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'O that mine Adversary had written a Book!' Translations of Catholic Literature and the Eroticization of Pain in Seventeenth-Century England

  • Sophia University (retired)


This paper sets out to illustrate how Catholic literature of this period attempted to perpetuate medieval attitudes towards suffering, and demonstrate the tensions caused by translations of such literature into English. Catholic translations (such as the 1611 edition of Vicenzo Puccini's biography of Magdalena de Pazzi) contained representations of exemplary suffering, albeit with a certain sense of unease and defensiveness, while for Protestant translators (such as Paul Rycaut, translator of Baltasar Gracián's El Criticón) Catholic portrayals of suffering could not function, in English, as in any way morally edifying and are presented as simply perverse, if not actually perverted.
O that mine Adversary had Written a Book!’
Translations of Catholic Literature and the
Eroticisation of Pain in Seventeenth-Century England
John R. Yamamoto-Wilson
...havia una muy desagradable entre todas, que quantos atava, se mordian las manos,
bocadeandose las carnes, hasta roerse las entrañas: atormentavalos a estos con lo que
otros se holgavan, y de la agena gloria hazian infierno. Otra havia vizarramente furiosa,
que apretava los cordeles hasta sacar sangre...1
...what made a Tragedy of these comick Scenes, was one who wounded the hands of
those she bound, devouring, and gnawing their Bowels, making their torments the delight
of others, and Hell and the Wrack, a Paradise and Glory of their Enemies. Another there
was so prittily furious, that she strained the Cord until the Bloud started forth...2
In the Tenth Crisis of the first part of Baltazar Gracián’s El Criticón,
Andrenio, who has been raised on a deserted island, and Critilo, who
accompanies and instructs him on a journey through Europe, encounter a
large number of men and women ‘bound and mannacled’ (Rycault, p. 181).
Thinking at first that these are the victims of common thieves, they look
about for a means of escape, but soon come upon Volusia, the leader of the
assailants, ‘a beautiful Woman, not rude, and unfashioned, but of a courtly
behaviour, affable, and courteous’:
Her Forehead was more smooth, then serene; she looked on none with an ill eye, and yet
all were enchanted with her bewitching emissions; her Nostrils were white...her Cheeks
were Roses without Thorns, her Teeth when she smiled and laughed at the world shewed
like so many rows of Pearl, or Ivory. The Knots she tied with such air, and negligence,
that her dexterity and art appeared pleasant, and her very sight was enough to captivate…
(pp. 183-4)
Accompanying her is ‘a flying Squadron of Amazons’ (p. 184), whose
victims are so willing that many of them bring their own chains, and some
are bound with objects symbolising their desires one man is tied with a
lock of golden hair, while women are generally ‘bound with Threads of
Pearl, with Bracelets of Coral, and embroidered Ribons’ (p. 185).
Andrenio and Critilo have no choice but to be bound like the rest,
Andrenio with flowers (Gracián, p. 208) and the wise Critilo with the
strings of some ‘antient and Oraculous Volumes’ (Rycaut, p. 186; Rycaut’s
translation mistakenly dispenses with the flowers and has them both tied to
each other by these strings), whereupon they are led with the other captives
in a triumphal march to a place described as an inn, so called, Gracián says,
because nothing is free and everything is temporary; ‘todo es de passo’
(Gracián, p. 209). Andrenio enters by one of the magnificent portals, but
Critilo, having learned never to begin anything until he can see how it ends,
goes round to the back of the building – ‘Dio la buelta a la casa’ – and sees
that, behind its facade, it is a vile dilapidated ruin (Gracián, pp. 212-13).
Once again, Rycaut mistranslates, having him turn around and face the
building again, upon which it reveals its true nature (p. 190). Critilo also
sees the discarded victims being thrown out of the windows onto thorn
bushes below (p. 190). Only one emerges from a doorway, a man whom
Critilo recognises as a former acquaintance, who teaches him that the way
to escape this captivity is quite simply to wish to be free of it. When Critilo
realises this, his bonds fall away, but he has to wait some years for his
friend Andrenio to emerge (pp. 191-192).
