The Sense of Suffering: Constructions of Physical Pain in Early Modern Culture (review)
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Reviewed by
Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen and Karl A. E. Enenkel, eds. The Sense of Suffering: Constructions of Physical Pain in Early Modern Culture. Intersections. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2009. xxiii + 501 pp. Ill. $148.00 (978-90-04-17247-0).

Physical pain was a common and deeply meaningful experience for early modern men and women. Premodern medicine lacked affordable and effective analgesics and anesthetics, while corporeal suffering was endowed with spiritual significance. The Sense of Suffering provides a much-needed examination of pain and its many meanings in early modern Europe. While the seventeen articles in the hefty volume cover a range of topics and employ an impressive array of sources, three broad themes emerge. First, several of the authors analyze early modern pain as a means of asserting power. Kristine Steenbergh, for instance, examines articulations of pain and anger in various literary genres and the ways authors used those expressions for political purposes. Karl A. E. Enenkel analyzes woodcuts by the sixteenth-century Petrarch Master, arguing that the heightened depictions of pain were designed to evoke emotional responses and thereby communicate social and political criticisms. In addition to Steenbergh and Enenkel, several contributors explore both the physiological and emotional dimensions of pain. As such, the book offers insightful assessments of the dynamic relationship between body and mind in the early modern period.

Literary representations of pain compose a second central theme. Some authors focus on depictions of pain in key texts from the period, such as Edward Spenser's The Faerie Queene and John Donne's Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. Others address less well-known works, such as Frans Willem Korsten's analysis of seventeenth-century Dutch playwright Joost van den Vondel. Michael Schoenfeldt argues that literary expressions of suffering helped early modern readers to manage their pain. Authors such as Shakespeare and Milton offered an "aesthetic encounter with suffering" that, like a purge of excess humors, facilitated an emotive outflow that alleviated pain (p. 32).

Like that of Schoenfeldt, Jenny Mayhew's contribution explores the influences of language on physical suffering. Mayhew studies Protestant manuals on the art of dying and how rhetorical devices in these texts aimed to alter believers' experiences of pain. Mayhew's study points to a third recurring thread in this volume: religious interpretations of pain. Contributors assess Catholic as well as Protestant understandings of pain spanning the early modern period. Maria Berara examines representations of ecstatic pain in artistic renderings of Teresa of Avila; Patrick Vandermeersch studies shifts in the history of flagellation; and Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen analyzes conceptions of Christ's pain in Protestant and Catholic theology.

This book illustrates the numerous disciplines invested in defining the meaning of pain in early modern Europe, including philosophy, law, theology, and ethics. Yet the volume barely touches on one dimension of pain that is certainly of interest to readers of this journal: medicine. The editors acknowledge this oversight in the introduction, justifying the omission with the claim that early modern medical authors showed "limited conceptual interest" in the subject [End Page 138] (p. 6). Despite the little theorizing about pain in learned medical treatises from the period, pain occupies an important place in the history of medicine, patients, surgery, and childbirth. Pain accompanied the majority of early modern ailments and provided a key means by which medical practitioners made diagnoses and evaluated recovery. The absence of work on pain within an early modern medical context is striking.

The majority of the articles also focus on textual representations of pain rather than perceptions and responses to suffering. The reader learns about the multiple and significant constructions of pain in early modern art, devotional texts, and literature but gains little sense of how these discourses actually shaped the thoughts and behaviors of sufferers themselves. A notable exception is Emese Bálint's study of a sixteenth-century Hungarian poisoning trial, which examines the influences of popular medical knowledge on witnesses' interpretations of pain. Despite these small criticisms, the book as a whole provides a valuable contribution to the history of pain and illustrates the range of sources available for studying this important aspect of early modern culture.

Olivia Weisser
Princeton University


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