Category Archives: Further Research

“Jesus wept: and no wonder by Christ!”

“Jesus wept” – the shortest verse in the Bible (John 11:35) and the subject of a short piece on by Thomas Dixon on Umberto Eco and John Donne in the History of Emotions blog.

jesusweptThe post makes the point that “Donne is one of a very few sermon writers to discuss Christ’s tears”, though I suppose it depends what one means by “very few”. It is mentioned in the sermons of William Burton, Daniel Price, Thomas Jackson, William Ford, Samuel Smith, Gilbert Primrose and James Mabbe’s translation of Fonseca’s sermons – all published in Donne’s lifetime – and by  Samuel Otes, Thomas Adams, Daniel Featley, Peter Hausted, Anthony Faringdon and William Haughton and maybe a few others, all published prior to 1650. And there are other works – treatises, etc. – that discourse on the theme.

Still, it is, as Dixon says, a text one might have expected to have invited more exegesis, given the propensity of the age for emphasizing the less cheerful aspects of life, as evinced, for example, by the following:

As for laughter , it may be vsed: otherwise God would neuer haue giuen that power and faculty vnto man: but the vse of it must be both moderate and seldome, as sorrowe for our sinnes is to be plentifull and often. This we may learne in Christs example, of whome wee reade that hee wept three times, at the destruction of Ierusalem, at the raising of Lazarus, and in his agonie: but we neuer read that he laughed . And specially remember the saying of Chry∣sostome. Si risus in Ecclesia diaboli opus est, that is, to mooue laughter in the Church, is the worke of the deuill. (William Perkins, A golden chaine, 728-9)

Mercifully for their sanity, though, it seems the early moderns not only didn’t get overly bothered about Jesus weeping. but even, on occasion, rejected Chrysostom’s take on the whole thing:

Chrysostome indeede (for I will conceale nothing that may seeme ought to this purpose) speaking in generall tearmes saith, that Play or game is not of God but of the Deuill: and that we reade that Christwept oft, but neuer that he laughed, or so much as once smiled: yea that none of the Saints in Scripture are reported euer to haue laughed,saueSara onely,who is presently thereupon also checked for it. Which yet, saith that reuerend Father, I speake not to abandon laughter, but to bannish loosenesse.

Thus Chrysostome: which yet is not all out sound or true neither: For did not Abraham laugh too as well as Sara? and yet is he not taxed nor rebuked for so doing; nor indeed was Sara simply rebuked for laughing, but for doubting, yea if I may say so, for mocking: Abrahams laughter, as the Auncients haue well obserued, proceeded from ioy, Saraes sa∣uoured of distrust. (Thomas Gataker, Of the nature and vse of lots a treatise historicall and theologicall, 1619, pp. 215-6).

Of course, this is Umberto Eco territory, and he builds his tale on the spiritual legitimacy of laughter and question of whether, in fact, Christ did ever laugh. Dixon’s got a few other points to make; Jesus may have wept, but God is not on record as having done so, and in general tears were (and to some extent still are) perceived as “womanish”. All in all, a very good post on the early modern history of the emotions!

Masochism and Anachronism

What does it mean to talk of “masochism” prior to the publication, in 1870, of Sacher-Masoch’s Venus im Pelz [Venus in furs], or of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s adoption of Masoch’s name to describe the condition of deriving pleasure from pain in Psychopathia Sexualis: eine Klinisch-Forensische Studie [Sexual psychopathy: a clinical / forensic study]? Rob Boddice’s Pain: A very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2016) talks of “the distinctly modern pursuit of pain for pleasure, from the charitable beneficence of the Victorian lady bountiful, luxuriating in pity (according to Herbert Spencer), to the erotic cultures of Sadism and Masochism” and Alison M. Moore appears slightly uncomfortable with what she calls my “use of terms like ‘perversion’ in … discussion of practices that were not conceived as such in their own time” (Sexual Myths of Modernity: Sadism, Masochism, and Historical Teleology, Lexington, 2016, p. 80, footnote).

Is it simply an anachronism, then, to talk of masochism (or, indeed, other sexual identities) prior to the nineteenth-century taxonomy of sexuality? Krafft-Ebing cites (among others) Maria Magdalena de Pazzi (1566-1607) as an example of “the significance of flagellation as a sexual excitant” and clearly saw masochism as a convenient label to hang on something that went back considerably earlier than the publication of Sacher-Masoch’s novel. Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, vol. 3: Analysis of the Sexual Impulse; Love and Pain; The Sexual Impulse in Women (2nd edn, Philadelphia, 1921), p. 132, notes that the first distinct reference to sexual flagellation occurs in the writings of Pico della Mirandola, who, in Disputationes … Aduersus Astrologiã Diuinatricem [Arguments against astrological divination] (Bologna, 1496), writes about “a man, known to me, with a prodigious and unheard-of sexual appetite, for he can never be sexually aroused unless he is beaten” (edition used, [Lyons, 1498?]), sig. h5r; my translation). As I write in a forthcoming publication:

If Krafft-Ebing had chosen to name the phenomenon of sexual arousal through pain after the first person to describe it, rather than after the first to write an extended narrative about it, we might be talking today of “mirandolism”, rather than masochism, and scholars might deem it quite normal to trace its development from the end of the fifteenth century, rather than the middle of the nineteenth or, at most, the early eighteenth.

As to whether or not early modernists regarded such practices as perversions, I argue quite forcefully that they did. Mirandola was quite possibly describing himself here, and the work in which the passage occurs was not published until after his death, a sensible precaution, given that he was fully aware that what he has written “is a harsh thing for liberal ears” (i.e., likely to give offence).

Other early modern accounts confirm that there was little tolerance for such proclivities. Johann Heinrich Meibom, author of the earliest known treatise on sexual flagellation, calls such practices “scelera ista perversæ Veneris, & puerorum contumeliæ” [crimes of perverse lust and assaults to our children] and rejoices that no such depravation is to be found in his native Germany or, if evidence of it should come to light, that the culprit would be burned (De Flagrorum Usu in Re Veneria [On the use of whips in sexual circumstances], Leyden, 1639; edition used, Leyden, 1643, p. 16; my translation; no online text available).

Early modern sexual identities tended to be couched in terms of actions and behaviour, rather than in terms of proclivities and tendencies, and during the seventeenth century in England there emerged the “flogging cully“, who could not be sexually aroused except through flogging. Several lampoons of such sexual flagellants were written, all expressing condemnation and disgust (the earliest of these, by John Davies,  was published c. 1599). So my take on all this is that one can legitimately speak of a kind of masochism avant la lettre during the early modern period, and one can assume that such practices were viewed as perverse or aberrant by people at that time.