In Spanish the entire passage can be read purely as an allegorical
exposition of the false allure of earthly pleasures, a kind of Catholic
counterpart to Christian and Faithful’s passage through Vanity Fair.3
However, it is doubtful whether the translation can be – or was intended to
be – read in the same way. Rycaut was a diplomat, an author and an expert
in the history and culture of Turkey, where he spent several years, but he
was no theologian and, while he asserts that the subject of the work is
‘morality’ (sig. A2v; epistle dedicatory), his interest in translating El
Criticón seems to stem more from its stylistic affinities with Middle
Eastern literature than with the ‘Vertue, & Morality’ (sig. A6r; epistle to the
reader) of the subject matter:
...the Spaniards, who for the space of 600 years had the same Country and Manners with
Moors, easily received their Fashions, Learning, Proverbs, and every thing but their
Religion: So that as their Customs and way of living are different to other Nations of
Europe, and most resemble that of the Eastern Countries; so their way of writing in
Dialogues and Novels is much after that manner, and is as well pleasant and diverting in
it self, as it is curious to us, who follow another form, and manner in all our Books, and
Treatises of Philosophy. (sigs. A8r-v; epistle to the reader)
As is so often the case during the seventeenth and early eighteenth
centuries, the pleasures of prose narrative slip in under the cloak of an
ostensible philosophical or moral purpose and, while such a purpose may
have been foremost in Gracián’s mind and in the reception of his work in
Spanish, it comes across as secondary in the translation.
Rycaut was not that good a translator (I have already pointed out a
couple of places where he went astray), and it may possibly be accidental
that, in embellishing the extract at the head of this article (the expression
‘what made a Tragedy of these comick Scenes’ does not correspond to
anything in the Spanish), he omits the description of one of the
tormentresses as ‘desagradable’ (‘disagreeable’); but it was not through any
shortcomings in his knowledge of Spanish that he came to render
‘vizarramente furiosa’ (‘bizzarely furious’) as ‘prittily furious’. This is
clearly a conscious deviation from Gracián’s Spanish, adding a layer of
erotic implication that is lacking in the original. Overall, however,
Gracián’s text is just as erotically charged as Rycaut’s translation and, on
occasion, even more so. For example, when the two travellers first come
upon the bound and wounded victims and Critilo is wondering aloud who
is responsible for having treated them thus, Volusia introduces herself by
calling out, ‘Ya voy’ (Gracián, p. 205; literally, ‘I’m just coming’, but with
some of the illocutionary force of ‘I’ll be with you in a moment’), adding,
‘agardaos mientras acabo de atar estos dos presumidos, que llegaron antes’
(‘hold on while I finish tying up these two blowhards who got here before
you’). Volusia’s nonchalant way of going about her business, and her
assumption that Critilo is calling for her to bind him and his friend in the
same way as the other victims are thus lost in Rycaut’s much tamer version,
which reads simply, ‘Hold, I go: and having newly bound two confident
Presumers...’ (p. 183).
Clearly, Gracián knew very well how to lace the text with erotic
nuance. Even his description of Volusia on her first appearance as una
gallarda hembra’ (p. 205; again, this is missing from Rycaut’s translation) is
extremely subtle and finely-balanced, with the word ‘gallarda’ covering a
huge semantic range, from ‘graceful’ and ‘elegant’ through ‘valiant’ and
‘noble’ to ‘high-spirited’ and ‘lively’, and the choice of ‘hembra’
(‘female’), defines her more explicitly in terms of her sexual identity than
‘mujer’ (‘woman’) would have done. The essential difference between the
Spanish text and its English translation hinges, not on the extent to which
the writer and translator respectively exploit the erotic potential of the
situation described, but on the way that Gracián at a certain point drops all
the ironic incongruities of willing victims, beguiling tormentresses and the
like, and simply goes behind the facade; while Gracián’s Critilo observes
the discarded victims being flung out of the windows ‘con no poco espanto’
(p. 213; ‘with some consternation’, or, ‘with a considerable sense of
shock’), Rycaut’s looks on ‘with much admiration’ (p. 190). Of course,
‘astonishment’ and ‘wonderment’ were still the main senses of this word in
the seventeenth century, but ‘esteem’ and ‘approval’ ostensibly of the
moral lesson to be learned – are clearly part of the intended meaning.
