Suffering in the Modern World #2: Those who live by the sword…

Another political post, that has nothing (much) to do with the seventeenth century (except, perhaps, insofar as ‘plus ça change…’). I’m not planning to make a habit of posts like these – I just want to get it off my chest!

I don’t think I have ever been so upset by a news story as I was by the account, in November 2008, of  a thirteen-year-old girl stoned to death in Somalia for ‘adultery’. The story is one of unmitigated horror. The girl was terrified, and begged for mercy, but was thrust into a hole and buried up to her neck. Some fifty men threw stones at her. Nurses were engaged to confirm that she was dead. She wasn’t, so they threw more stones.

In addition to the horror of the scene was the background to the
case; apparently, the girl was a victim of multiple rape and, instead of
seeking justice for her, the militia in control of the town made her the guilty party. Even the crowd of over a thousand that went to witness the stoning was reportedly appalled. According to a member of that crowd, ‘People were saying this was not good for Sharia law, this was not good for human rights, this was not good for anything’.

But what will always bring a lump to my throat more than anything else is the role of the girl’s father. When his daughter told him what had happened to her, he went to the authorities to try and get justice for her. That, for me, brings out the enormity of what happened more than anything else – a little girl’s trust in her father, his trust in the authorities, and the sheer brutality and callousness of the violation of that trust makes some of the hardest reading I have ever come across. The anguish of the father, and the innocence of the daughter’s trust in him are not described in the accounts of her death, but just thinking about them adds a layer of pathos that I find almost unbearable.

A month later, Chris Albin-Lackey of Human Rights Watch published an article on the humanitarian crisis in Somalia that – while it does not tear at the heartstrings in the same way – is, in its own way, equally upsetting:

America’s most visible response to the crisis has been a series of air strikes against terrorism suspects that have mostly killed civilians. The air strikes – and the way in which US officials have ignored overwhelming evidence of Ethiopian and transitional government war crimes – have fueled anti-American sentiment.

US policy not only has displayed a callous disregard for the basic human rights of Somalis, but it has failed on its own terms, breeding the very extremism it sought to eliminate. Drawing on widespread hostility to the Ethiopian intervention and resentment of the abuses, insurgents loosely grouped under the banner of a group called Al-Shabaab (“youth”) have become the most powerful military force on the ground. Al-Shabaab’s leaders preach a kind of Islamist extremism that had never managed to take root in Somalia before the nightmare of the last two years. (The US Role in Somalia’s Calamity)

It was Al-Shabaab who put that little girl to death, and I’m not going to be shedding too many tears over the fact that they have been ousted from Kismayo, the town where her infamous murder took place. But I worry when I read reports like this:

Mounting concern about the twin threats posed by pirates and Islamic insurgents operating in Somalia has led Britain and other EU nations to consider the feasibility of air strikes against their logistical hubs and training camps, the Guardian has been told. (Somalia: UK weighs up air strikes against rebels)

At that time (February 2012), air strikes in Somalia were just being mooted, but a year later they were a reality – though not one the US was admitting to publicly (January 2013 Update: US covert actions in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia). Five years on, and the same policy of air strikes which Albin-Lackey accuses of ‘breeding the very extremism’ it is supposed to be stamping out is still going strong.

Am I reassured by new American guidelines, stating that ‘before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured’ (Obama’s Speech on Drone Policy)? Not particularly. Within a week of Obama making that speech, reports are coming in that US air strikes have killed and wounded civilians in Afghanistan (Six Afghan civilians killed, 12 injured in US-led air strike). Whether true or not, reports like this on Islamic news channels have verisimilitude, and will continue to radicalize populations against the US.

The message that US policies are backfiring is as pertinent today as it ever has been, with even high-profile mainstream establishment figures like General Stanley McChrystal and General
Cartwright beginning to voice their concerns (The blowback: When American violence leads to anti-American violence).

