“Jesus wept: and no wonder by Christ!”

“Jesus wept” – the shortest verse in the Bible (John 11:35) and the subject of a short piece on by Thomas Dixon on Umberto Eco and John Donne in the History of Emotions blog.

jesusweptThe post makes the point that “Donne is one of a very few sermon writers to discuss Christ’s tears”, though I suppose it depends what one means by “very few”. It is mentioned in the sermons of William Burton, Daniel Price, Thomas Jackson, William Ford, Samuel Smith, Gilbert Primrose and James Mabbe’s translation of Fonseca’s sermons – all published in Donne’s lifetime – and by  Samuel Otes, Thomas Adams, Daniel Featley, Peter Hausted, Anthony Faringdon and William Haughton and maybe a few others, all published prior to 1650. And there are other works – treatises, etc. – that discourse on the theme.

Still, it is, as Dixon says, a text one might have expected to have invited more exegesis, given the propensity of the age for emphasizing the less cheerful aspects of life, as evinced, for example, by the following:

As for laughter , it may be vsed: otherwise God would neuer haue giuen that power and faculty vnto man: but the vse of it must be both moderate and seldome, as sorrowe for our sinnes is to be plentifull and often. This we may learne in Christs example, of whome wee reade that hee wept three times, at the destruction of Ierusalem, at the raising of Lazarus, and in his agonie: but we neuer read that he laughed . And specially remember the saying of Chry∣sostome. Si risus in Ecclesia diaboli opus est, that is, to mooue laughter in the Church, is the worke of the deuill. (William Perkins, A golden chaine, 728-9)

Mercifully for their sanity, though, it seems the early moderns not only didn’t get overly bothered about Jesus weeping. but even, on occasion, rejected Chrysostom’s take on the whole thing:

Chrysostome indeede (for I will conceale nothing that may seeme ought to this purpose) speaking in generall tearmes saith, that Play or game is not of God but of the Deuill: and that we reade that Christwept oft, but neuer that he laughed, or so much as once smiled: yea that none of the Saints in Scripture are reported euer to haue laughed,saueSara onely,who is presently thereupon also checked for it. Which yet, saith that reuerend Father, I speake not to abandon laughter, but to bannish loosenesse.

Thus Chrysostome: which yet is not all out sound or true neither: For did not Abraham laugh too as well as Sara? and yet is he not taxed nor rebuked for so doing; nor indeed was Sara simply rebuked for laughing, but for doubting, yea if I may say so, for mocking: Abrahams laughter, as the Auncients haue well obserued, proceeded from ioy, Saraes sa∣uoured of distrust. (Thomas Gataker, Of the nature and vse of lots a treatise historicall and theologicall, 1619, pp. 215-6).

Of course, it is this Umberto Eco territory, and he builds his tale on the spiritual legitimacy of laughter and question of whether, in fact, Christ did ever laugh. Dixon’s got a few other points to make; Jesus may have wept, but God is not on record as having done so, and in general tears were (and to some extent still are) perceived as “womanish”. All in all, a very good post on the early modern history of the emotions!

Blog round-up

First off, I should say I was in the middle of writing a blog post on a lecture on ecstasy (the emotion, rather than the drug, though the latter did get a couple of mentions!) that I’d been to in London when there was a bereavement in the family and everything got put on hold for a couple of months.

Then my server went and did some weird things and I lost the blog entirely for several weeks. I finally got it back, minus the draft of that post on ecstasy, which appears to be irretrievably lost in cyberspace. I’ll try to recreate it sometime, but before I get back to writing my own blog posts, I’ll start off by giving some links to one or two blogs (well, three actually!) I’ve come across that might be of interest.

First off, there’s some gruesome stuff by Caitlin Green on humiliation and death by camel. You need to scroll down to about the middle of the article to get all the sordid details:

we will take Andronicus, and we will strip him stark naked, and we will bind him to the camel’s back in such fashion that his face shall be against its rump, and we will lead him from one end of the city even unto the other. Thus will all they, both men and women, whom he hath wronged, be able to avenge themselves right well.

As Dr. Green Tells us, this is “the last recorded instance” of this punishment, which was inflicted on “the deposed emperor Andronicus I Comnenus in AD 1185″. The above is the contemporary account of Robert of Clari.

