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

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

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

The table of contents:

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

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

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

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

Afterword; Coppélia Kahn

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Table of Contents:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

On Placebos

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

On the Treatment of Pain

My attention was caught by two recent publications in the blog of The Appendix (‘a quarterly journal of experimental and narrative history’). The first is ‘Interpreting “Physick”: The Familiar and Foreign Eighteenth-Century Body’, by Lindsay Keiter. The second, in reply to the former, is Daniel S. Goldberg on ‘The History of Pain’ [UPDATE: Goldberg’s piece is no longer available at its original location and I have not been able to track it down elsewhere).

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

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

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

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

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!

UPDATE: The report on the Early Modern Women conference is here.

The Hurtful Body has been published, and my chapter on Masochism and the Female Gaze is included in it.


Check out Jan Frans van Dijkhuisen’s review of Pain, Pleasure and Perversity here: You’ll need a JSTOR log-in to read the whole thing, but if anyone without one is particularly keen to read it, just e-mail me and I may be able to sort you out!

Anyway, here’s the first paragraph, just to give you a taster:

Pain, Pleasure and Perversity is a thoroughly researched and
highly original addition to the growing scholarly conversation on conceptions of suffering, embodiment, and sensory experience in early modern culture. Recent studies on these topics have focused at least in part on the impact that the religious upheavals of the Reformation period had on the way early modern Europeans understood the nature of embodiment and on the meanings they attached to bodily suffering. Yamamoto-Wilson’s study approaches the interplay between religious change and the cultural understanding of suffering more directly from the perspective of sexuality. His interest is partly in changing perceptions of self-inflicted religious suffering. He argues that during the seventeenth century self-inflicted pain, with self-flagellation as one of its more conspicuous manifestations, began to be seen as masochistic — as a species of sexual perversion, rather than as a form of imitatio Christi. Especially during the decades after the
Restoration, suffering seems to have lost much of the punitive and redemptive connotations that it carried in pre-Reformation culture. Pain, Pleasure and Perversity is divided into three parts that examine this development through the prisms of “the suffering self,” “the suffering of others,” and “suffering and gender.”

Van Dijkhuisen is the author of several works on the subject of early modern suffering, notably his recent monograph, Pain and Compassion in Early Modern English Literature and Culture.

Don’t say “Dark Ages”…

…not unless you want to upset medievalists!

I’m speaking from experience here. It’s not that I actually want to call them the Dark Ages, but I ventured to suggest in the LinkedIn Medieval and Renaissance Studies group that it was understandable that people used the term:

these were “Dark Ages” if you think it’s a good thing not to have children growing up with gallows and whipping posts in the street, if you think that even if surgery is done by the Top Surgeon it is still better with anaesthetics than without, if you don’t want to be told that your only real purpose here on earth is to partake of the sufferings of Christ.

I do temper that by saying:

However, they were not uniquely dark – oppressive attitudes towards suffering have prevailed, and still do prevail, in other ages and places – and if you believe that suffering may perhaps have a purpose and not simply be something to avoid then the medieval period was possibly even more enlightened than today.

But apparently the rider doesn’t make up for the original sin! I stirred up a bit of a hornets’ nest, it seems, and the discussion ended up in flames.

The same debate carried over into another thread, where feelings also ran pretty high, but without people actually going over the top.

UPDATE June 2020: LinkedIn groups suffer from a fatal flaw; posts are not archived and disappear within a few weeks. The discussion thread in which I made these comments has been lost forever, along with many others.

Surgical Implements

A couple of weeks ago I posted in answer to a question on Quora about whether there was such a thing as necessary suffering. I began by saying that in an age before anaesthetics this question could hardly even have been asked. I then went on, in my wonted fashion, to discuss the issue in a rather abstract and philosophical way. This brings home the point rather more directly:


These surgical instruments from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are (left) lithotomy dilator; dental forceps; trepan; dental forceps;
(right) double-bladed bistoury; forceps for extracting arrow head; bullet extractor;
(below) surgical saw.