As I said in my post on torture, the real issue is not the questionable legality of such action, nor whether it is or is not effective. The real issue is that by adopting methods like these the US and its allies lose the moral high ground. The only way the ‘civilized’ world is going to achieve anything worth achieving is by making it clear that is civilized, and that, however brutal and despicable the methods of others are, it will consistently and guaranteeably rise above such methods. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Suffering in the Modern World #1: Torture in the USA

I’m sorry, but this post can hardly avoid being political!

The degree of cruelty and sheer nastiness that one finds in seventeenth-century discourse is connected, in part, with the extent to which pain was publicly inflicted. Whole families might gather to enjoy the spectacle of a bear being tormented by dogs, a public flogging, or the disembowelment and hanging of a criminal. The idea that humans (if not animals) have a right not to be subjected to certain forms of treatment finds rudimentary expression in seventeenth-century England’s 1689 Bill of Rights (1689), which first uses the expression ‘cruel and unusual punishment’.

However, the purpose of the 1689 Bill was not to prohibit specific types of punishment, and the expression ‘cruel and unusual’ in this context ‘seems to have meant a severe punishment unauthorized by statute and not within the jurisdiction of the court to impose’ (Anthony Granucci,  ‘“Nor Cruel and Unusual Punishments Inflicted”: The Original Meaning’, California Law Review, 57.4 (1969): 855–9; p. 859.). In other words, state-inflicted cruelty was defined as a result of authority exceeding its mandate (which might – and did – include whipping and other forms of physical torture), rather than what we understand by that expression today.

Sheldon Richman expresses the modern view when he says, ‘The fundamental case against torture…is…that it is immoral’ (The State of Torture in America). Just as people have a right not to be subjected to certain kinds of treatment, so governments and their agents have a duty not to implement such treatment or allow it to be implemented. Nevertheless, the Findings and Recommendations of the Constitution Project‘s Task Force on Detainee Treatment devote considerable space to the question of whether the American government acted in contravention of its own constitution, which takes us right back to the concept of cruel and unusual as it existed in 1689, as well as exploring the issue of whether – as is claimed – any significant information was obtained by the use of torture on suspected terrorists.

The Task Force’s answer in the first case is, yes; the American government sanctioned behaviour that was ‘directly counter to values of the Constitution’, and in the second case, no; ‘There is no firm or persuasive evidence that the widespread use of harsh interrogation techniques by U.S. forces produced significant information of value.’ On the contrary, ‘There is substantial evidence that much of the information adduced from the use of such techniques was not useful or reliable’ (Findings and Recommendations).

These two points may help to reinforce the basic one – that torture is immoral – but they should not be allowed to obscure it; the point is not whether the constitution can be twisted in such a way as to allow for the mistreatment of prisoners, nor whether such mistreatment may have led to the uncovering of useful intelligence. The point is that torture is wrong. The seventeenth century fascinates me, but we’ve left it behind, and I, for one, have no wish to bring it back!

Suffering Saints

jerome

During the seventeenth century, there were more than a hundred Catholic editions in English of exemplary lives of saints and other holy people, most of which emphasize a willingness – amounting sometimes to what appears to be a compulsion – to suffer pain and degradation, in conjunction with avowals of chastity and a rejection of marriage and profane love. Time and again, the twin embrace of chastity and penance is represented as the essential prerequisite for readers aspiring to travel where the saints have trod.

As Rhodes observes, hagiography is ‘a self-perpetuating genre’ (Jan T. Rhodes, ‘English Books of Martyrs and Saints of the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries’, Recusant History, 22, 1994: 7–25; p. 17), the aim being to inspire the readers themselves to emulate the exemplary lives described; the saints’ first steps towards the path of sainthood would in turn become the first steps of the reader intent on following the same path. The performativity of the text was paramount, and the centrality of chastity and penance can be explained in terms of that performativity. Whereas chastity and suffering were both performable and sufficiently meritorious to mark out those who embraced them as potential protagonists for the next generation of saintly biographies, other behaviour which could be imitated, such as attending mass and saying prayers, or practising such virtues as charity and humility, could be categorized among the attributes of any devout Christian, and was insufficient, in itself, to mark one out for sainthood, while other qualities which would mark one out more specifically as a saint could not be reproduced on demand; one could not perform miracles, or (unless one was highly suggestible) experience visions, or procure martyrdom simply by wishing to do so…