For the sake of early modernists, who will be heartened by the news, I’ll just add that the story was kept alive for Elizabethan readers by Richard Knolles, who describes it with no less detail than disapprobation in his Turkish History (1687-1700):

…having one of his Eyes put out, he was set upon a foul lean Camel, with his Face towards the tail thereof, and so (as it were in Triumph) led through the Market place, his bald Head all bare, as if it had been a dead mans Skull taken out of a Charnel House, in a short old Coat; so miserable a Spectacle, as might have expressed a fountain of tears out of the Eyes of a right hard hearted man. But the Bedlam and most insolent Citizens, especially they of the baser sort, as Cooks, Coblers, Curriers, and such like, flocking about him like Bees (without regard that he had but the other day worn upon his Head the Imperial Crown, then honoured by them as a God, and extolled unto the Heavens; that they had not long before solemnly sworn him Obedience and Loyalty) ran now as men out of their Wits, omitting no kind of Villany they could devise to do unto him; some thrust nails into his Head, some cast dirt in his Face, some the dung both of Men and Beasts, some prickt him in the Sides with spits, some cast Stones at him as at a mad Dog, and other some opprobrious and despiteful words, no less grievous unto him than the rest; amongst others, an impudent Drab coming out of the Kitchen, cast a pot of scalding water in his Face; and in brief, their outrage so exceeded, as if they had striven among themselves, who should do him the greatest Villany. Having thus shamefully, as in a ridiculous triumph brought him into the Theater, they there betwixt two Pillars hanged him up by the Heels… (p. 38 →Read on EEBO TCP)

The second link is to Susan Abernethy’s post on Titus Oates, fabricator of the so-called “Popish Plot”. She gives an account of his checkered career, which culminated in him being “stripped, tied to a cart and whipped from Aldgate to Newgate. The whippings continued the next day.”

I’ve always been fascinated by the plot, and have a page on it here. What strikes me most is the fact that that the 1689 Bill of Rights, which includes the prohibition of “cruel and unusual” punishment, was in part a protest against Oates’s beating (which left him with the skin hanging off his back), with scant regard for the Catholics who died or lost their homes as a result of his lies.

As a footnote to Dr. Abernethy’s post, there’s an anonymous broadside of 1681 that gives an idea of what the scandalous conduct that got him kicked out of the Jesuit college at St. Omer might have consisted of. It accuses him of whipping ‘porkers’ to arouse his ‘Beastly Concupiscence’, whereupon he ‘Tilts at ’em with his Nasty Clyster-Pipe’ (The Character of an Ignoramus Doctor, London, 1681, p. 2). Gordon Williams (A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature, vol. 1, London, 1994, p. 514), says ‘porkers probably means fat youths’ and the reference is presumably homosexual.


OK, that’s enough of the sleazy, sordid and downright nasty side of early modern life! My final link for today’s post is to Laura Sangha’s entry in the many-headed monster blog to her jointly-edited (with Jonathan Willis) publication on Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources, which I have not yet perused, but which looks set to be a must for students and scholars embarking into the field in this digital age.

And now, my wife tells me, it’s time to get offline and have some curry. I’ve acquiesced, on condition it comes with a beer!

Masochism and Anachronism

What does it mean to talk of “masochism” prior to the publication, in 1870, of Sacher-Masoch’s Venus im Pelz [Venus in furs], or of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s adoption of Masoch’s name to describe the condition of deriving pleasure from pain in Psychopathia Sexualis: eine Klinisch-Forensische Studie [Sexual psychopathy: a clinical / forensic study]? Rob Boddice’s Pain: A very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2016) talks of “the distinctly modern pursuit of pain for pleasure, from the charitable beneficence of the Victorian lady bountiful, luxuriating in pity (according to Herbert Spencer), to the erotic cultures of Sadism and Masochism” and Alison M. Moore appears slightly uncomfortable with what she calls my “use of terms like ‘perversion’ in … discussion of practices that were not conceived as such in their own time” (Sexual Myths of Modernity: Sadism, Masochism, and Historical Teleology, Lexington, 2016, p. 80, footnote).

Is it simply an anachronism, then, to talk of masochism (or, indeed, other sexual identities) prior to the nineteenth-century taxonomy of sexuality? Krafft-Ebing cites (among others) Maria Magdalena de Pazzi (1566-1607) as an example of “the significance of flagellation as a sexual excitant” and clearly saw masochism as a convenient label to hang on something that went back considerably earlier than the publication of Sacher-Masoch’s novel. Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, vol. 3: Analysis of the Sexual Impulse; Love and Pain; The Sexual Impulse in Women (2nd edn, Philadelphia, 1921), p. 132, notes that the first distinct reference to sexual flagellation occurs in the writings of Pico della Mirandola, who, in Disputationes … Aduersus Astrologiã Diuinatricem [Arguments against astrological divination] (Bologna, 1496), writes about “a man, known to me, with a prodigious and unheard-of sexual appetite, for he can never be sexually aroused unless he is beaten” (edition used, [Lyons, 1498?]), sig. h5r; my translation). As I write in a forthcoming publication:

If Krafft-Ebing had chosen to name the phenomenon of sexual arousal through pain after the first person to describe it, rather than after the first to write an extended narrative about it, we might be talking today of “mirandolism”, rather than masochism, and scholars might deem it quite normal to trace its development from the end of the fifteenth century, rather than the middle of the nineteenth or, at most, the early eighteenth.

