Toulalan’s book gives a fairly comprehensive insight into attitudes towards sex in the seventeenth century, building on the insights gained by works like Ian Moulton, Before Pornography: Erotic Writing in Early Modern England (OUP, 2000), but I have a fair few criticisms. Toulalan assumes that Foucault got it right in saying that, at the dawn of the century, people discussed sex frankly and openly, and applies this – mistakenly – to discussion of sexual flagellation. She does not convincingly support her assertion that ‘beating and whipping were practised supposedly for their alleged spiritual benefits, but really because they brought sexual pleasure and gratification’ (p. 99) and her references do not support her claim that ‘For the most part, though not entirely, sexual flagellation is represented as a Catholic practice, pursued and promoted by a corrupt and hypocritical priesthood’ (p. 100). This becomes truer as the century progresses, but it is scarcely true prior to the Civil War, and only starts to become widespread at around the time of the Oates Plot.
Toulalan does not give page references, which is a serious weakness in an academic work, and makes it hard to check her sources. In this particular case, she supports her claim with only one reference dating from the first half of the century (most of the others are from the 1680s), and that reference – to Thomas Robinson, The Anatomy of the English Nunnery at Lisbon in Portugall (London, 1622) – is, at best, inconclusive; the nuns are exploited sexually by Father Foster who ‘play[s] rex’ over them (p. 18), but it is highly dubious whether this implies that he beat them either for his or their sexual pleasure (according to Webster, the expression means ‘domineer’, but OED says it simply means to ‘play tricks’). Altogether, Toulalan’s book is a fairly useful guide to early modern sexuality, but its claims need to be crosschecked and should not be assumed to be correct as they stand.
Ann Thompson, The Art of Suffering and the Impact of Seventeenth-Century Anti-Providential Thought (Ashgate, 2003).
This book gives a useful insight into the decline of the ‘art of suffering’ in the seventeenth century. As Thompson explains, during the earlier part of the century, writers like Richard Rogers, Paul Baynes, John Downame, Henry Scudder, Thomas Gouge, Nicolas Byfield, Thomas Taylor, Edward Reyner and Isaac Ambrose discourse on the ‘voluntaristic art of suffering’, teaching ‘both how to “cope with” and how to “grow from”’ affliction. From the 1640s on, though, she notes the emergence of a different kind of discourse, teaching the sufferer only how to ‘cope with’ affliction, not how to ‘grow from’ it. This kind of discourse is exemplified by writers like William Perkins, Joseph Hall, Jeremiah Burroughs, Thomas Watson, Jeremy Taylor, Simon Patrick, Thomas Brooks, Richard Baxter, William Bates, Richard Allestree and Nathaniel Spinckes.
The drawback to her work is that it feels rather too much like what it is – a PhD thesis worked up into a book.There’s an abiding sense that it was written to satisfy the examiners, rather than engage a more general readership. If you can get past that, though, it marshals quite a lot of evidence (admittedly from a fairly narrow range of sources) and makes some useful points.
This is another book I found very useful in my work on early modern attitudes towards suffering. Virgina Burrus, The Sex Lives of Saints (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), discusses the saints of the early Christian period, but it got me thinking about how the accounts of these saints were received in the early modern period. Her treatment of a passage from Saint Jerome prompted me to conduct a survey of translations of that passage into various European languages during the early modern period. The fact that they all, to some extent, censored the original passage proved very useful to my thesis. The Catholic Historical Review contains a good review of this work.
Of all the modern scholarship I consulted in the writing of my own book, Melissa E. Sanchez, Erotic Subjects: The Sexuality of Politics in Early Modern English Literature (OUP, 2011) was probably the one I liked best. Admittedly, my reasons for liking it are very subjective – its treatment of the issue of the discursive feminization of the political subject in early modern English discourse was invaluable to the development of my thesis – but beyond that I think it’s also written in a lively and engaging way, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the topic. There’s a good review of it here.