All posts by jyamamo

Alec Ryrie on Suffering among Early Modern Protestants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ryrie’s observations chime so closely with my own that I am bound to agree substantially with the picture he paints. If there is anything I would take issue with it is with the presentation of the Protestant mindset as largely static, whereas my own work (as anyone who has been following my blog will be aware) traces substantial changes over the course of the seventeenth century. There is, in fact, ample evidence of a shift of perspective, leading to what van Dijkhuizen calls ‘a watershed moment in…the history of pain’ (Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen, ‘Religious Meanings of Pain in Early Modern England’, in Dijkhuizen and Karl A.E. Enenkel, eds, _The Sense of Suffering: Constructions of Physical Pain in Early Modern Culture_, Brill, 2009, pp. 189–219; p. 190).

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

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

The Dominatrix in Early Modern Times


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homoeroticism in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Germans as Victims


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


Suffering in the Modern World #2: Those who live by the sword…

Another political post, that has nothing (much) to do with the seventeenth century (except, perhaps, insofar as ‘plus ça change…’). I’m not planning to make a habit of posts like these – I just want to get it off my chest!

I don’t think I have ever been so upset by a news story as I was by the account, in November 2008, of  a thirteen-year-old girl stoned to death in Somalia for ‘adultery’. The story is one of unmitigated horror. The girl was terrified, and begged for mercy, but was thrust into a hole and buried up to her neck. Some fifty men threw stones at her. Nurses were engaged to confirm that she was dead. She wasn’t, so they threw more stones.

In addition to the horror of the scene was the background to the
case; apparently, the girl was a victim of multiple rape and, instead of
seeking justice for her, the militia in control of the town made her the guilty party. Even the crowd of over a thousand that went to witness the stoning was reportedly appalled. According to a member of that crowd, ‘People were saying this was not good for Sharia law, this was not good for human rights, this was not good for anything’.

But what will always bring a lump to my throat more than anything else is the role of the girl’s father. When his daughter told him what had happened to her, he went to the authorities to try and get justice for her. That, for me, brings out the enormity of what happened more than anything else – a little girl’s trust in her father, his trust in the authorities, and the sheer brutality and callousness of the violation of that trust makes some of the hardest reading I have ever come across. The anguish of the father, and the innocence of the daughter’s trust in him are not described in the accounts of her death, but just thinking about them adds a layer of pathos that I find almost unbearable.

A month later, Chris Albin-Lackey of Human Rights Watch published an article on the humanitarian crisis in Somalia that – while it does not tear at the heartstrings in the same way – is, in its own way, equally upsetting:

America’s most visible response to the crisis has been a series of air strikes against terrorism suspects that have mostly killed civilians. The air strikes – and the way in which US officials have ignored overwhelming evidence of Ethiopian and transitional government war crimes – have fueled anti-American sentiment.

US policy not only has displayed a callous disregard for the basic human rights of Somalis, but it has failed on its own terms, breeding the very extremism it sought to eliminate. Drawing on widespread hostility to the Ethiopian intervention and resentment of the abuses, insurgents loosely grouped under the banner of a group called Al-Shabaab (“youth”) have become the most powerful military force on the ground. Al-Shabaab’s leaders preach a kind of Islamist extremism that had never managed to take root in Somalia before the nightmare of the last two years. (The US Role in Somalia’s Calamity)

It was Al-Shabaab who put that little girl to death, and I’m not going to be shedding too many tears over the fact that they have been ousted from Kismayo, the town where her infamous murder took place. But I worry when I read reports like this:

Mounting concern about the twin threats posed by pirates and Islamic insurgents operating in Somalia has led Britain and other EU nations to consider the feasibility of air strikes against their logistical hubs and training camps, the Guardian has been told. (Somalia: UK weighs up air strikes against rebels)

At that time (February 2012), air strikes in Somalia were just being mooted, but a year later they were a reality – though not one the US was admitting to publicly (January 2013 Update: US covert actions in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia). Five years on, and the same policy of air strikes which Albin-Lackey accuses of ‘breeding the very extremism’ it is supposed to be stamping out is still going strong.

Am I reassured by new American guidelines, stating that ‘before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured’ (Obama’s Speech on Drone Policy)? Not particularly. Within a week of Obama making that speech, reports are coming in that US air strikes have killed and wounded civilians in Afghanistan. Whether true or not, reports like this on Islamic news channels have verisimilitude, and will continue to radicalize populations against the US.

The message that US policies are backfiring is as pertinent today as it ever has been, with even high-profile mainstream establishment figures like General Stanley McChrystal and General Cartwright beginning to voice their concerns (The blowback: When American violence leads to anti-American violence).