As to whether or not early modernists regarded such practices as perversions, I argue quite forcefully that they did. Mirandola was quite possibly describing himself here, and the work in which the passage occurs was not published until after his death, a sensible precaution, given that he was fully aware that what he has written “is a harsh thing for liberal ears” (i.e., likely to give offence).

Other early modern accounts confirm that there was little tolerance for such proclivities. Johann Heinrich Meibom, author of the earliest known treatise on sexual flagellation, calls such practices “scelera ista perversæ Veneris, & puerorum contumeliæ” [crimes of perverse lust and assaults to our children] and rejoices that no such depravation is to be found in his native Germany or, if evidence of it should come to light, that the culprit would be burned (De Flagrorum Usu in Re Veneria [On the use of whips in sexual circumstances], Leyden, 1639; edition used, Leyden, 1643, p. 16; my translation; no online text available).

Early modern sexual identities tended to be couched in terms of actions and behaviour, rather than in terms of proclivities and tendencies, and during the seventeenth century in England there emerged the “flogging cully“, who could not be sexually aroused except through flogging. Several lampoons of such sexual flagellants were written, all expressing condemnation and disgust (the earliest of these, by John Davies,  was published c. 1599). So my take on all this is that one can legitimately speak of a kind of masochism avant la lettre during the early modern period, and one can assume that such practices were viewed as perverse or aberrant by people at that time.

The idea that the early moderns would not have regarded such practices as perversions seems to stem largely from an uncritical acceptance of Michel Foucault’s dictum that “At the beginning of the seventeenth century there was still … a certain frankness. [Sexual] practices were hardly kept secret … people had a certain tolerant
familiarity with the illicit” (Histoire de la Sexualité 1: La Volonté de Savoir [History of sexuality 1: the wish to know], Paris, 1976, p. 9; my translation). One needs to bear in mind that Foucault is less concerned here with saying anything valid about the seventeenth century than with using Victorian values as a stick with which to beat the bourgeoisie of his own period. Certainly, there is little or nothing in the literature of the seventeenth century to substantiate his claim, at least as far as sexual flagellation is concerned.

The idea that suffering for pleasure – particularly sexual pleasure – is a comparatively recent phenomenon is harder to dismiss. Roy F. Baumeister is typical among historians of human psychology in his observation that “most sexual practices have been known and enjoyed throughout history, but masochism is a rare exception … which spread through Western society during the early modern period” (‘Masochism as Escape from Self ’). The Victorian and early twentieth-century taxonomists of sexuality (Charcot, Lombroso, Breuer, Freud, Krafft-Ebing, Lacan, etc.) tended to see masochism as being closely related to ascetic religious suffering, particularly self-flagellation, but Baumeister (rightly, I think), argues that “sex and religion provide radically different contexts, and it seems unwarranted to assume that activities have the same meaning in religious ritual as they have in sexual play” (ibid.), a position which echoes Georges Bataille, L’Érotisme (Paris, 1957), pp. 275–6, translated as Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo by Mary Dalwood (New York, 1962), pp. 252–3.

However, Baumeister leaves an important problem unresolved.  “The prevailing theoretical position since Freud”, he writes, “has been that masochism is derived from sadism”. However, he cites “abundant evidence” indicating, not only that masochism is apparently “far more common than sadism”, but that “behavioral evidence suggests that masochism comes first, and sadistic or dominant role-taking comes only later if at all”, concluding that “it is implausible to argue that masochism is derived from sadism. Rather, sadism must the secondary, derivative pattern”. At the same time, he supposes that “sadism is historically older than masochism” (ibid.).

Clearly, this just doesn’t add up, or at least to make it add up a bit of juggling is required. One approach (the one I mainly suggest in PPP), is that masochism was hiding in plain sight:

masochism is not discussed prior to the early modern period, not because it is nowhere, but because it is everywhere. One’s life is not one’s own, but held in trust; sexual congress is an act of naked, defenceless self-exposure; those who ‘take the sword’ are merely preparing to ‘perish with the sword’, and man’s only hope is to place himself abjectly under the heel of his God and cast himself at his mercy. (p. 12)

But there is another possible explanation. The sources Baumeister is citing are all analyses of sexual behaviour and the sex trade, and he equates “sadism” with the so-called “dominant” position in the sadomasochistic dynamic. However, true sadism – taking pleasure in strangling victims to death, crushing their bones and whatnot – doesn’t really form part of the sexual play that is the subject of the studies he cites. One is reminded of the old joke:

Masochist: Hit me.

