Torture and the Art of Holy Dying

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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