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this subordination of other virtues to the embracing of suffering is the way in which becoming modesty about the performance of penances is attenuated into secrecy and, by being made party to the secret, the reader becomes uncomfortably complicit. The young Catherine of Siena ‘sought out a priuie place in the howse, where she might scourge her selfe with a cord, which she had prouided for that purpose’ (Raymond of Capua, Life of Sainct Catharine of Siena, Douay, 1609, p. 16). As a child, Magdalena de Pazzi ‘tooke secretly certaine long stalkes of Orange trees, which were full of prickles, and binding them hard about her head … past a whole night in excessiue payne, only for the imitation of Iesus, who was crowned with piercing thornes’, and ‘in the most secret places of the house … wold be disciplining of her selfe’ (Vicenzo Puccini, Life of Maddalena de Patsi, London, 1687, p. 9). From an early age, Sister Joan ‘whipped herself with chaines of iron, until she drew bloud’ and, when her penances were discovered by a maid, ‘began with newe care, to seeke another place where with more quiete and peace (without being seene or perceiued of the people) shee might alone enjoy God’ (Antonio Daza, Historie of Sister Ioane, St. Omer, 1625, pp. 20–21).

Images of children hiding away in order to inflict pain on themselves are distressing in themselves; that such images should have been presented to readers as admirable models, worthy of imitation, is almost inconceivable. As Sontag observes, the perception of suffering as ‘something more than just suffering, as a kind of transfiguration’ is ‘rooted in religious thinking, which links pain to sacrifice, sacrifice to exaltation – a view which could not be more alien to modern sensibility, which regards suffering as something that is a mistake or an accident or a crime. Something to be fixed. Something to be refused. Something that makes one feel powerless’ (Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 2003, p. 88).

However, Sontag only describes the prevailing cultural paradigm here, and there are more complex strands of perception and attitudes, which perhaps do connect some aspects of twenty-first century behaviour with an earlier, less secular, age. Mullen suggests that, both for early modern saints and for anorexics and selfharmers in modern times, ‘self-mutilation can serve to help reinstate a boundary between the self as non-existent or non-viable, and an imagined self of authority and self-confidence.’ He sees suffering as having the function of ‘replacing the voiceless and inferior self ’ (Robert F. Mullen, ‘Holy Stigmata, Anorexia and Self-Mutilation: Parallels in Pain and Imagining’, Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, 9.25, 2010: 91–110; p. 102) with a sense of what Glucklich (drawing on Bell), calls ‘autonomy and even empowerment’ (Ariel Glucklich, ‘Self and Sacrifice: A Phenomenological Psychology of Sacred Pain’, Harvard Theological Review, 92.4, 1999: 479–506; p. 501. See also Rudolph M. Bell, Holy Anorexia, Chicago, 1985, pp. 17–20.).

(Adapted from Part 1, Chapter 2, ‘Suffering and Sexuality in Catholic Hagiography’.)

Christia Mercer on suffering and sympathy

Here are links to a couple of PDF files placed in the public domain by Christia Mercer, Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College.

1. Knowledge and Suffering in Early Modern Philosophy: G.W. Leibniz and Anne Conway

2. Sympathy: Early Modern: Anne Conway and G.W. Leibniz DRAFT!

The links are valid at the time of posting; if they do not work when you try to download, please let me know!

Dissection and anatomy

This book gives a fascinating account the beginnings of scientific rationalism, and the way in which the body came to be seen as a kind of machine, with a wide array of sources ranging from the literary and the artistic to the scientific. Review here.

