Shame Culture or Guilt Culture: The Evidence of the French Fabliau
By Ellen W. Eaton
PhD dissertation, University of Toronto, 2000
Abstract: Many literary critics have posited that during the Middle Ages society evolved from a shame culture, a culture in which honour was highly prized, to a guilt culture, a culture in which the Christian moral code was the predominant deteminer of ethicai behaviour. An examination of shame and guilt in the French fabliaux suggests otherwise. Beginning with a careful definition of shame and guilt as developed by anthropologists and psychologists, this study examines the vocabulary used to express shame and guilt. On this basis several semantic networks are constructed which reveal that shame is described not only by terms indicating diminished status and baseness but also by expressions from other realms of experience, such as terms describing staining, soiling, or filth, and expressions indicating punishment. Guilt in contrast is descnbed only by terms which of necessity might indicate guilt given its definition: terms denoting misdeeds, transgressions, offences, recompense, forgiveness and punishment. Many terms indicative of guiit are in fact related to punishment and vengeance and are employed only in situations in which punishment is pending. An awareness of how one’s actions have harmed the other is all but absent fiom the vocabulary of guilt. Feelings of shame occur more hquentiy than feelings of guilt and are typically central to the plot. Feelings of guilt in contrast are generaily experienced only when characters expect to receive punishment Intention plays a very minor part in detemiining whether or not a character feels guilty – all that matters is that a wrongful act has been committed. As agents of social control, both shame and guilt are frequently used in the fabliaux as sanctions against sexual impropriety. Shame is also frequentiy employed as a sanction against characters who seek to rise above their station, characters who demonstrate stupidity, those who are deceived or act like a fool,and those who exhibit cowardly or disloyal behavior. The sanctions of guilt are employed in more narrowly conscribed circumstances. Shame is generally an effective deterrent in the fabliaux, while guilt usually is not. All of this suggests the greater importance of shame.