Category Archives: Further Reading

Death in Medieval Europe

deathinmedievalenglandDeath in Medieval Europe

I haven’t been keeping up with posts over the last few months – too many other things going on! I’ll try to remedy that and catch up on interesting developments in the field (suppose I should make that my New Year’s resolution!).

Anyway, here’s a new publication that may be of interest. I haven’t read it myself yet, but if you click on the link there’s a free preview of the book.

The Civilizing Process and the Decline of Violence

THE DEBATE over whether humanity is becoming less violent has its beginnings in Ted Robert Gurr’s 1982 article “Historical trends in violent crime : a critical review of the evidence” (in Tonry and Morris, eds, Crime and Justice : an Annual Review of Research).  Several other studies, mainly based on homicide data from Scandinavia and Holland, appeared to corroborate Gurr’s findings, and pretty soon this pattern of an apparent decline in violence was linked to Norbert Elias’s thesis of a “civilizing process”, first propounded in Über den Prozeß der Zivilisation (1939), but virtually unknown until it was republished in 1969 and translated into English.

Manuel Eisner’s “Long-Term Trends in Violent Crime” (2003) sums up the general findings of the previous couple of decades with the words, “Serious interpersonal violence decreased remarkably in Europe between the mid-sixteenth and the early twentieth centuries” (p. 83), elaborating that, while there may be disagreement about the details and, more fundamentally,  the causes of the decline, the fact of the decline itself is hardly in doubt:

… if nothing else, most historians of crime would probably agree that the long-term trajectory in homicide rates is an indicator of a wider dynamic that encompasses some sort of pacification of interaction in public space. (P. 125)

So far, discussion of the issue is based on various kinds of court records of homicide rates. Steven Pinker, in the following TED presentation (2007) takes the whole issue one step further, arguing that there has been a decline of violence not merely in the civilian context but including the field of warfare:

Specifically, he says that if the hunter-gatherer norms of 10,000+ years ago had been prevalent during the 20th century humanity would seen something like two billion deaths through warfare, rather than the 100 million that actually occurred (3:48-4:06).

This statistic is based on an observation of deaths in warfare in hunter-gather tribes today, which he gives as ranging from nearly 60% among the Jivaro to around 15% among the Gebusi (3:20 ff). One can argue about whether that is the best way to measure the data, but he does give rather more varied data in The Better Angels of our Nature (2011), summed up in the following graph:

violence graph

He modifies his position slightly in the book, saying that tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century (“Rates of Violence in State and Non-State Societies”).

One can see where Pinker is going just from the above table; by his reckoning states, even in ancient times, were much safer, less violent places to live than non-state or tribal societies. The rather anecdotal evidence given in the video of violence in biblical times, classical antiquity and the medieval period is also more fully presented in the book than in the video presentation, though he does not fully erase the objection that, just because there were horrific war crimes and cruelty was tolerated in public spaces as a salutary measure and as entertainment, that does not in itself prove that there was quantifiably more violence.

I won’t go into the second half of Pinker’s presentation, where he develops various theories about why violence is declining, because I’d like to slow down a little and think a bit more deeply about the basis for the assumption that violence is declining. How sure can we be that Gurr and Eisner and Pinker – and a string of other researchers in the area – have got it right?

In spite of the virtual consensus that Eisner claims (cited above) the decline of violence may not be quite such a given as it appears to be. Richard Mc Mahon, Joachim Eibach and Randolph Roth, in “Making sense of violence? Reflections on the history of interpersonal violence in Europe” (Crime, Histoire & Sociétés, 17:2, 2013, pp. 5-26), sound a note of caution, pointing out that Pinker may be getting too far ahead of himself in attributing the decline to “individualism, cosmopolitanism, reason, and science” while others are still “preferring … to emphasize changes in medical expertise and practice, in the age structure of the population and also the difficulties inherent in the use of the available sources” (p. 6).