As I said in my post on torture, the real issue is not the questionable legality of such action, nor whether it is or is not effective. The real issue is that by adopting methods like these the US and its allies lose the moral high ground. The only way the ‘civilized’ world is going to achieve anything worth achieving is by making it clear that is civilized, and that, however brutal and despicable the methods of others are, it will consistently and guaranteeably rise above such methods. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Suffering in the Modern World #1: Torture in the USA

I’m sorry, but this post can hardly avoid being political!

The degree of cruelty and sheer nastiness that one finds in seventeenth-century discourse is connected, in part, with the extent to which pain was publicly inflicted. Whole families might gather to enjoy the spectacle of a bear being tormented by dogs, a public flogging, or the disembowelment and hanging of a criminal. The idea that humans (if not animals) have a right not to be subjected to certain forms of treatment finds rudimentary expression in seventeenth-century England’s 1689 Bill of Rights (1689), which first uses the expression ‘cruel and unusual punishment’.

However, the purpose of the 1689 Bill was not to prohibit specific types of punishment, and the expression ‘cruel and unusual’ in this context ‘seems to have meant a severe punishment unauthorized by statute and not within the jurisdiction of the court to impose’ (Anthony Granucci,  ‘“Nor Cruel and Unusual Punishments Inflicted”: The Original Meaning’, California Law Review, 57.4 (1969): 855–9; p. 859.). In other words, state-inflicted cruelty was defined as a result of authority exceeding its mandate (which might – and did – include whipping and other forms of physical torture), rather than what we understand by that expression today.

Sheldon Richman expresses the modern view when he says, ‘The fundamental case against torture…is…that it is immoral’ (The State of Torture in America). Just as people have a right not to be subjected to certain kinds of treatment, so governments and their agents have a duty not to implement such treatment or allow it to be implemented. Nevertheless, the Findings and Recommendations of the Constitution Project‘s Task Force on Detainee Treatment devote considerable space to the question of whether the American government acted in contravention of its own constitution, which takes us right back to the concept of cruel and unusual as it existed in 1689, as well as exploring the issue of whether – as is claimed – any significant information was obtained by the use of torture on suspected terrorists.

The Task Force’s answer in the first case is, yes; the American government sanctioned behaviour that was ‘directly counter to values of the Constitution’, and in the second case, no; ‘There is no firm or persuasive evidence that the widespread use of harsh interrogation techniques by U.S. forces produced significant information of value.’ On the contrary, ‘There is substantial evidence that much of the information adduced from the use of such techniques was not useful or reliable’ (Findings and Recommendations).

These two points may help to reinforce the basic one – that torture is immoral – but they should not be allowed to obscure it; the point is not whether the constitution can be twisted in such a way as to allow for the mistreatment of prisoners, nor whether such mistreatment may have led to the uncovering of useful intelligence. The point is that torture is wrong. The seventeenth century fascinates me, but we’ve left it behind, and I, for one, have no wish to bring it back!

Suffering Saints


During the seventeenth century, there were more than a hundred Catholic editions in English of exemplary lives of saints and other holy people, most of which emphasize a willingness – amounting sometimes to what appears to be a compulsion – to suffer pain and degradation, in conjunction with avowals of chastity and a rejection of marriage and profane love. Time and again, the twin embrace of chastity and penance is represented as the essential prerequisite for readers aspiring to travel where the saints have trod.

As Rhodes observes, hagiography is ‘a self-perpetuating genre’ (Jan T. Rhodes, ‘English Books of Martyrs and Saints of the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries’, Recusant History, 22, 1994: 7–25; p. 17), the aim being to inspire the readers themselves to emulate the exemplary lives described; the saints’ first steps towards the path of sainthood would in turn become the first steps of the reader intent on following the same path. The performativity of the text was paramount, and the centrality of chastity and penance can be explained in terms of that performativity. Whereas chastity and suffering were both performable and sufficiently meritorious to mark out those who embraced them as potential protagonists for the next generation of saintly biographies, other behaviour which could be imitated, such as attending mass and saying prayers, or practising such virtues as charity and humility, could be categorized among the attributes of any devout Christian, and was insufficient, in itself, to mark one out for sainthood, while other qualities which would mark one out more specifically as a saint could not be reproduced on demand; one could not perform miracles, or (unless one was highly suggestible) experience visions, or procure martyrdom simply by wishing to do so…

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this subordination of other virtues to the embracing of suffering is the way in which becoming modesty about the performance of penances is attenuated into secrecy and, by being made party to the secret, the reader becomes uncomfortably complicit. The young Catherine of Siena ‘sought out a priuie place in the howse, where she might scourge her selfe with a cord, which she had prouided for that purpose’ (Raymond of Capua, Life of Sainct Catharine of Siena, Douay, 1609, p. 16). As a child, Magdalena de Pazzi ‘tooke secretly certaine long stalkes of Orange trees, which were full of prickles, and binding them hard about her head … past a whole night in excessiue payne, only for the imitation of Iesus, who was crowned with piercing thornes’, and ‘in the most secret places of the house … wold be disciplining of her selfe’ (Vicenzo Puccini, Life of Maddalena de Patsi, London, 1687, p. 9). From an early age, Sister Joan ‘whipped herself with chaines of iron, until she drew bloud’ and, when her penances were discovered by a maid, ‘began with newe care, to seeke another place where with more quiete and peace (without being seene or perceiued of the people) shee might alone enjoy God’ (Antonio Daza, Historie of Sister Ioane, St. Omer, 1625, pp. 20–21).

