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.

Ignatius Loyola

Dominique Bouhours (The Life of St. Ignatius, London, 1686, pp. 64–5) recounts how Ignatius, wandering between the French and Spanish armies, is suspected of being a spy and apprehended by some Spanish soldiers:

They stript him, and carried him in his shirt to their Captain. The Remembrance of Jesus Christ, expos’d naked to the Eyes of the Jews, fortify’d Ignatius in an exigence of so great Humiliation: But the fear of being tortur’d did a little terrifie him.

This is a curious little tale. Ignatius whips himself daily, and his
desires for self-abasement are so great that (according to an early
biography) he would ‘beseech our Lord, that his body after his death
might be cast vpon a dunghill, that it might be eaten by foules, and
dogges’. He even confesses to the impulse to ‘goe vp and downe the
streets naked, and al bemyred, that he might be accounted a foole’
(Pedro de Ribadeneira, The Life of B. Father Ignatius of Loyola,
Authour, and Founder of the Society of Iesus, Saint Omer, 1616, p.
139). He is even content to be stripped and abused, both physically and verbally, by a group of soldiers. And yet, faced with the prospect of being subjected to torture at the hands of professionals, he is

In the event, the captain takes Ignatius for a fool and dismisses him,
upbraiding the soldiers for bothering him, whereupon ‘the soldiers,
before they parted with him, us’d him very roughly, both in words and blows.’ At this, we are told, ‘The joy which Ignatius had, in being us’d in the Camp of the Spaniards, much after the same rate of Jesus Christ his usage, in the Court of Herod, hindred him almost from feeling the rude treatment of the Souldiers.’

Protestant controversialists, of course, had a field day with accounts
like this, which, as far as they were concerned, had no place in
religious discourse and were nothing other than the Catholics
proclaiming their insanity out of their own mouths. Edward Stillingfleet (apparently commenting on Nicolaus Orlandinus’s Latin account of this episode), comments drily that Ignatius ‘might have saved himself the labour of whipping himself that day’ (A Discourse Concerning the Idolatry Practised in the Church of Rome, London, 1671, pp. 313–14), and Wharton mocks him as one who would ‘counterfeit the Fool and Ideot, that he might be beaten the more severely’ (Henry Wharton, The Enthusiasm of the Church of Rome, London, 1688, p. 94).

To the Protestant Englishman, Ignatius springs from the same stock as the heroic Amadis, the parodic Quixote, even the picaresque anti-hero Guzman de Alfarache, with the caveat that, while they were all mere fictions, Ignatius actually walked the earth, embodying his fantasies in the establishment of the Society of Jesus, whose members, in turn, continued to spread the insane beliefs of their founder.

(Adapted from Part 1, “The Suffering Self”, Chapter 2, “Suffering and Sexuality in Catholic Hagiography”.)

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”.)

Epicureanism and sedition

Misconceptions about Epicureanism were rife during the early modern period. The most deep-rooted and persistent misconception of all was the equation of Epicureanism with hedonism. Despite the sixteenth-century ‘“rehabilitation” of Epicurus by Valla, Erasmus, Ficino, and Landino (among others)’, and the fact that ‘Montaigne and Burton among others recognized that Epicurean pleasure could involve the most austere forms of self-sacrifice’ (Reid Barbour, English Epicures and Stoics, Amherst, MA, 1998, pp. 14 and 49), the belief that Epicurus ‘was licentious in his Life, and lewd in his Opinions’, and that Epicures ‘live…in stately Palaces, abounding with sensual luxury, and all manner of riot’ (Thomas Hall, An Expositionon…the Prophecy of Amos, London, 1661, pp. 307 and 338) – perceptions largely based on the forged letters of Diotimus, and not actually connected with anything Epicurus himself ever asserted – was fairly widespread.

