PPP gets a PhD

Short version: I’ve been awarded a PhD by Cambridge University for the following publications:


Pain, Pleasure and Perversity: Discourses of Suffering in Seventeenth-Century England (286 pp., Ashgate, 2013); view on Google Books.


‘James Mabbe’s Achievement in his Translation of Guzmán de Alfarache’. Translation and Literature, Vol. 8, No. 2 (1999), pp. 137-156.

‘Aloes by Any Other Name: Translations of Herbal Terminology in the “Spiritual Epistles” of Juan de Avila’. Translation and Literature, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2000), pp. 25-39.

‘Shakespeare and Catholicism’. Reformation & Renaissance Review: Journal of the Society for Reformation Studies, Vol. 7, No. 2/3 (2005), pp. 347-361.

‘An Annotated Catalogue of Protestant Editions in English of Works by and Relating to Saint Augustine of Hippo, 1529–1700’. Reformation & Renaissance Review: Journal of the Society for Reformation Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1 (2011), pp. 93-132.

‘Mabbe’s Maybes: A Stuart Hispanist in Context’. Translation and Literature, Vol. 21, No. 3 (2012), pp. 319-342.

‘Robert Persons’s Resolution (1582) and the Issue of Textual Piracy in Protestant editions of Catholic Devotional Literature’. Reformation & Renaissance review: Journal of the Society for Reformation Studies, Vol. 15, No. 2 (2013), pp. 175–196.

‘The Protestant Reception of Catholic Devotional Literature in England to 1700’. Recusant History, Vol. 32, No. 1 (2014), pp. 67-89.

It’s only taken forty years!

pppcoverPhDLong version: I first registered for a PhD at Cambridge in  1975. The topic was translations of Spanish devotional literature into English, 1500-1700, to be submitted to the Faculty of English, and my supervisor was Professor Edward Meryon Wilson, of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.

Picture by Antony Barrington Brown, 14 March 1958
Picture by Antony Barrington Brown, 14 March 1958

I was working on an interdisciplinary topic at a time when the Faculty of English basically ignored literature not written by Brits (yes, that would include American and Commonwealth literature, never mind anything not written in English!). Placing English literature in its broader European context was not a priority, and a few years earlier I had seen grown men cry when George Steiner gave his final lecture and left such infertile ground for Geneva.

Nevertheless, things went quite well at first, and several chapters were written to Professor Wilson’s satisfaction. Less than two years later, though, Professor Wilson died and things started to fall apart fast.

There I was, living in a little village six miles outside Cambridge, digging my vegetable garden and cycling to the University Library, where I would bury myself in the Rare Books Room, poring over ancient Spanish tomes and their early modern English translations. Every so often I would show what I’d written to Dr Richard Luckett, my new supervisor, and he seemed to think things were coming along OK. I didn’t manage to submit within three years, but was given an extension and (supporting myself mainly by teaching short contracts at language schools in and around Cambridge) submitted a completed manuscript a couple of years later and a date for a viva (oral examination) was set.

Within the first few minutes of the viva I knew I wasn’t going to pass. I no longer remember the names of the two examiners, but they were definitely “old school” – quite pleasant, but with misgivings (sincere, I think) about my analysis.

One of the big stumbling blocks, I remember, was my analysis of Spanish devotional literature as a repository for Judaic and Arabic elements which could have reached England in no other way. Miguel Asín Palacios had published quite widely on this in the 1920s and 30s, but under Franco such research was proscribed. My examiners felt it was unsuitable to use Asín Palacios and I just had to accept that. I was given the choice of accepting a lesser degree (an MLitt) or rewriting and submitting again. I chose the latter option.

A few years later, in 1985, the examiners were proved wrong about Judaic and Islamic influences on Spanish Catholic literature. Luce López-Baralt published Huellas del Islam en la literatura española, translated into English in 1992 as Islam in Spanish Literature. This contains several chapters demonstrating that many of the Spanish mystics were conversos or of converso descent, and incorporated signifcant elements of Judaic and Arabic thought into their work. Her conclusions are widely accepted and her scholarship brought Asín Palacios back into the mainstream, but it was too late to help me!

At this stage in my life (late 70s, early 80s) I was going through big upheavals, and at one stage was living in what could best be described as a kind of glorified garden shed in a village a few miles south of Cambridge. The external examiner (from Edinburgh University) had been particularly kind during the viva, and sent about a dozen pages of detailed comments on my paper. I disagreed with most of what he had written, but it didn’t really make any difference; I’d stored his report in a cardboard box in a corner of the “shed” and by the time I started working on rewriting the thesis his report had been torn to shreds by mice. What they hadn’t eaten had been recycled into nesting material!

By this time another row was simmering in the Faculty of English as the new school of structuralist criticism clashed with the old school. In 1981 “all hell broke loose”, as David Lodge put it in Nice Work, and Colin MacCabe was denied tenure. It was in the wake of this little episode that I finally submitted the revised manuscript. This time my examiners were definitely of the “new” school. I don’t recall the name of the external examiner, but the internal examiner was Lisa Jardine, at that time attached to Jesus College, and the viva was set to be held in her rooms there.

The day of the viva was a horrible rainy day, one I would prefer to forget. I fell off my bike, phoned to say I’d be late and arrived dripping wet half an hour late. I’d worn a suit, which was very unlike me, and regretted it as soon as I saw the trendy Superman pictures adorning Dr. Jardine’s room. I’d met her before, as it happened (in her house, in fact, at a couple of meetings to try and save the Kite, an area of Cambridge scheduled for redevelopment, and in which I lived for a few months in a squat), but she didn’t appear to remember me and I didn’t remind her.

So I got off to a bad start and things just went downhill from there. In the revised version, I’d defended myself pretty well against the objections of the first set of examiners, but this time I had to face a whole different set of objections. I guess I wasn’t “old” school and I wasn’t “new” school either. It must have been a bit like that for anyone who wasn’t a communist or a fascist in the Spanish Civil War; you got slammed by both sides!

Not that I blame anyone but myself when it comes down to it. I’d fallen into a rut. I hadn’t cultivated any relationships with other academics. I loved the old books and the words they contained. I even loved writing about them. But I scarcely cared what the examiners thought about what I’d written and didn’t really bother to counter their objections. In a way it came as a relief to know I was at the end of the road and there was nothing else for it but to accept an MLitt (which I’d been offered years earlier) and draw a line under the whole thing. I was told that I might, at some stage, reapply for consideration for a PhD on the basis of publications, but that seemed like a very remote possibility at the time.

I spent most of the next few years in Andalucía. I won’t go into all the details of my bohemian lifestyle – suffice to say that it was a breath of fresh air after all the headaches of trying to be an academic. However, it always seemed as if, however much I tried other avenues – music, translation, entrepreneurship – in the end it was always teaching that brought me a steady income.

So it was that the early 90s saw me back in Cambridge, working at a language school in Girton that happened to have strong ties with a university in Gifu, Japan. One thing led to another, and in April, 1993, I found myself working as a lecturer at Sophia University in Tokyo. At first I was in the General Foreign Languages section, teaching English to students whose major was Law, or Engineering, or something like that, but I also had a couple of literature classes and three years later was transferred to the English Literature Department, which is where I still am.

Obviously, I was under pressure to publish, so I got my postgraduate research out of the bottom drawer, where it had been languishing for a decade, and started picking out bits that might, with suitable polishing, be publishable. A piece demonstrating the Arabic associations of Juan de Avila, one of the Spanish mystics, was accepted by the journal Translation and Literature, and they also took a piece on James Mabbe, translator of the work of Mateo Alemán.

I got one piece of sound advice from a negative review of a rejected article. It didn’t make sense (the reviewer said) that I was focusing only on Spanish translations; the real issue, surely, was Catholic translations. The same reviewer alerted me to a lacuna in modern scholarship. As a Protestant himself, he didn’t think it was of any interest that “nominal Protestants” of the early modern period read translations of Catholic literature. Equally, I found that most Catholic scholars didn’t think it was any concern of theirs what Protestants were reading. Modern scholarship seemed to be divvying up the early modern period on much the same ideological lines as the early moderns themselves, and the Protestant readership of Catholic works had fallen through the cracks!

The last twenty years or so have seen a big reassessment of Catholics in the England of Elizabeth and the Stuarts, but there remains a gap in scholarly perceptions when it comes to the reception of Catholic literature by the Protestant mainstream. Try going to a conference on the Reformation or a related topic and telling people that the three most popular works of religious devotion among Catholics and Protestants alike during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were all basically Catholic works and see what people say. The answer I most often got was a bemused, “Which ones?” (The Christian Exercise or Book of Resolution by Robert Persons [or Parsons], Luis de Granada’s Prayer and Meditation, and à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, in case you were wondering!)

I branched out from Spanish devotional literature to Catholic literature as a whole and made it my aim to show that it wasn’t just “nominal” Protestants who took an interest in Catholic works. This came to be the basic subject matter of most of my papers over the last fifteen years or so.