The point is that what Gracián is describing is ‘bizarre’ and
‘disagreeable’ and ‘shocking’, and the moment comes when, in making his
moral point, he needs to say so. For Rycaut, however, to whom the moral
point is secondary to, or – perhaps more accuratelymerely an excuse for
the narrative, that moment never comes, and those parts of the text are
replaced in the translation by further ironic incongruities, which serve to
perpetuate the perverse or erotic flavour of the material. Whereas the
depictions of the sheer nastiness that lies behind the enticing facade serve
as a warning to the reader in the Spanish, in the English translation they are
simply a continuation of the voyeuristic pleasure of the spectacle of
The central point of the present paper is that this fundamental
difference between the two texts is not accidental but inevitable. Perhaps
Montaigne’s denunciation in his essay ‘De la Cruautéhalf a century
earlier of torturing and butchering human beings (and, indeed, animals)
purely for (as Florio has it in the English translation) the ‘pleasing
spectacle’ of seeing them suffer was a turning point for European culture as
a whole, and particularly for Protestant Europe.4 Of course, that is not to
say that this was an established norm of society – animal baiting and public
executions were still regarded by many as edifying spectacles but taking
pleasure in suffering was on its way to being regarded as perverse, if not
actually a perversion. As I shall illustrate, there were theological reasons
behind this. The Protestants were just as averse to the prodigious penances
of Catholic saints as to their miracles and visionary raptures, and ultimately
it is this aversion that underpins Rycaut’s observation that Gracián’s
narrative is alien to English readers (sigs. A8r-v, epistle to the reader, cited
above). These pages argue that, by about the middle of the seventeenth
century, it was impossible for narrative of this kind to work at the level of
moral edification or as religious or philosophical discourse in English, and
so it becomes transformed, not into the pornographic discourse of
sadomasochism, which did not emerge until a later period, but into a
transitional discourse, akin on the one hand to that of the picaresque novel,
in which the portrayal of wickedness is legitimated by the avowal of a
moral purpose (the picaro’s ‘exemplary evil’ is a model of what not to
emulate) and, on the other, to factual accounts of delinquency and its
punishment under the law, in which, again, the relish with which such tales
were told is overlaid by moral righteousness.
Translations into English of the lives of Catholic saints show – partly
from the choice of words used by the translators and partly from comments
made on these works made by translators (and by commentators on
translations, such as Toby Matthews) the gulf between the attitudes
towards suffering, penance and humiliation in the Catholic south of Europe
and the attitudes engendered by Protestantism in the north. In addition to
Alonso de Villegas’ Lives of the Saints, which went into ten editions from
1609 to 1638, there were several translations of the lives of individual
saints published in the first quarter of the sixteenth century, notably
Raymond of Capua’s The Life of the Blessed Virgin, Sainct Catharine of
Siena and Saint Bonaventura’s The Life of the Holie Father S. Francis
(Douai, 1610).5 Also relevant to the discussion are Vicenzo Puccini, The
Life of the Holy and Venerable Mother Suor Maria Maddalena de Patsi6
and Antonio Daza, The Historie, Life, and Miracles, Extasies and
Revelations of the Blessed Virgin, Sister Joane, of the Crosse.7
As Jan Rhodes says, biographies such as these were intended to be ‘a
self-perpetuating genre’, with the readers themselves aspiring to emulate
the exemplary lives described in their pages.8 Hence, it is not surprising to
