The Early Modern View of Evil

I’d like in this post to ruminate a bit on some points raised in a couple of papers on early modern thinking on the nature of evil by Samuel Newlands.

The papers are:

Leibniz on Privations, Limitations, and the Metaphysics of Evil (henceforth ‘Leibnitz’)

Evils, Privations, and the Early Moderns (henceforth ‘Evils’)

A full list of Newlands’ papers can be found here.

Although I cite both papers, there is quite a lot of content that is common to both of them (the second is perhaps an early draft of the first). I won’t bother with page references, since quotes from these papers can be located by a text search in the relevant document. For more detailed discussion of the seventeenth-century reception of Stoic and Epicurean ideas, see Pain, Pleasure and Perversity, chapter 1, section 1.

 NEWLANDS APPROACHES the question of evil via the Scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages and the development of philosophical thought on the subject as represented by (mainly) Descartes, Spinoza, Malebranche, and Leibnitz, and takes as his starting point the idea that ‘evil was a privation of goodness’. This, which he calls ‘traditional privation theory’, is predicated on the premise that ‘evils are absences or lacks of appropriate perfections, perfections that things ought to have’ (‘Evils’):

In Scholastic Aristotelianism, the nature of a thing was given by its intrinsic telos: the end towards which a thing tended determined the perfections or excellences it ought to have. A subject was evil, therefore, insofar as it lacked perfections that, by its telic nature, it ought to have. Among other things, this meant that the lack of sight would be an evil for a goat but not an evil for a rock. (‘Leibnitz’)

Perfections, by their nature, are good, so the Scholastic position, largely laid down by Aquinas, is that evil is the absence of good. However, it is not simply that. Aquinas took exception to the Neoplatonic idea that ‘evils are just a lack of being, goodness, perfection, and reality’, which Newlands calls the ‘evil as negation’ theory. By this theory, Aquinas argues, ‘a man would be evil who had not the swiftness of the roe, or the strength of a lion’ (‘Leibnitz’). Therefore, there is an important distinction between the idea of evil as an absence of good in a negative sense and in a privative sense.

 Nevertheless, both the negative and the privative views of evil share in common the idea that evil does not exist in itself, but only as the absence of its opposite. At this point, I would like to stand back a moment from what Newlands is saying and introduce another, completely contradictory point of view, the Epicurean postulation of pleasure as merely the absence of pain. To understand just how categorically opposed the two positions are we need to recognize that, from an Epicurean point of view, pleasure is essentially equatable with good, and pain with evil. Therefore, the assertion that pleasure is the absence of pain is tantamount to an assertion that good is the absence of evil.

From a Christian point of view, the Epicurean position is theologically very suspect. If God made everything, and everything that God made was good (Genesis 1:31), then evil could not be a ‘thing’; it could only be a lack, an absence. The Epicurean notion that good is the absence of evil is a direct reversal of this notion, and it follows from such reasoning that evil must exist as an objective entity. The idea that evil existed in its own right was ‘traditionally associated with Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism’, and could not be consistently combined with two other central Scholastic doctrines. First, goodness and being are convertible, which meant that to the degree to which a thing or any of its properties are real or have being (esse), to that degree the thing or its properties are also good – and vice versa. Second, God is the primary source of all and only goodness, which, by the convertibility of goodness and being, entails that God is also the primary source of all and only reality or being. (‘Leibnitz’)

By denying that evil had an independent, objective existence, God could be exonerated from being the cause of evil. Evil was not part of God’s creation, but came about only through ‘the privative failure to act as one ought’, or, as Descartes has it, ‘error is not a pure negation, but rather a privation or lack of some knowledge which should be in me’ (‘Evils’).

Descartes’ reiteration of the theory of evil as privation suggests its survival beyond medieval times. However, as Newlands shows, it is under threat from ‘The growing belief in the triumph of 17th century mechanism, according to which the motion and impact of bodies sufficed to explain all physical events’ (‘Evils’). While accepting privation in the abstract domains of mental and moral worlds, Descartes challenged it in the physical world; a clock that failed to keep proper time, or a person who suffered from a sickness was not merely the result of a lack, but could be ascribed to a physical cause (‘Evils’).

 As the seventeenth century got under way, the privation theory of evil came under attack from both philosophers and theologians (‘Evils’). Newlands devotes considerable attention to Malebranche, saying:

Malebranche focuses on one of the toughest cases for privation theory: pain. Malebranche argues that the experience of pain is not just the deprivation of an appropriate good such as pleasure. Rather, ‘pain is a real and true evil…thus not every evil is an evil just because it deprives us of good,’ adding later that pain ‘is always a real evil to those who suffer it, as long as they suffer it.’ Malebranche implies that at least some physical evils like pain and suffering are not merely absences of an appropriate good. The evil of pain is sometimes quite positive and real, suggesting that the evil of pains has a positive nature that is opposed to the good, pace privation theory. According to Malebranche, some pains are intrinsically evil.

