All posts by jyamamo

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. Stress and depression are serious health problems, if you suffer any of these this blog post is going to help you a lot.

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 that people do even using diets they find online as in this Rapid tone reviews… there is a lack of intent to kill in the first instance ; … the protagonists are less likely to have pre-planned the attack and are, therefore, less likely to bring weapons to the scene ; and … they are more likely than, for instance, cases of domestic violence to involve protagonists of similar strength. It is likely, therefore, that improvements in medical care would have a particular impact on the extent of homicides arising from male-on-male fighting relative to other forms of homicide.

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

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

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

Two new books on the history of pain

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

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

Both books are also reviewed by Ian Miller.

Medieval Manuscripts: the Crude and the Macabre

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

Follow Euan McCartney’s bizarre posts  here.

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Damned if we do! Using the EEBO TCP Database

Can we use the EEBO TCP database?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related posts:


Using the Early English Books Online and Text Creation Partnership Databases

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Responding to criticism

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

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

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

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

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

Marcus begins her review with the words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Using the Early English Books Online and Text Creation Partnership Databases

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related posts:

Damned if we do! Using the EEBO TCP database


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Protestant Reception of Catholic Literature


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

Torture and the Art of Holy Dying

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This insistence that the dying person be both conscious of their agonies and patiently accepting of them is at the core of the early modern “art of suffering”, which is the title of Ann Thompson’s book on Puritan attitudes to suffering in the seventeenth century, and which I have written a few comments on here. Thompson focuses on only a narrow range of writers, and analyzes the way in which their approach to the subject of suffering and death was deconstructed by the advance of “anti-providential thought” during the seventeenth century. She notes that, by the later part of the century, Puritan treatises on suffering deal rather with pain management than with the concept of spiritual growth or development through suffering, What Weisser and Sanchez and, I think, my own work demonstrate is that the decline of faith in God’s providence – and a concomitant rejection of the concept of the inevitability, necessity and utility of suffering – can be observed across across a much wider spectrum of writings, opening the way, philosophically, to widespread acceptance of the pleasure principle – the Epicurean idea that it is both natural and right to avoid suffering – as an approach to life, and leading to a society sanitized of suffering by antibiotics, distanced from it by television cameras, toying with it as a means to achieving short-term objectives in sports and sadomasochistic role play, but largely incapable even of imagining the role it played in the lives of people like John Donne or Jeremy Taylor. [contact-form][contact-field label=’Name’ type=’name’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Email’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Website’ type=’url’/][contact-field label=’Comment’ type=’textarea’ required=’1’/][/contact-form]

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


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

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

The table of contents:

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

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

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

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

Afterword; Coppélia Kahn

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Table of Contents:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Sufferings of the Martyrs and the Transgressive Female Gaze

Sharon Howard, ‘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. 367-382, is one of those articles that appeared some years ago, but which I have only just come across. (The link, by the way, is to an open-access final proof of the article; to see it in published form log into Oxford Journals.) Hannah Newton, ‘”Very Sore Nights and Days”: The Child’s Experience of Illness in Early Modern England, c. 1580–1720’, Medical History, (2011), pp 153-182, picks up on a point made by Howard, saying, ‘According to Sharon Howard, seventeenth-century lay-people probably learned of torture not from the judicial system, but from the literature of Christian martyrdom’ (Newton, p. 163, referring to Howard, pp. 374-5 [p. 11 of the proof]).

[Three midwives attending to a pregnant woman Jakob
Rueff, ca.1500-1558]


Howard cites Alice Thornton’s account of childbirth:

Make this fire of affliction instrumentall to purge the drosse of all my sinns of negligencys, ignorances, and willfull transgressions, that I may come out like gold out of the furnish.