find similarities in some of these accounts; just as, for example, Catherine
of Siena, as a child, hides away to inflict pain on herself – ‘she sought out a
privie place in the howse, where she might scourge her selfe with a cord,
which she had provided for that purpose’9 so too does Magdalena de
Pazzi; ‘in the most secret places of the house, she wold be disciplining of
her selfe’ (Matthew, p. 9). Sister Joan, too, mortified her flesh in secret as a
child (Daza, pp. 20-21), and all three fought against the wishes and advice
of their family in their insistence on taking the veil. These biographies
seamlessly depict their subjects mortifying themselves, embracing
humiliation and beatings, be it at their own hands, those of their fellow
religious, or even at the hands of robbers and villains (as, for example,
Bonaventura, pp. 14-15), kissing the infected sores of lepers and
encouraging others to follow suit with a fervour that was as alien to
Protestants of the period as it is to most people of whatever persuasion
At the same time, however, there are significant differences, both
between the subject matter of these accounts and the reactions of Catholic
translators to that subject matter. Villegas’s work encompasses the saints
commemorated in the calendar, that is, those belonging to pre-Reformation
tradition, and Raymond of Capua’s life of Saint Catherine and
Bonaventura’s life of Saint Francis belong to that same tradition. As
Rhodes puts it, ‘the chronicle style kept the reader at a distance’ (p. 14)
and, while the seventeenth century Catholic reader of such accounts could
no doubt perceive them as wholly admirable, they were outside and above
everyday life. Although the intent may have been to inspire emulation, the
descriptions of the exploits of the saints are so extreme (or idealised,
depending on one’s point of view) that, however they might strive,
aspirants could scarcely expect to be more than the pale shadows of such
heroic models. The sufferings of Saint Catherine, for example, appear to be
more in the realms of legend than anything to which even a devout Catholic
of the period might aspire to emulate in actuality:
…in two daies & two nightes she would allowe no more but one halfe hower to sleepe:
the which halfe hower also she would never take, but when very feeblenes of bodie
constreined her. (Raymond, p. 53)
This holie virgin...used for a long space to beate her selfe, three tymes every daie with a
chaine of yron...Being demaunded on a tyme of her ghostlie Father, how, and after what
maner she did that penance, she answered with great bashfulnes, that for everie tyme she
tooke an hower and a halfe, and beat her selfe so, that the blood tricled downe from her
shoulders to her feet. (p. 56)
The subtext to passages like these is not that readers might hope to attain
such exalted levels of sanctity themselves (though they might strive to), but
that they should be brought by such accounts to believe that, before the
Reformation cut spiritual giants down to size, there had been an age of
miraculous and heroic feats, a golden age, in which Catholic doctrine ruled
unchallenged. The suffering, along with the visions and miracles which
characterise these texts, belongs to another world from that in which the
readers lived.
This distancing of the subject matter affects the way in which the
translators and editors of these works presented the material; as Rhodes
says, ‘Recusants felt it necessary to explain and defend what before the
reformation was taken for granted’ (p. 11), but these accounts represented –
should Protestants choose to accept it as such a common ground; their
ancestors had inhabited this territory just as the ancestors of the Catholics
had. Hence the sufferings of these saints have a double legitimacy,
enshrined in antiquity and revered by the ancestors of Catholics and
Protestants alike.