However, when I got a sabbatical in 2011-12 I decided to work on a rather different topic. I’d come across some (to me) very surprising, not to say shocking, attitudes towards suffering in Catholic works in Spanish, Italian, French and Latin, and I’d noticed that when these works were translated into English they were almost always shorn of the  more shocking aspects. A good example would be Jerome’s description of a young Christian bound naked and aroused by a prostitute, which I discuss in detail here. Despite the fact that the difference between Catholic and Protestant sensibilities regarding suffering was a significant cultural determiner in early modern England I felt that this was another subject that had been somewhat neglected, and decided to write a monograph on it. I met Tom Gray from Ashgate at a conference, and he encouraged me to put in a proposal, which was accepted in August 2011. I pulled all the stops out and handed the manuscript to the publisher at the end of March the following year.

A little over a year ago I put two copies of the monograph and my peer-reviewed papers in a cardboard box and sent it off to Cambridge for consideration for a PhD under special provisions. A few months later, they got in touch to say that Dr. Edward Wilson-Lee of Sidney Sussex had been appointed as my internal examiner and Geoffrey Wall of the University of York as the external.  Dr. Wilson-Lee subsequently contacted me, and we agreed on an interview date of March 19, 2015, to coincide with my next planned visit to the UK.

The atmosphere of the interview could hardly have been more different from the previous two occasions. These people liked my work – they said so! We spent nearly two hours discussing various aspects of the articles and the monograph (especially the monograph), but it was clear from the beginning which way things were going.

It’s taken a further four months for the degree to be conferred (there are procedures  for these things, you know!). Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the degree ceremony in person, but finally, 40 years after I initially registered for a PhD at Cambridge, I have the piece of paper in my hand. It’s been a long haul!



Last Christmas, a friend who happens to be an antiquarian bookseller posted on Facebook an image of what he took to be the first recorded instance of the expression “merry Christmas” in print. The book in question was An Itinerary VVritten by Fynes Moryson Gent (1617).

blogmerrychristmasfbA basic search on the Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership database shows that there were several occurrences of this expression prior to 1617, the first being Nicolas Breton, A Floorish vpon Fancie (1577).

Screen Shot 2015-06-26 at 13.19.35

My friend protested that he was going by the Oxford English Dictionary, which does indeed give the 1617 work as the first occurrence of the expression with modern spelling:

Merry Christmas OED

But, clearly, OED has got it wrong!

I recently used this example to kick start a workshop on EEBO, and followed it with another example, this time one provided by Kenji Go, one of the attendees of the workshop. He did some work on the origin of the cosmic sense of space, published in Notes and Queries, showing that the earliest use of the word “space” to denote the place where the heavenly bodies are located  predates the first usage cited in the OED (which at that time was given as Milton, 1667) by some 85 years. In response, OED has updated its entry:

Screen Shot 2015-06-26 at 16.12.01

While reading through Professor Go’s work, and checking through the OED entry, I couldn’t help but notice the close link between “space” as “cosmos” (sense 8 in OED) and space as physical extent or area (sense 7), especially Shakespeare’s usage in Hamlet:

Screen Shot 2015-06-26 at 16.10.21

Once again, a check on EEBO TCP shows that OED has missed a number of earlier references to “infinite space”, the earliest being A Sermon of Saint Chrysostome (1542). The usage that particularly interested me was in Sermons of Master Iohn Caluin, vpon the Booke of Iob (1574), “behold the heauen is of infinite space in cōparison, & yet we see it is borne vp by the only power of God” (p. 494). It seemed to me that the concept of space as physical extent or area was morphing here into the concept of space as cosmos; “heaven”, as used here, is not  an abstraction, an idealized world unknowable while we are in this world, but  something we can “behold” and “see”, that is, the place where the sun and the moon and the stars are.

Calvin infinite space English

A search on the Swiss database of early modern texts shows that the translation follows Calvin’s French exactly: “Or voila le ciel qvi a vne espace infinie”.

Calvin infinite space French

The page on the Swiss database is located here. In the French, as in the English, heaven is described as being of an infinite space, rather than as being, in itself, an infinite space, but it does begin to look as if the English concept of space as cosmos either owes something to French usage or developed in tandem with it.

Either way, the basic point is that this whole subject of the earliest usage of particular words and phrases is not something I have made a particular study of. My research interests are quite different, and these examples – “merry Christmas”, the cosmic sense of space and the expression “infinite space” – are just random examples that happen to have crossed my radar by chance. Doubtless, there are many more examples out there, and substantial revision of the OED is going to be needed in the light of the EEBO TCP database.


OK, so the friend who put up the merry Christmas Facebook post now tells me he’s pushed “merry Christmas” back to 1534, in a letter from John Fisher to Thomas Cromwell.

fishermerry christmas

I guess we’ll have to wait until early modern manuscript material goes text-searchable to get the real dope!

Call to action!

Related posts:

Damned if we do! Using the EEBO TCP database

Using the Early English Books Online and Text Creation Partnership Databases

Digital humanities and resources; a selection of useful links


dragoneatingIrrefutable documentary evidence that humans and dinosaurs did indeed coexist!


Early modern discourse communities: Catholics and Protestants

A discourse community can be defined as having six clear characteristics :

1. “A discourse community has a broadly agreed set of common public goals.”

2. “A discourse community has mechanisms of intercommunication among its members.”

3. “A discourse community uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback.”

4. “A discourse community utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims.”

5. “In addition to owning genres, a discourse community has acquired a specific lexis.”

6. “A discourse community has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise”

(John Swales,  “The Concept of Discourse Community,” in Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs, eds., Writing About Writing: A College Reader, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011)

Catholics and Protestants meet the above criteria in the following ways: Both groups seek to promote their brand of Christianity (#1). They congregate in churches and publish books and pamphlets both for the benefit of the members of their community and to inform and attract others (#2). Members are kept in touch with the teachings of the community through church attendance and reading the relevant literature (#3). The core values are transmitted via ritual, sermons, communal prayer, works of devotion, etc. (#4). Practices and beliefs are identified through precise terms, some of which are adapted from language in more general use, some of which are common to both groups, and some of which are specific to one or other group (#5). Both communities have trained individuals (priests, vicars, theologians, etc.) who have specialist understanding of the issues and are vested with a certain authority to resolve disputes about the core values of the community (#6).

That’s it. That’s all we’re concerned with here. I understand that this may seem pretty reductive (where is God here, or the soul, or the purpose of life?), and I’m aware that the expression “brand of Christianity” may seem cynical or mocking. It is not intended to be. I’m not attempting to deny the spiritual or confessional values that Catholics and Protestants espouse. It’s simply that they are outside the parameters of this discussion.  For present purposes, these six features are the ones I am interested in.

The early modern Catholic and Protestant discourse communities have two other basic features in common; they share the same origins and they are mutually hostile.

One of the striking features of Protestant adaptations of Catholic literature in early modern England is just how much did not need to be changed in order for a Catholic work to be acceptable for a Protestant readership. Whole chapters – and sometimes entire works – were often publishable with only very minor changes.

One of the most extreme examples is The Profit of Believing (London: Roger Daniel, 1651), a translation of Augustine of Hippo, De utilitate credendi ad Honoratum. Clancy (English Catholic Books, 1641–1700: A Bibliography, Ashgate, 1996) classifies this as a Catholic work, and indeed it probably was, but it was published with a preface which cites Calvin, William Fulke (1538–1589) and other Protestant writers as valid authorities (sig. A2r-v).

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 00.58.09This 1651 edition of The Profit of Believing is an apparently Catholic text with a clearly Protestant preface.

The title page is – perhaps deliberately – ambiguous and, in addition to being published on its own, it was published bound together with four other works as Five Treatises, of which at least three (including this one) have clear Catholic overtones (one of the others supports the doctrine of Mary as the “Mother of God” and the other had been published secretly as a Catholic work in 1623).

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 00.55.58Despite references to Catholicism in the text, the preface cites Protestant sources with approval.

The Protestant references in the preface to this work would appear to be a veneer, disguising the Catholic nature of the text, but the printer, Roger Daniel, could also have protested that the word “Catholic” in the text was intended to designate, not the Roman, but “‘the Antient Catholick Apostolick Faith, held forth in the Church of England” (John Goodman, A Serious and Compassionate Inquiry into the Causes of the Present Neglect and Contempt of the Protestant Religion and Church of England [London: Robert White for Richard Royston, 1674], p. 6), that is, the faith of the early Christians, before the Church had been corrupted (as the Protestants saw it) by Romish doctrines. (See “An Annotated Catalogue of Protestant Editions in English of Works by and Relating to Saint Augustine of Hippo, 1529-1700” for further details of this work.)