Sadist: No.

Katherine Fowkes puts it a bit more eloquently:

The sadist would glean no pleasure from inflicting pain on someone who enjoys it… Likewise, the masochist does not take pleasure in being tortured by a sadist. On the contrary, although it is critical that the masochist’s suffering appear to stem from another, the pain is actually self-inflicted. To this end, the masochist needs to convince another to inflict the pain that he wishes heaped upon him. Thus in the sadistic scenario the tortured is by definition not a masochist and in the masochistic heterocosm, the torturer is likewise by definition not a sadist. (Katherine A. Fowkes, Giving up the Ghost: Spirits, Ghosts, and Angels in Mainstream Comedy Films, Detroit, MI, 1998, p. 35.)

In other words, the paradigm of sadism – sexual cruelty – being something with a long history, while masochism is a relative newcomer to the scene, can perhaps be maintained by arguing that those who inflict pain in sadomasochistic scenarios are not actually sadists.

Either way, the accepted wisdom is that overt accounts of sexual masochism do not date back any earlier than the early modern period. While there may be tales of cruelty, often with a sexual component, going back to classical antiquity, the victims generally do their best to avoid their fate and there is little suggestion of them colluding in their own suffering or inveigling others into inflicting suffering on them.

Phyllis and AristotlePhyllis and Aristotle
For an account of Phyllis's apocryphal role as a dominatrix over Aristotle, click here.

At the same time, there are signs – faint as yet – that a paradigm shift may be on the way, and the roots of sexual masochism may be pushed back very much further. See, for example, Rachel A. Branch, Propertian Sado-Masochism in Augustan Rome and Today: Salvaging Power, a presentation given at a meeting of The Classical Association of the Middle West and South in 2010. Clearly, the relationship between Krafft-Ebing (or Sacher-Masoch) and masochism is not equivalent to that between, say, Edison and the light bulb (they are not bringing something into existence but rather creating the language with which to conceptualize something that already exists), but it is still very unclear just how far back into human history the concept of masochism can be traced.

Reviews of PPP

1. Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen, Renaissance Quarterly, 67.1 (Spring 2014), pp. 306-307. Dr. van Dijkhuizen is a lecturer and post-doctoral researcher at Leiden University. He is the author of Pain and Compassion in Early Modern English Literature and Culture (D. S. Brewer, 2012).

Soundbite: a thoroughly researched and highly original addition to the growing scholarly conversation on conceptions of suffering, embodiment, and sensory experience in early modern culture

2. Catherine E. Thomas, Sixteenth Century Journal, 45.3 (Autumn 2014), p. 733. Dr. Thomas is associate professor of English at the College of Charleston. She and Jennifer Feather are the co-editors of Violent Masculinities: Male Aggression in Early Modern Texts and Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), which I’ve written a short commentary on here. Soundbite:

a compelling piece of scholarship that ambitiously analyzes multiple discourses around pain, pleasure, and power. At times the argument feels more suggestive than conclusive

3. Sarah Toulalan, Theology and Sexuality, 20.3 (September, 2014), pp. 257-9. Dr. Toulalan is a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter. She is the author of Imagining Sex: Pornography and Bodies in Seventeenth-Century England (OUP, 2007), which I have written a short commentary on here. Soundbite:

a work of outstanding scholarship in which the author teases out differences between southern / Catholic / Latin and northern / Protestant / vernacular thinking about and attitudes towards both the infliction of physical pain and suffering on others and the deliberate infliction of pain and suffering on oneself.

4. Leah S. Marcus, ‘Recent Studies in the English Renaissance’, Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, 54.1, (Winter 2014), pp. 193-242; 193-4. Leah Marcus, Edward Mims Professor of English at Vanderbilt University, is the author of a number of works on the early modern period, including The Politics of Mirth (University of Chicago Press, 1986) and Unediting the Renaissance (Psychology Press, 1996). Soundbite:

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 … But Yamamoto-Wilson does have some fascinating tidbits

I’ve written a few comments in response to Professor Marcus’s review here.

5. Thomas Palmer, Journal of Theological Studies, 66.1 (April 2015), pp. 494-6.  Palmer is apparently associated with St. Cross College, Oxford, but other than that I can find no information about him. Soundbite:

The author … chooses rather to assume than to prove his major interpretative principle, that the ascetic value ascribed to suffering in Christian thought and practice may be understood as the expression of masochistic or sadistic tendencies

I’ve written a few comments in response to Palmer’s review here.