By contrast, the biographies of Sister Joan (early sixteenth century)
and, especially, Magdalena de Pazzi (1556-1607) represent the continuance
of the medieval tradition, with its miracles and prodigious acts of penance,
in the post-Reformation world. These accounts are not shrouded in the
mists of time; they tell of recent events real lives with vividness and
immediacy, as the following passage from the life of Magdalena de Pazzi
clearly, and rather disturbingly, illustrates:
...she would often kisse the feet of all the Religious. Sometimes with her handes bound
behind her, she severally of them all asked pardon for her defects. At other times, in the
presence of them all she was disciplined by Mother Prioresse; and sometymes by some
other of the Religious. Very often being at table in the Refectory, she was called by her
Superiour with a loud voyce, and commanded to go round about, by the Religious, with a
basket begging a bit of bread…and then commanded to sit upon the ground, and so eate
the bread which she had begged. At other tymes she was made to prostrate upon the
ground, and all the Religious did passe over her. And once, being in the Quire with the
rest, she was caused to be bound to a post with her handes behind her…Another tyme,
retyiring into the Quire, she tooke a great Rope with which she caused her handes to be
bound behind her, and she made her selfe to be hoodwinked, and so to be tyed to the
grate of the Altar, to the end that the Religious who were to passe that way, might be
moved therby to vilify & laugh at her…and she being asked by the Prioresse, upon what
reason she had done that act, she answered that she had done it to become thereby more
humble…She prayed her also with fervent tears, that she would be pleased to bid the
Religious that…they should say such wordes to her as these, whereby to vilify her so
much the more: Suor Maria Maddalena, this is come upon you for your defects…The
Mother Prioresse satisfyed her desire heerin; and therupon Suor Maria Maddalena
demanded pardon of them all with so great humility, that there was none of them who
found not her selfe tenderly affected with it; and having continued for the space of an
houre in this Mortification, she was loosed at last by Mother Prioresse, not without
extraordinary edification…and she understood from her Lord, how that act of humility
had beene gratefull to him. (Matthew, pp. 140-142)
The translators and editors of these accounts could not present them as part
of a common Catholic/Protestant heritage and there is a distinct change of
tone, with Tobie Matthew, in the preface to Puccini’s work, clearly on the
defensive, urging the reader not to ‘deride it, because only it is strang[e]…
or because it is ridiculous in his opinion’ (sig. **5v).10 As Rhodes notes,
Matthew warns his readers not to imitate Magdalena de Pazzi, but to take
the advice of a minister of the church, while Francis Bell gives what
Rhodes calls ‘careful, rather defensive explanations’ of the details of Sister
Joan’s life (p. 15), and seems to be particularly worried that the work may
not come across well in translation:
If any shall censure the Translation, as savouring of too rude a language, in this I humbly
pray pardon me...from seeking to please the itching vaine of any, with worldly principall care having beene employed, faithfully to translate the booke
in a plaine and homely language... (in Daza, sig. *3r; epistle dedicatory; roman for italic).
It is in these post-Reformation accounts, rather than in those of the
medieval saints, that a sense of unease with the subject matter begins to
creep in. While Bell’s comment here is of interest, implying as it does an
awareness that the text may come across less acceptably in English
translation than in the original Spanish, of these two accounts the
translation of, and preface to, the life of Magdalena de Pazzi offers the
more significant insights, and it is on this that I will focus in the following
Tobie Matthew was not, apparently, the translator of Patsi. It is, he says in
the epistle dedicatory, ‘another mans goods’ (sig. *4r), which he was asked
to publish by ‘a dying Freind’ (sig. *3r). Indeed, his name does not appear
anywhere in the book, and it is on stylistic grounds that the epistle
dedicatory and preface are attributed to him.11 Curiously, the preface
contains several details – that Pazzi wore ‘the same single thin coate, in all
the rigorous seasons of the yeare’, and ‘a girdle sometymes next her skin,
all imbrodered as it were with sharp iron nayles’ (sig. ****8r), and ‘would,
for the overcoming of a temptation, tumble naked in a bed of thorns’ (sig.
****8v) which are not to be found in the text itself, though they are all
mentioned in Daza’s Joane, which did not appear in English until several
years later, but which Matthew may very well have read in the original
Spanish, in which he was fluent. It is also only from Matthew’s preface,
and not from the text of the translation itself, that the reader learns of
Pazzi’s ‘excellent beauty’ and ‘illustrious extraction’ (sig. *7v), features
which are not strictly pertinent to the doctrinal message of the text, but
which have been increasingly emphasised in later accounts, until her beauty
and nobility have become inextricably interwoven with the austerity of her
The text itself comes across as a more or less pure example of Catholic
discourse, with little attempt to make concessions to a Protestant
readership. Partly, this is a consequence of using cognates, even when these
have negative connotations in English. For instance, where the Italian
describes Pazzi’s self-imposed mortifications as ‘tutti repugnanti al
senso’,12 the translator gives ‘altogeather repugnant to Sense’ (Matthew, p.