Another work which is illuminating in this context is Edmund Bunny’s adaptation of the Jesuit Robert Persons’s The First Booke of the Christian Exercise Appertayning to Resolution (1582). Despite the accusations of piracy and worse levelled against Bunny, he made only the minimum changes necessary for the work to be openly publishable under English law, and “did not take hundreds of other opportunities to add phrases … that would have given the work a more obviously Protestant tone” (Brad Gregory, “The ‘True and Zealouse Service of God’: Robert Parsons, Edmund Bunny, and The First Booke of the Christian Exercise“, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 45, no. 2, 1994, pp. 238–68; p. 243). (See “Robert Persons’s Resolution (1582) and the issue of textual piracy in Protestant editions of Catholic devotional literature” for a discussion of the ins and outs of textual “piracy”.)

This of course begs the question of what a “Protestant tone” would have meant at that time. Obviously words relating to points of doctrine would define a text as Protestant or Catholic, but it goes further than that, particularly – and this is a subject I will deal with more fully in a later post – when it comes to the language of suffering:

As Toby Matthew notes, what we might call the common-sense values of the Old Testament – “Riches, Plenty, Posterity, and the like” – were “degraded” by the life and example of Christ and replaced by “their contraryes, [such] as Paine, Poverty, Persecution, Chastity, and Humility” (in Vicenzo Puccini, Life of the Holy and Venerable Mother Suor Maria Maddalena de Patsi, Saint Omer, 1619, preface, sig. ***3v). These, for Matthew, are the true Christian virtues, and from his perspective the Protestant world-view signals a rejection of the message of Christ and a return to Old Testament values.  Matthew merely picks out a few representative terms here; many others – ‘suffering’, ‘humiliation’, ‘mortification’, ‘contempt’, ‘flagellation’ and so forth – could be added. Taken in their totality, these words represent the monastic values of a millennium of Christian tradition on which Protestants effectively turned their backs, claiming it to be a perversion of the teachings of Christ. This rejection of monastic values leads, in turn, to a stigmatization of the language associated with these values. (Pain, Pleasure and Perversity, p. 74, adapted.)

When Simon Patrick came across Augustine Baker’s retelling of a tale from Walter Hilton’s Scala Perfectionis (in Serenus Cressy’s Sancta Sophia; or Directions for the Prayer of Contemplation &c. vol. 1, pp. 45-55, Douai: John Patté and Thomas Fievet, 1657), he was able to adapt it to his own purposes with very little deviation from the sense of the Catholic original.  The story is of a pilgrim on the way to Jerusalem faced with various different paths all purporting to be the one true path. Baker specifies just what that true path is with the words, “Before thou set the first step into the high way that leades thither, thou must be firmly grounded in the true Catholicke faith”.

Augustine Baker’s The Parable of a Pilgrim, a retelling of a tale from Walter Hilton, was published for a Catholic readership in 1657.

Patrick acknowledges the Catholic source of his text in the preface to  The Parable of the Pilgrim (London: Robert White for Francis Tyson, 1665), but he  does not refer explicitly either to Catholicism or Protestantism either here or in the body of the text. In a sense, then, his text bears comparison with that of Roger Daniel’s edition of The Profit of Believing; there are very few discursive features which identify the text as either Catholic or Protestant and the reader is left to infer which is the true f


Although Patrick’s text (which is over 500 pages long, compared with the ten pages or so of Baker’s text) does not contain any explicit references to Catholicism, it nevertheless reproduces much of the lexis of Baker’s text. The key phrase, “I am nought and I have nought and I desire nought but Jesus and Jerusalem”, repeated several times in Patrick’s text in slightly different forms, is based on Baker, who also repeats it with slight variations. Most of the concepts that Baker touches on – faith, sin, conscience, humility, charity, suffering and so on – are taken up and developed by Patrick. This is not to say that there aren’t significant differences (I’ll come back to some of these in a later post), but there is a considerable amount of overlap.


 Simon Patrick’s The Parable of the Pilgrim (1665) is a Protestant adaptation of Baker’s work.

Part of the reason Patrick is able to draw so closely on Baker’s work is that Catholic and Protestant discourse developed at this time partly in tandem, that is to say, Catholics frequently wrote taking Protestant views into account and vice versa. For example, Baker shows a clear awareness of the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith rather than by works when he writes “though thou hast done to thy seeming neuer so many good deeds both outvvard & invvard, yet in truth thou hast nothing at all, for nothing vvill abide in thy soule & fill it, but the loue of Iesus” (p. 488). Of course, this has its roots in John 15.5 and in Augustine, and is equally a part of Catholic as of Protestant doctrine, but Baker’s emphasis on it appears to be by way of making the point that Protestants do not have the monopoly on justification by faith.

I’ll finish this post by turning again to Edmund Bunny. Bunny’s adaptation of Persons’s work is so frequently dismissed as a “piracy” that the accompanying Treatise Tending towards Pacification has generally been overlooked. For anyone interested in Protestants and Catholics as discourse communities it is well worth studying in some detail, as it is (I think) the first attempt at a detailed analysis of Catholic and Protestant discourse. Bunny approaches the question from the point of view of translations of the Bible, the central issue for him being whether or not “how much soeuer we praetend to haue the word of God to direct us in al our doings, yet, by the means of wrong translations, we haue nothing at al indeed” (p. 63). He aims to clarify “what they [Catholics] or we [Protestants] haue gained or lost by our translations, in the pith or substance of translation”, and makes a distinction between “some faults that concern the words alone [i.e., semantic issues]: and some that concern the matter too [i.e., substantive issues]” (p. 66). He argues that as long as Catholics were refusing to translate the Bible at all there was a substantial issue at stake, but now that Catholics were themselves translating the Bible into English (the Douay translation of the New Testament had come out just a few years earlier, in 1582) “there is little else against us but quarrel of words” (p. 72).

The Civilizing Process and the Decline of Violence

THE DEBATE over whether humanity is becoming less violent has its beginnings in Ted Robert Gurr’s 1982 article “Historical trends in violent crime : a critical review of the evidence” (in Tonry and Morris, eds, Crime and Justice : an Annual Review of Research).  Several other studies, mainly based on homicide data from Scandinavia and Holland, appeared to corroborate Gurr’s findings, and pretty soon this pattern of an apparent decline in violence was linked to Norbert Elias’s thesis of a “civilizing process”, first propounded in Über den Prozeß der Zivilisation (1939), but virtually unknown until it was republished in 1969 and translated into English.

Manuel Eisner’s “Long-Term Trends in Violent Crime” (2003) sums up the general findings of the previous couple of decades with the words, “Serious interpersonal violence decreased remarkably in Europe between the mid-sixteenth and the early twentieth centuries” (p. 83), elaborating that, while there may be disagreement about the details and, more fundamentally,  the causes of the decline, the fact of the decline itself is hardly in doubt:

… if nothing else, most historians of crime would probably agree that the long-term trajectory in homicide rates is an indicator of a wider dynamic that encompasses some sort of pacification of interaction in public space. (P. 125)

So far, discussion of the issue is based on various kinds of court records of homicide rates. Steven Pinker, in the following TED presentation (2007) takes the whole issue one step further, arguing that there has been a decline of violence not merely in the civilian context but including the field of warfare:

Specifically, he says that if the hunter-gatherer norms of 10,000+ years ago had been prevalent during the 20th century humanity would seen something like two billion deaths through warfare, rather than the 100 million that actually occurred (3:48-4:06).

This statistic is based on an observation of deaths in warfare in hunter-gather tribes today, which he gives as ranging from nearly 60% among the Jivaro to around 15% among the Gebusi (3:20 ff). One can argue about whether that is the best way to measure the data, but he does give rather more varied data in The Better Angels of our Nature (2011), summed up in the following graph:

violence graph

He modifies his position slightly in the book, saying that tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century (“Rates of Violence in State and Non-State Societies”).

One can see where Pinker is going just from the above table; by his reckoning states, even in ancient times, were much safer, less violent places to live than non-state or tribal societies. The rather anecdotal evidence given in the video of violence in biblical times, classical antiquity and the medieval period is also more fully presented in the book than in the video presentation, though he does not fully erase the objection that, just because there were horrific war crimes and cruelty was tolerated in public spaces as a salutary measure and as entertainment, that does not in itself prove that there was quantifiably more violence.

I won’t go into the second half of Pinker’s presentation, where he develops various theories about why violence is declining, because I’d like to slow down a little and think a bit more deeply about the basis for the assumption that violence is declining. How sure can we be that Gurr and Eisner and Pinker – and a string of other researchers in the area – have got it right?

In spite of the virtual consensus that Eisner claims (cited above) the decline of violence may not be quite such a given as it appears to be. Richard Mc Mahon, Joachim Eibach and Randolph Roth, in “Making sense of violence? Reflections on the history of interpersonal violence in Europe” (Crime, Histoire & Sociétés, 17:2, 2013, pp. 5-26), sound a note of caution, pointing out that Pinker may be getting too far ahead of himself in attributing the decline to “individualism, cosmopolitanism, reason, and science” while others are still “preferring … to emphasize changes in medical expertise and practice, in the age structure of the population and also the difficulties inherent in the use of the available sources” (p. 6).

