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, but it is still very clear just how far back into human history the concept of masochism can be traced.

Coney-catching: An early modern crime wave sweeps the streets of London

I suppose this post can be vaguely connected with my recent post on landscape and power, insofar as its subject matter is the language of the country poacher transposed into the urban environment of early modern London.

“Coney” (or “cony” or “conny” or other variants) is an old word (still used in some rural areas of England) for a rabbit, and came during the early modern period to have the secondary meaning of a dupe, the victim of a con artist or thief (Mirriam-Webster).

Rabbits are not indigenous to England, and were introduced from Europe some time before about the thirteenth century. There’s quite a good article here about the introduction of rabbits and their role in the late medieval economy. As its author, Mark Bailey, explains, rabbits were actually quite difficult to rear in those days. Apparently rabbits did not begin to breed like rabbits in England until the eighteenth century!

Poaching rabbits was normally punishable by a fine, and Bailey devotes a large portion of his paper to the activities of poachers:

The attraction of poaching was its simplicity and its profitability. Most warrens were situated on vast and isolated
tracts of heathland, some distance from the nearest village and were therefore exposed and palpably difficult to protect. In addition, the rabbit prefers to leave its burrow and graze nocturnally, thus presenting poachers with excellent cover from the protective gaze of warren officials and with easier pickings on the ground. With no necessity to drive the colony from its burrows, they merely surrounded the unsuspecting animals with nets and rounded them up with dogs. The stout warren lodges provided a base for the warreners’ operations against the poachers and welcome protection in case of danger, but  they fought a losing battle. (p. 17)

Poaching rabbits, then, was pretty much a staple way for peasants to supplement their diet. On another tack, rabbits were a big hit in the marginalia of medieval manuscripts, frequently depicted as turning the tables on humans and dogs. Here’s a selection:

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There’s some fun stuff on medieval killer bunnies here.

So anyway, back to early modern London, and suddenly coney catchers are no longer poachers out for rabbits, but thieves and con artists out looking for a mark.


It’s not clear whether Robert Greene coined the term or merely popularized it in his pamphlets on conny-catchers, which are discussed in blog posts here and here.

But perhaps the fullest account of coney-catchers and the shady underworld of early modern London (apart, of course, from Greene’s pamphlets themselves) is to be found in G.L. Craik’s “Old London Rogueries”, in volume 4 of Charles Knight’s London (1843, pp. 145-160):

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There are probably many more examples of the language of the countryside being transposed onto urban life during this period. If anyone knows any, please pass them on!

Robert Greene’s pamphlets are in the public domain on the Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership database:

A notable discouery of coosenage

The second part of conny-catching

The third and last part of conny-catching

The defence of conny catching

Early modern sex manual

“Aristotle’s Masterpiece, not a masterpiece nor by Aristotle”

Aristoteles Master-piece, or, The Secrets of Generation Displayed in all the parts thereof. Containing, 1. The signs of barrenness. 2. The way of getting a boy or girl. 3. Of the likeness of children to parents. 4. Of the infusion of the soul into the infant. 5. Of monstrous births, and the reasons thereof. 6. Of the benefit of marriage to both sexes. 7. The prejudice of unequal matches. 8. The discovery of insufficiency. 9. The cause and cure of the green-sickness. 10. A discourse of maiden-heads. 11. How a midwife ought to be qualified. 12. Directions and cautions to midwifes. 13. Of the privities. 14. The fabrick of the womb. 15. The use and action of the genitals. 16. Signs of conception, and whether of a male or female. 17. To discover false conceptions. 18. Instructions for women with child. 19. For preventing miscarriage. 20. For women in child-bed. 21. Of ordering new-born infants, and many other very useful particulars. To which is added a word of advice to both sexes in the act of copulation: and the pictures of several monsterous births drawn to the life, 1st edition, Printed for J. How, and are to be sold next door to the Anchor Tavern in Sweethings-Rents in Cornhil, 1684

Dominic Winter is auctioning one of only three known complete copies of the first edition of a seventeenth-century manual on sex and childbirth. As a detailed post in The History Blog explains:

The book is a compilation of the most sensationalized parts of two 16th century volumes, The Secret Miracles of Nature (1564) by Levinus Lemnius and De conceptu et generatione hominis (1554), a midwifery manual by Jakob Rüff. It was one of almost two dozen books about midwifery printed in the wake of the great success of Nicholas Culpeper’s Directory for Midwives, published in 1651. What made the Masterpiece stand out in the crowd was its promise of advice on “the act of copulation” on the very title page.