Objections at this level preempt asking what has caused the decline in violence; in effect, they undermine – or at least cast into doubt – the proposition that there has been any decline at all. Here, in detail, are some of the objections:

Historians of homicide are also not always comparing like with like when they compare homicide rates from the middle ages with those of later periods. In an English context … the homicide rates from the early modern period are often derived from the number of indictments for homicide while those for the middle ages are generated from coroners’ rolls … This would suggest that any simple narrative of decline is problematic. The available evidence rather indicates that rates fluctuated considerably between the late middle ages and the early modern period with … no obvious or consistent pattern of decline. There is also a difficulty for those who support the civilising process thesis in drawing on evidence from the fourteenth century without offering due attention to rates from the thirteenth century which indicate that rates at that time were actually lower than a century later. The use of the fourteenth century as a point of comparison can then serve to distort the difference between the middle ages and the early modern period.

… the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century was a time of particularly high rates in many regions. This again distorts the difference between the eighteenth and earlier centuries … [and] suggests any broad narrative of decline driven by a wider civilising process is at least open to question.

… Recent estimates suggest that circa 50 per cent of victims in the late nineteenth century would have survived if they had access to the benefits of modern medical care and emergency services … Might, for instance, individuals in societies that experienced major episodes of famine such as Ireland, Belgium and Finland be more likely to die following violent attacks than those in countries spared the ravages of widespread food shortages ? Remarkably there has, as yet, been no attempt to establish a correlation between homicide rates and broader trends in mortality and health over time and space. Stress and depression are serious health problems, if you suffer any of these this blog post is going to help you a lot.

The impact of medical care and nutrition on homicide rates also has implications for the civilising process thesis. High homicide rates … are usually due to the prevalence of male-on-male fighting [which] must, however, be far less likely to lead to homicide in the present day due to medical intervention and improved nutrition … there is a lack of intent to kill in the first instance ; … the protagonists are less likely to have pre-planned the attack and are, therefore, less likely to bring weapons to the scene ; and … they are more likely than, for instance, cases of domestic violence to involve protagonists of similar strength. It is likely, therefore, that improvements in medical care would have a particular impact on the extent of homicides arising from male-on-male fighting relative to other forms of homicide.

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

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

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

Two new books on the history of pain

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

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

Both books are also reviewed by Ian Miller.

Torture and the Art of Holy Dying

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The table of contents:

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

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

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

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

Afterword; Coppélia Kahn

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Table of Contents:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sufferings of the Martyrs and the Transgressive Female Gaze

Sharon Howard, ‘Imagining the Pain and Peril of Seventeenth Century Childbirth: Travail and Deliverance in the Making of an Early Modern World’, Social History of Medicine, 16:3 (2003), pp. 367-382, is one of those articles that appeared some years ago, but which I have only just come across. (The link, by the way, is to an open-access final proof of the article; to see it in published form log into Oxford Journals.) Hannah Newton, ‘”Very Sore Nights and Days”: The Child’s Experience of Illness in Early Modern England, c. 1580–1720’, Medical History, (2011), pp 153-182, picks up on a point made by Howard, saying, ‘According to Sharon Howard, seventeenth-century lay-people probably learned of torture not from the judicial system, but from the literature of Christian martyrdom’ (Newton, p. 163, referring to Howard, pp. 374-5 [p. 11 of the proof]).

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


Howard cites Alice Thornton’s account of childbirth:

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

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


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

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


What I want to try and find out more about is the response, particularly of women, to the depictions of suffering in works such as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, not when they were ill or experiencing the pangs of childbirth, but when they were in a state of health. I’m interested in evidence of women identifying transgressively or subversively with such texts (and, of course, with the images contained in those texts) and gaining a perverse satisfaction from the depictions of suffering.

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

On Placebos

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

On the Treatment of Pain

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

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

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

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

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


Gender and Heroism in Early Modern English Literature

Mary Beth Rose, Gender and Heroism in Early Modern English Literature (University of Chicago Press, 2002), makes the important point that ‘the terms which constitute the heroics of endurance are precisely those terms used to construct the early modern idealization of women: patient suffering, mildness, humility, chastity, loyalty and obedience. Contending that the heroics of endurance ultimately takes precedence over the heroics of action, I am also claiming that, by the end of the seventeenth century, the terms in which heroism is constructed and performed as the endurance of suffering is predominantly gendered female’ (pp. xv-xvi). Her central conclusion is that ‘the powerful, dominant mode of literary heroism at the end of the seventeenth century is the endurance of suffering, represented in female terms’ (p. xxii).