The supposed licentiousness of Epicurus was seen as both morally reprehensible and politically dangerous during the seventeenth century. Thomas Brown, a late seventeenth-century apologist for Epicurus, declares that ‘the greatest part of Men condemn Epicurus, and reject his Doctrine, not only as unworthy of a Philosopher, but what is more severe, as dangerous to the Common-wealth’ (Thomas Brown, ‘Reflections upon the Doctrine of Epicurus’, in Saint-Evremond, Miscellany Essays upon Philosophy, History, Poetry, Morality, Humanity, Gallantry &c., trans. from the French by Thomas Brown, London, 1694, pp. 211–80; p. 211), though Epicurus had, in fact, had his apologists all through the century; John Hall, for example, had, during the 1650s, declared that ‘each particular member, being naturally led to seek pleasure and avoid pain, may, in the pursuit hereof, (by politick designation) follow the good of the Commonwealth also’, concluding that what is necessary for the smooth functioning of society is ‘a just and seasonable moderation between Epicurism and Stoicism, between natural enjoyment and vertuous restraint’ (John Hall, Of Government and Obedience, London, 1654, pp. 99 and 413).

The main unifying principle underlying seventeenth-century humanistic and philosophical discourse on pain is the tension between the Epicurean assumption that the individual will, naturally and rightly, avoid suffering where possible and the codification of suffering in terms of civil obedience; as a sermon entitled Of Patience and Submission to Authority puts it, ‘we are bound to be not onely content, but to rejoice, when men revile us, and we suffer all manner of evil for righteousness sake’ (John Moore, Of Patience and Submission to Authority, London, 1684, pp. 6).

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

Toulalan, _Imagining Sex_

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

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

Loving one’s enemies

Despite institutionalized punishments that most people today would consider to be cruel, emphasis on compassion – a heartfelt assertion that ‘true Christians haue compassion towards their enemies’ (Thomas Wilson, Saints by Calling: or Called to be Saints, London, 1620, p. 386) – is one of the salient features of seventeenth-century Protestant discourse. Richard Baxter was particularly insistent that ‘he that cannot love his enemy, bless them that curse him, and pray for them that hate and persecute him, and return good for evil, can be no child of God’ (Richard Baxter, A Treatise of Self-Denial, London, 1675), p. 204). The number of seventeenth-century publications citing Matthew 5:44 is in the hundreds, more than ten times as many as during the sixteenth century (even allowing for the increase in the number of publications this is a significant increase), and the variety is as notable as the quantity, ranging across every shade of puritan and episcopalian belief.

In Catholic texts, Matthew 5:44 is discussed far less frequently, and the emphasis is on suffering with Christ on the cross and the spirit of Luke 23:34, on forgiving one’s enemies when one suffers at their hands, rather than on loving them and showing them compassion when they are suffering. Cristóbal de Fonseca, who gives a long sermon on loving one’s enemies (Deuout Contemplations Expressed in Two and Fortie Sermons vpon all ye Quadragesimall Gospells, London, 1629, pp. 39-61), exemplifies the ambiguous feelings of Catholics towards this subject. In that sermon, he says, ‘the hurt is so great to him that doth the wrong, that he that is wronged ought to take pittie and compassion of him’ (p. 52), but later on in the same work he lets slip his true feelings: ‘No man will trust the pittie and compassion of an enemy’ (p. 639).

Despite his inconsistency on this point, Fonseca’s company would nevertheless, in all likelihood, have been preferable to that of those Christian gentlefolk who extended a pious hand in pity – ‘thou also diddest lend him thine hand, to haue puld him out of the fire’ – only to reflect spitefully on how such compassion serves ultimately to confound the reprobate still more: ‘because he still hated to be reformed … hee will bee more and more fearefully ashamed, and confounded at that great and fearefull Day’ (Robert Bolton, Some Generall Directions for a Comfortable Walking with God, London, 1626, pp. 79 and 122). Ultimately, though, little as such comparisons flatter the godly, Fonseca is representative of a general failure among Catholics to broadcast a consistent and convincing message of loving kindness and forgiveness towards their enemies, and that failure cost them dear in its reflection in Protestant polemic.