Images of children hiding away in order to inflict pain on themselves are distressing in themselves; that such images should have been presented to readers as admirable models, worthy of imitation, is almost inconceivable. As Sontag observes, the perception of suffering as ‘something more than just suffering, as a kind of transfiguration’ is ‘rooted in religious thinking, which links pain to sacrifice, sacrifice to exaltation – a view which could not be more alien to modern sensibility, which regards suffering as something that is a mistake or an accident or a crime. Something to be fixed. Something to be refused. Something that makes one feel powerless’ (Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 2003, p. 88).

However, Sontag only describes the prevailing cultural paradigm here, and there are more complex strands of perception and attitudes, which perhaps do connect some aspects of twenty-first century behaviour with an earlier, less secular, age. Mullen suggests that, both for early modern saints and for anorexics and selfharmers in modern times, ‘self-mutilation can serve to help reinstate a boundary between the self as non-existent or non-viable, and an imagined self of authority and self-confidence.’ He sees suffering as having the function of ‘replacing the voiceless and inferior self ’ (Robert F. Mullen, ‘Holy Stigmata, Anorexia and Self-Mutilation: Parallels in Pain and Imagining’, Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, 9.25, 2010: 91–110; p. 102) with a sense of what Glucklich (drawing on Bell), calls ‘autonomy and even empowerment’ (Ariel Glucklich, ‘Self and Sacrifice: A Phenomenological Psychology of Sacred Pain’, Harvard Theological Review, 92.4, 1999: 479–506; p. 501. See also Rudolph M. Bell, Holy Anorexia, Chicago, 1985, pp. 17–20.).

(Adapted from Part 1, Chapter 2, ‘Suffering and Sexuality in Catholic Hagiography’.)

Masochism and Empowerment in Nineteenth-century Women’s Novels

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

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

Sexual flagellation in early modern times

Foucault’s claims about the frankness and tolerance of early modern discourse (Michel Foucault, Histoire de la Sexualité 1: La Volonté de Savoir, Paris, 1976, p. 9.) are echoed by Toulalan, who says, ‘feelings of shame in desiring to be whipped to achieve sexual congress…are not present in earlier seventeenth-century representations, but … are stressed in Fanny Hill, suggesting that there was a fundamental shift in sensibilities between the late seventeenth century and mid-eighteenth century’ (Sarah Toulalan, Imagining Sex: Pornography and Bodies in Seventeenth-Century England (OUP, 2007, p. 92).

However, all my research suggests that Foucault got it wrong. There appears to be no documentation of sexual flagellation, in English at least, prior to about 1599, when John Davies’s intriguingly ambiguous epigram was published:

     When Francus comes to solace with his whore,
He sends for rods and strips himself starke naked,
For his lust sleepes and will not rise before,
By whipping of the wench it be awaked:
I enuie him not, but wish I had the power,
To make my selfe his wench but one halfe howre.

(John Davies, Epigrammes and Elegies ([London, 1599?]), sig, C3r.)

As Moulton and Bromley point out, the sense of the passage hangs on the interpretation of the expression ‘whipping of the wench’ – does she whip him, or does he whip her? (Ian Frederick Moulton, ‘“Printed Abroad and Uncastrated”: Marlowe’s Elegies with Davies’ Epigrams’, in Paul Whitfield ed., Marlowe, History, and Sexuality: New Critical Essays on Christopher Marlowe, New York, 1998, pp. 77–90; p. 86, and James M. Bromley, ‘Social Relations and Masochistic Sexual Practice in The Nice Valour’, Modern Philology, 107.4, 2010: 556–87; pp. 556–7). However, if this passage is taken in the context of other early modern mentions of sexual flagellation, all the weight of the argument comes down on the side of the wench whipping the man. Pico describes the behaviour of the sexual flagellant as a ‘strange sickness’ (‘insolitæ pestis’, Pico de la Mirandola, Disputationes Aduersus Astrologiã, Bologna, 1496, sig. h5r). Meibom, in his 1639 treatise on the phenomenon of sexual arousal by whipping comments on Pico’s and other similar anecdotes, saying:

Let us rejoice that in our Germany these crimes of perverse lust, these affronts to our children…are unknown, or, if perpetrated by anyone (if by chance such a case should come to light), it will be severely punished by avenging flames [that is, the offender will be burnt].