The Autobiography of Mrs Alice Thornton of East Newton, Co.York, ed. by C. Jackson (Surtees Society, Edinburgh, 1875), p. 90.
The extent to which both men and women identified with suffering martyrs is one of the recurrent themes of my research, so naturally this account piques my interest. Newton notes that children, too, would liken their sufferings during illness to those of the martyrs:


…twelve-year-old Charles Bridgman in 1632 … when considering his pains … ‘called to mind that Martyr Thomas Bilney’, who had burned his own finger in a candle to give himself a taste of what it would be like to burn at the stake.64 Girls as well as boys mentioned martyrs in this way. Fourteen-year-old Mary Glover compared herself to her grandfather, who died a martyr, by repeating his dying words, ‘The comforter is come. O Lord, you have delivered me’. (P. 163)

Of course, as Newton goes on to say, those in pain could see their sufferings either in terms of the redemptive suffering of the martyr, or as a foretaste of the sufferings of the damned. And a third major factor in the way early moderns may have conceptualized their pain ‘in the context of possession’, with its belief in”familiar spirits” …. [which] were animal-shaped evil spirits used by witches to harm or possess their victims’ (p. 165). Newton cites Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic 1971, repr. London: Penguin, 1991, p. 566, for the view that children were particularly likely to have recourse to such imagery.


What I want to try and find out more about is the response, particularly of women, to the depictions of suffering in works such as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, not when they were ill or experiencing the pangs of childbirth, but when they were in a state of health where they were experiencing pain, although after childbirth some women like to get a cosmetic surgery or a SkinMD laser hair removal to improve their appearance.

They finally got treated after finding the right pain clinic in the Opioid News. I’m interested in evidence of women identifying transgressively or subversively with such texts (and, of course, with the images contained in those texts) and gaining a perverse satisfaction from the depictions of suffering.

Certainly, Mary Wroth describes scenes of both male and female suffering with tremendous relish (a subject I touch on both in my monograph and in one of my blog entries. Rather than seeing her as colluding in the gratification of the male gaze, her frank enjoyment of scenes of suffering (not a few of which – Polarchos at the hands of the Princess of Rhodes, Selarinus humiliated before the Queen of Epirus – involve male victims of female tormentresses) suggests to me a lively female eroticism. Wroth’s vivid description of a jousting tournament – ‘the cruellest, and yet delightfullest Combate, (if in cruelty there can be delight) that Martiall men euer performed’ (The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania, London, 1621, p. 62) – is a clear account of the erotics of the female gaze, and I am interested in exploring that gaze and its role in seventeenth-century sexual politics. All leads and suggestions welcome!

On Placebos

Probably of relevance to Daniel Goldberg’s comments on the history of pain (which I commented on in my last post) is Charles Rosenberg on ‘The Efficacy of Placebos: A Historian’s Perspective’ (Harvard, May 21). Goldberg has quite a lot to say about placebos, and their place in the history of the perception of pain, and Rosenberg will doubtless have plenty more to say on the subject. Too bad I’m thousands of miles away from Harvard! Perhaps there’ll be a transcript, or even a podcast…

On the Treatment of Pain

My attention was caught by two recent publications in the blog of The Appendix (‘a quarterly journal of experimental and narrative history’). The first is ‘Interpreting “Physick”: The Familiar and Foreign Eighteenth-Century Body’, by Lindsay Keiter. The second, in reply to the former, is Daniel S. Goldberg on ‘The History of Pain’.

Goldberg takes issue with Keiter’s assertion that ‘there was nothing available for mild, systemic pain relief in the eighteenth century’, frequently citing Esther Cohen, The Modulated Scream: Pain in Late Medieval Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2009) to show that pain management has a history going back much further than the eighteenth century. Samantha Sandassie weighs in on Goldberg’s side on Twitter, saying surgical casebooks & treatises contain a fair bit of information on pain management and noting early modern accounts such as those of Elizabeth Freke and Ralph Josselin.

This is, in a sense, a matter of nuance, rather than of absolutes; Sandassie herself shows pretty graphically in her own blog (Panacea: Musings on the History of Medicine) how the concept of pain in the medical context has changed over the centuries.

Goldberg goes on to discuss the issue of the effectiveness of pain management in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century contexts, arguing that modern conceptions of effectiveness and ‘what works’ cannot be applied to earlier periods. This approach emphasizes the perception of medical treatment and, again, the extent to which this is valid is a matter of degree. Benjamin Breen, editor of The Appendix, tweeted ‘on the other hand, the biological efficacy of drugs had a real historical role, no?