The idea that the early moderns would not have regarded such practices as perversions seems to stem largely from an uncritical acceptance of Michel Foucault’s dictum 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 [History of sexuality 1: the wish to know], Paris, 1976, p. 9; my translation). One needs to bear in mind that Foucault is less concerned here with saying anything valid about the seventeenth century than with using Victorian values as a stick with which to beat the bourgeoisie of his own period. Certainly, there is little or nothing in the literature of the seventeenth century to substantiate his claim, at least as far as sexual flagellation is concerned.

The idea that suffering for pleasure – particularly sexual pleasure – is a comparatively recent phenomenon is harder to dismiss. Roy F. Baumeister is typical among historians of human psychology in his observation 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” (‘Masochism as Escape from Self ’). The Victorian and early twentieth-century taxonomists of sexuality (Charcot, Lombroso, Breuer, Freud, Krafft-Ebing, Lacan, etc.) tended to see masochism as being closely related to ascetic religious suffering, particularly self-flagellation, but Baumeister (rightly, I think), argues that “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” (ibid.), a position which echoes Georges Bataille, L’Érotisme (Paris, 1957), pp. 275–6, translated as Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo by Mary Dalwood (New York, 1962), pp. 252–3.

However, Baumeister leaves an important problem unresolved.  “The prevailing theoretical position since Freud”, he writes, “has been that masochism is derived from sadism”. However, he cites “abundant evidence” indicating, not only that masochism is apparently “far more common than sadism”, but that “behavioral evidence suggests that masochism comes first, and sadistic or dominant role-taking comes only later if at all”, concluding that “it is implausible to argue that masochism is derived from sadism. Rather, sadism must be the secondary, derivative pattern”. At the same time, he supposes that “sadism is historically older than masochism” (ibid.).

Clearly, this just doesn’t add up, or at least to make it add up a bit of juggling is required. One approach (the one I mainly suggest in PPP), is that masochism was hiding in plain sight:

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. (p. 12)

But there is another possible explanation. The sources Baumeister is citing are all analyses of sexual behaviour and the sex trade, and he equates “sadism” with the so-called “dominant” position in the sadomasochistic dynamic. However, true sadism – taking pleasure in strangling victims to death, crushing their bones and whatnot – doesn’t really form part of the sexual play that is the subject of the studies he cites. One is reminded of the old joke:

Masochist: Hit me.

Sadist: No.

Katherine Fowkes puts it a bit more eloquently:

The sadist would glean no pleasure from inflicting pain on someone who enjoys it… Likewise, the masochist does not take pleasure in being tortured by a sadist. On the contrary, although it is critical that the masochist’s suffering appear to stem from another, the pain is actually self-inflicted. To this end, the masochist needs to convince another to inflict the pain that he wishes heaped upon him. Thus in the sadistic scenario the tortured is by definition not a masochist and in the masochistic heterocosm, the torturer is likewise by definition not a sadist. (Katherine A. Fowkes, Giving up the Ghost: Spirits, Ghosts, and Angels in Mainstream Comedy Films, Detroit, MI, 1998, p. 35.)

In other words, the paradigm of sadism – sexual cruelty – being something with a long history, while masochism is a relative newcomer to the scene, can perhaps be maintained by arguing that those who inflict pain in sadomasochistic scenarios are not actually sadists.

Either way, the accepted wisdom is that overt accounts of sexual masochism do not date back any earlier than the early modern period. While there may be tales of cruelty, often with a sexual component, going back to classical antiquity, the victims generally do their best to avoid their fate and there is little suggestion of them colluding in their own suffering or inveigling others into inflicting suffering on them.

Phyllis and AristotlePhyllis and Aristotle
For an account of Phyllis's apocryphal role as a dominatrix over Aristotle, click here.

At the same time, there are signs – faint as yet – that a paradigm shift may be on the way, and the roots of sexual masochism may be pushed back very much further. See, for example, Rachel A. Branch, Propertian Sado-Masochism in Augustan Rome and Today: Salvaging Power, a presentation given at a meeting of The Classical Association of the Middle West and South in 2010. Clearly, the relationship between Krafft-Ebing (or Sacher-Masoch) and masochism is not equivalent to that between, say, Edison and the light bulb (they are not bringing something into existence but rather creating the language with which to conceptualize something that already exists), but it is still very unclear just how far back into human history the concept of masochism can be traced.


Last Christmas, a friend who happens to be an antiquarian bookseller posted on Facebook an image of what he took to be the first recorded instance of the expression “merry Christmas” in print. The book in question was An Itinerary VVritten by Fynes Moryson Gent (1617).

blogmerrychristmasfbA basic search on the Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership database shows that there were several occurrences of this expression prior to 1617, the first being Nicolas Breton, A Floorish vpon Fancie (1577).

Screen Shot 2015-06-26 at 13.19.35

My friend protested that he was going by the Oxford English Dictionary, which does indeed give the 1617 work as the first occurrence of the expression with modern spelling:

Merry Christmas OED

But, clearly, OED has got it wrong!

I recently used this example to kick start a workshop on EEBO, and followed it with another example, this time one provided by Kenji Go, one of the attendees of the workshop. He did some work on the origin of the cosmic sense of space, published in Notes and Queries, showing that the earliest use of the word “space” to denote the place where the heavenly bodies are located  predates the first usage cited in the OED (which at that time was given as Milton, 1667) by some 85 years. In response, OED has updated its entry:

Screen Shot 2015-06-26 at 16.12.01

While reading through Professor Go’s work, and checking through the OED entry, I couldn’t help but notice the close link between “space” as “cosmos” (sense 8 in OED) and space as physical extent or area (sense 7), especially Shakespeare’s usage in Hamlet:

Screen Shot 2015-06-26 at 16.10.21

Once again, a check on EEBO TCP shows that OED has missed a number of earlier references to “infinite space”, the earliest being A Sermon of Saint Chrysostome (1542). The usage that particularly interested me was in Sermons of Master Iohn Caluin, vpon the Booke of Iob (1574), “behold the heauen is of infinite space in cōparison, & yet we see it is borne vp by the only power of God” (p. 494). It seemed to me that the concept of space as physical extent or area was morphing here into the concept of space as cosmos; “heaven”, as used here, is not  an abstraction, an idealized world unknowable while we are in this world, but  something we can “behold” and “see”, that is, the place where the sun and the moon and the stars are.