What’s wrong with Pain, Pleasure and Perversity?

To say I wrote it in 9 months flat, not much. Two years after publication I’ve had enough feedback and enough time to think about it to be able to reflect on it and, while one or two flaws have been pointed out to me, nothing particularly damaging to my basic argument has come to light.

Apart from a few typos, the most egregious factual error that has been brought to my attention so far is the misidentification of the religious affiliation of two individuals. Andrew Sall is wrongly listed as a Catholic writer on page 51 (he converted to the Church of England in 1674), and – somewhat more seriously – on page 153 I write about Stillingfleet attacking a ‘fellow Protestant’ by the name of John Sergeant. Despite his anti-Jesuit stance and his dealings with the Privy Council, Sergeant was, of course, not only a Catholic but a priest. I am indebted to Thomas Palmer for pointing out these oversights.

But so far it seems no one but myself has noticed the biggest gaffe of all, right there, to my humiliation, on the very first page of the introduction, which begins:

During the earlier part of the seventeenth century, religious flagellation still survived, even in Protestant England. John Gee (a Church of England clergyman who went through a period of dalliance with Catholicism) recounts how, during the reign of James I, Catholic flagellants marched in procession to Tyburn, and – despite his renewed commitment to the Protestant cause – partly endorses the practice, declaring himself ‘no enemy vnto austerity of life, and taming or chastening our bodily sinfull members’ … (To read the complete introduction, click here.)

The reference is to John Gee, The Foot out of the Snare (London, 1624), pp. 80-83 and, indeed, if you have an EEBO TCP log-in you can readily confirm that this is precisely what Gee says. To quote from his account:

Yesterday being Good-friday, this present yeere 1624. they made some of you [i.e., Catholics] in the Morning, before day, goe in Procession to Tiburne, in penitentiall manner; the forme of which is, for a man to walke naked from the girdle vp ward, and scourge himself with a whip. The same day twelue-month last past, at a place of your solemne meeting in London, you made one whip himself so long, till he swouned, and was thought to bee past hope of recouery, so that hot water was instantly fetched to reuiue him.(Page 81)

This, I felt, was a striking enough illustration of the persistence of Catholic practices of mortification in Protestant illustration to make a fitting opening to my magnum opus, and I would probably never have known that there was anything more to it than that had I not chanced to take a look at  a later edition of Gee’s book (also published in 1624), in which Gee has significantly emended what he wrote:

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 14.49.06
Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 14.50.20 Pages 86-7 of the fourth edition (1624) of Gee's work

Here Gee corrects what he wrote in the first edition. In these times of ‘persecution’ the practice of ‘Whipping-cheere‘ is, he says, ‘not yet growne into that publike ostentation among vs, as to bee acted in the streets and high-wayes’.

In other words, Gee got it wrong! On hearing that there had been a penitential procession, he either assumed it had been ‘duly observed’ by scourging as the penitents made their way to Tyburn or had been assured it was so at second hand. As if to make up for this slip he adds further detail to the description of the Catholics making a man ‘whip himself so long, till he swouned’, saying, ‘This my selfe did then see, together with two or three hundred more spectators present at that meeting’ (p. 87).

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In the revised edition, Gee inserts a sentence between his description of the whipping in London and the woman whipping herself to death in Brussels (both of which are in the original text), demonstrating that, while he slipped up in his description of the procession to Tyburn, he is not merely peddling gossip and hearsay.

So Gee got it wrong – and I, following Gee, got it wrong too.

This was at, or near, the top of the list of things making me nervous when I went for the viva for my PhD. As it turned out, though, all my worries were groundless; either the examiners hadn’t registered the mistakes in my work or they didn’t consider them worth making a fuss over!

Ironically, rather than detracting from my overall thesis, Gee’s emendation of his original account emphasizes the extent to which Protestant norms had grown apart from Catholic practices; the only time one would see a Catholic whipped in the streets of Jacobean England would be at the behest of a magistrate, not of a priest.

(Gee’s mistaken account of Catholics whipping themselves in the streets of Jacobean London is also cited on pages 72 and 91. If anyone should chance to notice any further inaccuracies in the work, please be so good as to let me know!)


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.

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 note though that here “merry” only has one “r”. Still, with the growth of online databases we are more and more being forced to acknowledge that whatever we think we know about the early modern period is provisional. 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

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, 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 to a considerable extent the eroticization of suffering develops discursively 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.

The blog of the book, Pain, Pleasure and Perversity: Discourses of Suffering in Seventeenth-Century England