Objections at this level preempt asking what has caused the decline in violence; in effect, they undermine – or at least cast into doubt – the proposition that there has been any decline at all. Here, in detail, are some of the objections:

Historians of homicide are also not always comparing like with like when they compare homicide rates from the middle ages with those of later periods. In an English context … the homicide rates from the early modern period are often derived from the number of indictments for homicide while those for the middle ages are generated from coroners’ rolls … This would suggest that any simple narrative of decline is problematic. The available evidence rather indicates that rates fluctuated considerably between the late middle ages and the early modern period with … no obvious or consistent pattern of decline. There is also a difficulty for those who support the civilising process thesis in drawing on evidence from the fourteenth century without offering due attention to rates from the thirteenth century which indicate that rates at that time were actually lower than a century later. The use of the fourteenth century as a point of comparison can then serve to distort the difference between the middle ages and the early modern period.

… the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century was a time of particularly high rates in many regions. This again distorts the difference between the eighteenth and earlier centuries … [and] suggests any broad narrative of decline driven by a wider civilising process is at least open to question.

… Recent estimates suggest that circa 50 per cent of victims in the late nineteenth century would have survived if they had access to the benefits of modern medical care and emergency services … Might, for instance, individuals in societies that experienced major episodes of famine such as Ireland, Belgium and Finland be more likely to die following violent attacks than those in countries spared the ravages of widespread food shortages ? Remarkably there has, as yet, been no attempt to establish a correlation between homicide rates and broader trends in mortality and health over time and space.

The impact of medical care and nutrition on homicide rates also has implications for the civilising process thesis. High homicide rates … are usually due to the prevalence of male-on-male fighting [which] must, however, be far less likely to lead to homicide in the present day due to medical intervention and improved nutrition … there is a lack of intent to kill in the first instance ; … the protagonists are less likely to have pre-planned the attack and are, therefore, less likely to bring weapons to the scene ; and … they are more likely than, for instance, cases of domestic violence to involve protagonists of similar strength. It is likely, therefore, that improvements in medical care would have a particular impact on the extent of homicides arising from male-on-male fighting relative to other forms of homicide.

If we allow for improvements in medical care, the impact of emergency services and improved nutrition, and take account as well of the need to revise the population estimates … we could reasonably argue that medieval homicide rates need to be reduced significantly before they are compared to rates in the present day. If we were to simply allow for improvements in medical care and emergency services, present-day rates could be very similar to rates in the eighteenth century … In some cases the rates for the eighteenth century would be lower than those for the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Rates for the fourteenth century would still be higher than the European average … today but even here we need to be careful. First, rates calculated for the thirteenth century would be much closer to those in the present – again raising questions about any fundamental decline in experiences of interpersonal violence. Second, and perhaps most crucially, questions can also be asked about the use of homicide rates as an indicator of the extent of non-lethal interpersonal violence. Central to the civilising process thesis is the claim that homicide rates can be seen as indicators of the wider prevalence of violence in a society … This … although ostensibly reasonable, is based more on assumptions rather than on evidence of the relationship between lethal and non-lethal violence. (Mc Mahon, Eibach and Roth, pre-publication proof.)

Mc Mahon, Eibach and Roth conclude that “We need to at least entertain the idea that it is possible for there to be a difference
in homicide rates between different societies and/or periods without this necessarily reflecting a fundamental difference in the extent of non-lethal violence”. They are not saying that it is back to the drawing board on this, but they do seem to be suggesting that people like Max Christoph Roser, who are taking Pinker’s analysis as gospel and making it their starting point for further suppositions along the lines of Elias’s “civilizing process”, may perhaps be jumping the gun.

Acknowledgement: A proof of Mc Mahon, Eibach and Roth's paper was sent to my by John Cronin (European University Institute, Florence alumnus), with the blessings of one of the co-authors (I think Richard McMahon). My thanks to both, and let me take this opportunity of giving a plug to their forthcoming book, to which I understand is scheduled for publication in 2016.

Two new books on the history of pain

Continuing my attempt to keep up with research in the field, here are two recent publications in the field of medical humanities.

Rob Boddice (ed.), Pain and Emotion in Modern History  (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). Chapters by Rob Boddice, Javier Mocoso, Paolo Santangelo, David Biro, Joanna Bourke, Wilfried Witte, Nouémi Tousignant, Sheeny Cully, Liz Gray and Danny Rees (detailed list of contents here).

Both books are also reviewed by Ian Miller.

Medieval Manuscripts: the Crude and the Macabre

I am working on a couple of substantial pieces, which I’ll post in due course. Here are a couple of tidbits in the meantime…

Follow Euan McCartney’s bizarre posts  here.


Damned if we do! Using the EEBO TCP Database

Can we use the EEBO TCP database?

This looks like a no-brainer – what would be the use of the Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership if we can’t use it? – but it’s actually something of a minefield. How often, I wonder, has work citing the database been met with a response like the following?

I somewhat distrust the author’s generalizations because several of them appear to come from typing keywords into the Early English Books Online searchable database.

The starting point of any online database research  will  inevitably be typing keywords. If that is wrong in itself then all the money that has been spent on creating databases has clearly been misspent! And any research which does no more than type in keywords and simply report on results is hardly worthy of the name research.

Let’s start by taking a look at an example of a keyword search and the follow-up work it entails:

[This is the third in a series of three videos I posted a few weeks ago on the use of the EEBO and TCP databases. The complete series of videos is here.]

It should be clear from this that searches of this kind are pretty gruelling. Typing in keywords is the starting point, but after that a wide range of variables needs to be taken into account, from variant spellings to differences in the number of books published within a particular genre during a particular period. And, crucially, the process involves checking the results of the searches to ensure that the occurrences really are valid examples of the particular usage one is interested in.

For me, that’s just the starting point, the spadework before getting down to the job of analyzing usage in particular contexts, relating that to source texts (a lot of my work is with translations, so I want to know what the original text said), checking the background and views of authors, placing the usage in the context of other related texts and so on.

I’m a texty kind of guy, so I’m less interested in the statistical stuff than in seeing the results in context, but the raw figures can sometimes be of interest. EEBO TCP is still incomplete, but it nevertheless offers a much bigger – and more representative – sample than, say, a MORI poll, and it is unlikely that the general pattern of discourse usage picked out in the video above will alter very much once the gaps remaining in the database have been filled.

Last summer (2013) I attended a conference on early modern digital humanities. I could have done with that kind of input before embarking on Pain, Pleasure and Perversity; I might have escaped some of the more obvious pitfalls. I only cite the database eight times in 235 pages, and I don’t think the few claims I made based on it are wrong to any substantial degree, but even so I can see, in hindsight, ways I could have tightened up my approach/presentation.

What really interests me, though, is the discovery that, in acknowledging my use of the database, I appear very much to have stuck my neck out.  A search for “EEBO TCP” on Google Books currently purports to turn up some 450 results, though in fact it dries up after page 7, giving fewer than 70 results (does anyone know why this happens on Google?). Astonishingly (to me), my book appears on the first page (at the bottom)! Most of the other books on that first page are specifically on the use of online databases in early modern studies. Can I really be so unusual as a researcher working in the field and giving credit to the database?

Apparently, yes. I searched again, specifying publications since 2010, and there is only one page of results!

So what is actually happening here? Are scholars just not using the database? I don’t think so. The impression I get from talking to people at conferences, etc., is that early modernists are logging in at about the same rate as other people have hot breakfasts. Is this such a recent development that it is not yet fully reflected in print? Probably, to some extent. About three years ago, after I had been working solidly on the database for about three weeks in the Rare Books Room at Cambridge University Library, one of the librarians came up and asked me what I was working on. I showed him the database and he was astounded; Cambridge was affiliated to it, but none of the library staff even knew it existed! A couple of months later they held a seminar on it, but prior to that it seems not to have been on anyone’s radar; I certainly didn’t see anyone else using it.

American scholars appear to have been quicker off the mark. I would frequently notice a marked slowdown in download times in the middle of the afternoon, which would be about the time people in the US would be logging on.

I could be wrong about this, but what it looks like to me is that lots of people are using the database, but not many are acknowledging it. Top marks on that score to Bruce R. Smith (in Christie Carson and Peter Kirwan, eds, Shakespeare and the Digital World: Redefining Scholarship and Practice, CUP, 2014), who writes:

I didn’t even have to rely on my recollections of just where the passages I wanted were located. I could simply enter a keyword as a search term, and there the desired text would be on my computer screen, ready for cutting and pasting directly into my draft …  What effectively connected me to the texts I wanted was not just my possession of a computer but my university’s subscriptions to EEBO and EEBO-TCP. (Pp. 24-5)

Even then, though, Smith’s main point is how he was brought back to the reality of the printed book when one of the texts he wanted to access wasn’t on the database.

Many others, I suspect, are being less than candid about their use of the database. I could have done the same. How smart I would have looked, with all that intimate knowledge of such a wide range of texts!