A search on the Swiss database of early modern texts shows that the translation follows Calvin’s French exactly: “Or voila le ciel qvi a vne espace infinie”.

Calvin infinite space French

The page on the Swiss database is located here. In the French, as in the English, heaven is described as being of an infinite space, rather than as being, in itself, an infinite space, but it does begin to look as if the English concept of space as cosmos either owes something to French usage or developed in tandem with it.

Either way, the basic point is that this whole subject of the earliest usage of particular words and phrases is not something I have made a particular study of. My research interests are quite different, and these examples – “merry Christmas”, the cosmic sense of space and the expression “infinite space” – are just random examples that happen to have crossed my radar by chance. Doubtless, there are many more examples out there, and substantial revision of the OED is going to be needed in the light of the EEBO TCP database.


OK, so the friend who put up the merry Christmas Facebook post now tells me he’s pushed “merry Christmas” back to 1534, in a letter from John Fisher to Thomas Cromwell.

fishermerry christmas

I note though that here “merry” only has one “r”. Still, with the growth of online databases we are more and more being forced to acknowledge that whatever we think we know about the early modern period is provisional. I guess we’ll have to wait until early modern manuscript material goes text-searchable to get the real dope!

Call to action!

Related posts:

Damned if we do! Using the EEBO TCP database

Using the Early English Books Online and Text Creation Partnership Databases

Digital humanities and resources; a selection of useful links

Early modern discourse communities: Catholics and Protestants

A discourse community can be defined as having six clear characteristics :

1. “A discourse community has a broadly agreed set of common public goals.”

2. “A discourse community has mechanisms of intercommunication among its members.”

3. “A discourse community uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback.”

4. “A discourse community utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims.”

5. “In addition to owning genres, a discourse community has acquired a specific lexis.”

6. “A discourse community has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise”

(John Swales,  “The Concept of Discourse Community,” in Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs, eds., Writing About Writing: A College Reader, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011)

Catholics and Protestants meet the above criteria in the following ways: Both groups seek to promote their brand of Christianity (#1). They congregate in churches and publish books and pamphlets both for the benefit of the members of their community and to inform and attract others (#2). Members are kept in touch with the teachings of the community through church attendance and reading the relevant literature (#3). The core values are transmitted via ritual, sermons, communal prayer, works of devotion, etc. (#4). Practices and beliefs are identified through precise terms, some of which are adapted from language in more general use, some of which are common to both groups, and some of which are specific to one or other group (#5). Both communities have trained individuals (priests, vicars, theologians, etc.) who have specialist understanding of the issues and are vested with a certain authority to resolve disputes about the core values of the community (#6).

That’s it. That’s all we’re concerned with here. I understand that this may seem pretty reductive (where is God here, or the soul, or the purpose of life?), and I’m aware that the expression “brand of Christianity” may seem cynical or mocking. It is not intended to be. I’m not attempting to deny the spiritual or confessional values that Catholics and Protestants espouse. It’s simply that they are outside the parameters of this discussion.  For present purposes, these six features are the ones I am interested in.

The early modern Catholic and Protestant discourse communities have two other basic features in common; they share the same origins and they are mutually hostile.

One of the striking features of Protestant adaptations of Catholic literature in early modern England is just how much did not need to be changed in order for a Catholic work to be acceptable for a Protestant readership. Whole chapters – and sometimes entire works – were often publishable with only very minor changes.

One of the most extreme examples is The Profit of Believing (London: Roger Daniel, 1651), a translation of Augustine of Hippo, De utilitate credendi ad Honoratum. Clancy (English Catholic Books, 1641–1700: A Bibliography, Ashgate, 1996) classifies this as a Catholic work, and indeed it probably was, but it was published with a preface which cites Calvin, William Fulke (1538–1589) and other Protestant writers as valid authorities (sig. A2r-v).

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 00.58.09This 1651 edition of The Profit of Believing is an apparently Catholic text with a clearly Protestant preface.

The title page is – perhaps deliberately – ambiguous and, in addition to being published on its own, it was published bound together with four other works as Five Treatises, of which at least three (including this one) have clear Catholic overtones (one of the others supports the doctrine of Mary as the “Mother of God” and the other had been published secretly as a Catholic work in 1623).

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 00.55.58Despite references to Catholicism in the text, the preface cites Protestant sources with approval.

The Protestant references in the preface to this work would appear to be a veneer, disguising the Catholic nature of the text, but the printer, Roger Daniel, could also have protested that the word “Catholic” in the text was intended to designate, not the Roman, but “‘the Antient Catholick Apostolick Faith, held forth in the Church of England” (John Goodman, A Serious and Compassionate Inquiry into the Causes of the Present Neglect and Contempt of the Protestant Religion and Church of England [London: Robert White for Richard Royston, 1674], p. 6), that is, the faith of the early Christians, before the Church had been corrupted (as the Protestants saw it) by Romish doctrines. (See “An Annotated Catalogue of Protestant Editions in English of Works by and Relating to Saint Augustine of Hippo, 1529-1700” for further details of this work.)

Another work which is illuminating in this context is Edmund Bunny’s adaptation of the Jesuit Robert Persons’s The First Booke of the Christian Exercise Appertayning to Resolution (1582). Despite the accusations of piracy and worse levelled against Bunny, he made only the minimum changes necessary for the work to be openly publishable under English law, and “did not take hundreds of other opportunities to add phrases … that would have given the work a more obviously Protestant tone” (Brad Gregory, “The ‘True and Zealouse Service of God’: Robert Parsons, Edmund Bunny, and The First Booke of the Christian Exercise“, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 45, no. 2, 1994, pp. 238–68; p. 243). (See “Robert Persons’s Resolution (1582) and the issue of textual piracy in Protestant editions of Catholic devotional literature” for a discussion of the ins and outs of textual “piracy”.)

This of course begs the question of what a “Protestant tone” would have meant at that time. Obviously words relating to points of doctrine would define a text as Protestant or Catholic, but it goes further than that, particularly – and this is a subject I will deal with more fully in a later post – when it comes to the language of suffering:

As Toby Matthew notes, what we might call the common-sense values of the Old Testament – “Riches, Plenty, Posterity, and the like” – were “degraded” by the life and example of Christ and replaced by “their contraryes, [such] as Paine, Poverty, Persecution, Chastity, and Humility” (in Vicenzo Puccini, Life of the Holy and Venerable Mother Suor Maria Maddalena de Patsi, Saint Omer, 1619, preface, sig. ***3v). These, for Matthew, are the true Christian virtues, and from his perspective the Protestant world-view signals a rejection of the message of Christ and a return to Old Testament values.  Matthew merely picks out a few representative terms here; many others – ‘suffering’, ‘humiliation’, ‘mortification’, ‘contempt’, ‘flagellation’ and so forth – could be added. Taken in their totality, these words represent the monastic values of a millennium of Christian tradition on which Protestants effectively turned their backs, claiming it to be a perversion of the teachings of Christ. This rejection of monastic values leads, in turn, to a stigmatization of the language associated with these values. (Pain, Pleasure and Perversity, p. 74, adapted.)