Masochism and Empowerment in Nineteenth-century Women’s Novels


Marianne Noble, The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature (Princeton University Press, 2000)

This is another book that lies outside the geographical and temporal scope of Pain, Pleasure and Perversity, but is nevertheless of interest in the context of the genealogy of masochism (which is, I suppose, the central underlying theme of my own work). Noble emphasizes the ‘double-edged sword’ of eroticized domination as a weapon of ‘both oppression and empowerment’ (as the cover blurb has it). She also – like myself – goes for closely-read textual analysis, laying bare what is really going on under the surface of the texts she discusses. At the very least this book will give you an angle on Uncle Tom’s Cabin you probably never thought of! There’s a good review here.

Sexual flagellation in early modern times

Foucault’s claims about the frankness and tolerance of early modern discourse (Michel Foucault, Histoire de la Sexualité 1: La Volonté de Savoir, Paris, 1976, p. 9.) are echoed by Toulalan, who says, ‘feelings of shame in desiring to be whipped to achieve sexual congress…are not present in earlier seventeenth-century representations, but … are stressed in Fanny Hill, suggesting that there was a fundamental shift in sensibilities between the late seventeenth century and mid-eighteenth century’ (Sarah Toulalan, Imagining Sex: Pornography and Bodies in Seventeenth-Century England (OUP, 2007, p. 92).

However, all my research suggests that Foucault got it wrong. There appears to be no documentation of sexual flagellation, in English at least, prior to about 1599, when John Davies’s intriguingly ambiguous epigram was published:

     When Francus comes to solace with his whore,
He sends for rods and strips himself starke naked,
For his lust sleepes and will not rise before,
By whipping of the wench it be awaked:
I enuie him not, but wish I had the power,
To make my selfe his wench but one halfe howre.

(John Davies, Epigrammes and Elegies ([London, 1599?]), sig, C3r.)

As Moulton and Bromley point out, the sense of the passage hangs on the interpretation of the expression ‘whipping of the wench’ – does she whip him, or does he whip her? (Ian Frederick Moulton, ‘“Printed Abroad and Uncastrated”: Marlowe’s Elegies with Davies’ Epigrams’, in Paul Whitfield ed., Marlowe, History, and Sexuality: New Critical Essays on Christopher Marlowe, New York, 1998, pp. 77–90; p. 86, and James M. Bromley, ‘Social Relations and Masochistic Sexual Practice in The Nice Valour’, Modern Philology, 107.4, 2010: 556–87; pp. 556–7). However, if this passage is taken in the context of other early modern mentions of sexual flagellation, all the weight of the argument comes down on the side of the wench whipping the man. Pico describes the behaviour of the sexual flagellant as a ‘strange sickness’ (‘insolitæ pestis’, Pico de la Mirandola, Disputationes Aduersus Astrologiã, Bologna, 1496, sig. h5r). Meibom, in his 1639 treatise on the phenomenon of sexual arousal by whipping comments on Pico’s and other similar anecdotes, saying:

Let us rejoice that in our Germany these crimes of perverse lust, these affronts to our children…are unknown, or, if perpetrated by anyone (if by chance such a case should come to light), it will be severely punished by avenging flames [that is, the offender will be burnt].

(Johann Heinrich Meibom, De Flagrorum Usu in Re Veneria et Lumborum Renumque Officio, Epistola, Leyden, 1639, p. 16. My translation.)

Davies’s lampoon can be seen as the first of a number of rhymes about the ‘flogging cully’, of which perhaps the most detailed is a late seventeenth-century account of a ‘Bumkin Lout’, who

     … beg’d for Rods, would madly rail,
If Lictors with Rods did not brush his Tail …
And so furious was the Lown,
That he must see the Blood run down.
Thus he delighted above measure,
To feel at once both Pain and Pleasure.
The more tormented, the more he itcht,
None can say, but he was bewitcht.
He was conjur’d into Venus Arms,
No otherwise than by Whipping Charms.
We taught him upon Rue to feed,
To stop the Urine of his Seed,
For fear their should be more of his Breed.