I’m glad I was up-front about it, though. I would be the first to agree that there is nothing quite like the printed book, and uses of the database that took me away from reading and analyzing text just wouldn’t interest me but, like Smith, the database ‘connected me to the texts I wanted’ (or to many of them), and enabled me to find out things about the early modern printed corpus that simply would not have been discoverable by any other means.

Related posts:


Using the Early English Books Online and Text Creation Partnership Databases

Responding to criticism

To what extent should one respond to criticism of one’s work? Should one respond to it at all? Perhaps one should take a lofty attitude and simply let the critics make of one’s work what they will. Or perhaps one owes it to oneself and to scholarship to clarify things and explain oneself.

I accept, on the whole, the received wisdom on the intentional fallacy, one of the corollaries of which is that authors have only a limited right to assert what their work is about; in a very real sense it is about what readers think it is about. At the same time, there are wrong readings of texts; readers cannot say a text is about x, y or z unless the text in some way supports such a reading. I think that, in this particular case, there may be some benefit in examining specific criticisms of my work and exploring the basis of those criticisms.

So far, there have been three reviews of Pain, Pleasure and Perversity. The first, by Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen, does not leave me with very much to comment on. He has clearly read the book thoroughly, enjoyed it and found the central thesis persuasive. Naturally, I am delighted. Van Dijkhuizen is the author of Pain and Compassion in Early Modern English Literature and Culture (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2012), and is perhaps the one person whose opinion on matters relating to early modern suffering I value above all others. The second, by Leah Marcus, raises a significant issue about what – if anything – we can legitimately expect textual analysis to tell us about the actual world outside the text. And the third, by Thomas Palmer, raises equally significant questions about the intentional fallacy; what can we legitimately infer about the author of a text, and to what extent does it matter?

Responding to reviews could, I realize, be seen as an expression of wounded dignity. I hope that readers will find something else in what I have to say here, something more generally pertinent to texts, the ways in which we engage with them and what we can expect to learn from them.

i) Text and Discourse vis-à-vis Real Life

Marcus begins her review with the words

Yamamoto-Wilson is particularly interested in masochistic elements of religiously induced psychic pain and self-inflicted mortification of the body, which he sees as increasing in seventeenth-century England until a paradigm shift around 1650 caused the language of bodily suffering to migrate to religious Nonconformists, while on the Continent it remained central to Catholic devotion.

I am uncomfortable with pretty much all of this. The statement that I am ‘particularly interested in masochistic elements of religiously induced … pain and … mortification’ contains the entailment that I think ‘religiously induced … pain and … mortification’ have ‘masochistic elements’. This entailment embodies two questionable assumptions, the first being that I think there is a masochistic component to religious suffering and the second being that I think my analysis of religious texts can reveal something about suffering in the world outside the text, in the lives and minds of actual people. I will deal with the second entailment in this section and come back to the first in the following section.

Marcus goes on to say that I see ‘psychic pain and self-inflicted mortification of the body’ as ‘increasing in seventeenth-century England’, but that is not at all what I argue in the book. On the contrary, I am pretty sure that self-inflicted mortification was not on the increase, at least in England, at that time. After all, one of the defining differences between Catholics and Protestants is the general eschewal of penances and mortifications by the latter. As for psychic pain, I really have no idea how much of it there was around, at that time or any other. All I know is that a number of texts, from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy to Bunyan’s Grace Abounding, described such pain. The most I can say, on the basis of the textual evidence I examined, is that the urge to suffer did not end with the curtailing of Catholic-style penances, leading to the ‘psychic pain’ that Marcus mentions, and perhaps leading Nonconformists, consciously or unconsciously, to seek out persecution.

Nor do I argue, as Marcus asserts, that ‘a paradigm shift around 1650 caused the language of bodily suffering to migrate to religious Nonconformists, while on the Continent it remained central to Catholic devotion.’ What I actually claim is not that the Nonconformists appropriated ‘the language of bodily suffering’ in general, but that they discoursed more on the specific theme of rejoicing to suffer. I don’t have much to say at all about what was transpiring on the Continent, which is outside my remit.

In any case, all this is only a side issue. It’s not my central thesis, which is that the eroticization of suffering develops to a considerable extent from Protestant reactions to Catholic representations of suffering. Marcus doesn’t mention this at any point in her review.

But my gripe is not just that Marcus gives a garbled version of one of my secondary points, rather than explaining the central thesis of my work. There’s something more fundamentally wrong with the way she is approaching my work. She represents me as quantifying actual levels of psychic pain and self-inflicted mortification, and then goes on to deny that any such inferences can result from textual analysis, saying that ‘print culture does not necessarily represent culture at large’. She’s certainly got that last part right; print culture does not have any necessary bearing on what is going on in the culture at large. But she’s quite wrong in assuming that I have anything very much to say about what is going on in the culture at large.

The subject matter of my book is not suffering but discourses of suffering. Discourse is discourse. Analysis of discourse is analysis of discourse. It may bear some relationship to the world outside the text. It may not. I make no claims that it does, at least when it comes to the extent to which objective suffering was going on in seventeenth-century English society. That is not my concern, by which I don’t mean that I’m not interested in it or don’t care about it, simply that it lies outside the scope of discourse/textual analysis. Of course, I sometimes find it appropriate to place texts in their cultural context, but anyone approaching the book expecting it to quantify levels of actual suffering during the seventeenth century is looking for something that just isn’t there.

ii) My Views vis-à-vis the Views Expressed in the Texts I Examine

Palmer gives a much better overview than Marcus of the aims of my book:

The author aims to demonstrate that, … in seventeenth-century England, a discursive space opened up in which sadism and masochism could be more fully articulated as ‘sexual identities’ (p. 6 f.). The Protestant reaction away from the perceived excesses of the Catholic penitential ethic … helped to establish two preconditions for the emergence of a ‘pornography of pain’. As the dimensions of legitimate and praiseworthy suffering were contracted, the sphere of the taboo and the titillating was enlarged; while the polemical association of penitential corporal chastisements with those from which the perceived sexual deviant derives gratification rendered explicit the connection between physical suffering and sexual pleasure. So sadism and masochism could emerge avant la lettre. But, argues the author, this was the result of a complex interaction between the two ‘discourse communities’ entrenched in Europe by the Reformation, Protestant writing in English being coloured by the material it sought to repudiate, and Catholic works translated for an English audience limited by the criteria of acceptability operative in English ‘discourse’.

Despite this very clear summary, Palmer doesn’t really have anything positive to say about my work, unless one counts his comment that it ‘composes a colourful impression of the violent and the visceral, the ribald and the salacious in the seventeenth-century mentality’ as being positive. At the end of the review he picks me up on a couple of matters of fact, saying these are ‘relatively venial sins’, the implication apparently being that I committed a mortal sin by writing the book at all!

Palmer makes it very clear why he feels like this; the main reason is because he takes my ‘major interpretative principle’ to be that ‘the ascetic value ascribed to suffering in Christian thought and practice may be understood as the expression of masochistic or sadistic tendencies’. So far, so good; certainly, Christian suffering ‘may be understood’ in that way. But when he moves from the passive into active mode and says that I personally ‘inevitably [see] the religious attitude to suffering and self-mortification as evidence of perversity’ then he crosses a line, the same line that Marcus crosses (though less definitively) when she represents me as saying that ‘religiously induced … pain and … mortification’ have ‘masochistic elements’.

Marcus does not develop this point, but Palmer makes it central to his analysis. As far as I am concerned it is quite wrong. When writing the book, I attempted to keep my own views out of it as far as possible and simply report on what emerged from an analysis of the texts. For the record, though, I spent a number of years living in Spain, and not only observed penitential practices at first hand (particularly, of course, at Easter) but counted a fair sprinkling of penitentes among my friends. I can categorically say that I never had the slightest suspicion that there was anything in the least bit ‘kinky’ in what they were doing; they approached the whole issue in an extraordinarily serious and heartfelt way, and I have no doubt of their sincerity. On the other hand, if anybody’s asking, yes, I do think there’s something a bit weird about the nun who was ‘wont to drawe herself along vpon the ground, holding by a rope which she put about her neck, and whipping herself with a chayne’, all the while chiding her ‘miserable body’ (Antonio Daza, The Historie of the Blessed Virgin, Sister Ioane, of the Crosse, 1625, cited in the book on page 67).

So I don’t ‘inevitably’ think that religious suffering is masochistic, although there are moments when I have to wonder. But this is all beside the point. The aim of the book is to trace the way in which masochistic readings of accounts of religious suffering developed, not to ascertain whether such suffering is or is not in itself masochistic. This is a vital distinction, and failure to make it is going to give any reader a distorted impression of what the book is all about.

