Category Archives: Edited Extracts from the Book

The Terrifying Coldness of St. Agnes

The Beheading of Saint Agnes

In early modern literature, the powerful, dominating female is frequently depicted as a temptress, an agent of evil, enticing her victims to ruination, but torment and destruction can come at the hands of the virtuous as easily as at those of the wicked. A man loses his head to the righteous Judith just as surely as to the capricious Salome, and the chasteness of the virginal saint can mask a sexual coldness that is just as capable of cruelty as Jerome’s hot and lustful prostitute or Gracián’s cool and nonchalant Volusia.

The Life of the Blessed St. Agnes (London, 1677), attributed to Daniel Pratt, is the story of a child, ‘not yet fully arriv’d to the Thirteenth Year of her Age’ (p. 121) – though she consistently speaks and behaves as an adult – who has vowed to be a bride of Christ and hence rejects her earthly suitor.  Although probably not actually a Catholic work, Pratt’s text has elements of catholicity in its style and content. Some clues to its cultural context are to be found in the dedicatory epistle to Robert Stafford of Bradfield, a noted beau (David Loggan, ‘Robertus Stafford, de Bradfield’, line engraving, 1676. National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG D29992, carries a Latin inscription eulogizing his beauty). Granger notes that ‘a gentleman of this name’ was mentioned by Sir William Musgrave as ‘a great friend of Col. Sackville and of Mr. Dryden’ (A Biographical History of England , London, 1824, p. 181), whom Pratt mentions in the epistle dedicatory. Although there is no evidence that Stafford was actually a Catholic, it is fairly safe to assume, given his friends and family background, that he had Jacobite leanings and, perhaps, Catholic sympathies, and these were, in all likelihood, shared by the author who so admired him.

In the epistle dedicatory Pratt bemoans the fact that Stafford has remained unmarried, and presents Agnes as

a Lady…whom not to Love; would not only be ignoble but impious, and I doubt not (if you shall do me the honour to peruse this life,) but that the noble Agnes will revenge all those fair Females; whose charms you have hitherto so stoutlie resisted. I do not therby intend to make the Chast Saint a Bawd to any impure Love … but only to animate you to the search of some Heroine …

This deconstructs in all sorts of uncomfortable ways. The main narrative interest of the story is that a young man, ‘the son of one Symphronius, the Governour of the Citie’, falls unrequitedly in love with the chaste Agnes and, in consequence, suffers terribly. Is this what Pratt wants for Stafford? Or, having lamented Stafford’s lack of a wife, does he want him to deflect a bride of Christ from her devout purpose and bed her? Is he urging him to find a woman (or girl) and idolize her? Or is the author, by drawing the parallel between Stafford’s resistance to the female sex and Agnes’ imperviousness to the male sex, merely indulging in a bit of bantering with a confirmed homosexual, knowing that he will just shrug it off?

Different – but equally perplexing – difficulties arise when Pratt attempts to invoke God’s grace on the final page, ‘that we may imitate the Holy Life and Constant Death of his Blessed Martyr Saint Agnes’. Should we be set alight and not burn? Or be beheaded? Should women coldly spurn their suitors, or contrive to be led naked to a brothel and, when their suitors follow them there, watch on while ‘the Devil by the Permission of the Almighty’ strangles them to death?

There is really very little performativity in Pratt’s text, either for Stafford or for the general reader. That in itself places it outside the tradition of Catholic hagiography and, at that level, Pratt’s book is a failure, but that is beside the point. What makes this narrative remarkable is the protagonist’s switches, from caring to cold-heartedness, from imperiousness to vulnerability, from child to woman – ‘the most beautiful Lady in Rome’ – and from woman to transcendent being, in ‘her Heavenly Vestment, and her surrounding Glory’.

These features form a disturbing subtext to the book’s overt purpose. In Pratt’s Life of St. Agnes religious sentiment is reduced – whether consciously on the author’s part or not – to a vehicle for a narrative of sustained but implicit eroticism. Even when Agnes is at her most vulnerable – ‘commanded…to be stript of all her Cloths, and then to be led Naked to the common Bordelli, and there to be exposed to the lust of all comers’ – modesty is preserved, ‘for [miraculously] her hair fell down so long, so thick, and shady, that not the least part of her Body could be seen’. Her domination over her suitor is equally chaste; despite inflicting such suffering on him that at one point he pines nearly to death, it is inconceivable that she would sully her hands by physically harming him and when he dies by strangulation she simply stands before him, as remote and unattainable as ever, andwatches on as he dies.

Most of these details are culled from various accounts of Agnes’s life; her martyrdom comes within a late classical hagiographical tradition of portraying the deaths of women (and girls) with ‘an almost unabashed eroticism’ (David Frankfurter, ‘Martyrology and the Prurient Gaze’, Journal of Early Christian Studies, 17.2, 2009, pp. 215-245; p. 225), but Pratt adds to his source material, investing Agnes with a systematically cruel capriciousness and a terrifying coldness. His narrative moves at a brisk pace, and he wastes little time in preamble before introducing his chaste protagonist. He prepares the stage for one who will triumph over ‘vain assaults of lust and cruelty’, young, but old beyond her years and ‘allready ripe for heaven’, and launches into an account of the first time her handsome suitor, ‘that might have enslaved any Soul but St. Agnes’s, unfortunately chanc’d to see her’, falling in love with the beautiful maiden at first sight. After ascertaining that she is of noble birth, he arranges, with ‘hopes and fears’ to meet her and declare his love, whereupon,

looking upon him with an eye that at once pitied and condemned his passion, she thus answer’d him.

… I think more Charitably of all Men, then to think any one can be so much mistaken … as to Love her, who may justly be contem’d of all the World … for that very Love’s sake, you say you have for me, forgo it utterly, banish it, and with it all the train of Jealousies, Fears, Hopes, and other Distractions, that will undoubtedly pursue it …

She then reveals that she has already promised herself to another – ‘my Soul is prepossess’d, and being engaged elsewhere cannot comply with your desires’ – but when the young man, having assured her that he will continue to love and adore and serve her, takes his disconsolate leave,

St. Agnes pitying his misfortunes … pul’d him back and sweetning all that Rigour she had put on not long before; Stay dear Sir, said she, And pardon me that seeming cruelty, which you think me guilty of … I esteem you, Sir; and will love you too, but as a Sister … my choice cannot, must not be alter’d; He must have my whole Affection, that’s only worthy of it … and you must no longer pretend to her, that will acknowledge no other Lord and Master, but him that Heaven hath already assing’d her.

The narrative thus far contains numerous switches, mainly hinging on the notion that the one who is beloved has power over the one who loves. The young man might enslave almost any woman with his looks, but he chooses instead to love Agnes, and so she comes to have power over him. When he, being rejected, is at his most crestfallen, she calls him back, supposedly out of pity, and begs pardon for her ‘seeming cruelty’, only to deliver the same cruel message – that she is betrothed to another, who alone is worthy of her affections – even more sternly than before. So far from being assaulted by ‘lust and cruelty’, she has been approached with love and responded with cruelty, for, of course her words provoke the ‘train of Jealousies’ of which she speaks, and the young man departs, ‘rowling in his Breast revenge on his unknown Rival’, while she ‘bestow’d a Shower of Tears on his Misfortunes, which though unwillingly, she was the cause of’, and for the next five pages reaffirms her pledges to Christ and soliloquizes in verse on the suffering she so unwillingly inflicts on her suitor.

‘Whilst the blessed Saint does thus entertain her Pious Soul, let us see how our passionate Gentleman spends his hours’. Locking himself in his room, he reflects,

I am doom’d to my misfortunes, by a person notwithstanding all her cruelty; so dear and agreeable to me, that even Death it self would not be unwelcome when it proceeded from her: I will however have some Companion in my unhappiness, and involve my envied Rival … in that Calamity, she hath damn’d me to.

Decrying Agnes as a ‘Base and Ungrateful Woman’ (he, too, switches frequently, alternately idolising her and despising – or attempting to despise – her), he sets out to discover the identity of his rival. At the same time, he ‘made her several Presents, and spoke to her very often too’, but his gifts do not move her; ‘She despised them all, and continually told him what Noble Presents her Spouse would make her’.  After these visits, she ‘pour’d all her sorrows into the Bosome of her Blessed Saviour, for whose sake she was thus Cruel in appearance; She prai’d for her Loving Enemy; She pitied him’.

Whether or not the author intended it, it is hard not to perceive an irony in that expression, ‘entertain her pious soul’. How empowering it must be to hold the young man in thrall; how poignant that she has no choice but to torment him for the sake of her Lord. ‘In what strange labyrinths I am’, she exclaims, in one of her poetic soliloquies, and indeed this is strange entertainment – receiving an admirer only to spurn him, pitying him while she torments him – for one supposedly so devout.