(Robert Dixon, Canidia, or, The Witches a Rhapsody, in Five Parts, London, 1683, p. 96.)

There is a pattern here: Pico describes a male sexual flagellant as suffering from a sickness, Meibom rejoices that, were such a case to occur in Germany, the culprit would be burned, and Dixon’s flagellant is fed rue to prevent him passing on his proclivities to the next generation. Casaubon, too, describes a similar case as being ‘infected’ with a ‘phrenzie’ (Meric Casaubon, A Treatise Concerning Enthusiasm, London, 1655, p. 20). All the examples I unearthed are of a similar nature, indicating a general opprobrium attached to the sexual flagellation of males, with no significant change of attitude according to the period or to the geographical location. In this context, it seems reasonable to suppose that Davies would want to take the whip and beat Francus himself, but very unlikely that he would admit to wanting to be beaten by him.

(Adapted from Part 1, ‘The Suffering Self’, Chapter 3, ‘Polemic, Pornography and Romanticism: The Subversion of Catholic Asceticism’)


This is an 18th century engraving and account, presented to the Royal Society and the College of Physicians, to see if they can give any explanation for such strange behaviour.
Click on the picture to see an enlarged version and read the caption underneath.

Seventeenth-Century Tidbits #4: More about bras

Just when you think you know something someone comes along and turns it all upside down! There I was – along with pretty much everyone else who’d bothered to give the matter a second thought – all cocooned in my certainty that the early modern breast was corseted, and someone goes and digs up a 600-year-old bra that turns all our certitudes on their head!

Suffering in Early Modern Germany


Ronald K. Rittgers, The Reformation of Suffering: Pastoral Theology and Lay Piety in Late Medieval and Early Modern Germany (OUP, 2012). Another recent publication, geographically outside the scope of my book, but thematically very much on-topic. Rittgers emphasizes Protestant patience in accepting suffering as part of God’s will, but – unlike Melissa Sanchez – does not go into the political ramifications. An interesting read, nevertheless, giving an in-depth insight into a particular aspect of Church history. Review.

Ignatius Loyola

Dominique Bouhours (The Life of St. Ignatius, London, 1686, pp. 64–5) recounts how Ignatius, wandering between the French and Spanish armies, is suspected of being a spy and apprehended by some Spanish soldiers:

They stript him, and carried him in his shirt to their Captain. The Remembrance of Jesus Christ, expos’d naked to the Eyes of the Jews, fortify’d Ignatius in an exigence of so great Humiliation: But the fear of being tortur’d did a little terrifie him.

This is a curious little tale. Ignatius whips himself daily, and his
desires for self-abasement are so great that (according to an early
biography) he would ‘beseech our Lord, that his body after his death
might be cast vpon a dunghill, that it might be eaten by foules, and
dogges’. He even confesses to the impulse to ‘goe vp and downe the
streets naked, and al bemyred, that he might be accounted a foole’
(Pedro de Ribadeneira, The Life of B. Father Ignatius of Loyola,
Authour, and Founder of the Society of Iesus, Saint Omer, 1616, p.
139). He is even content to be stripped and abused, both physically and verbally, by a group of soldiers. And yet, faced with the prospect of being subjected to torture at the hands of professionals, he is
terrified.

In the event, the captain takes Ignatius for a fool and dismisses him,
upbraiding the soldiers for bothering him, whereupon ‘the soldiers,
before they parted with him, us’d him very roughly, both in words and blows.’ At this, we are told, ‘The joy which Ignatius had, in being us’d in the Camp of the Spaniards, much after the same rate of Jesus Christ his usage, in the Court of Herod, hindred him almost from feeling the rude treatment of the Souldiers.’