(Adapted from Part 2, ‘The Suffering of Others’, Chapter 4, ‘Cruelty and Compassion’.)

The Art of Suffering

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.

Pain and Compassion

Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen, Pain and Compassion in Early Modern English Literature and Culture (D.S. Brewer, 2012)

This came out after I had submitted my manuscript to the publishers, and I was therefore not able to make use of it in my own work. However, Dijkhuizen wrote ‘Religious Meanings of Pain in Early Modern England’, in The Sense of Suffering: Constructions of Physical Pain in Early Modern Culture (Brill, 2009), of which he was also co-editor, which made useful background reading.

The Spectacle of Suffering

Montaigne, describing a public execution he witnessed while in Rome, expresses his horror at the cruelty of those who

invent vnused tortures and vnheard-off torments; to devise new and vnknowne deathes, and that in colde blood, without any former enmitie or quarrel, or without any gaine or profit; and onely to this end, that they may enjoy the pleasing spectacle of the languishing gestures, pittifull motions, horrormoving yellings, deep-fetcht groanes, and lamentable voyces of a dying and drooping man… (Michel de Montaigne, Essays, translated by John Florio, London, 1613, p. 237)

That expression, ‘pleasant spectacle’, first occurs in print in English in Chaloner’s translation of Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folie (London, 1549, sig. F2v), where it does not directly correspond to the Latin, which merely says, ‘‘multo etiã suauius, si quis animaduertat anus’ (‘it is much more pleasant if one sees an old woman’, Erasmus, Moriæ Encomium Erasmi Roterdami Declamatio, Strasbourg, 1511, sig. C6v., my translation). Erasmus is not discoursing on torture and mutilation, but there is an element of cruelty in what he says, since he is commenting on the follies of old men and women attempting to perpetuate their youth.

The expression also occurs – twice – in Brende’s translation of Quintus Curtius Rufus, The History of Quintus Curcius (London, 1553) fols 83r and 164r), both times in the context of perverse cruelty, once in direct translation of ‘lætum spectaculum’, and once embellishing on the Latin. Florio’s usage above, too, corresponds to ‘plaisant spectacle’ in the original.

While the expression does occasionally crop up in English texts which are not translations, the ironic use of ‘pleasant spectacle’ to describe scenes which are anything but pleasant occurs mainly in works translated from either Latin or French, or, less frequently, from Italian and Spanish.

Of course, the expression was also used in contexts which were not ironic – and not just to describe idyllic scenes such as Venice in the early morning; in these sanguinary times, bear-baiting, or the execution of a villain, might be described, quite without irony, as a pleasant spectacle. But the ironic use of the expression is closely connected with Latin and the Latin languages, and seems to reflect an acceptance of the entertainment value of others’ woe. In the words of a French Jesuit,

Teares have (I know) not sweetnesse, which makes us to love them; and though they may be the marks of grief in those that shed them, they are motives of joy to those that consider them. The sole sight of one in misery gives the experience of this truth … all sorts of Wretches draw us to the compassion of their sufferings, and … we resent a kind of pleasure to sigh with them… (René de Cerisiers, The Triumphant Lady: or, The Crowned Innocence, trans. by William Lower, London, 1656, pp. 1–2)

The Latin South of Europe provides many examples of unabashed revelling in the suffering of others, and, while it is not entirely absent from Protestant discourse, it is far scarcer. One wonders, though, whether the real difference between those who take the pleasure of seeing others suffer for granted and those who, with self-betraying irony, attribute such sentiments to others is that the former are simply more honest…

(Adapted from Part 2, ‘The Suffering of Others’, Chapter 5, ‘The Spectacle of Suffering’.)

The Sex Lives of Saints

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.

Recommended Reading: _Erotic Subjects_

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.

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