Newlands does not bring Epicurus into the picture, but the association is clear and significant; ‘Malebranche[’s] verdict on the intrinsic evil of some pains is now the dominant and mostly unquestioned view in most contemporary discussions of evil’. The Epicurean approach has, in effect, largely ousted the Scholastic view.

Stoicism (which also lies outside the scope of Newlands’ paper) is more easily reconcilable with the privation theory of evil. Pain, as Newlands has pointed out, is one of the biggest problems for the privation theory, and the Epicurean idea that pain is intrinsically evil undermines it from several points of view. The Stoic approach, which denies that pain and suffering are in themselves evil, or that pleasure is in itself good, fits more closely with the perspective of the Scholastics. Stoic philosophers themselves were divided over the issue of how to respond to pain and pleasure, with some asserting that the wise man will avoid the one and embrace the other insofar as this is not incompatible with the practice of virtue, and others pursuing the aim of inuring the self to both pain and pleasure, and attempting to rise above them. The first approach is suitable for the average Christian, while the second one is the posture of the ascetic saint and the martyr. In Pain, Pleasure and Perversity, I trace the steady tendency towards the rejection of Stoic principles over the course of the seventeenth century, and the trend towards seeing pain as an evil to be avoided, laying down the foundations of the taboo on suffering that largely prevails in modern Western society. Newlands takes a different path, through the Scholastics and the reception of their ideas by the philosophers of the seventeenth century, but comes to a very similar conclusion.

EEBO TCP Conference, 2013 (Oxford)

At the time of writing I am sitting in the back row of a lecture room in Oxford at a conference of the Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership (EEBO TCP). Follow on Twitter: #eebotcp.

The Text Creation Partnership is a text-searchable database developed from the Early English Books Online database, making it possible for the first time to get a fairly accurate idea of the frequency and distribution of lexical items and expressions. I make extensive use of this database in my own work. For example, there is an entire section on the satirical use of the expression “pleasant spectacle” to describe a scene of suffering or atrocity; before TCP putting together a set of collocations like this would have taken years, and I would not have been able to write the book in its present form without access to this database.

I came hoping to learn a bit more about the technical side of the interpretation of statistics. For example, if there is an increase in the occurrence of a particular usage during the last twenty years of the seventeenth century, how should we allow for the increase in the number of publications during this period? To make it more complicated, suppose the occurrences mainly occur in a particular genre (such as devotional literature). To evaluate the significance of these occurrences we would need to know whether publications within that particular genre have increased or not.

EEBO TCP makes possible the analysis of patterns across a range of text. The challenge is, how to draw valid inferences from the range of information the TCP makes available.

Chorier’s Satyra Sotadica and the Beginnings of the Pornography of Pain

Rather than developing from native English discourses, the association of Catholicism with sexual flagellation in late seventeenth-century England is mainly a product of the same southern/Latin/Catholic culture that produced the lives of the saints. Most of the same ingredients as are to be found in English writings – political and/or religious polemic, increasingly frank accounts of various permutations of sexual flagellation – can be seen in these foreign works, but there are also significant differences, the most notable being that, where the English accounts are mostly bawdy (that is, they poke fun at licentious behaviour, and the main response they aim to provoke is ribald laughter), the imported narratives are more clearly erotic. 

The first such work, Chorier’s Satyra Sotadica, appeared in or around 1660. Turner considers this work so seminal that ‘Modern sexuality could be understood as a footnote to Chorier’, and tells us that – despite being available only in Latin (Sarah Toulalan, Imagining Sex:
Pornography and Bodies in Seventeenth-Century England
, Oxford, 2007
, p. 7, notes that an English version ‘was available by c. 1684’, but no copies appear to be extant) – by 1680, it ‘had penetrated so far into English society that schoolboys were reading it in a London dissenting academy’ (James Grantham Turner, Schooling Sex: Libertine Literature and Erotic Education in Italy, France and England, 1534–1685, Oxford, 2003, pp. 167 and 165). Like other works in the whore dialogue tradition, the discourse is between a more experienced older woman (Tullia) and a younger one (her maid, the fifteen-year-old Octavia), the former instructing the latter mainly in the pleasures of lesbianism but also – and this is one of the features that make Chorier’s text stand out – in the supposed delights of whipping and being whipped.

