‘Pity’ and ‘piety’ both ultimately derive from the Latin pietas which, as used by Vergil, means the fulfillment of duties to family, country and gods. Aeneas is a man marked out for his pietas (pietate insignis). In Latin, pietas does occasionally suggest ‘affection’ and even ‘compassion’, especially with respect to family members and friends (vide pietas, Lewis & Short). Generally, commentators have not recognized this last occasional use,even though affection of a father for his child or the child for his father iscompletely natural within the context of familial obligation. Later, Christian writers extended the meaning of pietas to include God’s mercy. This too, however, has its parallel in classical civilization where a man’s pietas is expected to earn him a gracious response from the gods. Indeed, Aeneas complains loudly about the apparent lack of divine reciprocity for his pietas. Today, ‘piety’ is almost exclusively used within a religious context and even sometimes pejoratively connotes ‘holier-than-thou’ pretensions.
In OF there were two spellings for pietas: piete and pite, both with the sense of compassion included at first within the idea of fulfilling one’s religious duty and later simply as compassion itself. Later, ‘piete’ and ‘pite’ became differentiated, with the latter (pite/pity) becoming a secular expression.