on 18 June 2013
Yamamoto-Wilson's scholarly and fascinating work deals with that most troubling and elusive of subjects: pain, and the ways that human beings have coped with it, thought about it, and indeed, inflicted it on others, over successive centuries. Because although - as the subtitle indicates - this study's main concern is with the seventeenth century, the author considers his subject from an unashamedly twenty-first century perspective, that is to say, a post-Freudian one, which draws parallels between some of the behaviour documented here and that described in much later accounts, such as Sacher-Masoch's seminal novel about a sado-masochistic relationship, Venus in Furs. And it is hard not to read Yamamoto-Wilson's meticulously researched chronicle of the self-inflicted punishments - whippings, hair-shirt wearings - indulged in by what would seem to have been a surprisingly large number of devout individuals in the seventeenth century, as a form of perverse sexual gratification; the book in fact makes this connection explicit.
Of course, not all the pain (or pleasure) described here is of the self-administered variety. Torments of quite remarkable ingenuity were routinely applied by State and Church in order to control the unruly. These, too, are documented here: this is not a book for the squeamish. Central to its argument is a distinction the author draws between Catholic and Protestant attitudes to suffering, with the concept of martyrdom as a route to sainthood being, one might infer, an essential part of pre-Reformation tradition, whereas by the mid-seventeenth century, a certain unease at the notion of self-mortification as synonymous with sanctity, is apparent from contemporary accounts - most of them, it has to be said, anti-Catholic in tone. All this is authoritatively argued, with recourse to a wide range of material, some of it scurrilous; in deprecating the alleged excesses of Catholic saints, seventeenth century Protestant commentaries often verged on the pornographic.
Having dealt at length with the relationship between religion and suffering, Yamamoto-Wilson then moves on to what - for this reader at least - seems the most interesting part of his book, which is an analysis of the changing role of women in 'early modern' discourse about pain and pleasure. Traditional concepts of female submissiveness and stoicism in the face of suffering are here subverted by the notion - popularised through the conventions of courtly love - of female 'cruelty'. From this time on, the author argues, the language of love became inextricably entwined with the language of suffering, and the way was paved for the emergence of all the cruel mistresses, femme fatales and Venuses in furs with which modern literature, and society, has become all-too familiar. The final chapter, entitled 'The Emergence of the Dominatrix', offers a beguiling, post-Freudian textual analysis of a notorious passage in the writings of St Jerome. Having read it, and the chapters leading up to it, in this absorbing and thoughtful history of human society's 'special relationship' to pain, one can never regard devotional literature - or indeed, any literature - in quite the same way again.