This is closely related to the thesis of female gendering of the male politic subject which Melissa Sanchez develops so eloquently in Erotic Subjects (OUP, 2011), and which I build on in ‘Suffering and Gender’, the final part of Pain, Pleasure and Perversity, and anyone interested in the subject matter of those works should take a look at Rose’s book. She notes that, as opposed to the heroics of action, ‘the heroics of endurance often commends to our attention rape, self-mutation, solipsistic desire, slavery and unwanted death’ (p. xxii). She illustrates her thesis through an examination of (mostly) non-religious texts, ranging from plays by Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson to the speeches of Queen Elizabeth and Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko. I could have wished for her to discuss the subject in relation to religious ideas about suffering, in particular, the imitation of Christ’s suffering, which is, after all, the central paradigm of the period, but I nevertheless found plenty to interest and engage me.

Christia Mercer, Knowledge and Suffering in Early Modern Philosophy: G.W. Leibniz and Anne Conway

Here is a useful little paper on early modern perceptions of the passions of Christ, originally published in Sabrina Ebbersmeyer, Emotional Minds: The Passions and the Limits of Pure Inquiry in Early Modern Philosophy (Walter de Gruyter, 2012), pp. 179-206:

Christia Mercer, ‘Knowledge and Suffering in Early Modern Philosophy’.

New Book on Early Modern Perceptions of the Male and Female Body

Helen, King, The One-Sex Body on Trial: The Classical and Early Modern Evidence (Ashgate, 2013).

This has only just come out, and I have not yet read it, but it looks as if it may turn out to be a significant contribution to early modern gender studies. Since a large part of my own work hinges on the relationship between gender and suffering I am hoping for some useful insights here!

Alec Ryrie on Suffering among Early Modern Protestants

I am currently reading Alec Ryrie’s Being Protestant in Reformation Britain (Oxford University Press, 2013), which is one of the best books on the Reformation in Britain to come out this year, and perhaps this decade.

Ryrie’s book aims to answer in relation to the early modern Protestant the question the little boy at the zoo asked of the rhinoceros: ‘But what does he do all day?’ (p. 2, citing Patrick Collinson, ‘Shepherds, Sheepdogs and Hirelings’, in Shiels and Wood, eds, The Ministry: Clerical and Lay (1989). Among other things I like about the book is the extent to which he stresses the relevance of medieval and contemporary Catholic influences on mainstream British life, a topic I have worked on in some detail (click here for details). Ryrie’s insightful comments on attitudes towards suffering are just one strand of what he has to say, most of which is not directly related to the theme of suffering, but what he does say on the subject is fascinating.

Ryrie devotes an entire chapter (chapter 2) to ‘Despair and
Salvation’ (pp. 27-48), beginning with a section entitled ‘A Culture of
Despair’, in which he speaks of the ‘anguished desolation’ of people like Nehemiah Wallington, whose traumas ‘have become symbolic of Protestantism’s self-destructive emotional life’ (p. 27). Naturally enough, Ryrie identifies the roots of this kind of despair in ‘the Calvinist doctrine of predestination’; ‘by the early 17th century large numbers of Protestants were certainly haunted by the fear that they might be irrecoverably damned, and many were – at least sometimes – absolutely convinced that they were’ (p. 28).

He then goes on to make the point that ‘mental illness in general, and depression in particular, was a part of the early modern social
landscape’ (p. 28), though, curiously, he makes no mention of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, either here or elsewhere (one can’t have everything!). He explores the relationship between salvation-anxiety and depression, and, while warning of the ‘danger of exaggerating Calvinism’s tendency to foment despair’ (p. 29), concedes that ‘Calvinism could be a theology of despair’ (p. 30), and was, perhaps, even ‘a routine part of the Protestant experience’ (p. 31).

At this point, Ryrie switches his focus from predestination to the Devil and Hell as being a major cause of early modern Protestant angst. He points to the popularity among Protestants of the Catholic Robert Persons’ Book of Resolution, whose ‘most striking feature…is its vivid, terrifying chapter on Hell’ (p. 34), and notes the popularity of this theme in other texts. True conversion was predicated upon ‘the absolute necessity of fear’ (p. 36).