Protestant controversialists, of course, had a field day with accounts
like this, which, as far as they were concerned, had no place in
religious discourse and were nothing other than the Catholics
proclaiming their insanity out of their own mouths. Edward Stillingfleet (apparently commenting on Nicolaus Orlandinus’s Latin account of this episode), comments drily that Ignatius ‘might have saved himself the labour of whipping himself that day’ (A Discourse Concerning the Idolatry Practised in the Church of Rome, London, 1671, pp. 313–14), and Wharton mocks him as one who would ‘counterfeit the Fool and Ideot, that he might be beaten the more severely’ (Henry Wharton, The Enthusiasm of the Church of Rome, London, 1688, p. 94).

To the Protestant Englishman, Ignatius springs from the same stock as the heroic Amadis, the parodic Quixote, even the picaresque anti-hero Guzman de Alfarache, with the caveat that, while they were all mere fictions, Ignatius actually walked the earth, embodying his fantasies in the establishment of the Society of Jesus, whose members, in turn, continued to spread the insane beliefs of their founder.

(Adapted from Part 1, “The Suffering Self”, Chapter 2, “Suffering and Sexuality in Catholic Hagiography”.)

John Bunyan


Given that Bunyan accepts the premises of a God who can actually bestow an eternity of bliss on the chosen and a devil who will eternally torture the condemned it makes good sense for him to submit to the metaphorical ‘rod’ of his Lord for the sake of the salvation of his soul. The belief system within which he operates may be a mechanism which engenders institutionalized masochism, particularly, as Melissa Sanchez argues, in the exploitation of that system for political purposes. but, within its own frame of reference, it is perfectly logical and reasonable.

He also shows good sense by taking up the study of law and engaging his wife to plead on his behalf during his time in prison. And when he says, ‘A man is not bound by the Law of his Lord, to put himself into the mouth of his enemy’ (_Seasonable Counsel_, London, 1684, p. 99), he shows he is not lacking in basic common sense.

On the other hand, he makes choices which reveal a particular
predisposition of his character. It is his choice, for example, to base
his _Acceptable Sacrifice_ (London, 1689) on two verses from the Psalms of David – ‘The Lord is nigh vnto them that are of a broken heart; and saueth such as be of a contrite spirit’, and ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise’ (KJV, Psalms 34:18 and 51:17) – and it is his choice to interpret these verses as not simply saying that God will favour the broken-hearted, but that God will only favour the broken-hearted: ‘all thy Service he will certainly slight and reject; if when thou comest to him, a broken heart be wanting’ (p. 228).

It is equally written in Bunyan’s Bible that ‘A merry heart maketh a
cheerefull countenance: but by sorrow of the heart, the spirit is
broken’, and ‘A merrie heart doth good like a medicine: but a broken
spirit drieth the bones’ (KJV, Proverbs 15:13 and 17:22). Bunyan could equally well have written a book on these verses, or at least have mentioned them, but while the expression ‘broken heart’ occurs over a hundred times in _Acceptable Sacrifice_, he only uses the word ‘merry’ once, and then in the context of condemnation of the ungodly: ‘What! An Unconverted Man, and Laugh! Shouldest thou see one Singing merry Songs, that is riding up Holbourn, to Tyburn, to be hanged for Felony … Man! Man! Thou hast cause to Mourn; yea, thou must Mourn, if ever thou art Saved’ (p. 209).

What Bunyan says can be justified in terms of his religion, but his
religion does not inevitably lead to the conclusions he reaches. To the extent that he emphasizes the need for a broken heart where he could emphasize – or at least acknowledge – the blessings of a merry one, there is a one-sidedness, a perverse tendency towards making a virtue out of misery, that we can hardly scruple to call masochistic.

(Adapted from Part 1, “The Suffering Self”, Chapter 1, “Constructs of Suffering in Seventeenth-Century England”.)