While Octavia’s main initiation is into lesbian love, the book takes in a variety of encounters in a generous embrace, and on several occasions their conversation strays into observations about the nature of pain, the first being Octavia’s comment that ‘incentivum factus est dolor pruriginosæ libidini’ (‘pain becomes an incentive to lascivious desires’), to which Tullia replies, ‘voluptatis confinium est dolor, ita & doloris voluptas’ (pain is at the edge of pleasure, and pleasure [at the edge] of pain’). Octavia then launches into a detailed account of herself and her mother Sempronia being whipped before the altar by the priest, Theodorus:

Well, says Theodorus, we will soon see which [of you] has the more valiant heart. Prepare yourself, Sempronia. Lend me your help, daughter, my mother says, that I may swiftly acquit myself of this pious duty. I take off her undergarment, her dress and her gown. 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 …

(Nicolas Chorier, Aloisiæ Sigææ Toletanæ Satyra
Sotadica de Arcanis Amoris & Veneris
[A scurrilous satire of the secret love and sex life of Luisa Sigea of Toledo], circa 1660; edition used, Amsterdam, 1678, pp. 200 and 202. The attribution to Luisa Sigea is false. My translation.)

The narrative continues in the same vein, leaving very little to the imagination, as both mother and daughter are whipped, to the satisfaction of the priest and themselves.

Chorier’s detailed and explicit sadomasochistic narrative breaks new ground in anti-Catholic discourse. A 1665 translation of Pierre du Moulin’s Le Capucin (Sedan, 1641) attacks Catholic penances from every possible angle, except from that of being a form of sexual perversion. Moulin mocks absurd penances, such as being forced to ‘eat with a Cat in the same dish’, ‘go about on all four like a beast’, or ‘lick up the others spittle’; he describes in detail the ‘pleasant exercise’ of whipping and the blood flowing from the wounds, concluding, This whipping is a just action, for these Fathers deserve it well’. He notes that the Syrians and other ancient peoples carried self-mutilation to far greater lengths, that there is a kind of inverted arrogance in making a big show of how much one despises oneself, and that the early followers of Christ were known for their virtue and charity, not for their penances, saying,It is a grand abuse to make Piety consist in things wherein Christians may be excelled by Heathens. There is a proud humility, which despiseth it self, that it may be valued by others. The Apostles, and their Disciples, did not live so’ (Pierre du Moulin, The Capucin Treated, or The Lives of the Capucins with the Life of S. Francis their Patron, trans. from the French by ‘Philinax Orthodoxus’, London, 1665, pp. 21, 22, 43, 17, 18 and 40). Chorier completely bypasses such objections by describing
Sempronia and Octavia’s flagellation as sexually stimulating.

There is nothing in English discourse that approaches Chorier’s use of the whore dialogue to undermine the premises of Catholic penance; Butler’s condemnation of the ‘foul abomination’of mortifying oneself with ‘shameful, / and heathen Stripes’ (Samuel Butler, Hudibras. The Second Part, London, 1664,  p. 72; 2.2., ll. 89–98), for example, while discursively similar, is far less explicit and condensed almost to the point of being epigrammatic. Chorier’s uninhibited and expansive narrative is distinctively southern, matched only by Jean Barrin [?], Venus in the Cloister, or The Nun in her Smock, London, 1683, which is so closely related to Chorier’s work that it contains a plagiarised (or at least closely adapted) version of the flagellation passage cited above.

Barrin’s work – translated into English in the same year as its
appearance in French – set as it is in a convent, and taking the form of a dialogue between two nuns, subverts Catholic discourse even more explicitly than Satyra Sotadica. The narrative begins as a more experienced nun, Sister Angelica, surprises the novice Agnes
practising ‘The Extatical Intromission’ (i.e., masturbating) and introduces her to the pleasures of the flesh. ‘Hold a little my Pretty Heart’, she exclaims, ‘I am all of a Flame, these Carresses have brought me into a Panting Condition’. She soon begins to show intense interest in what Agnes describes as ‘a severe Discipline, which I but yesterday inflicted upon it [i.e., her body] by order of my Confessour’. Examining – and kissing – the marks of the lash on Agnes’s buttocks, Angelica remarks, ‘you must be very devout at the Mystery of Flagellation, since you scourge your Buttocks at this rate’, and admits that ‘but yesterday I whipt one rather for my own satisfaction, than for any fault she had committed; I took great delight in contemplating her, she is very pretty, and is already thirteen years of age’ (Barrin,
pp. 9, 11, 28, 30 and 33).

Interspersed with Angelica’s unabashed prurience are passages – such as this description of the dilemma of a nun named Dorothea –
which could come from a genuine devotional work:

… one day that she found her self more moved than usual … she had recourse to her Saint; represented to him with tears in her eyes, her face upon the floor, and her heart lifted up towards Heaven, the extreame danger she found her self in; related to him with a wonderful candour and simplicity, to how little purpose she had defended her self, and used all her efforts to repress the violent transports she was seized with.

