PENSIF [pensife, pensiffe, pencif, pencive, pensefe, pinsife & pensē, pensei, pensī(e), penci(e)] (adj.)
PENSIFNESSE [pensivenesse, pencifnes(se), pensīes, pencinesse] (n.)

The adjective “pensive” appears in the Anglo-Norman and Middle French, evolving from the Latin pēnser, “to consider, ponder,” and the Anglo-Norman penser, “to think” (c.1050). The noun “pensiveness” appears to be an English construction, according to the OED. The French and then the Middle English uses have the connotation of “melancholy,” particularly a sad depression. The MED entry reveals a sense of thoughtfulness, particularly an obsessive sadness. The intensity of this word appears to have lessened in its modern form, stripping it of its connection to depression and the more dangerous forms of melancholy.

Related terms
depressioun, deieccioun, langour, greuoushed


The first usage of “pensif” as listed in both the OED and MED is in Book 4 (l. 1906) of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis. In this text the word implies that Laodomie feels a despairing sadness in her interactions with her husband Proteselaus, particularly as she tries in vain to convince him not to leave her for the dangers of war. The word is used again in relationship to separation within the Pearl (l. 246), wherein it indicates the Jeweler’s emotions upon being separated from the Pearl. It is juxtaposed with the word forpayned, “overcome by pain or suffering, tortured,” indicating how serious a mental state is being described.

Pensiveness in medieval texts is often found in the romances in reference to the effects of love-sickness or to other effects of the relationships between men and women. For instance, in Marie de France’s Lais , the term appears several times, particularly in Guigemar and Eliduc, to describe a state of worry when lovers are separated or concerned for their beloveds. Such a usage implies a connection to the medical concerns associated with love-sickness. The word is often accompanied by corresponding outward physical signs, such as paleness. The same connotation appears in Chaucer’s translation of Romaunt of the Rose (l. 2446), indicating the sorrowful possibilities of love as well as its mental – and sometimes physical – side effects.

There are also Middle English uses wherein a king or ruler is subject to this type of melancholy. See, particularly, John Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes and the Merlin.

Further Reading

Ciavolella, M. “Mediaeval Medicine and Arcite’s Love Sickness.” Florilegium 1 (1979): 222-241.

Hill, John. “The Book of the Duchess, Melancholy, and That Eight-Year Sickness.” Chaucer Review 9.1 (1974): 35-50.

Kisha G. Tracy, Fitchburg State University