10). Of course, in the seventeenth century the word ‘repugnant’ meant
‘contrary’ or ‘antagonistic’, and only gradually acquired the sense of
‘loathsome’ or ‘repulsive’ (OED), but even so it tended to have a negative
implicature, which could have been avoided by a more neutral word, such
as ‘contrary’. Again, where Puccini writes ‘eccessivo fervore’ (p. 4), the
English gives ‘excessive fervour(Matthew, p. 11). The wordexcessive’
has strongly negative associations (‘Transgressing the bounds of law,
decency, or morality; outrageous, lawless, wrongful’, OED), which could
have been avoided by translating ‘eccessivo’ assurpassing’, for example,
or ‘exceedingly great’. And throughout the text Pazzi’s ‘eccessos’ are
described as ‘excesses’, when ‘ecstacies’ would have been equally
acceptable in seventeenth century usage and less provocative to a
Protestant English reader,13 just as ‘extraordinary ardour’ and ‘disengaged
from her senses’ would have been less loaded translations of ‘veemenza
straordinaria’ and ‘alienate da’sensi’ (Puccini, pp. 27 and 33) than
‘extraordinary vehemency’ and ‘alienated from her senses’ (Matthew, pp.
72 and. 89).
It is possible that the translator has used cognate words and
expressions out of laziness or a lack of knowledge or imagination. On the
other hand, though, he occasionally rejects them when it suits his rhetorical
purpose to do so, as when, in another context, he uses the word
‘repugnance’ in a way that approaches quite closely its modern meaning.
When Pazzi embarks on a diet of bread and water he says, ‘although she
felt great repugnance thus to lead a particuler life against the common use,
yet nevertheless did she go through with it, as knowing that the will of her
God was such’ (Matthew, pp. 36-37); and yet the expression ‘great
repugnance’ is, in the original Italian, ‘non poco disgusto’ (Puccini, 11).
Perhaps the lexical choices illustrated in the previous paragraph are part of
a conscious attempt to emphasise the catholicity of the text.
In contrast with the text itself, Matthew’s preface takes specific
cognizance of a Protestant readership. From Matthew’s perspective, the
Protestant worldview signals a rejection of the message of Christ and a
return to Old Testament values, a point which he makes by arguing that
what we might call the commonsense values of the Old Testament
‘Riches, Plenty, Posterity, and the like’ were ‘degraded’ by the life and
example of Christ, and replaced by ‘their contraryes, [such] as Paine,
Poverty, Persecution, Chastity, and Humility’ (sig. ***3v). These, for
Matthew, are the true Christian virtues. By contrasting lexical items in this
way, Matthew effectively highlights differences between Protestant and
Catholic discourse. Taking these together with the lexis of the text which,
following the Italian, uses words like ‘repugnant’ and ‘excessive’ in a
positive sense, one begins to become aware of the way in which the
Protestant and Catholic discourse communities are divided by the
connotations of certain key words. Of course, in listing ‘Paine, Poverty,
Persecution, Chastity, and Humility’ Matthew merely picks out a few
representative terms; many others ‘suffering’, ‘humiliation’,
‘mortification’, ‘contempt’, ‘flagellation’ and so forth could be added.
Taken in their totality, these words represent the monastic values of a
millennium of Christian tradition on which Protestants effectively turned
their backs, claiming it to be a perversion of the teachings of Christ. This
rejection of monastic values leads, in turn, to a stigmatization of the
language associated with these values, until it reaches a stage where it
becomes hard to imagine a context for passages such as the ones we have
been considering in this paper except within the realms of pornographic
(specifically, sadomasochistic) literature.