The final section of this chapter deals with the extent to which Protestants found solace and comfort in emotions and deep feelings; ‘Feelings…could provide unparalleled evidence…of salvation and of election’ (p. 41). This is all very well, but what were God-fearing Protestants to do if they could not feel, if their hearts were cold and unresponsive? This brings us full circle; ‘if your troubled feelings were not balanced by a periodic sense of assurance, while people around you spoke blithely of the inner sweetness which the Spirit had granted them – then despair could return with a vengeance’ (p. 46).

Ryrie returns to this topic in the following chapter, on ‘The Meaning of Mourning’ (pp. 49-62). ‘Dullness and despair on one side, sweetness and assurance on the other; these are the key coordinates for an emotional map of early modern Protestantism’ (p. 49). To steer their course between these coordinates, Protestants poured phenomenal amounts of energy into ‘examining, and condemning, themselves for their innumerable sins. It changed
the language: the word “mourning” came to apply primarily to bewailing your own sins, and only secondarily to lamenting the dead’ (p. 50).

All are sinners, then, but ‘The godless sinner “hath a merry heart”,  while the godly sinner “is greeued and confounded in himself”’ (p. 56, citing Arthur Dent, The Plaine Mans Path-Way to Heaven, 1607).

Ryrie does not explicitly explore the question of how this grieving at one’s sins sits alongside the injunction to ‘rejoice to suffer’, though
he touches on the latter subject later on in the book, citing Francis Rous, ‘Love delights in doing and suffering; yea it is angry when it may not be suffered to suffer’ (p. 242, citing Rous, Mystical
Marriage, 1631). He mainly associates ‘This strange dance with suffering’ with temptation; ’The Lord’s Prayer unambiguously asks not to be led into this, but the logic of the Protestant view of afflictions led in the opposite direction’. Unlike Catholics, Protestants ‘did not search out affliction’, but they nevertheless ‘watched anxiously to see whether affliction had searched
[them] out’ (p. 242), and the idea that ‘suffering is a proof of God’s favour’ was ‘a core Protestant conception of the Christian life’ (p. 243).

Ryrie’s observations chime so closely with my own that I am bound to agree substantially with the picture he paints. If there is anything I would take issue with it is with the presentation of the Protestant mindset as largely static, whereas my own work (as anyone who has been following my blog will be aware) traces substantial changes over the course of the seventeenth century. There is, in fact, ample evidence of a shift of perspective, leading to what van Dijkhuizen calls ‘a watershed moment 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).

I have one or two other lesser criticisms. I would agree with Melissa Sanchez, Erotic Subjects (among others) that the martyrdom of Protestants during the Marian period remained a potent symbol of the fervour for suffering to which the pious ought to aspire, and I don’t think Ryrie gives sufficient weight to this. He also refers surprisingly infrequently to Bunyan, whose Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666) gives an extraordinarily detailed account of the mental torments that the faithful were prone to suffer in those days.

Overall, though, these are fairly minor points; suffering is not Ryrie’s main focus, and he succeeds pretty well in his broader aim of showing what the early modern Protestant did all day.

Germans as Victims


I must admit, I haven’t read this yet, but I find the concept interesting. As the promotional blurb has it, ‘The focus of this interdisciplinary volume is both on the historical roots of the “Germans as victims” narratives and the forms of their continuing existence in contemporary public memory and culture’. So far, I don’t know much about this. I have read that, at the end of the war, the people in charge of some of the extermination camps fled, leaving the camps in the hands of fresh guards who were bewildered and shocked by what was going on, and then, ironically, held responsible when the Allied troops arrived a few days, or even hours, later, so for me, the subject sits alongside narratives of German ignorance of the concentration camps and the holocaust. So, no opinion as yet, but I’ll post again after I’ve read it!


Christia Mercer on suffering and sympathy

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

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

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

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

Dissection and anatomy

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

Masochism and Empowerment in Nineteenth-century Women’s Novels

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

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

Suffering in Early Modern Germany

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

Toulalan, _Imagining Sex_

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

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