When Simon Patrick came across Augustine Baker’s retelling of a tale from Walter Hilton’s Scala Perfectionis (in Serenus Cressy’s Sancta Sophia; or Directions for the Prayer of Contemplation &c. vol. 1, pp. 45-55, Douai: John Patté and Thomas Fievet, 1657), he was able to adapt it to his own purposes with very little deviation from the sense of the Catholic original.  The story is of a pilgrim on the way to Jerusalem faced with various different paths all purporting to be the one true path. Baker specifies just what that true path is with the words, “Before thou set the first step into the high way that leades thither, thou must be firmly grounded in the true Catholicke faith”.

Augustine Baker’s The Parable of a Pilgrim, a retelling of a tale from Walter Hilton, was published for a Catholic readership in 1657.

Patrick acknowledges the Catholic source of his text in the preface to  The Parable of the Pilgrim (London: Robert White for Francis Tyson, 1665), but he  does not refer explicitly either to Catholicism or Protestantism either here or in the body of the text. In a sense, then, his text bears comparison with that of Roger Daniel’s edition of The Profit of Believing; there are very few discursive features which identify the text as either Catholic or Protestant and the reader is left to infer which is the true f


Although Patrick’s text (which is over 500 pages long, compared with the ten pages or so of Baker’s text) does not contain any explicit references to Catholicism, it nevertheless reproduces much of the lexis of Baker’s text. The key phrase, “I am nought and I have nought and I desire nought but Jesus and Jerusalem”, repeated several times in Patrick’s text in slightly different forms, is based on Baker, who also repeats it with slight variations. Most of the concepts that Baker touches on – faith, sin, conscience, humility, charity, suffering and so on – are taken up and developed by Patrick. This is not to say that there aren’t significant differences (I’ll come back to some of these in a later post), but there is a considerable amount of overlap.


 Simon Patrick’s The Parable of the Pilgrim (1665) is a Protestant adaptation of Baker’s work.

Part of the reason Patrick is able to draw so closely on Baker’s work is that Catholic and Protestant discourse developed at this time partly in tandem, that is to say, Catholics frequently wrote taking Protestant views into account and vice versa. For example, Baker shows a clear awareness of the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith rather than by works when he writes “though thou hast done to thy seeming neuer so many good deeds both outvvard & invvard, yet in truth thou hast nothing at all, for nothing vvill abide in thy soule & fill it, but the loue of Iesus” (p. 488). Of course, this has its roots in John 15.5 and in Augustine, and is equally a part of Catholic as of Protestant doctrine, but Baker’s emphasis on it appears to be by way of making the point that Protestants do not have the monopoly on justification by faith.

I’ll finish this post by turning again to Edmund Bunny. Bunny’s adaptation of Persons’s work is so frequently dismissed as a “piracy” that the accompanying Treatise Tending towards Pacification has generally been overlooked. For anyone interested in Protestants and Catholics as discourse communities it is well worth studying in some detail, as it is (I think) the first attempt at a detailed analysis of Catholic and Protestant discourse. Bunny approaches the question from the point of view of translations of the Bible, the central issue for him being whether or not “how much soeuer we praetend to haue the word of God to direct us in al our doings, yet, by the means of wrong translations, we haue nothing at al indeed” (p. 63). He aims to clarify “what they [Catholics] or we [Protestants] haue gained or lost by our translations, in the pith or substance of translation”, and makes a distinction between “some faults that concern the words alone [i.e., semantic issues]: and some that concern the matter too [i.e., substantive issues]” (p. 66). He argues that as long as Catholics were refusing to translate the Bible at all there was a substantial issue at stake, but now that Catholics were themselves translating the Bible into English (the Douay translation of the New Testament had come out just a few years earlier, in 1582) “there is little else against us but quarrel of words” (p. 72).

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.

Using the Early English Books Online and Text Creation Partnership Databases

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related posts:

Damned if we do! Using the EEBO TCP database



Protestant Reception of Catholic Literature


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

Torture and the Art of Holy Dying

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Masochism in Political Behaviour

A few months ago I commented on Jeremy Carrette’s essay, ‘Intense Exchange: Sadomasochism, Theology and the Politics of Late Capitalism’, expressing frustration at the way in which the author speaks of the need to ‘free our gendered bodies from the market of global exploitation’, but refuses to commit himself to identifying sadomasochism either as part of the problem or as part of the solution. It might be supposed, then, that I would feel much more comfortable with Filip Kovacevic, ‘Masochism in Political Behavior: A Lacanian Perspective’ (2011). And yet, despite the fact that Kovacevic makes it perfectly explicit that, in his view, ‘masochism is a part of the problem and not the solution’, I found his thesis so unsatisfactory that, by the end, I felt positively well-disposed towards Carrette, whose ambivalence at least gives tacit recognition to the imperfectness of the fit between masochistic tendencies and political achievement. By contrast, Kavacevic’s equation of any kind of voluntary-undertaken suffering – from the sufferings of Christ to hunger strikers and suicide bombers – with masochism seems to me to be a distorted oversimplification.

Not that Kavacevic doesn’t hit the nail on the head now and again. Some of what he says about the vicious cycle of political protest and reform rings true, as when he says of a miners’ strike in Montenegro that the miners’ intention ‘was not to effect permanent and lasting changes in their position toward the Other who confronted them, but only to create “enough” anxiety in the Other so that [Prime Minister Djukanovic´] would resolve this particular situation’. A few weeks later, when Djukanovic´ ‘did not fulfill all that he promised’, the cycle repeated itself, and ‘the miners took it out on themselves again’. In this way, through a process of, on the one hand, gratifying and on the other of producing anxiety in the ‘Other’, ‘the masochistic relation will be reasserted, condemning the masochist to constant repetition and the Other’s enjoyment is re-established as a trap from which the masochist can never (quite) escape’.