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!

“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.
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Further reading: Heather Froehlich, Richard J. Whitt and Jonathan Hope, ‘EEBO-TCP as a Tool for Integrating Teaching and Research’.

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Gender and Heroism in Early Modern English Literature

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

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

Sadomasochism, Theology and Capitalism

There is a frustrating ambiguity to Jeremy R. Carrette, ‘Intense Exchange: Sadomasochism, Theology and the Politics of Late Capitalism’ (, An Intersection of Theology and Culture, April 2, 2006).  To some extent this is deliberate; Carrette wants to ‘refuse the either/or mentality of Christian binary epistemology and to recognise that in complex worlds we can at times both simultaneously abuse and liberate in the same action’. Ultimately, though, he is working within the framework of logical discussion, which is rooted in either/or distinctions; if sadomasochism and Christianity are connected, then ‘either Christianity was distorted and needs correcting, or … power lies at the heart of all intimacies, or … God is at [the] heart of all affliction’. Since he poses these alternatives the reader has some right to expect him to choose among them, or synthesize them in some way, but this he refuses to do.

The conclusion of Carrette’s paper is a rallying call to action; ‘our pleasures are all we have to free ourselves from the modes of alienation so prevalent in our world’, and Christian communities have for so long read sexual exchange as the surplus commodities of transcendence, to be claimed in another world, it is now time to realize the redemption of our pleasures in this world and free our gendered bodies from the market of global exploitation.

In order to understand what kind of action Carrette is talking about we need a clear statement of whether, in his view, sadomasochism is part of the problem or part of the solution, but this is where he refuses to commit; he is prepared to go no further than saying that S&M ‘can be both oppressive and liberating’, which doesn’t really make it clear whether it is a help or a hindrance in redeeming pleasures or freeing gendered bodies from global exploitation.

Part of the problem lies in the subject matter itself and in the tools Carrette chooses to work with. A set of practices that codifies personal relationships so absolutely in terms of power may reasonably be assumed to have a political dimension, but in his exploration of the issues Carrette goes a step further and asserts that, in order to understand the role of S&M in relation to Christianity, it is necessary to understand ‘the political ideology behind its varied manifestations’. To say that S&M has a political dimension and to say that it has a political ideology are very different things, and if Carrette fails to find a coherent underlying political ideology it is probably because there isn’t one.

On the one hand, S&M is right wing and conservative, rooted in contractual power arrangements that mirror all that Carrette feels is wrong with modern capitalist society; ‘S&M subcultures take images [from] WW2 Germany and flourish in the market economy of the USA’ and maintain ‘the power structures of hegemonic patriarchal sexuality’. On the other hand, S&M has a subversive side, seen in ‘the surrealist films of Artaud’, ‘the avant-garde novels of Klossowski and Bataille’, in ‘its forms of political resistance in the gay leather scene’, and (although he downplays the significance of this) ‘in the subversive and sensual tactics of theologians and writers delighting in the connection between S&M and the history of Christianity’.

A set of practices that is at once conservative and subversive is necessarily resistant to binary classification, and to that extent Carrette has little option but to conclude that S&M ‘functions … as both a site of resistance [to] and compliance with global capitalism’. But this leaves him in something of a quandary.

Similarly irreconcilable opposites pervade Carrette’s discussion of ‘The obvious links between the history of Christianity and S&M’. On the one hand, ‘at some level religious suffering and S&M may constitute a parallel event’, but on the other, ‘we must be wary of the association made between the erotic and spiritual, which more often than not turns to a kind of New Age fluff’, and ‘there are huge epistemological quandaries in understanding the erotic experience of S&M as religious or theological’. At the same time as asserting, following Mark Jordan, The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism (University of Chicago, 2000), that ‘Christian theology can learn from the contemporary site of S&M practice’, and S&M is ‘powerfully illuminating to theology’, he makes it plain that he has little time for so-called Christian sadomasochists ‘bizarrely sanctioning S&M through the biblical texts on submission’. If there is, as he insists, stable ground on which a spiritual understanding of the world may learn from and build on sadomasochistic practices, where is it to be found?