Epicureanism and sedition

Misconceptions about Epicureanism were rife during the early modern period. The most deep-rooted and persistent misconception of all was the equation of Epicureanism with hedonism. Despite the sixteenth-century ‘“rehabilitation” of Epicurus by Valla, Erasmus, Ficino, and Landino (among others)’, and the fact that ‘Montaigne and Burton among others recognized that Epicurean pleasure could involve the most austere forms of self-sacrifice’ (Reid Barbour, English Epicures and Stoics, Amherst, MA, 1998, pp. 14 and 49), the belief that Epicurus ‘was licentious in his Life, and lewd in his Opinions’, and that Epicures ‘live…in stately Palaces, abounding with sensual luxury, and all manner of riot’ (Thomas Hall, An Expositionon…the Prophecy of Amos, London, 1661, pp. 307 and 338) – perceptions largely based on the forged letters of Diotimus, and not actually connected with anything Epicurus himself ever asserted – was fairly widespread.

The supposed licentiousness of Epicurus was seen as both morally reprehensible and politically dangerous during the seventeenth century. Thomas Brown, a late seventeenth-century apologist for Epicurus, declares that ‘the greatest part of Men condemn Epicurus, and reject his Doctrine, not only as unworthy of a Philosopher, but what is more severe, as dangerous to the Common-wealth’ (Thomas Brown, ‘Reflections upon the Doctrine of Epicurus’, in Saint-Evremond, Miscellany Essays upon Philosophy, History, Poetry, Morality, Humanity, Gallantry &c., trans. from the French by Thomas Brown, London, 1694, pp. 211–80; p. 211), though Epicurus had, in fact, had his apologists all through the century; John Hall, for example, had, during the 1650s, declared that ‘each particular member, being naturally led to seek pleasure and avoid pain, may, in the pursuit hereof, (by politick designation) follow the good of the Commonwealth also’, concluding that what is necessary for the smooth functioning of society is ‘a just and seasonable moderation between Epicurism and Stoicism, between natural enjoyment and vertuous restraint’ (John Hall, Of Government and Obedience, London, 1654, pp. 99 and 413).

The main unifying principle underlying seventeenth-century humanistic and philosophical discourse on pain is the tension between the Epicurean assumption that the individual will, naturally and rightly, avoid suffering where possible and the codification of suffering in terms of civil obedience; as a sermon entitled Of Patience and Submission to Authority puts it, ‘we are bound to be not onely content, but to rejoice, when men revile us, and we suffer all manner of evil for righteousness sake’ (John Moore, Of Patience and Submission to Authority, London, 1684, pp. 6).

(Adapted from Part 1, ‘The Suffering Self’, Chapter 1, ‘Constructs of Suffering in Seventeenth-Century England’.)

Toulalan, _Imagining Sex_

Toulalan’s book gives a fairly comprehensive insight into attitudes towards sex in the seventeenth century, building on the insights gained by works like Ian Moulton, Before Pornography: Erotic Writing in Early Modern England (OUP, 2000), but I have a fair few criticisms. Toulalan assumes that Foucault got it right in saying that, at the dawn of the century, people discussed sex frankly and openly, and applies this – mistakenly – to discussion of sexual flagellation. She does not convincingly support her assertion that ‘beating and whipping were practised supposedly for their alleged spiritual benefits, but really because they brought sexual pleasure and gratification’ (p. 99) and her references do not support her claim that ‘For the most part, though not entirely, sexual flagellation is represented as a Catholic practice, pursued and promoted by a corrupt and hypocritical priesthood’ (p. 100). This becomes truer as the century progresses, but it is scarcely true prior to the Civil War, and only starts to become widespread at around the time of the Oates Plot.

Toulalan does not give page references, which is a serious weakness in an academic work, and makes it hard to check her sources. In this particular case, she supports her claim with only one reference dating from the first half of the century (most of the others are from the 1680s), and that reference – to Thomas Robinson, The Anatomy of the English Nunnery at Lisbon in Portugall (London, 1622) – is, at best, inconclusive; the nuns are exploited sexually by Father Foster who ‘play[s] rex’ over them (p. 18), but it is highly dubious whether this implies that he beat them either for his or their sexual pleasure (according to Webster, the expression means ‘domineer’, but OED says it simply means to ‘play tricks’). Altogether, Toulalan’s book is a fairly useful guide to early modern sexuality, but its claims need to be crosschecked and should not be assumed to be correct as they stand.