Like the saints of Catholic hagiography, Dorothea sets out to subdue her fleshly appetites by chastising herself – although, unlike them, she does so naked before her spiritual advisor, who watches on unmoved – but ‘these sorts of exercises were so far from extinguishing the flames wherewith she was consumed, that on the contrary they had more and more augmented them, and had reduced that poor creature into such a condition, that she was hardly any longer able to bear with it’. She makes a final attempt to whip her flesh into submission, and then falls into an ‘amorous trance’, powerless to resist ‘the Laws of meer Nature’. Agnes, by now fully converted to her mentor’s predilections, declares that she would have ‘taken delight … to view her thus all naked, and to observe curiously all the transports, that Love would have caused in her at the moment she was overcome’ (ibid., pp. 141–2, 145 and 146).

It is not clear whether the author of this work intended it primarily as anti-Catholic lampoon or as pornography. In the wave of anti-Catholic hysteria which culminated in the Popish Plot it was accepted for its subversion of Catholic attitudes towards penance and mortification of the flesh, and was probably associated with anti-Catholic works of the period, whereas Robert Samber’s translation of 1724 – together with the 1718 edition of Meibom’s work in English – led to Edmund Curll, the printer, being convicted on a charge of publishing obscene literature. Up until the Restoration period, however, it appears that, while the Latinate may have been familiar with treatises such as those of Pico, Gretser and Meibom, and the debauched with the institution of the flogging school, the idea that beating might be a means of achieving sexual satisfaction was not widespread; it was certainly not widely disseminated in print, and even when printed reference to it was made it was not particularly associated with Catholicism, a link which seems not to have been established firmly in the popular imagination until Chorier and Barrin’s works appeared in English in the 1680s.

Once the link was made, English anti-Catholic polemic, rather than emulating the discourse patterns of the whore dialogue, tended simply to associate Catholic mortification of the flesh with the practices of the flogging cully. One anonymous controversialist, for example, writes of the Catholics that ‘their Whips for the Devil are no more to be valued than the Rods that excite the decayed Venery of old Lechers in common Brothel-houses’ (A Whip for the Devil; or The Roman Conjurer, London, 1683, p. 140), and John Oldham equates the Catholic penitent with the reprobate emerging from a whipping at a brothel:

In came a ghastly Shape, all pale, and thin,
Assome poor Sinner, who by Priest had been
Undera long Lent’s Penance, starv’d, and whip’d,
Or par-boil’d Lecher, late from Hot-house crept …

(John Oldham, Poems, and Translations by the Author of the Satyrs upon the Jesuits, London, 1683, p. 164)

The old arguments continue to be aired; Stillingfleet, for example, contrasts those who think ‘no sight more pleasing to God than to see men lash and whip themselves for their sins’ with those who believe ‘he is as well pleased at least, with hearty repentance, and sincere obedience without this’ (Edward Stillingfleet, A Discourse Concerning the Idolatry Practised in the Church of Rome and the Danger of Salvation in the Communion of it, London, 1671, p. 217), William Sherlock argues that the ‘External and Ceremonial Righteousness’ of Catholic penances is merely a compensation for ‘true and real Holiness of Life’ (William Sherlock, A Preservative against Popery being some
Plain Directions to Unlearned Protestants, how to Dispute with Romish Priests
, London, 1688, p. 46) and, notably, Drelincourt’s Popish Errors says almost nothing about penances and mortifications. At the same time, though, a more explicit and uninhibited note begins to creep in. While du Moulin, for example, in the earlier part of the century, is as scathing as he can be in his descriptions of the penances of Francis of Assissi and the Capuchins, there is frequently virtually no
difference between his discourse and the Catholic discourse he attacks. His account of Francis – ‘Finding that his carnal concupiscence continued, he ran to his garden, and gathering a great heap of snow, he plunged himself in it over head and ears, stark naked’ (Pierre du Moulin, The Capucin Treated, London, 1665, p. 59) – differs from a Catholic account only in that he expects his readers to disapprove. By contrast, Brown, writing at the end of the century, writes, with a dry, economic irony that renders commentary unnecessary, that during the first millennium of Christianity, ‘the sanctifying Miracles of Whip cord were not so Universally acknowledged then as afterwards, nor St. Francis’s receipt for an erection by running into a heap of Snow so generally made use of’ (Thomas Brown, The Late Converts Exposed, London, 1690, p. 14). The whore dialogue was not directly emulated in English attacks on Catholicism during this period, but it nevertheless disrupted the stylistic norms of polemical writing. Brown’s work may not be set in Mediterranean gardens or within the adobe walls of a southern European convent, but it does have a setting – the urbane world of a London coffee house – and his work exemplifies a new frankness that uses sexuality to undercut and obviate logical argument. Jacques Boileau’s Historia Flagellantium (Paris, 1700) effectively decided the debate on self-flagellation in the Catholics’ disfavour, but by then the whore dialogue had already done its work, associating Catholic practices in general – and self-flagellation in particular – with the promotion of the very vices they were supposed to cure.