Altogether, the explicit awareness of Protestant antagonism shown by
Matthew in the preface and the uncompromising lexis of the translation
itself, add up to something irreconcilable. The seventeenth century reader
had either to respond to the text in the way that the author, translator and
commentator intended, or react decisively against it. There was scarcely a
middle way and, whatever Matthew may have thought, the book seems
unlikely to have won many converts. As far as I am aware, no copies were
actually inscribed with the words, O that mine adversary had written a
book!’ (it is the British Library copy of Daza’s work which claims this
honour, written in an early hand – presumably by a frustrated Catholic – on
the front endpaper), but there is a feeling that, in publishing works of this
kind, Catholics were their own worst enemy; the attempt to perpetuate the
medieval view of suffering could not stand up in the face of the radically
different values of Protestantism.
That this chasm between the Catholic and Protestant worldviews
consolidated itself and widened during the course of the seventeenth
century can be inferred from a second translation of Pazzi’s life, published
towards the end of the seventeenth century.14 Here the suspicion that these
lives of the saints were counterproductive to the Catholic cause is
transformed into hard reality; apart from the long preface and even longer
appended discourse, the translator leaves the text to speak for itself, not in
the Catholic cause, but to expose that cause as, from the translator’s point
of view, palpable nonsense. The text is presented in condemnation of itself,
testimony to the fact that ‘the Roman Church…gives way to the wildest
Enthusiasm imaginable’ (Smith, p. 1; preface) and ‘for this we need only to
appeal to the lives of some of their famous Saints, not as they are set out by
the idle monks long before the Reformation…but as they are now
published’ (pp. 1-2). Smith concedes that ‘out of a principle of shame’ the
Catholics ‘have cast out several idle stories…and are grown more wary in
their Narratives, and run not into those extravagant inventions of Miracles
and Apparitions, which would meet with no other entertainment at this
time, but contempt and derision’ but, he goes on, ‘being used to the trade so
long, they cannot wholly give it over, it having been and is still so
advantageous, where they have to deal with persons of an easie nature’ (p.
2). These contrary tendencies of seventeenth century Catholicism on the
one hand to modify itself in response to Protestant perceptions and on the
other to harden its stance in opposition – are reflected in the fates of Sister
Joan, who was bypassed for sainthood and slipped quietly into oblivion,
and Magdalena de Pazzi, who was subsequently canonised and is revered
among Catholics to this day.
It is curious, in a way, that this Protestant translator of Pazzi’s life
makes no particular mention of the bondage, flagellation and other
penances and humiliations interspersed throughout the text, but instead
focuses on the ‘extravagant inventions of Miracles and Apparitions’. Yet
this would appear to be typical. These are the same features of Catholic
lives of the saints that Rhodes identifies; she speaks of ‘the constant
awareness of hostile Protestant critics, and a tendency to explain and justify
the cult of the saints in general, or aspects of a particular saint’s life,
especially miracles and visions’ (p. 17), and does not address the question
of what was, precisely, the status of attitudes towards pain and suffering
during this period.
Modern response can hardly avoid the topic. Although Catholic
scholars tend to downplay it, the enactment of suffering is, even from a
Catholic point of view, of central importance. E. Anne Matter, for example,
crediting Antonio Riccardi with the view that ‘the discourses of Maria
Maddalena de’ Pazzi, precisely because of their performative theatricality,
give important testimony to the role of language and body in early modern
Catholic piety’, adds:
This interpretation places Maria Maddalena’s language in the middle of the sixteenth-
century Catholic struggle with the “Babel” of Protestantism, a quest for authenticity in
spiritual language in which the wounds of Christ are increasingly incorporated into
mystical discourse.15
Rhodes herself notes only that Sister Joan betrays a ‘certain exhibitionism’
and expresses her ‘uncomfortable feeling that God is sometimes being
manipulated by Sister Joan’, as well as finding a similar ‘tendency to
excess’ in Magdalena de Pazzi (p. 17), which seems a rather restrained
comment for a saint who earned for herself an entire chapter (subtitled ‘She
who got slapped’) in a book entitled Very Peculiar People.16 Dingwall, the
author of this work, describes Pazzi much more trenchantly as ‘a confirmed
neurotic with pronounced symptoms’ (p. 121) and ‘a classic example of the
female flagellant and masochistic exhibitionist with now and then, as might
be expected, a slight sadistic streak’ (p. 127).17
However, there seems to have been surprisingly little awareness or
discussion of the issue in the seventeenth century. Tobie Matthew is one of
the few who discuss it at all, and he does so purely in theological terms:
How many painefull disciplines, rude hairecloaths, hungry meales, sad nights, bitter
sighs and salt teares, did she [i.e., Pazzi] with a noble & faythfull hart endure, send forth,
and shed? And all in vaine, if it should be true which Protestants affirme, that fayth only
justifyeth, that Christ hath so suffered for us all, as we are not bound in our bodyes to
suffer with him, that these voluntary afflictions are no better then superstitions… (sig.