The point is not that ‘the religious attitude to suffering and self-mortification [is] evidence of perversity’. The point is that sadomasochistic discourse arose, in part, because anti-Catholic discourse came, increasingly, to represent Catholic asceticism as the expression of perverse tendencies. The point is not whether Magdalena de Pazzi got a sexual kick out her practices. She may have done, she may not. I have no way of knowing. The point is that a Catholic owner of the 1619 translation of her biography wrote on the flyleaf ‘O that mine adversary had written a book!’ In other words, even an English Catholic could see that a work of this kind would merely reinforce the prejudices of the English Protestant reader. The point is not whether Jerome got an erection while writing about a Christian martyr who, tied to a bed, taunted and sexually aroused by a prostitute, bites off his tongue and spits it in her face just as she mounts him and bends down to kiss him. The point is that this passage is heavily censored in early modern Protestant translations, while Catholic translations retain far more of the erotic detail of the original. It’s a difference in discourse. It’s got nothing to do with what I personally believe or disbelieve.

Palmer takes particular exception to my discussion of Bunyan, much of which actually defends Bunyan against the charge of masochism, arguing that, within the terms of what he believes to be the nature of his life on earth, his response is perfectly sane and normal, but which I conclude by saying that there is an apparent obsession with suffering in Bunyan that goes beyond the exigencies of the religio-political context, and which ‘we can hardly scruple to call masochistic’. A summary of my comments on Bunyan is posted here.

I accept that I go further in commenting on Bunyan the person than is my usual practice in the book, but I am working in the context of modern critical responses. The observation that Bunyan has a ‘habit of expressing psychic states through images of bodily abuse’ is not mine. I cite it from John Knott, Discourses of Martyrdom in English Literature (1993). The designation of Bunyan’s propensity to take ‘revengement upon my self ’ as part of a ‘masochistic economy of … spirituality’ is not mine. I cite it from Lori Branch, Rituals of Spontaneity: Sentiment and Secularism from Free Prayer to Wordsworth (2006). And there are others.

I can hardly discuss perverse attitudes towards suffering in early modern England without taking on board reactions such as these. My point is not that suffering was what floated Bunyan’s boat, and if I were asked did I think Bunyan gained sexual satisfaction either through suffering or through writing about it I would have to say that I think it extremely unlikely. As ever, though, that line of questioning is irrelevant. What matters is that Bunyan is discursively obsessed with suffering, that there are aspects of his writings which closely correspond with the core sense of the word masochism as we use it today, and that therefore it seems not unreasonable that critics should apply that term.


There is a certain irony in all this; in accusing me of making false assumptions about the people behind hagiographic and devotional texts Palmer makes false assumptions about me.

I began by saying that authors have only a limited right to say what their work is about, and that, in a very real sense, texts are about what readers think they are about. If Protestant readers thought that Catholic hagiography was really about people getting sexual satisfaction from their suffering then that would be, to all intents and purposes, what it was about. But anti-Catholic polemic is not based on an assumption that the biographers of the saints were intentionally writing about people getting sexual satisfaction from suffering; they knew that by drawing that inference from the text they were interpreting the text in a way that the author of the text would not only have been unaware of but, if confronted with it, would have vigorously denied the validity of.

The anti-Catholic polemicists were acting mischievously, knowing that they were ascribing features to texts that the authors of those texts would have rejected. Palmer, by contrast, identifies what he plainly thinks are my true intentions. He thinks the whole book is an attempt to place religious experience on a par with sadomasochistic fantasy.

So what’s really going on here? Do I just think I wrote a book about how Protestant polemic recast Catholic accounts of suffering as thinly-veiled pornography, when what I in fact wrote was a book about how I personally think that Catholic suffering (or, indeed, Christian suffering in general) was thinly-veiled pornography all along, and all Protestants did was take off the veil?

I don’t think I can answer that question. Readers have to be left to make up their own minds about that sort of thing. Equally, it is readers, and not I, who must determine whether I only imagine that I wrote a book that says something significant about the discursive eroticization of suffering in seventeenth-century England, when what I in fact wrote was a book that fails to say anything persuasive about actual suffering in seventeenth-century England.

Marcus was faced with the unenviable task of reviewing all the full-length works in the field that had appeared over the previous year. It is only to be expected that there will be moments when it is apparent that she is not as intimate with the contents of all these works as one might ideally wish her to be. If she didn’t pick out my central thesis perhaps I was at fault for not sufficiently emphasizing it. Perhaps a similar reason lies at the root of her  supposition that I have written about actual levels of psychic suffering and self-inflicted mortification when to me it is clear that I am writing, not about these things themselves, but about the ways in which people discoursed on them. At least I know she appreciated some parts of my analysis; she cites my discussion of early modern translations of St. Jerome’s account of Saint Paul the Hermit as an example of one of the ‘fascinating tidbits’ she found in the work.

Palmer has clearly gone over my work sufficiently thoroughly to be able to summarize the main arguments. As a theologian he finds that my ‘confessional categories appear crude’, and he may be right about this. I know the book isn’t perfect, and I would certainly value some detailed commentary on this aspect of it. I think he has fallen prey doubly to a kind of intentional fallacy, firstly by attributing to me a belief that religious suffering is masochistic and secondly by thinking that my views on that point make any difference to the validity or otherwise of the analysis, but that is really a matter for others to judge. I do hope it is not the case that the entire concept is a mortal sin; I just wanted to write a book – I don’t want to burn in hell for it!

I knew when I wrote it that the book was likely to be controversial. Even if I feel Marcus and Palmer have got me wrong or that they are making the wrong kinds of assumptions about what can validly be inferred, not just from my work, but from texts in general, they have both taken the trouble to put some time into reading what I wrote and expressing their response to it, and I am grateful to them for that.


Using the Early English Books Online and Text Creation Partnership Databases

(This post contains the substance of a presentation I gave at the Annual Conference of the Shakespeare Society of Japan in October, 2014.)

For those who are not familiar, here is an introduction to the use of the Early English Books Online database (EEBO):

EEBO requires a log-in, but many – if not most – universities subscribe to the database and access can be gained through them. Another way to gain access is by joining the Renaissance Society of America, which includes access to EEBO in the membership package.

EEBO gives access to PDF files of early modern books. These files are not text-searchable. The Text Creation Programme (EEBO TCP) gives access in a text-searchable form, and its use is explained, using the public access portion of Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) here:

The following is an example of the kinds of methods that can be used to incorporate searches on the database into an early modern studies research programme:

These videos were made in October 2014, and part of the TCP database came into the public domain in January 2015. This means that there is now public access to some 25,000 early modern texts in text-searchable form. The text-searchable files do not correlate with PDFs in the way the files viewable by subscription do, and there is the rather serious disadvantage that numbering is not given for books numbered by signature rather than by page. But, provided one has access to the PDFs through the EEBO database, one can work around this, and it is still a valuable resource.

Related posts:

Damned if we do! Using the EEBO TCP database



Protestant Reception of Catholic Literature


This is a PowerPoint presentation I made at the Reformation Studies Colloquium, Edmund Murray College, University of Cambridge, September 12th, 2014. It contains the gist of two recently-published papers, “The Protestant Reception of Catholic Devotional Literature in England to 1700” (Recusant History, Vol. 32, No. 1 (2014), pp. 67-89), and “Robert Persons’s Resolution (1582) and the issue of textual piracy in Protestant editions of Catholic devotional literature” (Reformation and Renaissance Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, 2013, pp. 177-98). It’s a bit off the topic of early modern suffering, but it was from a study of the differences between Catholic and Protestant discourse that the work on suffering had its beginnings.

Torture and the Art of Holy Dying

[For this post I am indebted to Olivia Weisser who, in response to my post on The Sufferings of the Martyrs and the Transgressive Female Gaze, very kindly sent me an extract from her dissertation, Gender and Illness in Early Modern England (John Hopkins, 2010), which she is currently working up for publication with Yale University Press in 2015 as Ill Composed: Sickness, Gender, and Belief in Early Modern England. I would like to take this opportunity of thanking her, as well as expressing my appreciation of the insights her work has given me.]


John Donne’s poem illustrates the ideal early modern death as a peaceful process, in which the sick person passed almost imperceptibly from life to death, without “tear-floods” or “sigh-tempests”. This attitude towards death underlies the entire early modern attitude towards illness. As Olivia Weisser puts it:

Pious patients struggled to withstand pain without displaying fear or despair. Complaints were admissible, but only if they exuded patience and hope.

Weisser points out that the bottom line was the belief that God “was the ultimate source of all afflictions”, and cites Jeremy Taylor’s The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying (1651) as a typical example of early modern attitudes:

…he that is afraid of pain is afraid of his own nature; and if his fear be violent, it is a sign his Patience is none at all; and an impatient person is not ready dressed for Heaven. (P. 124; online text here.)

At first sight, all this calm patience in the face of suffering would seem to be a far cry from what we may suppose to be the experience of and response to torture, but Weisser establishes a close discursive link between patient forbearance in the face of secular suffering – particularly illness and the pains of childbirth – and the sufferings of the martyrs, in which torture played a frequent part:

…torture became a lasting model of suffering well into the 1600s. John Foxe’s sensational account of the persecution of Protestant martyrs under the Catholic Mary Tudor, a book popularly known as the Book of Martyrs, was integral to developing and popularizing this discourse.