Adapted from Pain, Pleasure and Perversity: Discourses of Suffering in Seventeenth-Century England (Ashgate [now Routledge], 2013), Part 1, “The Suffering of Others”, Chapter 3, “Polemic, Pornography and Romanticism: the Subversion of Catholic Asceticism”.

“Hudibras” and the Puritan Mindset

If matrimony and hanging go
By dest’ny, why not whipping too?

(Samuel Butler, Hudibras. The Second Part, London, 1664), p. 60; 2.1, ll. 839–40).

‘Marriages’, Lyly says, ‘are made in heauen, though consumated in earth’ (John Lyly, Euphues and his England, London, 1580, p. 129), and Eliot renders the French proverb, ‘Qui doibt pendre ne sera iamais noyé’, as ‘he thats borne to be hangd, shall neuer be drownde’ (John Eliot, Ortho-epia Gallica. Eliots Fruits for the French, London, 1593, pp. 126 and127). But what makes Butler add whipping to the list of things which are decided by fate rather than by choice? Laertius’ tale of Zeno and his slave (retold here by Gataker) doubtless plays a part; ‘as the knave told the stoik his Master, when he whipt him for filching, it was my destiny to filch; or, as his Master answered the knave again, and it is thy destiny to be whipt’ (Thomas Gataker, His Vindication of the Annotations by him, London, 1653, p. 106; the original story is in Diogenis Lærtii Vitæ Philosophorum, 7.23). Puritanism and judicial astrology – unsurprisingly, perhaps, given the extent to which both belief systems hinged on a predetermined destiny – had more than a passing acquaintance, but Butler ‘did not attempt literally to reproduce the interregnum debate over astrology … nor has [he] … constructed an allegory of the quarrel between Gataker and [William] Lilly’ over the validity of astrology (Nicolas H. Nelson, ‘astrology, Hudibras, and the Puritans’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 37.3, 1976: 521–36; p. 532). Hudibras has resonances that seem closer to Pico della Mirandola than to either Zeno or contemporary events. Pico (who himself probably has Zeno somewhere in the back of his mind), after recounting a tale of sexual flagellation and relating it to events which occurred during the flagellant’s childhood, says that the purpose of the anecdote is

ut cognosceremus euidentia ipsa quantum illis affectibus ualeat
consuetudo: ne quasi causam habere terrenam nullam possint: cælum statim accusemus nam id quidem astrologus si audiat / damnatam dicet fuisse uenerem in hominis genitura: et aduersus fortasse: aut alio mõ minitantibus radiis Martis

[so that we may clearly know how strongly one’s behaviour influences one’s situation, lest, being unable to find an earthly cause, we at once blame the heavens. For, indeed, if an astrologer hears of this, he will say that the man was fated to sexual flagellation by birth, or by the ill effects of the rays of Mars.]

(Giovanni Francesco Pico della Mirandola, Disputationes
Aduersus Astrologiã Diuinatricem
(Bologna, 1496; edition used, Lyons, 1498?, sig. h5r)

Pico argues not only here but throughout this treatise that ‘one’s behaviour influences one’s situation’ (‘affectibus ualeat consuetudo’), that there are efficient causes of events other than astrology (or fate), and that, while one’s (pre-) disposition plays some part in the outcome of one’s life, one has also a degree of control and choice over the direction one’s life takes. Butler’s poem, too, is, in part, an attack on astrology; the astrologer Sidrophel, observing through his telescope the approach of hudibras and his squire, Ralpho, sends his assistant, Whatchum, to find out what brings them. Whatchum gets Hudibras’s story from Ralpho, and tells it to Sidrophel, who pretends he has learned it by the art of divination.

But it is in the sexual overtones of the whipping motif in Hudibras that
the poem seems most clearly to echo Pico. The widow Hudibras professes to love attempts to convince him it is his fate to be whipped, as proof of his love for her; ‘love is a boy by poets styl’d, / Then spare the rod, and spoill the child’. Hudibras at this stage is in prison, and his agreement to the widow’s demands resembles redemptive suffering, in that she procures his freedom once he promises to undergo a whipping. However, when the time comes to make good his promise, he equivocates, wondering ‘whether’t be a lesser Sin / to be forsworn then act the thing?’ Ralpho readily encourages him to break his word, saying

… is’t not enough w’are bruis’d, and kicked,
With sinful members of the wicked …
But we must claw our selves, with shameful,
And heathen stripes …?

(Hudibras. The Second Part, pp. 61 [2.1.ll.843–4]
and 72 [2.2, ll. 59–60 and 893–98])

Hudibras’s hypocrisy in breaking his word is reconstructed satirically as a saintly (that is, a ‘Presbyterian’) virtue, but the satirical intent does not undermine Ralpho’s basic point; the vagaries of fortune bring hardship enough, without seeking to ‘claw’ (that is, whip) one’s own body in ‘shameful’ and ‘heathen’ fashion.