When all the young man’s efforts to find his rival prove vain, he starts to think that there is no such rival, and entertains ‘some hopes, that only out of Design, and Artifice she had told him so, when really it was otherwise’. This prompts him to pay Agnes another visit. On receiving him, ‘she trembled, she changed her Colour, but still for the better, and her very amazement and surprisal, did very much increase her Beauty, and renderd her more Lovely in the eies of our Young Amorist, that alas was but too too Lovely to him before’. He puts it to her that there is no such rival as she pretends, but she assures him otherwise:

… did you know what sinceritie I always make use of you would not have doubted the truth of that, which I assur’d you of. Oh! Madam, answer’d the Lover hastely, why should you so soon … disbuse me of an oppinion so advantagious to my repose? I am not acquainted with those Arts, reply’d the Lady very sharply, that abuse Men into happiness. Know fond Man, thou hast a Rival; Know I Love him, and prefer him to all the World; and when thou know’st this, if thou wilt still pursue a fruitless passion, never expect anything from me but scorn and contempt.

Agnes has power over the young man because he loves her; he loves her for her beauty; her beauty increases as he enters her presence; he loves her all the more and her power over him grows greater still. No wonder she trembles; he would die for her – will die for her. It must be a very heady feeling. She speaks of ‘sinceritie’, but this (like her use of ‘charitie’ before) seems a strange word to describe the complex pattern of cruelty and sentimentality she has brought to their relationship – hurting him and then pitying him, allowing him to bring her gifts, then despising them, spurning him, but continuing to meet with him – and, for all her sincerity, while she will not ‘abuse’ him into happiness with a lie, neither will she disabuse him with the truth. Pratt may be making use of a Christian motif – she cannot tell him his ‘rival’ is Christ because she will be persecuted (though this is never stated directly, and she is happy enough to avow her faith and die for it later on in the story) – but there is very little Christian kindness or charity here.

The rest of the story – the intervention of the young man’s father, distraught at the sight of his son pining to the point of death out of unrequited love, the discovery of the identity of his ‘rival’, Agnes’s trial and martyrdom – is of less relevance, though one or two details stand out. The role-switching, as she is led naked to a brothel and the young man, his love turned to lust, is sent to defile her, is just one more twist in the power game that goes on between them. She trumps him one last time, watching on as ‘the Devil by the permission of the Almighty, strangled him’, on the one hand ‘extreamly troubled’, but on the other admiring the ‘infinite Power and Goodness’ of her Lord. Strangulation here signifies the feminization of the man by rendering him powerless and depriving him of a voice, and hence of an identity.

In response to the pleas of his distraught father, Agnes prays for his life to be restored and he is resurrected as a Christian. He regains his voice in order to proclaim his faith and then – apart from the author’s speculations about what may have become of him after Agnes’s death – disappears from the narrative. Theologically, all the young man’s suffering is justified because, in the end, his spirit is made whole. In terms of the narrative of domination that runs through the text, though, his resurrection as a Christian is Agnes’s final triumph over him. Agnes asserts her power by abdicating it – turning her slave over to her master – and the young man, seemingly bereft of individual will or personal identity, exists purely as a servant of her Lord. The homo-eroticism of such a reading is reinforced by references to the imperviousness of the dedicatee to the charms of women in the epistle dedicatory.

Agnes, meanwhile, her heart burning ‘with a noble ardor’, is ‘brought to the Stake’, but such is her pulchritude that she emerges unscathed from the flames and submits meekly to lay ‘her fair Neck on the Block’ on which she is beheaded. In this case, beheading does not represent the woman being ‘silenced, discredited, transformed into body’ (Marketta Laurila, ‘Decapitation, Castration and Creativity in Elena Garro’s Andamos Huyendo Lola’, in Michael J. Meyer, ed., Rodopi Perspectives on Modern Literature, 31, Literature and the Writer, 2004, pp. 19–41; p. 41. ); on the contrary, she is transformed into spirit, ascends into glory and reappears, in corporeal form, to speak words of comfort to her grieving parents. Rather, her beheading carries connotations of castration, to which, as a woman, she can submit unconcernedly. For the young man, however – who, resurrected, is presumably among the crowd witnessing her death – the spectacle of the woman who has emasculated him having her head chopped off is tantamount to his own castration.

The eroticism in Pratt’s text lies hidden beneath its pious surface, and it is debatable whether he actually set out to subvert the genre of saintly biography or whether he thought he was writing a devout piece of work and his unconscious found expression through his pen, but without his control. Of the two, the latter seems more likely, but there is perhaps a third possibility, somewhere between them. Where Burrus speaks of a ‘countererotics’ (The Sex Lives of Saints, p. 3) – an eroticism that culminates, not in an endorsement of the sexual energy it generates (as pornographic or lascivious narratives do), but in forcing the reader to confront moral and theological imperatives while in the grip of that energy – perhaps what Pratt is doing here could be described as a ‘counterromance’, in which the themes and conventions of romance are woven into the narrative only to be thwarted, not in the way that Romeo’s love for Juliet is thwarted, or Don Quixote’s for Dulcinea, but by imposing the exigencies of a higher love onto the framework of an earthly one.

If the narrative is perceived in this way, its erotic subtext is neither fully conscious nor fully unconscious, but seeps, as it were, through the cracks between the two genres (romance and hagiography). Agnes’s inflexible purpose subverts the young man’s romantic love, turning it first into a jealous desire to take revenge on his ‘rival’, then into agonising grief, and finally into lust – at the height of which he is strangled to death. Several times during this narrative Pratt stresses the youth’s misfortune in ever crossing Agnes’s path. While he may not be Catholic himself, the greater exuberance and uninhibitedness of the Catholic tradition clearly lends itself to this kind of expression, especially when the narrative is set in the pre-Reformation past, and the constraints of realism are relaxed; by telling a tale of long-ago events the author is able to give rein to the imagination in a way that presages the Gothic novel of the following century, and expresses underlying sexual tensions and anxieties in much the same way.


Adapted from Pain, Pleasure and Perversity: Discourses of Suffering in Seventeenth-Century England (2013), Chapter 8, ‘The Emergence of the Dominatrix’.

Chorier’s Satyra Sotadica and the Beginnings of the Pornography of Pain

Rather than developing from native English discourses, the association of Catholicism with sexual flagellation in late seventeenth-century England is mainly a product of the same southern/Latin/Catholic culture that produced the lives of the saints. Most of the same ingredients as are to be found in English writings – political and/or religious polemic, increasingly frank accounts of various permutations of sexual flagellation – can be seen in these foreign works, but there are also significant differences, the most notable being that, where the English accounts are mostly bawdy (that is, they poke fun at licentious behaviour, and the main response they aim to provoke is ribald laughter), the imported narratives are more clearly erotic. 

The first such work, Chorier’s Satyra Sotadica, appeared in or around 1660. Turner considers this work so seminal that ‘Modern sexuality could be understood as a footnote to Chorier’, and tells us that – despite being available only in Latin (Sarah Toulalan, Imagining Sex:
Pornography and Bodies in Seventeenth-Century England
, Oxford, 2007
, p. 7, notes that an English version ‘was available by c. 1684’, but no copies appear to be extant) – by 1680, it ‘had penetrated so far into English society that schoolboys were reading it in a London dissenting academy’ (James Grantham Turner, Schooling Sex: Libertine Literature and Erotic Education in Italy, France and England, 1534–1685, Oxford, 2003, pp. 167 and 165). Like other works in the whore dialogue tradition, the discourse is between a more experienced older woman (Tullia) and a younger one (her maid, the fifteen-year-old Octavia), the former instructing the latter mainly in the pleasures of lesbianism but also – and this is one of the features that make Chorier’s text stand out – in the supposed delights of whipping and being whipped.

While Octavia’s main initiation is into lesbian love, the book takes in a variety of encounters in a generous embrace, and on several occasions their conversation strays into observations about the nature of pain, the first being Octavia’s comment that ‘incentivum factus est dolor pruriginosæ libidini’ (‘pain becomes an incentive to lascivious desires’), to which Tullia replies, ‘voluptatis confinium est dolor, ita & doloris voluptas’ (pain is at the edge of pleasure, and pleasure [at the edge] of pain’). Octavia then launches into a detailed account of herself and her mother Sempronia being whipped before the altar by the priest, Theodorus:

Well, says Theodorus, we will soon see which [of you] has the more valiant heart. Prepare yourself, Sempronia. Lend me your help, daughter, my mother says, that I may swiftly acquit myself of this pious duty. I take off her undergarment, her dress and her gown. She herself removes her underclothes to [bare] her loins, and goes down on her knees before the altar. Do not spare my impure flesh, holy man, she says …

(Nicolas Chorier, Aloisiæ Sigææ Toletanæ Satyra
Sotadica de Arcanis Amoris & Veneris
[A scurrilous satire of the secret love and sex life of Luisa Sigea of Toledo], circa 1660; edition used, Amsterdam, 1678, pp. 200 and 202. The attribution to Luisa Sigea is false. My translation.)