The way out of this endless cycle, Kavacevic argues, is for the oppressed to ‘move from being the objects of the Other’s enjoyment to being the objects of the Other’s desire’. He sees a neurotic / hysteric response as being superior to a masochistic one;  ‘hysterics, positioning themselves as objects of the Other’s desire, reveal the fact that the dominating Other is lacking and this is exactly what allows them to push for the construction of less oppressive, tolerant Others’.

Having made it clear that he regards Christ and Christianity as doing more harm than good, Kavacevic holds up Socrates as a positive role model, homing in on Socrates’s ironic call on the state of Athens ‘to provide him with life-long honors, while he was being condemned to death’. ‘Masochists’, he says, ‘cannot be ironic’, concluding:

conveying the irony of their situation to hunger-strikers (and suicide bombers) is the only way to help them begin their subjective transformation. Stated in Lacanian terms, masochists position themselves to serve as instruments of enjoyment to a non-existent Other. What could be more absurd and open to ironic interpretation than that?

This does, I admit, give me food for thought, but I am really not sure that there is any real way to distinguish between the ironic sufferer and the masochistic one. I can see that appealing to the Other through self-inflicted suffering is a weaker option than working through the Other’s desire/need for approval, but I’m not even quite sure that this is what Kavacevic is saying.

In short, yet another thought-provoking article that ultimately fails to completely satisfy!

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!

Catching Up…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eating Nasty Things

      This post is inspired partly by a paper written in 1976, but which I have only just come across (Frank Paul Bowman, “Suffering, Madness and Literary Creation in Seventeenth-Century Spiritual Autobiography”), and partly by a tweet by Samantha Sandassie: Curiosity kills cats; 17C surgeons: Sam Smith “had a Curiosity to taste the juice, or matter” from a breast tumour. He did and died.

      Samuel Smith’s story is told in An Account of the Causes of some Particular Rebellious Distempers viz. the Scurvey, Cancers in Women’s Breasts, &c… (pp. 24-5), an anonymous work, published in London in 1670, and in William Salmon’s Ars Chirurgica (London, 1698), which repeats the 1670 account verbatim (p. 695). Immediately after dipping his finger into a gland of the woman’s severed breast and touching it to his lip, he experienced an insurmountable revulsion which he was unable to shake off:

… although he presently spit out and wash’d his Mouth with Water … and also with Wine … yet could not get rid of the Taste thereof, but it continued … and brought him … into a Consumption … which in a few Months after killed him, the Taste thereof never going off from his Tongue to his dying Hour … (An Account, p. 25.)

    Bowman’s article examines five late seventeenth-century French autobiographies – by Marguerite-Marie Alacoque, Jeanne Bouvier de La Mothe Guyon, Antoinette Bourignon, Soeur Jeanne des Anges and Joseph Surin – and notes four recurrent themes running through all of them: ‘the consumption of disgusting matter and vomiting; the rejection of sexual activity and especially horror at sexual penetration; the fear of a fall through space; the refusal of the edenic myth of childhood’. He further points out that:

If all four have a spiritual context (Christ was given vinegar to drink, chastity is prized by the Church, the fall through space is a symbol of Adam’s fall and the fall from grace, and children are not innocent in a world of original sin), they also indicate a tension between the self and the world, about penetration by or movement in that world, about the links between past and present, family and self. (P. 26)

     Bowman has a number of significant points to make, among them the links between spiritual biography and sadomasochistic discourse. There are sadomasochistic overtones in Alacoque’s relationship with her ‘harsh’ Superior and Surin – whose autobiography Bowman considers ‘one of the most remarkable … ever written’ (p. 26)  ‘Damned by God, forbidden to be good … knew the full consequences of deifying evil and makes one feel that such later writers as Sade or Lautréamont only play with the idea’ (p. 34).

     There are also some interesting issues arising from the account of Smith’s demise; it is perhaps no accident that it is a poison emanating from a woman’s breast that leads to his downfall. For now, though, I will focus on just one issue – the light that these accounts shed on the way in which these accounts throw into relief changing attitudes towards feelings of repugnance, in particular the rejection of Stoic principles of inuring the impulses of the flesh and the shift towards the perception that natural revulsion is not there to be overcome but to be heeded as a matter of common sense.

     To begin with, let me cite Bowman at greater length on the subject of eating nasty things. He notes traits which perhaps resemble what today we would call anorexia in Surin, and continues:

Jeanne had a predilection for eating vile food: «I used wormwood and gall to sprinkle what I ate in order to kill off in myself all kinds of taste» (p. 153). One of her devil’s tricks was to make her spit the Host out at the priest’s face once she had received it, and eating and vomiting were activities the demons inspired in her … Mme Guyon was something of a gourmet, … [but] this did not prevent her from learning how to consume others’ spit: «One day when I saw some spittle, the ugliest I’ve ever seen, I was obliged to put my mouth and tongue on it; the effort I made was so strange that I could not recover from it, and I had such violent retchings that I thought a vein was going to burst and I would vomit blood. I continued doing so as long as my stomach found it repugnant, which was quite a while» (p. 39). Alacoque exceeds the others. Her demons attacked her with «this abominable temptation of gourmandizing» (p. 351), so the Superior mortified her every time she asked for food. Moreover, “I was so very delicate that the least filthiness upset my stomach. He [i.e., God] corrected me so strenuously about this that once, wanting to clean the vomit of a sick person, I could not restrain myself from doing it with my own tongue and eating it, saying to him [i.e., God]: «If I had a thousand bodies, a thousand loves, a thousand lives, I would immolate them all to be enslaved to you.» I found so many delights in this act, that I would have liked to discover similar ones every day.”

Once, on having an attack of dysentery, Alacoque consumed something so vile that her editor – and Bowman – forebear to give the details (p. 27; on checking, I found that she licked up a sick person’s vomit – yuck!).

     Stoic attempts to overcome disgust by mortifying the taste buds were a feature of Catholic practice, and are echoed in Protestant attacks on absurd Catholic practices, such as Pierre de Moulin’s Le Capucin (1641), which (in the English translation of 1665) mocks the Capuchin monks for such penances as ‘eat[ing] with a Cat in the same dish’, or ‘lick[ing] up the others spittle’ (The Capucin Treated, pp. 21 & 22). And, while Bowman (rightly) emphasizes the differences between hagiography and spiritual autobiography – ‘Spiritual autobiographies do not always aim to describe exemplary conduct and, if only because of Christian humility, neglect the good deeds and signs of holiness which are the staple of hagiography’ (p. 24) – there are, nevertheless, close parallels between these accounts and the lives of saints.