The main lessons I drew from the exchange were that Cohen’s work is probably worth a read and that the whole issue of premodern medical attitudes towards and treatment of pain is a complicated one. As far as I can see, Keiter didn’t get it fundamentally wrong; she merely overstated her case in an attempt to make a valid point.


Catching Up…

The last couple of months have been pretty hectic and I haven’t had much time to post here, so let me give a brief rundown of recent developments.

First, let me start with the stuff I’m missing out on, being here in Japan. I was sorry to miss a roundtable discussion on Violence, Victimhood and Virtue, Friday 2 May, 4:30-6:00 (with tea from 4 p.m.), Colin Matthews Room, Radcliffe Humanities Building, Woodstock Road, Oxford. The central question – ‘How do readers engage with a hero or heroine’s suffering, courage, pain, and defiance?’ – is right up my street, and I should have been very much in my milieu sipping tea in those august surroundings, listening to Eva Miller holding forth on ‘The Suffering Male and the Female Gaze in Modern Popular Culture’ and Kate Cooper on ‘Early Christian Martyr Narratives and the “Viral” Emotions’. But, alas, it was not to be!

I will also be unable to attend the conference on Early Modern Women, Religion and the Body (Loughborough, July 22-23), though at least I will be able to follow proceedings via Early Modern Women on Twitter. I’m especially interested in the following topic areas:

Suffering as part of religious experience and conversion
Spritual melancholy, madness, demonic possession, or witchcraft
Chastity and religious life
The miraculous or martyred female body

Yet another conference I missed out on was The Hurtful Body (Royal Flemish Academy, Brussels, November 21-22, 2013). This seems to have been a very fruitful meeting of minds and I was flattered (despite not being able to attend personally) to be invited to contribute a chapter to a collection of papers arising from the conference. The emphasis is on the visual arts, which lies beyond the province of my normal text-based research, and I am not sure whether I can come up with something that will satisfy the editors’ requirements, but I certainly intend to try!

Another little feather in my cap was an article in the latest volume of Recusant History (May 2014), which is out in print but doesn’t seem to available online yet. It’s on the general topic of ‘The Protestant Reception of Catholic Devotional Literature in England to 1700’, and isn’t related to attitudes towards suffering, but it’s from my research into Protestant readers of Catholic texts that I approached the whole subject of early modern suffering, so there’s a link there somewhere!

If that floats your boat, I’ve got another, related, paper coming out in the next issue of Reformation and Renaissance Review, entitled ‘Robert Persons’s Resolution and the Issue of Textual Piracy in Protestant Editions of Catholic Devotional Literature’. Again, it’s about the Protestant reception of Catholic literature rather than about issues relating to suffering, but it was through a study of Protestant readers of Catholic literature that my attention was drawn to the two radically different discourses of suffering developing synchronously during the seventeenth century.

I will be in Cambridge in September, for the Reformation Studies Colloquium and, between one thing and another, I’ll be in the UK for much of the summer. I will be in need of light relief, uplifting company, good food and beer, so like-minded individuals please take note & get in touch!

I’ll be back in due course with some more tidbits on suffering, but not for a while perhaps. Gird your gonads, grit your teeth and settle in for a bit of a wait!


Check out Jan Frans van Dijkhuisen’s review of Pain, Pleasure and Perversity here: You’ll need a JSTOR log-in to read the whole thing, but if anyone without one is particularly keen to read it, just e-mail me and I may be able to sort you out!