Butler’s plot unravels in a number of ways. The third and final part did not appear until fourteen years later, whereupon it transpires that Hudibras goes to the widow and falsely claims to have received his beating. She does not believe him, and while they talk there is ‘a knocking, at the Gate’, and he is set upon by elves, who tell him, ‘Mortal; Thou art betraid to us / B’ our Friend, thy evil Genius’. In answer to the spirits’ questions, he reveals that he never loved the widow anyway and, in his hypocritical way, had only pretended to do so for her money:

Didst thou not love her then? Speak true.
No more (quoth he) than I love you.
How would’st th’ have us’d her, and her money?
First, turn’d her up, to Alimony;
And laid her Dowry out in Law,
To null her Jointure with a Flaw,
Which I before-hand had agreed
T’ have put, of purpose, in the Deed;
And bar her Widow’s-making-over
T’ a friend in Trust, or private Lover.

(Hudibras. The Third and Last Part, London, 1678,
pp. 61,  67 and 69; 3.1., ll. 1054, 1162–3 and 1185–94)

Hudibras cannot, after all, escape a beating, but it is with a ‘cudgel’ (Ibid., p. 60 ; 3.2, l. 1148), not a whip, the whole episode has an aura of unreality, and – if his beating has any relationship at all to some kind of moral or spiritual dimension – his suffering is not redemptive but punitive, undergone not for the sake of his love (he is, it appears, incapable of love, whether of God or of his fellow creatures), but for his hypocritical and mercenary wiles.

Hudibras sums up, through satirical allegory, the puritan predicament; one’s earthly lot is to suffer, but to seek out suffering – or to engage to suffer by contract – is to enter into the forbidden territory occupied by medieval pacts of alliance with the devil on the one hand and masochistic submission on the other (Cf, Gilles Deleuze, Présentation de Sacher-Masoch, Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1967, p. 20), while suffering as punishment for one’s sins is merely a foretaste of the eternal damnation to come, and legitimate contexts for expiatory suffering – the only kind that counts – are elusive and unpredictable. Like so much of the literature of the early modern period, Butler’s poem locates in ‘the masochistic dimension of a political imaginary based on an ideal of sacrifice’ (Melissa Sanchez, Erotic Subjects, Oxford, 2011, p. 240). His satirical exposé of Presbyterian hypocrisy – like all good satire – touches on a raw nerve and forces a reappraisal of the values of the society it comments on. Behind the inglorious Hudibras stands the puritan Englishman, conditioned to a ‘view of repentance as a life-long mortification of the flesh, so that the Spirit of God may gradually obtain dominion … which is the real foundation of the Calvinistic ethics with its asceticism’ (Arthur Dakin, Calvinism. With Special Reference to Calvin’s ‘Institutes’, London: Duckworth, 1940, p. 70), but deprived of the contexts for ascetic suffering expressed and espoused in the Latinate culture of the Catholic South. When Ralpho colludes in Hudibras’s attempts to justify his breach of promise to the widow, he bases his argument on an excoriation of penitential mortification, exhorting him not to do as

mongrel Christians of our times,
That expiate less with greater crimes,
And call the foul abomination,
Contrition and mortification.

(Hudibras. The Second Part,  p. 72; 2.2., ll. 89–98)

The conflicted sinner of Protestant discourse, whose only hope of redemption is to suffer in accordance with God’s will, is exposed in Butler’s satire to temptation on two fronts. On one front, the ideals of heroic and holy suffering are corrupted by their parodic replication in misguided romantic suffering, undergone, not out of transcendent love, but for a lesser, mundane love. On the other front, the moral authority of those who suffer for their faith in accordance with God’s will is usurped by presumptuous attempts to pre-empt God’s will by seeking suffering out and engaging in it through active intent. Both are essentially features of southern/Latin/Catholic discourse. When the widow, urging Hudibras to undergo a whipping for her sake, asks ‘Why may not Whipping … / With comely movement, and by Art, / Raise Passion in a Ladies heart?’ (Ibid., p. 61, ll. 852–4) she spins her web of persuasion – at least partly – from the threads of southern European romance:

Did not the Great La Mancha do so
For the Infanta Del Taboso?
Did not the’Illustrius Bassa make
Himself a Slave for Misse’s sake?
… Was not Young Florio sent (to cool
His flame for Biancafiore) to School,
Where Pedant made his Pathick Bum
For her sake suffer Martyrdom?

(Ibid. 63–4, ll.  875–84)

The references are to Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, The History of the Valorous and VVittie Knight-Errant, Don-Quixote of the Mancha, part 1, trans. from the Spanish by Thomas Shelton (London, 1612), and The Second Part of the History of the Valorous and Witty Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mançha, trans. from the Spanish by Thomas Shelton (London, 1620); Madeleine de Scudéry, Ibrahim: or The Illustrious Bassa, trans. from the French by Henry Cogan (London, 1652); and Giovanni Boccaccio, A Pleasaunt Disport of Diuers Noble Personages: Written in Italian by M. Iohn Bocace Florentine and Poet Laureat: in his Boke vvhich is Entituled Philocopo, trans. from the Italian [by Humphrey
Gifford or Henry Grantham] (London, 1567).

