for another’s suffering. Does joy arise from the sufferer or observer? Does a sufferer need an observer to gain compassion (a performance of suffering)? Good points were made about viewers of drama and readers of texts being communal audiences rather than sole observers. This idea of the ‘collective’ linked to notions of the ‘contagion’ of compassion, spreading from person to person.

Finally, there was consideration of the gendered aspect of compassion. Ibbett devoted a small section of her chapter to compassion as a female trait. We then linked this back to the idea of those ‘deserving’ of compassion (by being undeserving of their suffering), showing that female characters are often judged less favourably. This was attributed in part to their reactions or revenge for their suffering being deemed unacceptable for women.

Two interesting texts were suggested in the discussion:

Charles Zika’s chapter ‘Compassion in Punishment: The Visual Evidence in Sixteenth-Century Depictions of Calvary’, in Cultural Shifts and Ritual Transformations in Reformation Europe, ed. by Victoria Christman and Marjorie Elizabeth Plummer (Brill, 2020), doi:10.1163/9789004436022_013

Anne McCullough’s dissertation ‘Coerced witness: Suffering and resistance in medieval literature’ (Emory University, 2005),

The next session of the reading group will be on Tuesday 21 March, 2pm AEDT, on the subject of Household Accounts as Primary Sources.

Please contact the convenors with any queries: Emma Rayner (ANU),, and Emily Chambers (University of Nottingham),