The narrative continues in the same vein, leaving very little to the imagination, as both mother and daughter are whipped, to the satisfaction of the priest and themselves.

Chorier’s detailed and explicit sadomasochistic narrative breaks new ground in anti-Catholic discourse. A 1665 translation of Pierre du Moulin’s Le Capucin (Sedan, 1641) attacks Catholic penances from every possible angle, except from that of being a form of sexual perversion. Moulin mocks absurd penances, such as being forced to ‘eat with a Cat in the same dish’, ‘go about on all four like a beast’, or ‘lick up the others spittle’; he describes in detail the ‘pleasant exercise’ of whipping and the blood flowing from the wounds, concluding, This whipping is a just action, for these Fathers deserve it well’. He notes that the Syrians and other ancient peoples carried self-mutilation to far greater lengths, that there is a kind of inverted arrogance in making a big show of how much one despises oneself, and that the early followers of Christ were known for their virtue and charity, not for their penances, saying,It is a grand abuse to make Piety consist in things wherein Christians may be excelled by Heathens. There is a proud humility, which despiseth it self, that it may be valued by others. The Apostles, and their Disciples, did not live so’ (Pierre du Moulin, The Capucin Treated, or The Lives of the Capucins with the Life of S. Francis their Patron, trans. from the French by ‘Philinax Orthodoxus’, London, 1665, pp. 21, 22, 43, 17, 18 and 40). Chorier completely bypasses such objections by describing
Sempronia and Octavia’s flagellation as sexually stimulating.

There is nothing in English discourse that approaches Chorier’s use of the whore dialogue to undermine the premises of Catholic penance; Butler’s condemnation of the ‘foul abomination’of mortifying oneself with ‘shameful, / and heathen Stripes’ (Samuel Butler, Hudibras. The Second Part, London, 1664,  p. 72; 2.2., ll. 89–98), for example, while discursively similar, is far less explicit and condensed almost to the point of being epigrammatic. Chorier’s uninhibited and expansive narrative is distinctively southern, matched only by Jean Barrin [?], Venus in the Cloister, or The Nun in her Smock, London, 1683, which is so closely related to Chorier’s work that it contains a plagiarised (or at least closely adapted) version of the flagellation passage cited above.

Barrin’s work – translated into English in the same year as its
appearance in French – set as it is in a convent, and taking the form of a dialogue between two nuns, subverts Catholic discourse even more explicitly than Satyra Sotadica. The narrative begins as a more experienced nun, Sister Angelica, surprises the novice Agnes
practising ‘The Extatical Intromission’ (i.e., masturbating) and introduces her to the pleasures of the flesh. ‘Hold a little my Pretty Heart’, she exclaims, ‘I am all of a Flame, these Carresses have brought me into a Panting Condition’. She soon begins to show intense interest in what Agnes describes as ‘a severe Discipline, which I but yesterday inflicted upon it [i.e., her body] by order of my Confessour’. Examining – and kissing – the marks of the lash on Agnes’s buttocks, Angelica remarks, ‘you must be very devout at the Mystery of Flagellation, since you scourge your Buttocks at this rate’, and admits that ‘but yesterday I whipt one rather for my own satisfaction, than for any fault she had committed; I took great delight in contemplating her, she is very pretty, and is already thirteen years of age’ (Barrin,
pp. 9, 11, 28, 30 and 33).

Interspersed with Angelica’s unabashed prurience are passages – such as this description of the dilemma of a nun named Dorothea –
which could come from a genuine devotional work:

… one day that she found her self more moved than usual … she had recourse to her Saint; represented to him with tears in her eyes, her face upon the floor, and her heart lifted up towards Heaven, the extreame danger she found her self in; related to him with a wonderful candour and simplicity, to how little purpose she had defended her self, and used all her efforts to repress the violent transports she was seized with.

Like the saints of Catholic hagiography, Dorothea sets out to subdue her fleshly appetites by chastising herself – although, unlike them, she does so naked before her spiritual advisor, who watches on unmoved – but ‘these sorts of exercises were so far from extinguishing the flames wherewith she was consumed, that on the contrary they had more and more augmented them, and had reduced that poor creature into such a condition, that she was hardly any longer able to bear with it’. She makes a final attempt to whip her flesh into submission, and then falls into an ‘amorous trance’, powerless to resist ‘the Laws of meer Nature’. Agnes, by now fully converted to her mentor’s predilections, declares that she would have ‘taken delight … to view her thus all naked, and to observe curiously all the transports, that Love would have caused in her at the moment she was overcome’ (ibid., pp. 141–2, 145 and 146).

It is not clear whether the author of this work intended it primarily as anti-Catholic lampoon or as pornography. In the wave of anti-Catholic hysteria which culminated in the Popish Plot it was accepted for its subversion of Catholic attitudes towards penance and mortification of the flesh, and was probably associated with anti-Catholic works of the period, whereas Robert Samber’s translation of 1724 – together with the 1718 edition of Meibom’s work in English – led to Edmund Curll, the printer, being convicted on a charge of publishing obscene literature. Up until the Restoration period, however, it appears that, while the Latinate may have been familiar with treatises such as those of Pico, Gretser and Meibom, and the debauched with the institution of the flogging school, the idea that beating might be a means of achieving sexual satisfaction was not widespread; it was certainly not widely disseminated in print, and even when printed reference to it was made it was not particularly associated with Catholicism, a link which seems not to have been established firmly in the popular imagination until Chorier and Barrin’s works appeared in English in the 1680s.

Once the link was made, English anti-Catholic polemic, rather than emulating the discourse patterns of the whore dialogue, tended simply to associate Catholic mortification of the flesh with the practices of the flogging cully. One anonymous controversialist, for example, writes of the Catholics that ‘their Whips for the Devil are no more to be valued than the Rods that excite the decayed Venery of old Lechers in common Brothel-houses’ (A Whip for the Devil; or The Roman Conjurer, London, 1683, p. 140), and John Oldham equates the Catholic penitent with the reprobate emerging from a whipping at a brothel:

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

(John Oldham, Poems, and Translations by the Author of the Satyrs upon the Jesuits, London, 1683, p. 164)

The old arguments continue to be aired; Stillingfleet, for example, contrasts those who think ‘no sight more pleasing to God than to see men lash and whip themselves for their sins’ with those who believe ‘he is as well pleased at least, with hearty repentance, and sincere obedience without this’ (Edward Stillingfleet, A Discourse Concerning the Idolatry Practised in the Church of Rome and the Danger of Salvation in the Communion of it, London, 1671, p. 217), William Sherlock argues that the ‘External and Ceremonial Righteousness’ of Catholic penances is merely a compensation for ‘true and real Holiness of Life’ (William Sherlock, A Preservative against Popery being some
Plain Directions to Unlearned Protestants, how to Dispute with Romish Priests
, London, 1688, p. 46) and, notably, Drelincourt’s Popish Errors says almost nothing about penances and mortifications. At the same time, though, a more explicit and uninhibited note begins to creep in. While du Moulin, for example, in the earlier part of the century, is as scathing as he can be in his descriptions of the penances of Francis of Assissi and the Capuchins, there is frequently virtually no
difference between his discourse and the Catholic discourse he attacks. His account of Francis – ‘Finding that his carnal concupiscence continued, he ran to his garden, and gathering a great heap of snow, he plunged himself in it over head and ears, stark naked’ (Pierre du Moulin, The Capucin Treated, London, 1665, p. 59) – differs from a Catholic account only in that he expects his readers to disapprove. By contrast, Brown, writing at the end of the century, writes, with a dry, economic irony that renders commentary unnecessary, that during the first millennium of Christianity, ‘the sanctifying Miracles of Whip cord were not so Universally acknowledged then as afterwards, nor St. Francis’s receipt for an erection by running into a heap of Snow so generally made use of’ (Thomas Brown, The Late Converts Exposed, London, 1690, p. 14). The whore dialogue was not directly emulated in English attacks on Catholicism during this period, but it nevertheless disrupted the stylistic norms of polemical writing. Brown’s work may not be set in Mediterranean gardens or within the adobe walls of a southern European convent, but it does have a setting – the urbane world of a London coffee house – and his work exemplifies a new frankness that uses sexuality to undercut and obviate logical argument. Jacques Boileau’s Historia Flagellantium (Paris, 1700) effectively decided the debate on self-flagellation in the Catholics’ disfavour, but by then the whore dialogue had already done its work, associating Catholic practices in general – and self-flagellation in particular – with the promotion of the very vices they were supposed to cure.