Alice Thornton, for example, says of her fifth pregnancy, in 1657:

I was upon the racke in bearing my childe with such exquisitt torment as if each lime weare divided from other, for the space of two houers. (The Autobiography of Mrs. Alice Thornton of East Newton, Co. York, 1875, p. 95.)

Weisser – drawing on Sharon Howard’s ‘Imagining the Pain and Peril of Seventeenth-Century Childbirth: Travail and Deliverance in the Making of an Early Modern World’ (Social History of Medicine, 16:3, 2003, pp. 367-82) – comments:

Comparing her pain to torture highlighted the intensity of her suffering, as well as the spiritual significance of her deliverance from danger. Thornton’s pain, like that of a martyr, was harsh and harrowing, and surviving such an ordeal conveyed God’s profound grace and mercy. Part of the metaphor’s power also lay in the overlapping imagery of a body split on the rack and a body torn apart in childbirth. The discourse of martyrdom gave deep and positive meaning to the spiritual, as well as physical, experience of suffering.


Martyrdom offered scripts for expressing the torments of pain, as well as models of heroic endurance.This is the second way patients employed the discourse of martyrdom: in imitation of martyrs themselves.

The Stoicism of the early modern martyrs, Weisser argues, derives from the late medieval conception of pain as having its origin “in the soul while the body served merely as a vehicle for its expression”:

Just as Protestant sufferers viewed illness as an impediment to overcome in order to pray and meditate, Foxe’s martyrs exhibited a remarkable ability to transcend the corporeal.

Taylor writes elsewhere in Holy Dying about the “supervening necessity” of suffering:

Nothing is intolerable that is necessary … tie the man down to it and he endures it. Now God hath bound this sicknesse upon thee by the condition of Nature … it is also bound upon thee by speciall providence, and with a designe to try thee, and with purposes to reward and crown thee. These cords thou canst not break; and therefore lie thee down gently, and suffer the hand of God to do what he please, that at least thou mayest swallow an advantage, which the care and severe mercies of God forces down thy throat.

Remember that all men have passed this way, the bravest, the wisest, & the best men, have bin subject to sicknes & sad diseases … and under so great, and so universal precedents, so common fate of men, he that will not suffer his portion, deserves to be something else than a man, but nothing that is better. (Pp. 94-5; online text here.)

I have written in another post about how this Stoical view of suffering was so deeply ingrained in the seventeenth-century mindset that any challenge to it was perceived as potentially seditious, and I’ve also posted in praise of Melissa Sanchez, whose Erotic Subjects: The Sexuality of Politics in Early Modern English Literature (OUP, 2011) explores the political ramifications of a kind of institutionalized culture of suffering, in which ‘Agony and abjection’ are given positive meanings as ‘signs of a power that reconfigures traditional definitions of heroism and masculinity’, and ‘Subjects know that they are being abused, but they tolerate affliction because they enjoy the moral authority it gives them’ (pp. 17 and 240). Rejoicing to suffer for Christ and enjoying the moral authority of being an afflicted subject are essentially the same thing; as Pomfret puts it, in the context of the Rye House Plot of 1683:

That man only is Christianly patient, that … is chearful in it; does not only quietly and serenely suffer wrong, but rejoyces in it. This [is] the true Martyrs patience. (Thomas Pomfret, Passive Obedience, Stated and Asserted, London, 1683, p. 8.)

Weisser, however, is primarily interested in what this culture of suffering meant at an individual, rather than a political level.

Calm composure and pious speech in life’s final moments were key signifiers of salvation. Attempts to die in this ideal way were epitomized by sufferers who experienced agonizing pain in the throes of death but remained insensible to the torments.

“These individuals,” she stresses, “were not ascetics or martyrs, but ordinary individuals”, able to overcome their pain by “concentrat[ing] on the afterlife”. Nor, crucially, were they in a state of unconsciousness or insensibility:

The model death in early modern England entailed stoic endurance of pain and a lucid mind. Witnesses at the deathbed reassured absent friends and family that the dying experienced an awakened state in their final moments.

This insistence that the dying person be both conscious of their agonies and patiently accepting of them is at the core of the early modern “art of suffering”, which is the title of Ann Thompson’s book on Puritan attitudes to suffering in the seventeenth century, and which I have written a few comments on here. Thompson focuses on only a narrow range of writers, and analyzes the way in which their approach to the subject of suffering and death was deconstructed by the advance of “anti-providential thought” during the seventeenth century. She notes that, by the later part of the century, Puritan treatises on suffering deal rather with pain management than with the concept of spiritual growth or development through suffering, What Weisser and Sanchez and, I think, my own work demonstrate is that the decline of faith in God’s providence – and a concomitant rejection of the concept of the inevitability, necessity and utility of suffering – can be observed across across a much wider spectrum of writings, opening the way, philosophically, to widespread acceptance of the pleasure principle – the Epicurean idea that it is both natural and right to avoid suffering – as an approach to life, and leading to a society sanitized of suffering by antibiotics, distanced from it by television cameras, toying with it as a means to achieving short-term objectives in sports and sadomasochistic role play, but largely incapable even of imagining the role it played in the lives of people like John Donne or Jeremy Taylor.

Two Recent Books on Gender and Violence in the Early Modern Period


1. Jennifer Feather and Catherine E. Thomas, eds., Violent Masculinities: Male Aggression in Early Modern Texts and Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

As the blurb has it, “During the early modern period in England, social expectations for men came under extreme pressure; the armed knight went into decline and humanism appeared. Here, original essays analyze a wide-range of violent acts in early modern literature and culture – everything from civic violence to chivalric combat; from verbal attacks to masochistic suffering; from political assassination to personal retaliation; and from brawls to battles. In so doing, they interrogate the seemingly inevitable connection between masculinity and aggression, placing it in a specific historical context and showing how differences of status, ethnicity, and sexual identity inform masculine ideals.”

The table of contents:

Introduction: Reclaiming Violent Masculinities; Jennifer Feather and Catherine E. Thomas

1. Militant Prologues, Memory, and Models of Masculinity in Shakespeare’s Henry V and Troilus and Cressida; Susan Harlan
2. Marlowe’s War Horses: Cyborgs, Soldiers and Queer Companions; Timothy Francisco
3. Cutting Words and Healing Wounds: Friendship and Violence in Early Modern Drama; Jennifer Forsyth

4. Virtus, Vulnerability, and the Emblazoned Male Body in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus; Lisa S. Starks-Estes
5. Priestly Rulers, Male Subjects: Swords and Courts in Papal Rome; Laurie Nussdorfer
6. ‘Warring Spirits’: Martial Heroism and Anxious Masculinity in Milton’s Paradise Lost; Katharine Cleland

7. King Lear’s Violent Grief; Andrew D. McCarthy
8. Wild Civility: Men at War in Royalist Elegy; Catharine Gray
9. Occupy Macbeth: Masculinity and Political Masochism in Macbeth; Amanda Bailey
10. Melancholy and Spleen: Models of English Masculinity in The Famous History of the Life and Death of Captain Thomas Stukeley; Laurie Ellinghausen

Afterword; Coppélia Kahn

I’ve only just started turning the pages of this, and I’m not going to attempt a review of it yet! So far, my eye has been particularly drawn to Amanda Bailey’s essay on Macbeth, with its discussion of the parallels between rape and demonic possession, and the phenomenon of “a body politic unable to distinguish between coercion and consent” (202), which neatly puts its finger on the essence of the early modern attitude towards rape.

I say a fair bit about this topic in my monograph, citing Juan Luis Vives’s opinion that it was impossible for a virtuous woman to be raped (she must have consented at some level, or the rape could not have occurred), and noting the kind of logic that argued that, since this world is God’s creation, and God would not allow innocents to suffer unduly, rape victims – like witches – must, at some level, be guilty (p. 170).  I just love Aphra Behn’s response to that way of thinking; she says (in the context of forced marriage):

‘ … curse on your nonsense, ye imposing Gownmen, curse on your holy cant; you may as well call Rapes and Murthers, Treason and Robbery, the acts of Heaven; because Heaven suffers ’em to be committed, is it Heavens pleasure therefore, Heaven’s decree? (Love-Letters between a Noble-Man and his Sister, London, 1684, pp. 334–5)

Bailey’s essay seems to be very much in the same ballpark as my own work, as do several of the other papers. Suffice to say that I think there’s going to be a lot for me to chew on in this volume of essays…

2. Mary R. Wade, ed., Gender Matters: Discourses of Violence in Early Modern Literature and the Arts (Editions Rodopi, 2014)


Blurb:”Gender Matters opens the debate concerning violence in literature and the arts beyond a single national tradition and engages with multivalent aspects of both female and male gender constructs, mapping them onto depictions of violence. By defining a tight thematic focus and yet offering a broad disciplinary scope for inquiry, the present volume brings together a wide range of scholarly papers investigating a cohesive topic-gendered violence-from the perspectives of French, German, Italian, Spanish, English, and Japanese literature, history, musicology, art history, and cultural studies. It interrogates the intersection of gender and violence in the early modern period, cutting across national traditions, genres, media, and disciplines. By engaging several levels of discourse, the volume advances a holistic approach to understanding gendered violence in the early modern world. The convergence of discourses concerning literature, the arts, emerging print technologies, social and legal norms, and textual and visual practices leverages a more complex understanding of gender in this period. Through the unifying lens of gender and violence the contributions to this volume comprehensively address a wide scope of diverse issues, approaches, and geographies from late medieval Japan to the European Enlightenment. While the majority of essays focus on early modern Europe, they are broadly contextualized and informed by integrated critical approaches pertaining to issues of violence and gender.”