Catherine of Siena and Francisco Xavier are among those saints who sucked the pus out of the ulcerous sores of diseased people, though this was presumably done at least partly with the intention of benefiting others, and not simply out of an impulse to self-abasement (though that may have played a part, particularly in Xavier’s case). It is no accident that ‘Mme Guyon knows Catherine of Siena’ (p. 36), or that Surin justifies his spiritual crises by drawing parallels with figures like Ignatius, Suso and Magdalena de Pazzi (p. 37).

     Loth as I am to play the amateur psychiatrist, one cannot but be struck by the confluence of eating foul things, feelings of guilt, unhappy childhoods and aversion to sex in the writers Bowman examines.  If they knocked on the door with money in their pockets they would give any modern psychoanalyst a field day.

     It is possible to see Smith, too, as suffering from a perverse compulsion, but the rationale behind his action is completely different. Smith is acting, supposedly, out of curiosity (whether idle or scientific), whereas the autobiographers are motivated by the underlying assumption that it is right for the spirit to attempt to overcome the predilections and aversions of the flesh. This difference in intent is underlined by the very great difference in outcome.

     So far, I have not been able to find any independent verification of this account of Samuel Smith’s death, but the fact that Salmon finds it worth repeating in a work published 28 years later indicates that it was accepted as true at the time. It is only the account of Smith’s death itself that Salmon borrows verbatim; though he takes it as proof of the same general principle as the author of the 1670 account (i.e., that there are certain very rare cancers of a particularly toxic nature), Salmon differs considerably in his explanation of the details.

     But (for me at least) it is not the literal truth of the story that matters so much as what it represents – a rejection of Stoic principles that were widely accepted, at least until the later part of the seventeenth century, a mockery of Christian injunctions to ‘rejoice to suffer’ for the sake of one’s Lord. It is not just its staunch secularity that makes the juxtaposition of the account of how curiosity killed the surgeon with the spiritual accounts so remarkable. The moral of Smith’s fate is that one cannot simply overcome one’s natural repugnance, that, in fact, repugnance is so powerful that it can kill.

     On the one hand, the juxtaposition of these scientific and spiritual accounts illustrates the way in which the one was emerging as an objective, rational discourse that has all but replaced religion in many people’s lives, while the other, insofar as it survives at all, has morphed into the realms of psychological analysis and attempts to rationalize the subjective impulses and perceptions of the individual. At the same time, though, it is notable that the scientific account is in the context of Protestant culture, with its rejection of the belief in mortification, while the spiritual conflict of the autobiographies takes place within the context of Catholic culture.

     I am not trying to argue that either type of discourse is superior to the other, nor am I saying that scientific discourse is more essentially the property of a Protestant society than a Catholic one. What I am pointing out here is a basic incompatibility between these discourses, that the scientific perception leads inevitably to the marginalization of the worldview expressed by the autobiographers, culminating in the characterization of the impulses and sufferings of the tortured soul as madness, as the title of Bowman’s paper makes clear.

Disturbingly erotic…or not?

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

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

“Necessary” suffering

I posted this on Quora, in answer to someone who wanted to know if there is such a thing as necessary suffering. To see the complete thread, click here (you’ll need to create a log-in ID if you want to add comments).

In an age before anaesthetics this question could hardly even have been asked. Suffering was unavoidable, inevitable, inescapable, and therefore, given the belief in a benign deity, it had to serve a purpose, to be necessary in some way. Today the assumption is often that suffering is avoidable and should be avoided wherever possible, but in terms of the history of ideas, belief in the necessity of suffering is actually fairly close behind us.

During the early modern period people were trying to reconcile classical ideas like Stoicism with Christianity, and at the beginning of the 17th century there were still people who held up Stoic practices as an inducement to Christian virtue. The message was something like, “If those pagans could suffer so much, could you not suffer for Christ, who also suffered so much for you?”.
Unlike Catholics, Protestants did not on the whole go in for self-imposed penances, but they nevertheless believed that, as a rule, if you wanted to get to heaven you had to suffer. Not only that, but you had to rejoice to suffer “for Christ’s sake”. This was slightly different from the aim of the Stoics, which was to inure oneself equally to pleasure and pain, but it was clearly related.
Suffering was of two types, punitive and redemptive. If one was merely suffering, one was probably simply getting a foretaste of the suffering one would endure after death and damnation. If one gladly bore the burden of one’s sufferings one was thereby purified and made suitable for entry into heaven.

The belief in the necessity of suffering in these terms put an incredible psychological strain on people. If you weren’t suffering, well, you were very likely going to go to hell, but if you were suffering and not rejoicing in it, then you were also probably going to go to hell!
It’s perhaps not surprising that this way of thinking, which was particularly widespread among puritans, resulted in fairly widespread depression. Alec Ryrie writes well about this in Being Protestant in Reformation Britain, though, since his interest is in showing the life of everyday Protestants, he largely overlooks Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy.

As Gowland puts it, ‘Burton’s medicalisation of the moral and theological traditions of melancholy gave them a conceptual coherence which they had previously lacked’ (Burton’s Anatomy and the Intellectual Traditions of Melancholy). Burton opens up the debate on the whole issue of whether we have to suffer and be miserable in this world, or whether we have a right to be happy. He’s not the only one, of course, but his is a coherent and influential voice. 

By the end of the 17th century, attempts to incorporate or adapt Stoic attitudes in a Christian context were more or less routinely rejected (Yamamoto-Wilson, Pain, Pleasure and Perversity: Discourses of Suffering in Seventeenth-Century England, p. 32) and the idea gained ground rapidly that, yes, it is OK to be happy, and if you pursue a path of suffering you are being perverse.

In our modern world suffering has become something of a taboo. We don’t (thankfully) whip, hang and disembowel convicted criminals on the street, as they did in those days. People don’t flagellate themselves for the good of their souls, as many Catholics routinely did even into the 20th century. We don’t see lepers dying on street corners (though, in many cities, we see junkies and the homeless). 

Most crucially of all, though, perhaps, most of us don’t go through the kind of mental agonies of people like John Bunyan (see, in particular, his Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners) about whether we are or are not chosen of God or predestined to eternal torment. Except in a very few spheres (notably training for sports, swotting for exams, etc., with a clear goal in this world, or news stories that, in part, satisfy some morbid atavistic curiosity in the suffering of others), suffering is mostly swept under the carpet.

But this comfortable, anaesthetized world has its own weaknesses. OK, it might seem unduly heavy to say that we should spend our days anticipating and preparing for our inevitable death, instead of frittering our lives away in pursuit of shallow pleasures, but there must be many, many people who spend their final days and hours – or even weeks, months or years – in terrible physical pain, totally unequipped, mentally or emotionally, to deal with it, because they have never given this prospect a moment’s serious thought in their lives.