Anyway, here’s the first paragraph, just to give you a taster:

Pain, Pleasure and Perversity is a thoroughly researched and
highly original addition to the growing scholarly conversation on conceptions of suffering, embodiment, and sensory experience in early modern culture. Recent studies on these topics have focused at least in part on the impact that the religious upheavals of the Reformation period had on the way early modern Europeans understood the nature of embodiment and on the meanings they attached to bodily suffering. Yamamoto-Wilson’s study approaches the interplay between religious change and the cultural understanding of suffering more directly from the perspective of sexuality. His interest is partly in changing perceptions of self-inflicted religious suffering. He argues that during the seventeenth century self-inflicted pain, with self-flagellation as one of its more conspicuous manifestations, began to be seen as masochistic — as a species of sexual perversion, rather than as a form of imitatio Christi. Especially during the decades after the
Restoration, suffering seems to have lost much of the punitive and redemptive connotations that it carried in pre-Reformation culture. Pain, Pleasure and Perversity is divided into three parts that examine this development through the prisms of “the suffering self,” “the suffering of others,” and “suffering and gender.”

Van Dijkhuisen is the author of several works on the subject of early modern suffering, notably his recent monograph, Pain and Compassion in Early Modern English Literature and Culture.

Don’t say “Dark Ages”…

…not unless you want to upset medievalists!

I’m speaking from experience here. It’s not that I actually want to call them the Dark Ages, but I ventured to suggest in the LinkedIn Medieval and Renaissance Studies group that it was understandable that people used the term:

these were “Dark Ages” if you think it’s a good thing
not to have children growing up with gallows and whipping posts in the street, if you think that even if a surgery is done by the Top Surgeon it is still better with anaesthetics than without, if you don’t want to be told that your only real purpose here on earth is to partake of the sufferings of Christ.

I do temper that by saying:

However, they were not uniquely dark – oppressive attitudes towards suffering have prevailed, and still do prevail, in other ages and places – and if you believe that suffering may perhaps have a purpose and not simply be something to avoid then the medieval period was possibly even more enlightened than today.

But apparently the rider doesn’t make up for the original sin! I stirred up a bit of a hornets’ nest, it seems, and the discussion ended up in flames.

The same debate carried over into another thread, where feelings also ran pretty high, but without people actually going over the top.

Surgical Implements

A couple of weeks ago I posted in answer to a question on Quora about whether there was such a thing as necessary suffering. I began by saying that in an age before anaesthetics this question could hardly even have been asked. I then went on, in my wonted fashion, to discuss the issue in a rather abstract and philosophical way. This brings home the point rather more directly:


These surgical instruments from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are (left) lithotomy dilator; dental forceps; trepan; dental forceps;
(right) double-bladed bistoury; forceps for extracting arrow head; bullet extractor;
(below) surgical saw.


Disturbingly erotic…or not?

I posted this a few months ago, but I’m having some trouble with spambots on a few of my posts, so I’m republishing with a slightly different permalink to see if that resolves the problem. Apologies to those who’ve already seen it!
An art historian is claiming that Dürer’s work is deeply erotic, in a highly explicit but subliminal way. The trouble is, she gives the answer away, and once you know the answer it’s impossible to unknow it! As a result, I can no longer look at the picture with objective eyes. So I’m asking you. Take a good look, spend several minutes and – here’s a hint – focus on other stuff going on in the picture, not on the woman breastfeeding the baby. It might also help if you half-close your eyes, forget that it’s representational art and think of it as something a bit like a Rorschach test. Think dirty!

Then take take a look at what Dr Garner says. Click on comments to see a summary of reactions so far…

Researching the Seventeenth Century Online: Tools of the Trade

[I posted this in 2014, but since so much of the EEBO TCP database came into the public domain in January 2015 I thought it worth updating.]

For those who come to this blog from academia, this is probably a post you can skip, but for people in other walks of life I thought it might be worth submitting a short piece on some of the basic tools of the trade.