Part of the reason why Carrette appears unable to resolve the paradoxes he so cogently describes may lie in his refusal to see S&M as anything other than ‘a recent discourse’, a ‘modern invention’, dating back no further than Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1886). I would query this on two counts. The first is that sadomasochism is both a discourse and a set of practices. The second is that it is much older, both as discourse and as a practice, than its codification in the nineteenth century. We know that, in the seventeenth century, there were ‘flogging cullies’ who achieved sexual arousal by being beaten, and Krafft-Ebing is building on earlier discourses, from Sacher-Masoch (1870) to Pico della Mirandola (1496). References to biting, scratching and slapping as ways of heightening sexual pleasure in the 2000-year-old Karma Sutra, and Jerome’s fourth-century tale (complete with erotic strangulation) of a Christian bound and aroused by a prostitute is just one of a number of texts suggesting that, while the term sadomasochism may date from the late nineteenth century, it defines something that has roots going back much further than that.

By denying or ignoring the historical (and, though it lies outside my scope, psychological) roots of sadomasochism Carrette allows no other context for it than that of late modern capitalist society. His insistence that it is a product of modern society forces the conclusion that it is susceptible to analysis only within the framework of that society. Would he apply this reasoning more generally, and insist that all discussion of sexual identities should begin with their taxonomy in the nineteenth century and be seen only in the context of late modern capitalism? This seems to me an unwarranted limitation of the subject matter, imposing a concomitant limitation on the kinds of enquiry that he considers legitimate, and leading to what, to me, feels like an unnecessary and rather unhelpful narrowness of interpretation.

Carrette’s other works – notably Religion and Culture, 1999, in which he critiques Foucault, and Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion, 2004, coauthored with Richard King – make it clear that he is pursuing a radical agenda, seeing religion primarily as prostituted in the service of capitalism by the political right, and his paper needs to be seen in the context of his general approach. He disparages Christian apologists for sadomasochism (he does not mention the infamous ‘Christian Domestic Discipline’ and ‘spanking for Jesus’ directly, but this is clearly the kind of thing he has in mind), because, in Gordon’s words, S&M is a ‘commodification of bodies and selves’, isolating ‘sacrifice, self-sacrifice and expressions of humility’ from their true roles as ‘part of veneration and worship of God, the Spirit’ (Bridges: Metaphor for Psychic Processes, Karnac Books, 1993, p. 274) – in other words, at this level, S&M is a part of the hijacking of religion by capitalism. At the same time, ‘Even in its sub-cultural commercialisation S&M can still be a site/sight of politic resistance’.

The emergence of proto-pornographic discourse in the seventeenth century is inextricably bound up with anti-religious polemic, not necessarily from an atheistic perspective, but as an attack on the supposed hypocrisy of particular denominations; the puritan minister who flagellates his maid – ‘he told me he must chastise me for the good of my soul’ – in Francis Kirkman’s The Presbyterian Lash (London, 1661, sig. B2v), or the Catholic priest for whom a mother and daughter strip and prostrate themselves in front of the altar in order for him to whip them – ‘She herself removes her underclothes to [bare] her loins, and goes down on her knees before the altar. Do not spare my impure flesh, holy man, she says’ – in Nicolas Chorier’s Satyra Sotadica (s.l., c. 1660, p. 202; my translation from the Latin) are satirical creations, specifically designed to ridicule a hypocritical asceticism. In order for them to work, there has to be recognition of the phenomenon of inflicting and undergoing pain for sexual pleasure.