Equally, there are many many people who have no insight at all into what others are going through, no empathy, no ability or even wish to care about the pain of others. This is a difficult one; even back in the 17th century, people like Hobbes were of the opinion that to be pitied is to be looked down on and dishonoured ( Leviathan, page 43). He was also pretty clear – like many others of his period – that there were occasions when to be kind was actually a form of cruelty in itself. For example, if you deal with a murderer with compassion and let him/her go free then you are responsible for the consequences when that murderer maims and kills others. From the 17th-century point of view, there are times when it is necessary to impose suffering, a view that modern society still reflects in its penal system.

At the same time, compassion, in particular loving one’s enemies, formed a very important part of 17th-century discourse, especially among Protestants. The ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, to imagine their plight and do what one could to alleviate it was extolled as one of the highest virtues. One of the functions of suffering was to awaken sympathy in others.

On the whole, I’m glad we’ve left the 17th century behind, with its plagues, its massacres, its public spectacles of brutality and so forth. At the same time, I think we have a lot to learn from the past. We can avoid suffering for a while, with money to cushion us and medicines to salve us, but we are fooling ourselves if we think that suffering can ever finally be done away with. And if we think we can routinely turn our backs on the suffering of others with impunity we make the world a worse, not a better place.

For all its faults, 17th century society knew this, whereas today there are a lot of people who are in danger of forgetting or ignoring it.

Researching the Seventeenth Century Online: Tools of the Trade

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sophie Oliver, ‘Sacred and (Sub)human Pain’, Facebook Beheadings…

Thoughts arising from Sophie Oliver, ‘Sacred and (Sub)humanPain: The Body as Witness in Early Modern Hagiography and ContemporaryLiterature of Atrocity’, in Nancy Billias, ed., Promoting and Producing Evil (Editions Rodopi, 2010), pp. 119-137. An earlier version of this paper is available online here. In the following I draw on both versions. 

Oliver contrasts the suffering of Christian martyrs with that of victims of the Rwanda genocide. She takes as her starting point Gentille’s assertion that she is ‘a body that’s decomposing, an ugly thing I don’t want you to see’, in Gil Courtemanche’s novel Un
dimanche à la piscine à Kigali
(2000), translated into English as A
Sunday by the Pool in Kigali
(2003), p. 257. Oliver starts from the
observation that ‘
while Gentille’s story as she tells it attests to the loss of her human subjectivity, to her sub-humanity, stories of Christian sufferers bear witness to a sacred humanity attained through suffering, in particular corporeal suffering’.

   She then makes the point that the outcome of suffering – the sacramentality or dehumanizing of the disfigured body – depends largely on how it is perceived by others. She cites Primo Levi’s
Se questo è un uomo (1947), translated in 1957 as If this is a Man,
as evidence of how the eyes of others have ‘a crucial and active role to play in providing psychological and emotional restitution for victims of atrocity’. Without the audience, without ‘the pagan spectators who convert to Christianity’ and ‘the medieval layperson who reveres relics and images of exotic martyred flesh’ – without these, ‘the saint would quite simply not be a saint’:

The apparently passive observer is always also an actor, performing – consciously or unconsciously – a specific symbolic function within the logic of the spectacle of violence and oppression enacted by the perpetrator.

Kyriakidou summarizes research suggesting that dehumanization of the victim is only one of a range of responses:

the spectator’s engagement with the distant other can vary from empathetic identification or compassion (Höijer, 2004) to the reproduction of cultural stereotypes (Philo, 2002; Philo and Berry, 2004) to hostility and de-humanisation (Butler, 2004; 2009). (Maria Kyriakidou, Watching the Pain of Others: Audience Discourses of Distant Suffering in Greece, unpublished thesis, p. 59.)

Oliver effectively conflates these different responses, asserting that ‘Abject embodied sufferers…almost always fall into the perceived character of (subhuman) other in the minds of even the most humanitarian long-distance spectators of atrocity’. Kyriakidou cites Cohen (States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, 2001, p. 194) on ‘a general sociology of “denial and bystanding”, the essence of which is the “the active looking away, a sense of a situation so utterly hopeless and incomprehensible that we cannot
bear to think about it”’, which Oliver echoes in her characterization of the body as ‘a symbol of the inhumanity of the act of cruelty perpetrated against it’, leading to ‘The desire to look away, the wish never to have seen’.

Oliver emphasizes the semantic origins of the word ‘martyr’, noting its original sense of ‘witness’, and makes the point that ‘The Christian narrative of sacred (non) humanity, like the universalising gaze of the western, humanitarian spectator of suffering, fails, precisely, to witness, and thus deprives suffering subjects of their individual, specific experiences of pain, and the knowledge that these imply’.  She wraps up her argument with the observation that ‘representations of atrocity…run the risk of symbolically repeating the dehumanising violence enacted upon the body of the victim’, and emphasizes the need for recognition of this risk; ‘an ethical reception of embodied witnessing implies…in the first instance, a self-conscious acknowledgement of the potential for dehumanisation in our own perception’, so that, instead of – consciously or unconsciously – denying the humanity of the victim, the witnesses acknowledge ‘the particularity of real experiences of suffering’ and so recognize, in its ‘terrifying specificity’, the ‘universal’ humanity of the victim of atrocity.

Oliver’s paper takes on a particular resonance in the context of the current furor over Facebook’s policy on videos of beheadings. Jenny McCartney, writing for the Telegraph, makes the telling point that 

The victim in a beheading video, of course, has not given their consent either to their own murder or the filming and circulation of it, a dynamic of helplessness that applies equally to child pornography. Yet we do not circulate child pornography on the understanding that decent people will need to watch it and think “isn’t that dreadful?” (‘Facebook beheading: Some videos should never be watched‘, Telegraph, November 03, 2013.)

The issue of consent probably forms a large part of the public response. Political suicides, such as that of Thich Quang Duc,  who invited the press to his own public immolation, are not considered taboo in the same way, and the video of  Thich Quang Duc’s death features prominently on his Facebook page.

   The outcry in the present case, however, was enough to force Facebook to rethink its policy, though the portrayal of suffering and mutilated victims in the media continues to be a thorny issue. Oliver’s comparison of such portrayal with the representation of the sufferings of martyred saints throws into relief some important points, but it is – as she herself recognizes – an imperfect analogy. The martyr is a witness in the sense of bearing testimony to her faith
(rather than, as Oliver seems to understand it, as a testimony to her suffering), whereas the victims of atrocity are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and not setting out to bear testimony to anything. Thich Quang Duc’s act of self-martyrdom remains very much what martyrdom always has been. Even in the modern world, the martyr is exalted by suffering.