Adapted from Pain, Pleasure and Perversity: Discourses of Suffering in Seventeenth-Century England (Ashgate, 2013), Part 1, “The Suffering of Others”, Chapter 3, “Polemic, Pornography and Romanticism: the Subversion of Catholic Asceticism”.

“Hudibras” and the Puritan Mindset

If matrimony and hanging go
By dest’ny, why not whipping too?

(Samuel Butler, Hudibras. The Second Part, London, 1664), p. 60; 2.1, ll. 839–40).

‘Marriages’, Lyly says, ‘are made in heauen, though consumated in earth’ (John Lyly, Euphues and his England, London, 1580, p. 129), and Eliot renders the French proverb, ‘Qui doibt pendre ne sera iamais noyé’, as ‘he thats borne to be hangd, shall neuer be drownde’ (John Eliot, Ortho-epia Gallica. Eliots Fruits for the French, London, 1593, pp. 126 and127). But what makes Butler add whipping to the list of things which are decided by fate rather than by choice? Laertius’ tale of Zeno and his slave (retold here by Gataker) doubtless plays a part; ‘as the knave told the stoik his Master, when he whipt him for filching, it was my destiny to filch; or, as his Master answered the knave again, and it is thy destiny to be whipt’ (Thomas Gataker, His Vindication of the Annotations by him, London, 1653, p. 106; the original story is in Diogenis Lærtii Vitæ Philosophorum, 7.23). Puritanism and judicial astrology – unsurprisingly, perhaps, given the extent to which both belief systems hinged on a predetermined destiny – had more than a passing acquaintance, but Butler ‘did not attempt literally to reproduce the interregnum debate over astrology … nor has [he] … constructed an allegory of the quarrel between Gataker and [William] Lilly’ over the validity of astrology (Nicolas H. Nelson, ‘astrology, Hudibras, and the Puritans’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 37.3, 1976: 521–36; p. 532). Hudibras has resonances that seem closer to Pico della Mirandola than to either Zeno or contemporary events. Pico (who himself probably has Zeno somewhere in the back of his mind), after recounting a tale of sexual flagellation and relating it to events which occurred during the flagellant’s childhood, says that the purpose of the anecdote is

ut cognosceremus euidentia ipsa quantum illis affectibus ualeat
consuetudo: ne quasi causam habere terrenam nullam possint: cælum statim accusemus nam id quidem astrologus si audiat / damnatam dicet fuisse uenerem in hominis genitura: et aduersus fortasse: aut alio mõ minitantibus radiis Martis

[so that we may clearly know how strongly one’s behaviour influences one’s situation, lest, being unable to find an earthly cause, we at once blame the heavens. For, indeed, if an astrologer hears of this, he will say that the man was fated to sexual flagellation by birth, or by the ill effects of the rays of Mars.]

(Giovanni Francesco Pico della Mirandola, Disputationes
Aduersus Astrologiã Diuinatricem
(Bologna, 1496; edition used, Lyons, 1498?, sig. h5r)

Pico argues not only here but throughout this treatise that ‘one’s behaviour influences one’s situation’ (‘affectibus ualeat consuetudo’), that there are efficient causes of events other than astrology (or fate), and that, while one’s (pre-) disposition plays some part in the outcome of one’s life, one has also a degree of control and choice over the direction one’s life takes. Butler’s poem, too, is, in part, an attack on astrology; the astrologer Sidrophel, observing through his telescope the approach of hudibras and his squire, Ralpho, sends his assistant, Whatchum, to find out what brings them. Whatchum gets Hudibras’s story from Ralpho, and
tells it to Sidrophel, who pretends he has learned it by the art of divination.

But it is in the sexual overtones of the whipping motif in Hudibras that
the poem seems most clearly to echo Pico. The widow Hudibras professes to love attempts to convince him it is his fate to be whipped, as proof of his love for her; ‘love is a boy by poets styl’d, / Then spare the rod, and spoill the child’. Hudibras at this stage is in prison, and his agreement to the widow’s demands resembles redemptive suffering, in that she procures his freedom once he promises to undergo a whipping. However, when the time comes to make good his promise, he equivocates, wondering ‘whether’t be a lesser Sin / to be forsworn then act the thing?’ Ralpho readily encourages him to break his word, saying

… is’t not enough w’are bruis’d, and kicked,
With sinful members of thewicked …
But we must claw our selves, with shameful,
And heathen stripes …?

(Hudibras. The Second Part, pp. 61 [2.1.ll.843–4]
and 72 [2.2, ll. 59–60 and 893–98])

Hudibras’s hypocrisy in breaking his word is reconstructed satirically as a saintly (that is, a ‘Presbyterian’) virtue, but
the satirical intent does not undermine Ralpho’s basic point; the vagaries of fortune bring hardship enough, without seeking to ‘claw’ (that is, whip) one’s own body in ‘shameful’ and ‘heathen’ fashion.

Butler’s plot unravels in a number of ways. The third and final part did not appear until fourteen years later, whereupon it transpires that Hudibras goes to the widow and falsely claims to have received his beating. She does not believe him, and while they talk there is ‘a knocking, at the Gate’, and he is set upon by elves, who tell him, ‘Mortal;
Thou art betraid to us / B’ our Friend, thy evil Genius’. In answer to the
spirits’ questions, he reveals that he never loved the widow anyway and, in his hypocritical way, had only pretended to do so for her money:

Didst thou not love her then? Speak true.
No more (quoth he) than I love you.
How would’st th’ have us’d her, and her money?
First, turn’d her up, to Alimony;
And laid her Dowry out in Law,
To null her Jointure with a Flaw,
Which I before-hand had agreed
T’ have put, of purpose, in the Deed;
And bar her Widow’s-making-over
T’ a friend in Trust, or private Lover.

(Hudibras. The Third and Last Part, London, 1678,
pp. 61,  67 and 69; 3.1., ll. 1054, 1162–3 and 1185–94)

Hudibras cannot, after all, escape a beating, but it is with
a ‘cudgel’ (Ibid., p. 60 ; 3.2, l. 1148), not a whip, the whole episode has an aura of unreality, and – if his beating has any relationship at all to some kind of moral or spiritual dimension – his suffering is not redemptive but punitive, undergone not for the sake of his love (he is, it appears, incapable of love, whether of God or of his fellow creatures), but for his hypocritical and mercenary wiles.

Hudibras sums up, through satirical allegory, the puritan predicament; one’s earthly lot is to suffer, but to seek out suffering – or to engage to suffer by contract – is to enter into the forbidden territory occupied by medieval pacts of alliance with the devil on the one hand and masochistic submission on the other (Cf, Gilles Deleuze, Présentation de Sacher-Masoch, Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1967, p. 20), while suffering as punishment for one’s sins is merely a foretaste of the eternal damnation to come, and legitimate contexts for expiatory suffering – the only kind that counts – are elusive and unpredictable. Like so much of the literature of the early modern period, Butler’s poem locates in ‘the masochistic dimension of a political imaginary based on an ideal of sacrifice’ (Melissa Sanchez, Erotic Subjects, Oxford, 2011, p. 240). His satirical exposé of Presbyterian hypocrisy – like all good satire – touches on a raw nerve and forces a reappraisal of the values of the society it comments on. Behind the inglorious Hudibras stands the puritan Englishman, conditioned to a ‘view of repentance as a life-long mortification of the flesh, so that the Spirit of God may gradually obtain dominion … which is the real foundation of the Calvinistic ethics with its asceticism’ (Arthur Dakin, Calvinism. With Special Reference to Calvin’s ‘Institutes’, London: Duckworth, 1940, p. 70), but deprived of the contexts for ascetic suffering expressed and espoused in the Latinate culture of the Catholic South. When Ralpho colludes in Hudibras’s attempts to justify his breach of promise to the widow, he bases his argument on an excoriation of penitential mortification, exhorting him not to do as

mongrel Christians of our times,
That expiate less with greater crimes,
And call the foul abomination,
Contrition and mortification.

(Hudibras. The Second Part,  p. 72; 2.2., ll. 89–98)

The conflicted sinner of Protestant discourse, whose only hope of redemption is to suffer in accordance with God’s will, is exposed in
Butler’s satire to temptation on two fronts. On one front, the ideals of heroic and holy suffering are corrupted by their parodic replication in misguided romantic suffering, undergone, not out of transcendent love, but for a lesser, mundane love. On the other front, the moral authority of those who suffer for their faith in accordance with God’s will is usurped by presumptuous attempts to pre-empt God’s will by seeking suffering out and engaging in it through active intent. Both are essentially features of southern/Latin/Catholic discourse. When the widow, urging Hudibras to undergo a whipping for her sake, asks ‘Why may not Whipping … / With comely movement, and by Art, / Raise Passion in a Ladies heart?’ (
Ibid., p. 61, ll. 852–4) she spins her web of persuasion – at least partly – from the threads of southern European romance:

Did not the Great La Mancha do so
For the Infanta Del Taboso?
Did not the’Illustrius Bassa make
Himself a Slave for Misse’s sake?
… Was not Young Florio sent (to cool
His flame for Biancafiore) to School,
Where Pedant made his Pathick Bum
For her sake suffer Martyrdom?