The Table of Contents:

Mara R. Wade: Introduction Gender Matters: Discourses of Violence in Early Modern Literature and the Arts

Women Warriors, Fact and Fiction
Judith P. Aikin: The Militant Countesses of Rudolstadt: When an unruly army stops by on its way through, it’s time to call on a woman for help.
Elizabeth Oyler: The Woman Warrior Tomoe in Medieval and Early Modern Japanese No Plays
Violent Women, Violated Men
Helmut Puff: Violence, Victimhood, Artistry: Albrecht Dürer’s The Death of Orpheus
Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly: The Eroticization of Judith in Early Modern German Art
Julie Singer: For Palle and Patrie: Re-gendering Violence from Benedetto Varchi to Marguerite de Navarre
Marcus Keller: Framing Men: Violent Women in Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron
Violence and the Gendered Body Politic
Catharine Gray: Tears of the Muses: 1649 and the Lost Political Bodies of Royalist War Elegy
Brian Sandberg: Calm Possessor of his Wife, but Not of her Château: Gendered Religious Violence in the French Wars of Religion
Lori Humphrey Newcomb: The Law Against Lovers: Dramatizing Civil Union in Restoration England
Gender in Print
Elizabeth Black: One Gender in the Legal System? An Examination of Gender in a Trio of Emblems from Pierre Coustau’s Pegme (1560)
Tara L. Lyons: Prayer Books and Illicit Female Desires on the Early Modern English Stage
Gerhild Scholz Williams: Romancing the News: History and Romance in Eberhard Happel’s Deß Teutschen Carls (1690) and Deß Engelländischen Eduards (1691)
Gender and Violence on the Stage
Susan Parisi: Transforming a Classical Myth in Seventeenth-Century Opera: the Story of Cybele and Atys in the Libretti of Francesco Rasi and Philippe Quinault
Curtis Perry: Gismond of Salern and the Elizabethan Politics of Senecan Drama
Elizabeth Zeman Kolkovich: “Drabs of State vext”: Violent Female Masquers in Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women

Virtue and Violence
Carmen Ripollés: Death, Femininity, and the Art of Painting in Frans Francken’s The Painter’s Studio
Lisa Rosenthal: Masculine Virtue in the Kunstkamer: Pictura, Lucre, and Luxury
Anne J. Cruz: The Walled-In Woman in Medieval and Early Modern Spain
Carl Niekerk: Violence, Gender, and the Construction of the Other in the Story of Inkle and Yarico

Whereas Violent Masculinities, in its broader lines, insists on the gendering of violence as intrinsically masculine, this work takes in a candid look at female-engendered violence.  Again, I’m not yet in a position to give an opinion about the whole book, so I’ll just focus on the second section (“Violent Women, Violated Men”). My attention is drawn naturally to this section, since it has obvious affinities with the final two chapters of my own work (“The Erotics of Suffering and Cruelty” and “The Emergence of the Dominatrix”). I’ll have to admit, I was a bit disappointed to see no references to Melissa Sanchez‘s work, since for my money she’s given the most articulate and persuasive account of masculine submissiveness and anxiety in the early modern period, but there are some significant insights, starting with a chapter by Helmut Puff onAlbrecht Dürer’s Death of Orpheus.

Puff interprets the work in the light of the accompanying scroll, which describes Orpheus as “der Erst Puseran” (“the first bugger”), and “the interest Dürer harboured in scenes of gendered tensions and sexualized violence”, which had “much appeal for the young  Dürer” (p. 74). I posted some stuff a while back on possible obscene imagery in Dürer‘s work, which may be of interest in this context.

The essay that came closest to my own concerns, though, was Marcus Keller’s “Framing Men: Violent Women in Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron“, which does for that work much the same as I set out do for Mary Wroth’s Urania – that is, to point out that, while there has been much comment on the violence depicted against women, “women as the source of violence, on the other hand, have received close to no attention” (p. 119). From Keller’s account, such depictions are fairly limited in scope compared with those in Wroth, which cover a wide range of situations, involving both women who are judged by Wroth as evil and others whose actions are exonerated by her.  Navarre confines herself mainly to discoursing on the theme made famous by Congreve (“Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned”), but she also apparently discourses on the subject of women who cuckold and betray their men. It was Wroth’s portrayal of the cuckold Sirelius and his violent father-in-law that led to accusations that her work was a thinly-veiled slander of real people (Lord James Hay and Edward Denny, Baron of Waltham, who recognized himself and made the accusation), leading to the withdrawal of the first part of the Urania from publication. Although, in the case of Sirelius, the focus is on male violence, female faithlessness often lay at the heart of misogynistic portrayals of women as the source of all evil, which is essentially the purpose of Simontault, the “sexually … aggressive” narrator of Navarre’s tale, in which the cuckolding wife eggs her weak husband on to instigate a murder.

I’m sure both books contain far more insights than I have been able to mention here, and look forward to perusing them at greater length during the summer vacation!

Masochism in Political Behaviour

A few months ago I commented on Jeremy Carrette’s essay, ‘Intense Exchange: Sadomasochism, Theology and the Politics of Late Capitalism’, expressing frustration at the way in which the author speaks of the need to ‘free our gendered bodies from the market of global exploitation’, but refuses to commit himself to identifying sadomasochism either as part of the problem or as part of the solution. It might be supposed, then, that I would feel much more comfortable with Filip Kovacevic, ‘Masochism in Political Behavior: A Lacanian Perspective’ (2011). And yet, despite the fact that Kovacevic makes it perfectly explicit that, in his view, ‘masochism is a part of the problem and not the solution’, I found his thesis so unsatisfactory that, by the end, I felt positively well-disposed towards Carrette, whose ambivalence at least gives tacit recognition to the imperfectness of the fit between masochistic tendencies and political achievement. By contrast, Kavacevic’s equation of any kind of voluntary-undertaken suffering – from the sufferings of Christ to hunger strikers and suicide bombers – with masochism seems to me to be a distorted oversimplification.

Not that Kavacevic doesn’t hit the nail on the head now and again. Some of what he says about the vicious cycle of political protest and reform rings true, as when he says of a miners’ strike in Montenegro that the miners’ intention ‘was not to effect permanent and lasting changes in their position toward the Other who confronted them, but only to create “enough” anxiety in the Other so that [Prime Minister Djukanovic´] would resolve this particular situation’. A few weeks later, when Djukanovic´ ‘did not fulfill all that he promised’, the cycle repeated itself, and ‘the miners took it out on themselves again’. In this way, through a process of, on the one hand, gratifying and on the other of producing anxiety in the ‘Other’, ‘the masochistic relation will be reasserted, condemning the masochist to constant repetition and the Other’s enjoyment is re-established as a trap from which the masochist can never (quite) escape’.

The way out of this endless cycle, Kavacevic argues, is for the oppressed to ‘move from being the objects of the Other’s enjoyment to being the objects of the Other’s desire’. He sees a neurotic / hysteric response as being superior to a masochistic one;  ‘hysterics, positioning themselves as objects of the Other’s desire, reveal the fact that the dominating Other is lacking and this is exactly what allows them to push for the construction of less oppressive, tolerant Others’.

Having made it clear that he regards Christ and Christianity as doing more harm than good, Kavacevic holds up Socrates as a positive role model, homing in on Socrates’s ironic call on the state of Athens ‘to provide him with life-long honors, while he was being condemned to death’. ‘Masochists’, he says, ‘cannot be ironic’, concluding:

conveying the irony of their situation to hunger-strikers (and suicide bombers) is the only way to help them begin their subjective transformation. Stated in Lacanian terms, masochists position themselves to serve as instruments of enjoyment to a non-existent Other. What could be more absurd and open to ironic interpretation than that?

This does, I admit, give me food for thought, but I am really not sure that there is any real way to distinguish between the ironic sufferer and the masochistic one. I can see that appealing to the Other through self-inflicted suffering is a weaker option than working through the Other’s desire/need for approval, but I’m not even quite sure that this is what Kavacevic is saying.

In short, yet another thought-provoking article that ultimately fails to completely satisfy!