Equally, as Melissa Sanchez ably demonstrates, the seventeenth century abounds in texts which discursively feminize the male political subject, and, of course, hagiography and the Petrarchan sonnet ‘both see suffering, not joy, as evidence of true love’ (Erotic Subjects, Oxford, 2011, p. 5). We can go back several hundred years and find proto-sadomasochistic discourse being used, on the one hand, to subvert religious models and, on the other, to reinforce political ones, while, at the same time, the early modern flagellant who engages the services of a prostitute or maid to beat him into a state of sexual arousal (depicted a number of times in seventeenth-century prose and verse) is no more making a statement about religion or politics than his counterpart today.

Once one accepts that sadomasochistic practices and discourse both have a considerably longer pedigree than Carrette acknowledges, the need to separate the discursive functions of sadomasochism from the actual practices of the sadomasochist becomes much clearer. That, at least, is my take. Carrette’s might be different, but I feel his analysis could only be helped by a greater awareness of the genealogy of sadomasochistic practices and discourse.

The Terrifying Coldness of St. Agnes

The Beheading of Saint Agnes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Seventeenth-Century Tidbits #9: Armadillos in Unlikely Places

Edward Topsell,  The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes (London, 1607), says ‘0f the Tatvs, or Gvinean Beast’ that ‘The Merchants as I haue herd and Cittizens of London keepe of these with their garden wormes’, and in the following entry, ‘Of the Aiochtoctch’, ‘There are of these as I haue heard to be seen in Gardens of London, which are kept to destroy the Garden wormes’  (p. 706).

The illustration accompanying his ‘tatus’ is borrowed, he says, from Gesner’s Historiae Animalium (p. 705), and is fairly recognizably an armadillo:

tatusEnquiring minds might be wondering why they didn’t want worms in their gardens. This would presumably be because they hadn’t had the benefit of Darwin’s observations about the value and crucial significance of worms in the history of the world (The Formation of Vegetable Mold Through the Action of Worms, 1881).

They might also be asking, if the tatus is an armadillo, what is the aiochtoctch (or aiotochth, as Topsell also spells it)?

It looks as if Topsell may have got his wires crossed and described the same beastie twice. George Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), tells us in his Histoire Naturelle that ‘le tatou’, or armadillo, is known as ‘Aiotochli au Mexique, tatu ou tatupeba au Bresil, chirquinchum à la Nouvelle Espagne’ (1799 edition, volume 3, p. 188). He would also appear to have miscatalogued it, since he includes it in the sections which treats ‘Of Animals Common to Both Continents’ (i.e., the Old World and the New).

I can’t find any other accounts of armadillos in early modern England, but it’s a fascinating thought. Not having access to a proper research library right now, I don’t have access to Egmond, F. and P. Mason (1994), ‘Armadillo in Unlikely Places. Some Unpublished Sixteenth-Century Sources for New World Rezeptionsgeschichte in Northern Europe’, Ibero-Amerikanischens Archive 20: 3-52, but it’s a wonderful title, and sounds like just the thing for the whacky enquirer who wants to find out more!

Maybe armadillos turned up in all sorts of odd spots in those days. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one, or even given them much thought until a tweet by Conversion Narratives caused me to drop whatever pointless task I was engaged in and turn my attention to this pivotal issue:

Question: Topsell says armadillos and duck-billed platypi both kept to eat worms in C16th/17th London gardens. Any (other) evidence of this? ConversionNarratives (@conversiontales) November 8, 2013

UPDATE June 2020: The tweet appears to have disappeared (if that makes sense!)

Seventeenth-Century Tidbits #8: November 5th at Blackfriars, 1623

There’s some interesting detail on  Victoria Buckley’s blog about the calamitous events of November 5th, 1623, when nearly a hundred Catholics were killed after the floor gave way in a garret where between two and three hundred had assembled to hear a sermon:

Crowds quickly assembled, many to assist in the rescue of survivors, others merely to taunt the unfortunate Catholic victims…

UPDATE June 2020: It seems this blog has disappeared…

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