(Ibid. 63–4, ll.  875–84)

The references are to Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, The History of the Valorous and VVittie Knight-Errant, Don-Quixote of the Mancha, part 1, trans. from the Spanish by Thomas Shelton (London, 1612), and The Second Part of the History of the Valorous and Witty Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mançha, trans. from the Spanish by Thomas Shelton (London, 1620); Madeleine de Scudéry, Ibrahim: or The Illustrious Bassa, trans. from the French by Henry Cogan (London, 1652); and Giovanni Boccaccio, A Pleasaunt Disport of Diuers Noble Personages: Written in Italian by M. Iohn Bocace Florentine and Poet Laureat: in his Boke vvhich is Entituled Philocopo, trans. from the Italian [by Humphrey
Gifford or Henry Grantham] (London, 1567).

Suffering – specifically being whipped or beaten – for the sake of a woman and the ‘foul abomination’ of expiating ‘less with greater crimes’ (which it is hard to interpret as anything other than the equation of  religious and sexual masochism) are presented in Hudibras as features of a southern/Latin/Catholic culture which defines northern/Germanic/Protestant culture in terms of difference.

The dichotomy of southern/Latin/Catholic and northern/Germanic/Protestant attitudes towards suffering is one of the central themes of Pain, Pleasure and Perversity: Discourses of Suffering in Seventeenth-Century England (Ashgate, 2013). Buy this book from the publisher or on Amazon, or request your library to stock this book.

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

The Genealogy of Masochism

Krafft-Ebing’s derivation of sadism and masochism from the names of Sade and Sacher-Masoch (Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis: eine Klinisch-Forensische Studie, 1886; edition used, 1894, p. 11) may not be fully analogous to Freud’s appropriation of the name of Oedipus, but still less can the relationship between Sade and Sacher-Masoch and their creations be compared to that of, say, Faraday to the light bulb; on the spectrum between creating something that simply did not exist before and giving a name to something which has always existed in the human psyche, it makes more sense to see Sade and Sacher-Masoch as weaving into a sustained discourse strands of narrative and impulse that reflect something intrinsic to human nature.

As Deleuze puts it, ‘The Middle ages, with profound insight, distinguished two sorts of diabolism; the one by possession, the second by a pact of alliance’ (Gilles Deleuze, Présentation de Sacher-Masoch, Paris, 1967, p. 20; my translation)]; sadism, Deleuze suggests, is a development from, or form of, the first, as masochism is from/of the second. The seventeenth century, with its belief in witchcraft, retains elements of the medieval Weltanschauung, while at the same time highlighting prurience in discourses on suffering – sometimes with the frankness that Foucault speaks of, but sometimes through censorship or proto-pornographic narrative – in a way that foreshadows the cataloguing of sadism and masochism in nineteenth-century sexual taxonomy.

From a socio-psychological point of view, Baumeister sums up the broad consensus that ‘most sexual practices have been known and enjoyed throughout history, but masochism is a rare exception … which spread through Western society during the early modern period.’ He cites a number of sources confirming the apparent
absence of masochism in the ancient and medieval worlds, noting that during the Middle Ages the Church pronounced its views on ‘homosexuality, bestiality, masturbation, abortion, contraception, adultery, coprophilia, prostitution, anal sex, transvestism, and a variety of other practices … but apparently there was no mention of masochism’, from which he concludes that there was ‘a lack of
masochistic sexual activity’.

Baumeister contrasts the ‘abundant evidence of masochistic
activity beginning in the eighteenth century’ with the ‘lack of any such activities prior to the renaissance’, and notes that, while prostitutes through the ages are on record as catering for a variety of sexual appetites, there is no reference to ‘prostitutes providing sadomasochistic services’ in the ancient and medieval worlds, concluding ‘there is no disputing the contrast between the abundant
evidence of masochism after 1700 and the paucity of such evidence before 1600 … sexual masochism underwent a dramatic increase in Western culture late in the early modern period’ (Roy F. Baumeister, ‘Masochism as Escape from Self ’, in Baumeister, ed., Social Psychology and Human Sexuality: Essential Readings, Philadelphia, 2001, pp. 296–313; pp. 308–9).

The one area in which there is some doubt in this seemingly iron-clad argument is the suffering people have undergone over the ages in the name of religion. Baumeister is more tentative about this, but tends to see it as unrelated to masochism: ‘Probably it is a mistake to regard those activities as masochistic … sex and religion provide radically different contexts, and it seems unwarranted to assume that activities have the same meaning in religious ritual
as they have in sexual play’ (p. 308). Baumeister finds broad support for this view in the work of Bullough and Tannahill, but ignores the fact that the architects of the concept of masochism – Charcot, Lombroso, Breuer, Freud, Krafft-Ebing and Lacan – all saw it as closely related to religion, particularly to ascetic flagellation.

Part of the complexity and sensitivity of this issue arises from the difficulty of defining the limits of what masochism actually is. Initially a simple enough idea (the deriving of sexual pleasure from suffering, as Severin apparently does in Sacher-Masoch’s Venus im
), it is complicated by many factors, among them Freud’s postulation of three types of masochism – erotic, feminine and moral – and Dingwall and Bell’s addition of ascetic masochism. The spread of the semantic range of the word ‘masochism’ – particularly into contexts where there is only the concept of some underlying displacement of sexuality and no actual overt sexual activity – leaves
it open to such a wide range of interpretation that it begins to lose its value as a conceptual tool.

Bersani compounds the difficulties, extending the word in the
opposite direction and attempting (developing from Bataille) to see sexuality as ‘self-shattering’ and consequently masochistic; ‘sexuality … could be thought of as a tautology for masochism’. As he himself recognizes, this kind of ‘breakdown of conceptual distinctions’ leads to ‘logical incoherence’ and, while for him such
incoherence may have value in so far as it ‘accurately represents the overdetermined mind prescribed by psychoanalysis’, it presents huge practical problems (Leo Bersani, Is the Rectum a Grave?: And Other Essays, Chicago, 2010, pp. 25, 109 and 100).

At the same time – as Baumeister observes – it is precisely the concept of masochism which pinpoints the seventeenth century as pivotal in the history of suffering. One cannot simply discard it, nor can one wholly reject the accretion of meanings which have grown up around the original impulse to be dominated of Sacher-Masoch’s Severin, but at the same time, if one is to explore ‘the relationship between asceticism and sadomasochistic eroticism’ (Virginia Burrus, Sex Lives of Saints, Philadelphia, 2004, p. 9), one needs to heed Bataille’s basic caveat; although ‘both experiences have an
extreme intensity’, Bataille does not intend to imply that ‘eroticism and sanctity are of the same nature.’ On the contrary, while sanctity ‘brings us closer to other men’ (that is, other people), eroticism (which ‘is defined by secrecy and taboo’) ‘cuts us off from them and leaves us in solitude’ (Georges Bataille, Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo, New York, 1962, pp. 252–3).

Sadomasochistic discourse arises ‘from the ruins of politicoreligious means for achieving submission or shattering of the self’ (Cynthia Marshall, The Shattering of the Self: Violence, Subjectivity, and Early Modern Texts, Baltimore, 2002, p. 103). It is, at least in part, a
consequence of the early modern transition from the ‘inclusive-existential’ or sub specie æternitatis world-view, with its hermits, its monastic orders, its martyrs, to ‘positional-existential’ ideologies, with their emphasis on personal identity in the social context. As the individual’s inner relationship with God starts to give way to societal relationships, the sense of division between the public sphere and private identity grows. The communion of recognition that all are sinners isreplaced by the isolation of inner shame:

In one way it is easier to be receptive to de Sade’s eroticism than to the religious demands of old. No-one today could deny that the impulses connecting sexuality and the desire to hurt and to kill do exist. Hence the so-called sadistic instincts enable the ordinary man to account for certain acts of cruelty, while religious impulses are explained away as aberrations. (Bataille, Death and Sensuality, p. 183)

Bersani’s apparent descent into conceptual chaos may actually provide constructive insights here. The big problem with Baumeister’s analysis is that, at the same time as supposing that ‘sadism is historically older than masochism’, he seeks to turn on its head the ‘prevailing theoretical position … that masochism is [psychologically] derived from sadism’, arguing that ‘it is implausible to argue that masochism is derived from sadism. Rather, sadism must be the secondary, derivative pattern’ (‘Masochism as Escape from Self ’, pp. 308, footnote, and 208). It is hard to understand how masochism can be psychologically more fundamental yet historically younger than sadism, but Bersani hints at an explanation. In his interpretation, the first reality the infant is faced with is an outside world of tremendous power. it cannot possibly fight or protect itself against such power, and gains reassurance by surrendering itself to it. Sex, in adult life, is, by Bersani’s analysis, simply a re-enactment of that early masochistic surrender (The Freudian Body, p. 39). If Bersani is right, masochism is not discussed prior to the early modern period, not because it is nowhere, but because it is everywhere. One’s life is not one’s own, but held in trust; sexual congress is an act of naked, defenceless self-exposure; those who ‘take the sword’ are merely preparing to ‘perish with the sword’, and man’s only hope is to place himself abjectly under the heel of his God and cast himself at his mercy. It is only as society moves away from the ‘inclusive-existential’ preoccupation with the meaning and purpose of a transient and uncertain life towards the ‘positional-existential’ drive to identify oneself in terms of one’s relationships with others that the impulse to surrender starts to become deprived of legitimate contexts, manifesting itself in that particular nexus of neuroses and anxieties and compulsive self-destructive behaviour that modern psychopathology terms ‘masochistic’.

