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       © John R. Yamamoto-Wilson, Pain, Pleasure and Perversity: Discourses of Suffering in Seventeenth-Century England (Ashgate, 2013)

How we got here

As an early modernist, my main area of interest is Protestant editions, adaptations and translations of Catholic literature in early modern England. For a couple of (relatively) recent papers on the subject, see "The Protestant Reception of Catholic Devotional Literature in England to 1700" (Recusant History, Vol. 32, No. 1 (2014), pp. 67-89; open-access version here), and "Robert Persons’s Resolution (1582) and the issue of textual piracy in Protestant editions of Catholic devotional literature" (Reformation and Renaissance Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, 2013, pp. 177-98; open-access version here).

There are several ways in which Protestant editions of Catholic works may differ from the original Catholic text. Obvious references to Catholicism will often have been removed, or words like "adversary" and "Catholic" may be interpreted differently. But one of the most striking uses of Catholic texts by Protestants was simply to reproduce the text as is, with the comment that, without any alteration or emendation of any kind, it is manifestly absurd.

This method of condemning the Catholics out of their own mouth is exemplified by John Smith's edition of Puccini's life of Magdalena de' Pazzi, which I discuss at some length in
“'O That Mine Adversary Had Written a Book!' Translations of Catholic Literature and the Eroticization of Pain in Seventeenth-Century England” (Translation and Literature, vol. 20, no. 2, 2011, pp. 175–190; open-access version here). It is curious that Smith focuses on the "extravagant inventions of Miracles and Apparitions" described in this work, and makes no mention of the bondage, flagellation and other penances and humiliations with which the text is liberally peppered, but it did get me thinking about the different ways in which Catholics and Protestants conceived of and processed suffering.

Other texts - notably Rycault's translation of Baltazar Gracián’s El Criticón, and numerous Protestant editions across Europe of Saint Jerome's Life of Saint Paul the Hermit - made it clear that there was a systematic difference between the way religious suffering was presented to Catholic readers and the way in which it was edited for Protestant consumption. To put it very baldly, sexually-charged descriptions of a woman who captivates and enthrals and inveigles victims into complicity in their own humiliation (
Gracián), or of a prostitute who mocks a young man’s chastity by stimulating an erection while he is lying bound to a feather bed (Jerome), which functioned well enough in Catholic devotional literature of the time, simply had no place in Protestant religious discourse, any more than did the extreme penances of some of the Catholic aspirants to sainthood, such as de' Pazzi.

And so the idea was sown; I would write a book on early modern attitudes towards suffering. I was fortunate enough to obtain a year-long sabbatical in 2011-12, and spent pretty much the entire time in the Rare Books Room in Cambridge University Library. The book came out in 2013 and is available on Amazon. I've also posted further thoughts, updates and related matters to a blog.

If you want to get a general sense of how Protestants made use of Catholic literature, here is a short series of videos of a presentation I made at the Reformation Studies Colloquium, Edmund Murray College, University of Cambridge, September 12, 2014.