Loving one’s enemies

Despite institutionalized punishments that most people today would consider to be cruel, emphasis on compassion – a heartfelt assertion that ‘true Christians haue compassion towards their enemies’ (Thomas Wilson, Saints by Calling: or Called to be Saints, London, 1620, p. 386) – is one of the salient features of seventeenth-century Protestant discourse. Richard Baxter was particularly insistent that ‘he that cannot love his enemy, bless them that curse him, and pray for them that hate and persecute him, and return good for evil, can be no child of God’ (Richard Baxter, A Treatise of Self-Denial, London, 1675), p. 204). The number of seventeenth-century publications citing Matthew 5:44 is in the hundreds, more than ten times as many as during the sixteenth century (even allowing for the increase in the number of publications this is a significant increase), and the variety is as notable as the quantity, ranging across every shade of puritan and episcopalian belief.

In Catholic texts, Matthew 5:44 is discussed far less frequently, and the emphasis is on suffering with Christ on the cross and the spirit of Luke 23:34, on forgiving one’s enemies when one suffers at their hands, rather than on loving them and showing them compassion when they are suffering. Cristóbal de Fonseca, who gives a long sermon on loving one’s enemies (Deuout Contemplations Expressed in Two and Fortie Sermons vpon all ye Quadragesimall Gospells, London, 1629, pp. 39-61), exemplifies the ambiguous feelings of Catholics towards this subject. In that sermon, he says, ‘the hurt is so great to him that doth the wrong, that he that is wronged ought to take pittie and compassion of him’ (p. 52), but later on in the same work he lets slip his true feelings: ‘No man will trust the pittie and compassion of an enemy’ (p. 639).

Despite his inconsistency on this point, Fonseca’s company would nevertheless, in all likelihood, have been preferable to that of those Christian gentlefolk who extended a pious hand in pity – ‘thou also diddest lend him thine hand, to haue puld him out of the fire’ – only to reflect spitefully on how such compassion serves ultimately to confound the reprobate still more: ‘because he still hated to be reformed … hee will bee more and more fearefully ashamed, and confounded at that great and fearefull Day’ (Robert Bolton, Some Generall Directions for a Comfortable Walking with God, London, 1626, pp. 79 and 122). Ultimately, though, little as such comparisons flatter the godly, Fonseca is representative of a general failure among Catholics to broadcast a consistent and convincing message of loving kindness and forgiveness towards their enemies, and that failure cost them dear in its reflection in Protestant polemic.

(Adapted from Part 2, ‘The Suffering of Others’, Chapter 4, ‘Cruelty and Compassion’.)

The Art of Suffering

Ann Thompson, The Art of Suffering and the Impact of Seventeenth-Century Anti-Providential Thought (Ashgate, 2003).

This book gives a useful insight into the decline of the ‘art of suffering’ in the seventeenth century. As Thompson explains, during the earlier part of the century, writers like Richard Rogers, Paul Baynes, John Downame, Henry Scudder, Thomas Gouge, Nicolas Byfield, Thomas Taylor, Edward Reyner and Isaac Ambrose discourse on the ‘voluntaristic art of suffering’, teaching ‘both how to “cope with” and how to “grow from”’ affliction. From the 1640s on, though, she notes the emergence of a different kind of discourse, teaching the sufferer only how to ‘cope with’ affliction, not how to ‘grow from’ it. This kind of discourse is exemplified by writers like William Perkins, Joseph Hall, Jeremiah Burroughs, Thomas Watson, Jeremy Taylor, Simon Patrick, Thomas Brooks, Richard Baxter, William Bates, Richard Allestree and Nathaniel Spinckes.

The drawback to her work is that it feels rather too much like what it is – a PhD thesis worked up into a book.There’s an abiding sense that it was written to satisfy the examiners, rather than engage a more general readership. If you can get past that, though, it marshals quite a lot of evidence (admittedly from a fairly narrow range of sources) and makes some useful points.