(Adapted from the introduction to the book. Download the complete introduction here.)

The Dominatrix in Early Modern Times


Saint Jerome tells a queer story of a Christian captured by the Romans. To destroy his soul, rather than his body he was (as the Catholic translation of 1630 has it) taken and

… led aside into a most delicious garden & there in the middest of pure lyllies, and blushing roses, (where also a streame of water was creeping on with a soft bubling noise, and the wind gently whistling checkt the leaues of the trees) to be spred with his face vpward vpon a bed fluffed with downe, and to be left tyed there with silken bandes to the end that so he might not be able to deliuer himselfe from thence. Now vpon the retiring of all them who were present, a beautifull Curtesan came to make her approach, and began with her delicate armes, to embrace his necke; and (which cannot be modestly related) did also impurely touch him otherwise, to the end that his body being altered, and inflamed by lust the lasciuious conquerors might ouerspred him. This souldier of the band of Christ, knew not what to do, nor which way to turne himself, whome torments had not subdued, delight was beginning to ouercome, when at length (inspired from heauen) he bit of his own tongue, & spitting it into the face of her, who kissed him, the sense of lust, was subdued, by the sharpenes of that payne which succeeded. (Jerome, ‘The Life of Saint Pavl the Hermite’, in Certaine Selected Epistles of Saint Hierome, Saint Omer, 1630, p. 9.)

Graphic as this description is, there is a certain amount of periphrasis and alteration of the original.

1. Where the translation tells us that she ‘began with her delicate armes, to embrace his necke’, the Ltin reads ‘coepit delicatis stringere colla complexibus’ (Jerome, ‘Vita Pauli Eremitæ’, in Catalogus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum , Frankfurt, 1549, Part 2, Libellus Variorum Exemplorum, fols 89r–96r; fol. 90r). Literally translated, this reads, ‘she began, while delicately embracing him, to squeeze his neck’.

2. The expression translated as ‘which cannot be modestly related’ is, in the original Latin, ‘quod dictu quoque scelus est’ (ibid.), literally, ‘which it is wicked even to speak of’.

3. The expression ‘impurely touch him otherwise’ is, in Latin, ‘manibus attrectare virilia’ (ibid.), ‘caress his member with her hands’.

4. The expression ‘that…the lasciuious conquerors might ouerspred him’ comes from the Latin ‘se victrix impudica superiaceret’ (ibid., ‘that the lascivious conqueress might mount him’).

The English translation (probably made by Hawkins) fails to convey the full sense of the Latin, toning down Jerome’s language to exclude what seems fairly clearly to be a reference to erotic strangulation, omitting the direct reference to the young man’s member, and turning the ‘victrix impudica’ (lascivious conqueress) into ‘lascivious conquerors’. He also softens the ‘scelus’ (wicked) of the Latin to ‘immodest’, apparently in recognition of the fact that a holy text which recounts wickedness runs the risk of subverting itself.

Hawkins’s modifications to the text indicate that he is uncomfortably aware of its potential performativity at the level of actively reproducing the arousal – and subsequent flaccidity – of the young man’s member in the response of the reader. But there is more to it than that. The Latin text is remarkable, not simply for its explicit sexuality, but for the themes of dominance and subservience which run through it. The most likely interpretation of the expression ‘coepit delicatis stringere colla complexibus’ is that, as she embraces him, the prostitute squeezes the young man’s neck. This is the sense in which the Spanish translation of 1553 interprets the passage – ‘comẽço cõ dulces abraços apretarle el cuello’ (‘she began, with sweet embraces, to squeeze his neck’: Jerome, Libro de las Vidas de los Sanctos Padres del Yermo, Toledo, 1553, fol. 19v.) – a reading which introduces another dimension to the text; the woman does not seek merely to arouse the man, but does so by means of erotic strangulation, with the implication that she is not simply a harlot sent – by men – to offer her standard services, if in rather unusual circumstances, but, in effect, a dominatrix, exercising and rejoicing in her power over her victim.

That this is the intended sense of the Latin text is indicated by the description of the prostitute as a ‘victrix impudica’, an expression which Hawkins renders, curiously, as ‘lasciuious conquerors’. The Latin ‘victrix’ is simple enough and is clearly both feminine and singular. Hawkins can hardly have mistranslated it by mistake, and yet the result is signally inapposite; the word ‘lascivious’ applies more appropriately to the courtesan and collocates rather oddly with the male conquerors, who have set this situation up only to retire from the scene.Furthermore, the implication, as it stands, is that it is they who will ‘ouerspred’ the bound youth, but this is surely not the reading that the translator intends.

The transformation of ‘conqueress’ into ‘conquerors’ requires only the substitution of two letters, and it may be that the word was a hastily contrived compromise arrived at after the manuscript had been typeset and before it went to press. However it came about, Hawkins’s rendering of ‘stringere’ as ‘embrace’, together with the hash he makes of ‘victrix impudica’, combine to produce a much tamer picture of the prostitute than that painted in the Latin text.

(The remainder of this section of Pain, Pleasure and Perversity examines a variety of early modern translations and retellings of this tale in French, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch and English, and finds that, while they all edit out at least some of the more salacious details of the story, the Southern/Catholic translations are far more explicit than the Northern/Protestant ones, indicating a greater sense of unease in the Protestant North, and a more exuberant eroticism in the Catholic South.)

(Adapted from Part 3, ‘Suffering and Gender’, Chapter 8, ‘The Emergence of the Dominatrix.)

Homoeroticism in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs


Unlike Catholic suffering, which (at least in its monastic context, where penance went hand in hand with chastity) was frequently overtly linked with sexuality, Protestant suffering generally relates to sex only obliquely. Whereas, for example, Anthony of Padua’s biographer explicitly traces the saint’s determination to eradicate sexual desire by means of ever more severe mortification of the flesh (Luca Assarino, The Life of St. Anthony of Padoua,, Paris, 1660, pp. 10–21.), the ‘eroticized violence’ in Foxe’s Actes and Monuments ‘haunts the margins of the text’ (James C.W. Truman, ‘John Foxe and the Desires of Reformation Martyrology’, English Literary History, 70.1, 2003: 35–66; p. 40) – except, of course, in passages where the papists are excoriated as ‘sodomites’, and their acts of violence imbued with overtones of sexual perversity (vividly illustrated by the graphic woodcut of Bonner scourging a Protestant in the 1563 edition). Rather than drawing conclusions from what Foxe says, one is forced to surmise from what he skirts around; for example, despite his attacks on Catholic sodomites, Foxe is much more circumspect in his condemnation of homosexual activity than his predecessor and mentor John Bale had been, and Betteridge surmises that this is because ‘in Acts and Monuments close and potentially homo erotic relationships between Protestant men are often held up as exemplary and commendable’, concluding, ‘A distinction is implicitly drawn in Acts and Monuments between a homoeroticism that is humanist and ordered and a sodomy that is represented as disordered and bodily’ (Tom Betteridge, ‘The Place of Sodomy in the Historical Writings of John Bale and John Foxe’, in Betteridg, ed, Sodomy in Early Modern Europe, Manchester, 2002, pp. 11–26; pp. 17 and 23).

Betteridge’s language is – rightly – circumspect (‘potentially’, ‘implicitly’); he holds the line between reading from the text and reading into it, a line that Truman dares to cross in his reading of sexual (frequently homoerotic) implications in Foxe, among them the woodcut of Thomas Bilney and Dr Call (Actes and Monuments, p. 467) which, Truman says, ‘exposes the interplay between the suffering of martyrdom … and the physical intimacy of early modern male friendship’ (Truman, p. 52) – an assertion to which Freeman and Evenden respond with the wry comment, ‘Truman does not explain why Foxe would have chosen to depict Bilney in this way or why no one, including generations of Foxe’s Catholic critics, seemed to have understood, or commented on, the homoerotic dimensions of this picture’(Thomas S. Freeman and Elizabeth Evenden, Religion and the Book in Early Modern England: The Making of John Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyrs’, Cambridge, 2011, p. 214, footnote).