The debate, then, would appear to centre on three types of depiction – the voluntary suffering of the martyr, the involuntary suffering of the victim of atrocity, and the staging of involuntary suffering as spectacle. There are further distinctions to be made based on who actually inflicts the suffering; Quang Duc lit the match to burn him to death himself, the anonymous Mexican woman in the Facebook video was murdered by a criminal, and other victims may be the result of the handiwork of governments (including one’s own), dissidents, accidents and so forth.

Like the stagings of martyrdom, videos of beheadings have been orchestrated as media events, whereas cameras which capture scenes of violence and cruelty simply happen to be there. Unlike the martyr, however, the unwilling victim of cruelty is a cipher, with no choice and no voice. But there is more to it than that. The victim whose suffering is incidentally recorded can be given a voice, of sorts, by making that suffering public, by letting the world know. By contrast, the victim whose suffering is orchestrated as a media event is being mocked for her helplessness; her lack of choice and of voice is part of her humiliation.

Jenny McCartney is writing for the Telegraph, which – like most of the major media – publishes videos of people being stoned to death, being publicly hanged, or receiving other gory punishments. What is the rationale for broadcasting this kind of material if not that ‘decent
people will need to watch it and think “isn’t that dreadful?”’ – the very rationale that McCartney condemns? McCartney begins her article with the words, ‘The question of our time is not “what am I allowed to see?” but “what do I have the right to see?”’ – but what useful purpose would be served by removing such material from the eyes of the world? Ultimately, as Oliver points out, ‘the pagan torturer’s power…is undermined’, partly by the martyr’s heroic
resistance, but also by the very act of making the demonstration of power into a spectacle. The public enactment of corporal punishment during the early modern period is a closer parallel to videos of public stonings than the burning or dismembering of martyrs, and the lesson we can learn from the past here would seem to be that such spectacles carry the seeds of their own destruction;
the stocks, the whipping post and the gallows are no longer features of our urban landscapes. As Foucault observes, the horror of the spectacle of such punishments was not only ‘apt to transform the shame that was inflicted on the sufferer into pity or glory’, but also ‘often recast the executioner’s legalized violence as an atrocity’ (Michel Foucault, Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la Prison, 1975, p. 15; my translation).

The recent flare-up over Facebook’s policies shows clearly where the line between acceptable and unacceptable portrayals of cruelty is drawn in today’s (western) world. There is a need to give those who suffer a kind of voice, the chance to cry out and perhaps be heard by others who will respond with horror, with outrage, with determination to stamp out the root causes of such suffering. There is even some justification for cameras recording public executions, which would have taken place whether or not the camera was present. But viewing atrocities orchestrated for the camera is, as
Oliver says, ‘
symbolically repeating the dehumanising violence enacted upon the body of the victim’; the viewer is almost inevitably drawn into perpetuating the intent of the perpetrators, particularly when – as in the case of the Facebook video – the violence takes the form of coldblooded murder by criminals.

An atavistic response to cruelty lies at the animal roots of the human psyche, but it is not the only response. Acknowledging that, at some level, the spectacle of cruelty satisfies an instinctual capacity for cruelty that lies within everyone is, as Oliver says, a first step towards an ethical response.

Rude Boys in Seventeenth-Century England

Far from originating in the Jamaican ska scene of the 1960s, rude boys (and girls) were flourishing in the seventeenth century, gaining
particular note for their attacks on Quakers, to the extent that George Foxe recommended ‘that some Friends be appointed at every Meeting to keep the Doors, to keep down rude Boys and unruly Spirits; that so the Meetings may be kept Civil and Quiet’ (George Foxe, A Collection of many Select and Christian Epistles, London, 1698, volume 2, part 1, p. 276).

This is not just a chance one-off coupling of the two words; rude boys ‘were a recognizable group’ (John Miller, ‘”A Suffering People”: English Quakers and Their Neighbours c.1650-c.1700’, Past & Present, 188, 2005, pp. 71-103; p. 98. Miller’s paper, which also gives references for ‘rude girls’, and rude people generally, can be downloaded here), and the expression occurs in more than two dozen early modern texts.

Miller focuses on the use of this expression in Quaker contexts; ‘rude boys’, he says,

maltreated a small group of Quakers, most of them
women. They pelted them with missiles, beat them, dragged
them through the mire and forced dirt into their mouths. One
old woman nearly died.These youths showed a taste for
sadistic violence… (Miller, p. 97.)

Apparently, the rude boys were encouraged to perform these acts of violence by the constables and even by the clergy. At Hull in 1661–2 the governor ordered that some Quakers who had been arrested should be handed over to the “rude boys”‘, and ‘In Truro in 1670 a
constable “set on the rude boys” to pelt an old woman with
stones and dirt’ (Miller, 98; Miller’s source for these snippets is
Joseph Besse, A Collection of the Sufferings of the People Called Quakers 2 volumes, London, 1753).

Miller notes that there were also sympathizers, particularly towards the end of the century, who helped to pick up the pieces and even sheltered Quakers against attacks of this kind. He also explores the fascinating line between the Quaker assertion that suffering was ‘easy, sweet and pleasant unto their souls’ (p. 76, citing the  Great Book of Sufferings, Friends’ House Library, London, 1650-1790,
6/2, p. 436) and the active seeking out of suffering. The records of the Meeting for Sufferings, a weekly meeting held by Quakers in London from 1676 on,

depicted Friends as having no option but to act as they did. The light within them, Christ Himself, commanded them to meet at specific times and places, to ignore interruptions and to continue the meeting until the spirit told them that it was time to bring it to an end. By contrast, those who attacked them and disrupted their meetings did so out of choice — and out of the wickedness to which the ‘people of the world’ were all too inclined. (P. 74.)

As Miller shows, the behaviour which the early Quakers felt constrained by their God to engage in included disrupting church services, denouncing the ministers as ‘false teachers’ and the congregations as living ‘in envy and malice’, reproving people in the street for profaneness, and going naked (p. 75).

In addition to Miller’s piece, there’s a fairly good account of early Quakers here.

Conference: Pain and Suffering in Early Modern Performance and the Visual Arts


hurtful body

Click here for a detailed programme of events. Please don’t contact me in connection with this event, since I am neither organizing it nor taking part in it! I am simply passing on the information. If anyone does attend it and would like to pass on some feedback to me, that would be very welcome!