When I first started researching the early modern period, in the 1970s, I spent nearly all my time in the Rare Books Room at Cambridge University Library with several ancient tomes in front of me, something like this:

Mumby Rare Books RoomThe room has been completely redesigned since my postgraduate days, but it’s the same basic process. These days, I still do a lot of my real research in the same room, but a lot of the time I’m working on one of the computers in a glass-partitioned area at the back of the room. This is because much of the corpus of early modern books in English (which is what I mostly work on) is available online at  Early English Books Online (EEBO). Yes, you need a password and log-in before you can actually access the database, and subscription is through institutions, not issued on an individual basis, which effectively locks the average person out, but there is some good news for Joe public, which I’ll come to later. Basically, what  subscribers get from EEBO is a PDF image of the original text. When it first started going online (in phases, during the 1990s) it was a radical improvement on microfilm, which was fiddly to use, gave you headache and came a poor second to having the actual book in your hand. EEBO PDFs can be viewed page by page online or downloaded as a single PDF file, making it an acceptable – even, sometimes, a preferred – alternative to reading the actual printed book.Now, though, even that’s been superseded. EEBO PDFs, with all their advantages, were not text-searchable, meaning you had to – gasp! – read stuff to know whether it was relevant to what you were researching or not. The Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership changed all that. Until January 2015, it too was only accessible via subscription, but these days some 25,000 texts are in the public domain. Yes, you read that right – 25,000! Go to one of the search pages (I usually use the Boolean search) and enter some search terms. For example, if you search for Shakespeare or Shaksper and plays you get these results. Even without logging in you can find out that (at the last count) there are 75 publications prior to 1700 which contain these terms. If you can log in, you’d be able to read the exact pages on which the search terms occur, as well as being able to search for other terms in any of the 75 search results. Even if you can’t log in you will still  be able to see the full text of the public domain items and search for other lexical terms within those texts. When you realize that you can do this for any search terms you can envisage you see that this is a very powerful research tool. Something which would have taken a lifetime of research a couple of generations ago can now be clinched with a few mouse-clicks. For example, one can do a proximity search to find out something like this:

A search of EEBO TCP indicates that (including variant spellings) cruel/cruelty is closely collocated with unjust/injustice or iniquity – normally conveying the idea that an act is cruel if the intention behind it is unjust – in only about 80 texts during the whole of the sixteenth century. However, during the seventeenth century, there are over 1,500 such collocations, more than a third of which were published between 1680 and 1700. (Pain, Pleasure and Perversity, introduction, page 14; you can download the complete introduction here).

That makes it sound a bit easier than it actually is. Firstly, it would be a mistake to assume that all the results are necessarily relevant; you have to go through and check them to see whether the contexts in which the search terms are used really do support the point you are making. One would want to know, too, the genres in which these terms were used; a term or expression that was used in, let’s say, romance poetry in the sixteenth century might resurface in legal tracts in the seventeenth.And to know how significant it is that the words justice and cruelty were increasingly being used in the same breath one would also want to know how often they were used independently of each other. Suppose one of your search terms was a word or expression coined in the late sixteenth century that only caught on slowly; its overall use would have been low in the sixteenth century, so an increase in its collocation with another expression might only reflect the general pattern of increase as it came into wider usage.Then there’s the problem of multiple editions of the same work. EEBO TCP is patchy in this respect, with multiple editions of some works but not of others, so you’d need to think about how multiple editions of a work might affect the results. The example given is a fairly large sample, which would be less affected by, say, the inclusion or omission of a glut of editions of a single work during the space of a few years, but it could make a big difference to a smaller sample.There’s the slow increase of books published over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to take into account as well; one needs to consider not just the raw numbers, but what those numbers represent in terms of the percentage of the total number of books published at that time. And information about the size of editions is often unavailable. A particularly large – or small – print run could make a significant difference, especially to a small sample.Issues like these make it a far from straightforward matter to interpret the insights one can gain from the EEBO TCP database. Even so, the insights one can gain are startling. Twenty years ago, if anyone had speculated about a link developing between the concepts of injustice and cruelty during the early modern period, it would have mostly been just that – speculation, backed up perhaps by a few examples that would have had little more than anecdotal significance. Now we can identify patterns of usage with a much higher degree of accuracy, and there are spin-offs from the EEBO TCP database that are enabling highly specialized work of a kind unimaginable just a few years ago.
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Further reading: Heather Froehlich, Richard J. Whitt and Jonathan Hope, ‘EEBO-TCP as a Tool for Integrating Teaching and Research’.

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