The first of these questions scarcely matters; the author, as Roland Barthes reminds us, is dead. As to the second, Severin’s words, in Sacher-Masoch’s Venus im Pelz, may be illuminative:

I was prematurely developed and impressionable when, at the age of ten, the legends of the martyrs came into my hands. I remember reading with a kind of horror, which was really delight, how they languished in prison, were put to the rack, shot through with arrows, boiled in pitch, thrown to wild animals, nailed to the cross, and suffered the most horrible things with a kind of joy. (Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch, Venus im Pelz, in Sacher-Masoch, Das Vermächtnis Kains, Stuttgart, 1870, part 2, pp. 121–367; p. 191.)

It matters little whether the legends the young Severin read were Catholic, Protestant, of the early Christian martyrs under the Romans, or something else entirely. Nor does it matter that Severin is basically heterosexual in his orientation. The point is that, if Severin was unique, Venus im Pelz would never have made it beyond a first printing; he is not unique, and it is reasonable to suppose that other readers over the centuries will have turned the pages of Foxe’s book with a similar horrified rapture, engaging with the text – and its illustrations – in ways that have little to do with Foxe’s overt intent: ‘Religious warfare and persecutions created [a] public sphere of torturer and tortured; when those ceased, compendia like Butler’s Lives of the Saints and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs kept the imagery of punisher and punished available for edification and/or fantasy’ (Bonnie Shullenberger, ‘Much Affliction and Anguish of Heart: “Story of O” and Spirituality’, Massachusetts Review, 46.2, 2005: 249–72; p. 25.).

Marshall, too, accepts that ‘Foxe’s text offers a form of sadism avant la lettre – a pleasure derived from three interlocking dialectics of (de)valuing the flesh, promoting/erasing individuality, and strategically collapsing the domains of word and deed’ and recognizes that, while ‘neither he nor his martyrs were sadistic or masochistic’, ‘readers … could respond more variously and transgressively, in ways we can identify as sadistic or masochistic’ (Cynthia Marshall, The Shattering of the Self: Violence, Subjectivity, and Early Modern Texts, Baltimore, MD, 2002, pp. 102 and 103). It would be surprising if Truman was the first to find homoerotic implications in the depiction of an imprisoned man burning his hand with a candle in an attempt to prepare himself for being burned at the stake, while being watched intently by another man who is curled up in bed (the only bed), but it would hardly be surprising that others did so furtively and in secret.

(Adapted from Part 2, “The Suffering of Others”, Chapter 5, “The Spectacle of suffering”.)

Suffering Saints


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’.)

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.

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

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’.)

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 Spectacle of Suffering

Montaigne, describing a public execution he witnessed while in Rome, expresses his horror at the cruelty of those who

invent vnused tortures and vnheard-off torments; to devise new and vnknowne deathes, and that in colde blood, without any former enmitie or quarrel, or without any gaine or profit; and onely to this end, that they may enjoy the pleasing spectacle of the languishing gestures, pittifull motions, horrormoving yellings, deep-fetcht groanes, and lamentable voyces of a dying and drooping man… (Michel de Montaigne, Essays, translated by John Florio, London, 1613, p. 237)

That expression, ‘pleasant spectacle’, first occurs in print in English in Chaloner’s translation of Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folie (London, 1549, sig. F2v), where it does not directly correspond to the Latin, which merely says, ‘‘multo etiã suauius, si quis animaduertat anus’ (‘it is much more pleasant if one sees an old woman’, Erasmus, Moriæ Encomium Erasmi Roterdami Declamatio, Strasbourg, 1511, sig. C6v., my translation). Erasmus is not discoursing on torture and mutilation, but there is an element of cruelty in what he says, since he is commenting on the follies of old men and women attempting to perpetuate their youth.

The expression also occurs – twice – in Brende’s translation of Quintus Curtius Rufus, The History of Quintus Curcius (London, 1553) fols 83r and 164r), both times in the context of perverse cruelty, once in direct translation of ‘lætum spectaculum’, and once embellishing on the Latin. Florio’s usage above, too, corresponds to ‘plaisant spectacle’ in the original.

While the expression does occasionally crop up in English texts which are not translations, the ironic use of ‘pleasant spectacle’ to describe scenes which are anything but pleasant occurs mainly in works translated from either Latin or French, or, less frequently, from Italian and Spanish.

Of course, the expression was also used in contexts which were not ironic – and not just to describe idyllic scenes such as Venice in the early morning; in these sanguinary times, bear-baiting, or the execution of a villain, might be described, quite without irony, as a pleasant spectacle. But the ironic use of the expression is closely connected with Latin and the Latin languages, and seems to reflect an acceptance of the entertainment value of others’ woe. In the words of a French Jesuit,

Teares have (I know) not sweetnesse, which makes us to love them; and though they may be the marks of grief in those that shed them, they are motives of joy to those that consider them. The sole sight of one in misery gives the experience of this truth … all sorts of Wretches draw us to the compassion of their sufferings, and … we resent a kind of pleasure to sigh with them… (René de Cerisiers, The Triumphant Lady: or, The Crowned Innocence, trans. by William Lower, London, 1656, pp. 1–2)

The Latin South of Europe provides many examples of unabashed revelling in the suffering of others, and, while it is not entirely absent from Protestant discourse, it is far scarcer. One wonders, though, whether the real difference between those who take the pleasure of seeing others suffer for granted and those who, with self-betraying irony, attribute such sentiments to others is that the former are simply more honest…

(Adapted from Part 2, ‘The Suffering of Others’, Chapter 5, ‘The Spectacle of Suffering’.)

On Mary Wroth’s _Urania_

Mary Wroth’s Urania (London, 1621) poses profound problems for feminist critics; here we have the first major full-length work of fiction in English by a woman and it contains some of the most graphically sadomasochistic scenes of male domination and female submission that the seventeenth century has to offer. ‘What, then, to make of this … ?’ (Helen Hackett, ‘The Torture of Limena’, in Kate Chedgdzoy et al., eds, Voicing Women: Gender and Sexuality in Early Modern Writing, Keele, Staffs, 1996, pp. 93–110; p. 95). The last twenty years or so have seen a profusion of attempts to deconstruct Wroth’s apparent collusion in the gratification of the male gaze, ranging from interpreting it as an attack on arranged marriage (Sid Ray, Holy Estates: Marriage and Monarchy in Shakespeare and his Contemporaries, Cranbury, NJ, 2004, pp. 53-75) to seeing it as a ‘celebration of a distinctively feminine heroism’ – an integration of ‘previous models of romantic heroines who die for love, Christian martyrs and Stoic heroes’ (Hackett, ‘The Torture of Limena’, p. 97) – and as encoded political commentary: ‘the relentless scenes of feminine anguish, humiliation, and torture in the Urania indicate the extent to which idealized equations of love and suffering can compel subjects to assent to their own abuse’ (Melissa E. Sanchez, ‘The Politics of Masochism in Mary Wroth’s Urania’, English Literary History, 74.2, 2007, pp. 449–78; p. 450).

Compelling and valid as these approaches are, they all acquiesce perhaps a little too readily in a narrative of female submission; even Hackett’s ‘feminine heroism’ has its locus in enduring suffering, in submitting to the will and power of a (masculine) other. Miller, commenting on the fact that Philargus, finally repenting of his torture of Limena, makes his (somewhat redundant) dying wish for Limena and Perissus to promise to marry, asks, ‘can conclusion ever truly bear the signature of a woman, or is she compelled to inscribe it always as compliance with masculine desire?’ (Jacqueline T. Miller, ‘Lady Mary Wroth in the House of Busirane’, in Patrick Gerard Cheney and Lauren Silberman, eds, Worldmaking Spenser: Explorations in the Early Modern Age, Lexington, KY, 1999, pp. 115–24; pp. 123–4) and Wagner defines the Urania’s ‘major complementary themes’ as ‘subjugation of the female body through betrayal in love and politics, and resistance to such subjugation via the appropriation of romance conventions that formerly valorized a masculinist social formation of the female body’ (Geraldine Wagner, ‘Contesting Love’s Tyranny: Socially Outcast Women and the Marginalized Female Body in Lady Mary Wroth’s Urania’, English Studies, 87:5, 2006; pp. 577–601; p. 579).

However, the Urania, like all romance and most literature, deals in complicated ways with themes of dominance and submission, of tormentors and victims. It cannot simply be deconstructed as a tale of violent, treacherous men whose women either stand bravely and defiantly or cower pitifully before them, and the subjugation of women in the novel needs to be balanced, first, by its gender-reversed counterparts, and secondly, by the narratives of female empowerment interwoven with the scenes of subjugation.