The same source points out that some of the woodcuts were “yoinked from French barber surgeon Ambroise Paré’s 1573 treatise Of Monsters and Prodigies“, which added to its appeal, and it went into over 250 editions, both pirated and legal (The History Blog).

Among other things, there’s  some very sound advice on foreplay:



Muscadine – now why didn’t I think of that!

At an estimated £10,000-15,000, this looks like an excellent birthday present choice for the discerning gent who has everything.

Early modern landscape history “from below”

“A Walk in the Park: History from Below and the English Landscape”

This is a fascinating post from Mark Hailwood on seeing the landscape in terms of early modern power struggles.  Hailwood builds on the scholarship of E. P. Thompson (The Making of the English Working Class) and W.G. Hoskins, and a piece by Nicola Whyte.

Basically he’s saying that the countryside we walk through – say, something like this …

Petworth1… is pretty much inevitably a consequence of something like this …

petworthpkeng1835_500… with bits of something like this (Lord Egremont and his dogs) …

petworth-park-with-lord-egremont-and-his-dogs-tate1… in between, not to mention the Percys, sixteenth-century enclosures and Queen Elizabeth’s canny grasp of the concept of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. All in all, an intriguing read!


You know he loves you when he gives you a golden ear-scoop


Present from Henry VIII to his heart-throb Anne Boleyn: a golden whistle with toothpick, ear-scoop, and (I think) something to clean out the dirt from under the fingernails. Not to mention the phallic symbolism (it’s shaped like a pistol, with snakes twined round it). If that doesn’t work, nothing will!

But she kept her head (for the time being). She wasn’t going to jump into bed with him, like her sister did.

No, it was all or nothing for her…


Early modern blogs

If you like this blog, here are a few others you might want to know about:

With that you link you may feel you’ve got the whole field at your fingertips – and you have! – but here are just a couple of individual blogs that I’ve found helpful:

  • History of Emotions Just what it says it is! Very lively, with new posts every couple of weeks and guest posts from time to time.
  • Panacea: Musings on the history of medicine A good little blog, though it seems to have run out of energy (no new posts for the last few months). Still, a lot of interesting posts to be mined!


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.

Apparently, I’ve written a work of outstanding scholarship!

I was particularly pleased to wake up to Sarah Toulalan‘s review of Pain, Pleasure and Perversity in Theology and Sexuality this morning. Her own work, Imagining Sex: Pornography and Bodies in Seventeenth-Century England (OUP, 2007), was one of the first books I ploughed through during the early stages of the project.

While Toulalan covers the entire gamut of early modern sexuality (well, most of it!) in her work, my focus was considerably narrower, so only a couple of chapters of her book were directly relevant to my topic. Even so, I got quite a lot of tips from it on where to look for material to develop my own thesis. Since I was going so much more deeply into that particular area, it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that I came to a rather more specific conclusion about it than she did. Whereas she writes that, during the seventeenth century in general, ‘For the most part, though not entirely, sexual flagellation is represented as a Catholic practice, pursued and promoted by a corrupt and hypocritical priesthood’ (pages 99 & 100), I found on close examination of the material that this only became true very slowly over the course of the century. Up until about the middle of the century anti-Catholic satirical polemic tended to consist of variations on the theme of ‘they deserve to be whipped because they’re naughty boys’, and it was only very gradually that ascetic suffering started to be conflated with suffering for the purposes of sexual gratification until, by the end of the century, it became the predominant paradigm:

In came a ghastly Shape, all pale, and thin,
As some poor Sinner, who by Priest had been
Under a long Lent’s Penance, starv’d, and whip’d,
Or par-boil’d Lecher, late from Hot-house crept … .

John Oldham, Poems, and Translations (1683), p. 164

All in all, then, it was, as I say, a great pleasure to wake up and find that Sarah Toulalan had written about my work in such glowing terms. It quite made up for the last review, by Thomas Palmer in the Journal of Theological Studies, which I was moved to comment on here!

Pain, Pleasure and Perversity: Discourses of Suffering in Seventeenth-Century England is 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. Yamamoto-Wilson convincingly argues that in northern/
Protestant Europe during the seventeenth century there was a shift in such thinking and attitudes that meant that these behaviours came to be regarded as perverse and to be associated with sex, and frequently with religious others, especially Catholics.

Pages 257-8

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!)

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!


Finally I’ve got the piece of paper in my hand. It’s only taken 40 years!

Posted by John R. Yamamoto-Wilson on Saturday, 1 August 2015


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


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, 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.

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