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Logo of medhistThe Wellcome Trust Centre of the History of Medicine (UCL)Medical History
Med Hist. 2010 April; 54(2): 279–280.
PMCID: PMC2844287

Book Review

The sense of suffering: constructions of physical pain in early modern culture
Reviewed by Hannah Newton

Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen and  Karl A E Enenkel (eds),  The sense of suffering: constructions of physical pain in early modern culture, Intersections, Yearbook for Early Modern Studies, Leiden and Boston, Brill,  2009, pp.  xxiii, 501, [euro]99.00, $148.00 (hardback  978-90-04-17247-0). 

The sense of suffering is a fascinating study of the perception and experience of physical pain in early modern England and Europe. It contains seventeen chapters written by scholars from a range of academic backgrounds, including history, art history, literary criticism, philosophy, psychology, and law.

The book is groundbreaking in four respects. Firstly, it focuses specifically on early modern pain. Previous histories of pain, such as Roselyn Rey’s The history of pain (1993), have tended to take broad sweeps of history from ancient times to the present day. Secondly, the book does not confine itself to just one or two contexts in which pain was present, such as torture or surgery, but instead examines suffering in a variety of arenas, including politics, law, art, literature, medicine, religion, philosophy, and education. Thirdly, whereas many scholars have explored the history of emotional pain, including grief, fear, and jealousy, very few have concentrated on the subject of physical pain. The editors of The sense of suffering believe that this is a consequence of today’s preoccupation with mental suffering, and assert that “Early modern perceptions of pain frequently work in precisely the opposite direction: they invoke the physicality of pain to invest other, non-bodily categories of experience with the authority and palpable reality of bodily sensation” (p. 6). Finally, the volume focuses on the experiences of sufferers as well as the views of those inflicting pain or debating the meanings of pain. Consequently, The sense of suffering is perhaps the most ambitious of all existing studies of pain: its authors believe that it is possible to access the experience as well as the meanings of pain.

A central theme throughout the book is the intimate relationship between the early modern mind and body, and between physical and emotional suffering. As the editors state in the introduction, “Pain … confronts us with basic questions about the relation between body and mind, and challenges common-sense dualist assumptions about the nature of physical and mental experience” (p. 1). This thesis is upheld by many of the authors. Michael Schoenfeldt, in his chapter on pain management in medicine, states that early modern people “did not make a hard and fast distinction between physical and emotional pain”, as demonstrated by the fact that “the vocabularies of suffering continue to migrate between these two realms that for us designate quite separate phenomena” (p. 29).

The authors of The sense of suffering argue that during the early modern period, physical pain was viewed in strikingly ambivalent terms. Unlike today, suffering could be “profitable in itself” (p. 191) as well as an unpleasant, undesirable experience. In the context of law and torture, Jetze Touber shows that pain was thought to be a useful means through which the truth could be accessed. Similarly, in medicine, painful treatments were considered helpful for distracting the patient from “the primary pain” of the illness itself (p. 32). Pain could also be positive in the context of religion: Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen and Jenny Mayhew both assert that godly Protestants hoped that pain and illness would improve the health of their souls by inspiring them to repent of their sins, and empathize with the sufferings of Christ on the cross. Likewise, in the field of education, Anita Traninger suggests that pain was regarded as a “helpmeet to learning and memorising”: the blow of the cane embossed the abstract subject matter on the pupil’s memory (p. 53).

One feels that the editors of The sense of suffering could have been more forthright about the originality of the volume and its contribution to the historiography of pain, medicine and other historical fields. It would have been helpful to the reader if the introduction had included a review of the existing literature on pain. The book would also have benefited from having a conclusion, to draw out the key arguments and themes of the contributions. These shortcomings, however, are minor when one considers the ambition, breadth, and erudition embodied in The sense of suffering.

Articles from Medical History are provided here courtesy of Cambridge University Press