For example, the Albanian prince Selarinus is a gender-reversed parallel to the victimization of Limena. Selarinus is captured while sleeping and taken as a prisoner to the queen of Epirus, who is determined ‘to manifest hate, scorne and contempt’ towards him. However, ‘seeing his sweetnesse, and louelynesse, his tender youth, his modest countenance’, she softens. Observing how ‘shame to see those braue armes fetterd, and bound, brought some blood into his face, which … made his beauty appeare more delicate’, her compassion is aroused, his flushed face serving ‘as if of purpose to purchase his libertie; thus was hee forced to be beholding to that womanish part, to restore his manly power to liberty.’

This episode is but one of many in which the feminization of the male, the erotic portrayal of the male body, and the subjugation of the male to the female are central features. The queen keeps Selarinus captive, but in a ‘maruellous rich roome’, to which she comes at night and tells him that, if he will ‘yeeld’ to her, she might crown him ‘with the title of a King’. He is already in love with another, and frets at the thought of having to betray her, but two days later, without having forced this issue, she sends for him with another purpose, commanding him to fight Terenius, an unwanted suitor. He has no choice but to agree, but when the time comes Selarinus and Terenius, engaging in a bit of homosocial bonding, stage the fight in such a way that they are both able to escape the princess’s clutches (pp. 255-60).

Urania with begins with a theme of male tyranny – the apparent death of Limena at Philargus’s hands – but this is a tale told second hand (and which the shrewd reader, therefore, will know not to take at face value). All the vividness and immediacy of these opening pages of the novel are overwhelmingly in a narrative of female power, a power which sweeps before it Perissus (whose grief for Limena is dismissed by Urania as ‘woman-like complaints’, and whom she converts from sorrow to a course of bloody revenge), the shepherd lads who dote on Urania, and the wild youths who offer themselves as her servants. There is a single line of descent from the goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome to Wanda in Sacher-Masoch’s Venus im Pelz (Stuttgart, 1870), and it passes through Urania, the embodiment of a fantasy of womankind as at once consummately wonderful and terrible, its cruelty a casual by-product of its glorious, untrammelled – and always, it seems, essentially southern – nature.

(Adapted from Part Three, ‘Suffering and Gender’, Chapter 7, ‘The Erotics of Suffering and Cruelty’. This chapter is not available for previewing.)

On Sexual Flagellation

Foucault analyses modern sexual identities as social constructs of fairly recent (mainly nineteenth-century) origin. He contends that, ‘At the beginning of the seventeenth century there was still a certain frankness. Sexual practices were hardly kept secret … people had a certain tolerant familiarity with the illicit’ (Histoire de la Sexualité 1: La Volonté de Savoir, Paris, 1976, p. 9; my translation). Discussion of sex was, he says, expressed in strands interwoven among discourse on other topics, rather than being woven into a coherent discourse of sexuality, and was focused on acts rather than identities. However,  there are some basic weaknesses to Foucault’s analysis.

‘The earliest distinct reference to a masochistic flagellant’ (Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, vol. 3, 2nd edn, Philadelphia, 1920, p. 132) is considered to be Pico della Mirandola’s anecdote about a sexual flagellant, published in 1496, after the author’s death. The passage occurs as a strand in a discourse on a quite different topic (the nature of astrology), and the flagellant is defined primarily by his acts, rather than by psychological predisposition; ‘he can never be sexually aroused unless he is beaten’  (Disputationes … Aduersus Astrologiã Diuinatricem, Bologna, 1496; edition used, Lyons, 1498, sig. h5r; my translation), Pico tells us, insisting that this supports his belief that one’s fate is not determined by the stars (that is to say, it is an accidental, or circumstantial feature of the flagellant that he is predisposed towards being beaten, not an essential part of his inner nature).

All of this is as Foucault predicts. However, the passage contains some significant details which run counter to Foucault’s theories. Firstly, he relates the flagellant’s behaviour to his overall character, saying, ‘Apart from his unusual sexuality, he is not such a bad person, and he recognizes his sickness and hates it’ (ibid.). This suggests that he would change it if he could, but is powerless to do so, and the description of the flagellant’s behaviour as a kind of sickness (‘morbum’), suggests an equivalence between the relationship of sexual act to sexual identity and that of illness to patient.

The implication that he has picked up something nasty is reinforced by Pico’s attempt to trace the cause of his proclivities to formative experiences during childhood: ‘he was educated with some wicked boys among whom there was a disgraceful agreement to whip each other, bought, as it were, at the cost of their shame’ (ibid.). In some ways, Pico is not so far removed from modern debate on sexual identities, which hinges on the extent to which they are determined by genetic, social and psychological factors, their integration or otherwise with other aspects of the individual’s character and identity, and a general recognition that, once established, such identities are difficult to change (see, for example, ‘Close Relationships’, Ch. 9 of Saul Kassin et al., Social Psychology, 8th edn, Belmont, CA, 2011, pp. 339–88).

Where Foucault’s predictions fall down most badly is in his assertion that early modern discussion of sexuality was uninhibited, characterized by ‘frankness’ and a ‘tolerant familiarity with the illicit’. Pico’s description clearly indicates the flagellant’s shame. Judging from the amount of knowledge he has about the background of his flagellant, it is at least possible that his anecdote is actually autobiographical. If so, he was quite likely motivated to disguise the fact by more than mere reticence. Meibom (whose 1639 treatise on flagellation as a form of sexual stimulation is an early example of specifically sexual discourse) rejoices that no sexual flagellants exist in his native Germany, asserting that should such an abomination be found that person would be burnt to death (Johann Heinrich Meibom, De Flagrorum Usu in Re Veneria, Leyden, 1639; edition used, Leyden, 1643, p. 16).

In general, early modern references to the male sexual flagellant (who by 1673 had acquired the name of ‘flogging cully’ in English) are generally couched in terms that are either shameful, condemnatory, or mocking. A similar admixture of endorsement, adjustment and outright rejection of Foucauldian principles is involved in a close reading of other texts of the period.

Interested in reading more? Click here to download the introduction to the book, from which this extract is adapted.

Suffering in the Seventeenth Century

During the earlier part of the seventeenth century, religious flagellation still survived, even in Protestant England. John Gee (a Church of England clergyman) recounts how, during the reign of James I, Catholic flagellants marched in procession to Tyburn, and partly endorses the practice, declaring himself ‘no enemy vnto austerity of life, and taming or chastening our bodily sinfull members’ (John Gee, The Foot out of the Snare, London, 1624, pp. 86-7). Penitential mortification was not generally sanctioned by Protestant theology, but Foxe’s Actes and Monuments casts its shadow across the century, and the surest sign that one was among the elect was that one was privileged to suffer for Christ’s sake. ‘As affliction is a sign of God’s love, so the absence of affliction is a sign of his wrath’ (Ann Thompson, The Art of Suffering and the Impact of Seventeenth-Century Anti-Providential Thought, Aldershot, 2003, p. 57), and the devout Protestant was ‘bound to be glad that he is afflicted’, because suffering ‘is such a signe of God’s love, that every one that is not chastened, is mark’t out for a bastard, and no sonne [that is, not among the elect]’ (Henry Hammond, A Practicall Catechisme, Oxford, 1645, p. 110).

At the same time as accepting – and even extolling – attitudes towards suffering which most people today would think of as perverse, seventeenth-century society was also engaged in an ongoing debate about these attitudes. Towards the end of the century, this led to widespread rejection of Stoic principles of ‘looking upon all Affections as vitious Perturbations, not endeavouring to rule and use them, but to root them out’ (James Dalrymple, A Vindication of the Divine Perfections, London, 1695, p. 11), and acceptance of the basically Epicurean principle that ‘Pleasure is the Sovereign Aim of all Men, ’tis that which the Soul naturally and justly desires, and for which ’tis made’ (Charles Gildon, Miscellaneous Letters and Essays, London, 1694, preface, sig. A3v). As a result of this change in the perception of the nature and necessity of suffering, the seventeenth century can be considered as a ‘a watershed…in… “the history of pain”’ (Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen, ‘Religious Meanings of Pain in early Modern England’, in Dijkhuizen and Karl A.E. Enenkel, eds, The Sense of Suffering: Constructions of Physical Pain in Early Modern Culture, Brill, 2009, pp. 189–219; p. 190).

Interested in reading more? Click here to download the introduction to the book, from which this extract is adapted.

John R. Yamamoto-Wilson, Pain, Pleasure and Perversity: Discourses of Suffering in Seventeenth Century England (Ashgate, 2013), explores these changing attitudes towards the suffering and infliction of pain. The book covers the topic fairly comprehensively, with sections on differences between Protestant and Catholic attitudes to suffering, cruelty, the sexualization of suffering, and so on. The book is available for purchase here.