Suffering – specifically being whipped or beaten – for the sake of a woman and the ‘foul abomination’ of expiating ‘less with greater crimes’ (which it is hard to interpret as anything other than the equation of  religious and sexual masochism) are presented in Hudibras as features of a southern/Latin/Catholic culture which defines northern/Germanic/Protestant culture in terms of difference.

The dichotomy of southern/Latin/Catholic and northern/Germanic/Protestant attitudes towards suffering is one of the central themes of Pain, Pleasure and Perversity: Discourses of Suffering in Seventeenth-Century England (Ashgate, 2013). Buy this book from the publisher or on Amazon, or request your library to stock this book.

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


Alec Ryrie on Suffering among Early Modern Protestants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Genealogy of Masochism

Krafft-Ebing’s derivation of sadism and masochism from the names of Sade and Sacher-Masoch (Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis: eine Klinisch-Forensische Studie, 1886; edition used, 1894, p. 11) may not be fully analogous to Freud’s appropriation of the name of Oedipus, but still less can the relationship between Sade and Sacher-Masoch and their creations be compared to that of, say, Faraday to the light bulb; on the spectrum between creating something that simply did not exist before and giving a name to something which has always existed in the human psyche, it makes more sense to see Sade and Sacher-Masoch as weaving into a sustained discourse strands of narrative and impulse that reflect something intrinsic to human nature.

As Deleuze puts it, ‘The Middle ages, with profound insight, distinguished two sorts of diabolism; the one by possession, the second by a pact of alliance’ (Gilles Deleuze, Présentation de Sacher-Masoch, Paris, 1967, p. 20; my translation)]; sadism, Deleuze suggests, is a development from, or form of, the first, as masochism is from/of the second. The seventeenth century, with its belief in witchcraft, retains elements of the medieval Weltanschauung, while at the same time highlighting prurience in discourses on suffering – sometimes with the frankness that Foucault speaks of, but sometimes through censorship or proto-pornographic narrative – in a way that foreshadows the cataloguing of sadism and masochism in nineteenth-century sexual taxonomy.

From a socio-psychological point of view, Baumeister sums up the broad consensus that ‘most sexual practices have been known and enjoyed throughout history, but masochism is a rare exception … which spread through Western society during the early modern period.’ He cites a number of sources confirming the apparent
absence of masochism in the ancient and medieval worlds, noting that during the Middle Ages the Church pronounced its views on ‘homosexuality, bestiality, masturbation, abortion, contraception, adultery, coprophilia, prostitution, anal sex, transvestism, and a variety of other practices … but apparently there was no mention of masochism’, from which he concludes that there was ‘a lack of
masochistic sexual activity’.

Baumeister contrasts the ‘abundant evidence of masochistic
activity beginning in the eighteenth century’ with the ‘lack of any such activities prior to the renaissance’, and notes that, while prostitutes through the ages are on record as catering for a variety of sexual appetites, there is no reference to ‘prostitutes providing sadomasochistic services’ in the ancient and medieval worlds, concluding ‘there is no disputing the contrast between the abundant
evidence of masochism after 1700 and the paucity of such evidence before 1600 … sexual masochism underwent a dramatic increase in Western culture late in the early modern period’ (Roy F. Baumeister, ‘Masochism as Escape from Self ’, in Baumeister, ed., Social Psychology and Human Sexuality: Essential Readings, Philadelphia, 2001, pp. 296–313; pp. 308–9).

The one area in which there is some doubt in this seemingly iron-clad argument is the suffering people have undergone over the ages in the name of religion. Baumeister is more tentative about this, but tends to see it as unrelated to masochism: ‘Probably it is a mistake to regard those activities as masochistic … sex and religion provide radically different contexts, and it seems unwarranted to assume that activities have the same meaning in religious ritual
as they have in sexual play’ (p. 308). Baumeister finds broad support for this view in the work of Bullough and Tannahill, but ignores the fact that the architects of the concept of masochism – Charcot, Lombroso, Breuer, Freud, Krafft-Ebing and Lacan – all saw it as closely related to religion, particularly to ascetic flagellation.

Part of the complexity and sensitivity of this issue arises from the difficulty of defining the limits of what masochism actually is. Initially a simple enough idea (the deriving of sexual pleasure from suffering, as Severin apparently does in Sacher-Masoch’s Venus im
), it is complicated by many factors, among them Freud’s postulation of three types of masochism – erotic, feminine and moral – and Dingwall and Bell’s addition of ascetic masochism. The spread of the semantic range of the word ‘masochism’ – particularly into contexts where there is only the concept of some underlying displacement of sexuality and no actual overt sexual activity – leaves
it open to such a wide range of interpretation that it begins to lose its value as a conceptual tool.