(Johann Heinrich Meibom, De Flagrorum Usu in Re Veneria et Lumborum Renumque Officio, Epistola, Leyden, 1639, p. 16. My translation.)

Davies’s lampoon can be seen as the first of a number of rhymes about the ‘flogging cully’, of which perhaps the most detailed is a late seventeenth-century account of a ‘Bumkin Lout’, who

     … beg’d for Rods, would madly rail,
If Lictors with Rods did not brush his Tail …
And so furious was the Lown,
That he must see the Blood run down.
Thus he delighted above measure,
To feel at once both Pain and Pleasure.
The more tormented, the more he itcht,
None can say, but he was bewitcht.
He was conjur’d into Venus Arms,
No otherwise than by Whipping Charms.
We taught him upon Rue to feed,
To stop the Urine of his Seed,
For fear their should be more of his Breed.

(Robert Dixon, Canidia, or, The Witches a Rhapsody, in Five Parts, London, 1683, p. 96.)

There is a pattern here: Pico describes a male sexual flagellant as suffering from a sickness, Meibom rejoices that, were such a case to occur in Germany, the culprit would be burned, and Dixon’s flagellant is fed rue to prevent him passing on his proclivities to the next generation. Casaubon, too, describes a similar case as being ‘infected’ with a ‘phrenzie’ (Meric Casaubon, A Treatise Concerning Enthusiasm, London, 1655, p. 20). All the examples I unearthed are of a similar nature, indicating a general opprobrium attached to the sexual flagellation of males, with no significant change of attitude according to the period or to the geographical location. In this context, it seems reasonable to suppose that Davies would want to take the whip and beat Francus himself, but very unlikely that he would admit to wanting to be beaten by him.

(Adapted from Part 1, ‘The Suffering Self’, Chapter 3, ‘Polemic, Pornography and Romanticism: The Subversion of Catholic Asceticism’)

This is an 18th century engraving and account, presented to the Royal Society and the College of Physicians, to see if they can give any explanation for such strange behaviour.
Click on the picture to see an enlarged version and read the caption underneath.

Suffering in Early Modern Germany

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

John Bunyan

Given that Bunyan accepts the premises of a God who can actually bestow an eternity of bliss on the chosen and a devil who will eternally torture the condemned it makes good sense for him to submit to the metaphorical ‘rod’ of his Lord for the sake of the salvation of his soul. The belief system within which he operates may be a mechanism which engenders institutionalized masochism, particularly, as Melissa Sanchez argues, in the exploitation of that system for political purposes. but, within its own frame of reference, it is perfectly logical and reasonable.

He also shows good sense by taking up the study of law and engaging his wife to plead on his behalf during his time in prison. And when he says, ‘A man is not bound by the Law of his Lord, to put himself into the mouth of his enemy’ (_Seasonable Counsel_, London, 1684, p. 99), he shows he is not lacking in basic common sense.

On the other hand, he makes choices which reveal a particular
predisposition of his character. It is his choice, for example, to base
his _Acceptable Sacrifice_ (London, 1689) on two verses from the Psalms of David – ‘The Lord is nigh vnto them that are of a broken heart; and saueth such as be of a contrite spirit’, and ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise’ (KJV, Psalms 34:18 and 51:17) – and it is his choice to interpret these verses as not simply saying that God will favour the broken-hearted, but that God will only favour the broken-hearted: ‘all thy Service he will certainly slight and reject; if when thou comest to him, a broken heart be wanting’ (p. 228).

It is equally written in Bunyan’s Bible that ‘A merry heart maketh a
cheerefull countenance: but by sorrow of the heart, the spirit is
broken’, and ‘A merrie heart doth good like a medicine: but a broken
spirit drieth the bones’ (KJV, Proverbs 15:13 and 17:22). Bunyan could equally well have written a book on these verses, or at least have mentioned them, but while the expression ‘broken heart’ occurs over a hundred times in _Acceptable Sacrifice_, he only uses the word ‘merry’ once, and then in the context of condemnation of the ungodly: ‘What! An Unconverted Man, and Laugh! Shouldest thou see one Singing merry Songs, that is riding up Holbourn, to Tyburn, to be hanged for Felony … Man! Man! Thou hast cause to Mourn; yea, thou must Mourn, if ever thou art Saved’ (p. 209).

What Bunyan says can be justified in terms of his religion, but his
religion does not inevitably lead to the conclusions he reaches. To the extent that he emphasizes the need for a broken heart where he could emphasize – or at least acknowledge – the blessings of a merry one, there is a one-sidedness, a perverse tendency towards making a virtue out of misery, that we can hardly scruple to call masochistic.

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