An 18th century caricature using a devil figure to illustrate the pain and inflammation caused by gout. In the middle ages pain was seen as a lesson from God. (James Gillray (1756-1815)/ Getty Images)
‘Pain is Ageless’ and UK historian Joanna Bourke has just released The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers. She recently spoke with Antony Funnell about suffering and its social and historical context.
At its most basic, pain is an early warning system. It signals danger—that something is wrong—but it can also be a pleasure.
Many of us devour chilli not just because of the flavour it imparts, but because of the way it makes us feel—that tingling, burning feeling that’s all too addictive.
There is pleasure also in the infliction and receipt of pain, and not just for those who dwell in the darker corners of society. Witness the phenomenal mainstream success of books like Fifty Shades of Grey.
The amount of pain that we feel is really very, very dependent on a lot of external circumstances. It’s influenced by everything around us.
Pain has also been an instrument of authority.
The hanging, drawing and quartering of traitors in 14th century England had little to do with justice. A simple blade would have sufficed.
Such punishments were about making a public display of pain to reiterate the power of the state, indeed the power of the monarch, over human life itself.
That developed nations no longer use pain in this way (even in the United States executions are at least intended to be quick and surgical) speaks to the fact that our relationship with pain is subject to social mores, to fashion over time—that it is imbued with historical context.