Bersani compounds the difficulties, extending the word in the
opposite direction and attempting (developing from Bataille) to see sexuality as ‘self-shattering’ and consequently masochistic; ‘sexuality … could be thought of as a tautology for masochism’. As he himself recognizes, this kind of ‘breakdown of conceptual distinctions’ leads to ‘logical incoherence’ and, while for him such
incoherence may have value in so far as it ‘accurately represents the overdetermined mind prescribed by psychoanalysis’, it presents huge practical problems (Leo Bersani, Is the Rectum a Grave?: And Other Essays, Chicago, 2010, pp. 25, 109 and 100).

At the same time – as Baumeister observes – it is precisely the concept of masochism which pinpoints the seventeenth century as pivotal in the history of suffering. One cannot simply discard it, nor can one wholly reject the accretion of meanings which have grown up around the original impulse to be dominated of Sacher-Masoch’s Severin, but at the same time, if one is to explore ‘the relationship between asceticism and sadomasochistic eroticism’ (Virginia Burrus, Sex Lives of Saints, Philadelphia, 2004, p. 9), one needs to heed Bataille’s basic caveat; although ‘both experiences have an
extreme intensity’, Bataille does not intend to imply that ‘eroticism and sanctity are of the same nature.’ On the contrary, while sanctity ‘brings us closer to other men’ (that is, other people), eroticism (which ‘is defined by secrecy and taboo’) ‘cuts us off from them and leaves us in solitude’ (Georges Bataille, Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo, New York, 1962, pp. 252–3).

Sadomasochistic discourse arises ‘from the ruins of politicoreligious means for achieving submission or shattering of the self’ (Cynthia Marshall, The Shattering of the Self: Violence, Subjectivity, and Early Modern Texts, Baltimore, 2002, p. 103). It is, at least in part, a
consequence of the early modern transition from the ‘inclusive-existential’ or sub specie æternitatis world-view, with its hermits, its monastic orders, its martyrs, to ‘positional-existential’ ideologies, with their emphasis on personal identity in the social context. As the individual’s inner relationship with God starts to give way to societal relationships, the sense of division between the public sphere and private identity grows. The communion of recognition that all are sinners isreplaced by the isolation of inner shame:

In one way it is easier to be receptive to de Sade’s eroticism than to the religious demands of old. No-one today could deny that the impulses connecting sexuality and the desire to hurt and to kill do exist. Hence the so-called sadistic instincts enable the ordinary man to account for certain acts of cruelty, while religious impulses are explained away as aberrations. (Bataille, Death and Sensuality, p. 183)

Bersani’s apparent descent into conceptual chaos may actually provide constructive insights here. The big problem with Baumeister’s analysis is that, at the same time as supposing that ‘sadism is historically older than masochism’, he seeks to turn on its head the ‘prevailing theoretical position … that masochism is [psychologically] derived from sadism’, arguing that ‘it is implausible to argue that masochism is derived from sadism. Rather, sadism must be the secondary, derivative pattern’ (‘Masochism as Escape from Self ’, pp. 308, footnote, and 208). It is hard to understand how masochism can be psychologically more fundamental yet historically younger than sadism, but Bersani hints at an explanation. In his interpretation, the first reality the infant is faced with is an outside world of tremendous power. it cannot possibly fight or protect itself against such power, and gains reassurance by surrendering itself to it. Sex, in adult life, is, by Bersani’s analysis, simply a re-enactment of that early masochistic surrender (The Freudian Body, p. 39). If Bersani is right, masochism is not discussed prior to the early modern period, not because it is nowhere, but because it is everywhere. One’s life is not one’s own, but held in trust; sexual congress is an act of naked, defenceless self-exposure; those who ‘take the sword’ are merely preparing to ‘perish with the sword’, and man’s only hope is to place himself abjectly under the heel of his God and cast himself at his mercy. It is only as society moves away from the ‘inclusive-existential’ preoccupation with the meaning and purpose of a transient and uncertain life towards the ‘positional-existential’ drive to identify oneself in terms of one’s relationships with others that the impulse to surrender starts to become deprived of legitimate contexts, manifesting itself in that particular nexus of neuroses and anxieties and compulsive self-destructive behaviour that modern psychopathology terms ‘masochistic’.

(Adapted from the introduction to the book. Download the complete introduction here.)

The Dominatrix in Early Modern Times


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homoeroticism in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Germans as Victims


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suffering Saints


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

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

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

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

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

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

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The blog of the book, Pain, Pleasure and Perversity: Discourses of Suffering in Seventeenth-Century England