***2v; preface)
This is actually a very significant argument; if the theological justification
for suffering is undermined then there is really no legitimate justification
for it at all. Once again, the issue hinges on translation, this time from
And here I will beseech…all Protestants, who laugh at the Catholike Church…when it
speakes of Pennance (and therefore, in their translation of the Bible they do expresse,
poenitatiam agite, by the wordes of Repentance only, and not of doing penance, as if all
consisted in the bare affection of the mind without putting the body to any paine at all)…
(sig. ****6v).
Of course, Matthew is, rather disingenuously, assuming that the Latin of
the Vulgate is the authoritative reading, whereas, for the Protestant
reformers, the real issue was to get behind the Vulgate to the sense of the
original Greek (metanošω [metanoeo]) and Hebrew ( םחַ נָ [nacham]), but
this is, certainly, the heart of the issue. Halttunen, citing David B. Morris’s
work on the effect of anaesthetics on the perception of pain, notes that the
very word ‘pain’ is derived from the Latin word for punishment and, like
Matthew, sees the issue in theological terms:
Orthodox Christianity had traditionally viewed pain not only as God’s punishment for
sin…but also as a redemptive opportunity to transcend the world and the flesh by
imitating the suffering Christ...The eighteenth-century cult of sensibility redefined pain
as unacceptable and indeed eradicable and thus opened the door to a new revulsion from
pain, which, though later regarded as “instinctive” or “natural,” has in fact proved to be
distinctly modern.18
In terms of seventeenth century perceptions, the theological viewpoint is
crucial. The Protestant translator of Pazzi’s life has no problem with the
fact that ‘the Son of God was not only content and well pleased, but…
obliged to be betrayed, arraigned, mocked, scourged, spit upon, and put to
open shame, and hanged upon a tree in the midst of two notorious
Criminals’. Suffering in that context is ‘enough to overwhelm our thoughts,
and ravish our minds, and fill us with amazement’ (Matthew, p. 4; preface),
but this is the exception; from the Protestant point of view, the whole point
of Christ’s suffering is that the rest of humanity no longer has to suffer and
if it chooses to it is acting perversely.
Prior to the Reformation the orthodox view of pain in Western
European society was as something not only unavoidable but, if one was to
attain salvation, actually necessary. The disparity between Protestant and
Catholic perceptions after the Reformation highlights a split between the
Catholics, who attempted to hold on to the medieval view, and the
Protestants, who reacted against it. Ultimately, the Protestant point of view
won out; the attitudes engendered by the Reformation impinged upon the
Counter-Reformation and a new paradigm (with some regional variations)
was established all over Europe. With regard to the miracles and visions of
religious mystics, the Counter-Reformation mirrors the Reformation with
the condemnation of Quietism in 1687. Attitudes towards pain and
suffering are less explicitly delineated, but the outcome is similar; it is the
wounds of Christ that E. Anne Matter draws attention to, not the wounds
that Pazzi inflicted upon herself.
As Halttunen says, from the eighteenth century on, ‘the pornography
of pain...represented pain as obscenely titillating precisely because the
humanitarian society deemed it unacceptable, taboo’ (p. 305). The
implications are clear; in the absence of a taboo on pain the titillation of
breaking the taboo is, quite simply, inaccessible and hence, while there may
be acts of extreme cruelty, some of it even explicitly sexual in nature, there
can be neither sadism nor masochism in such a context.
The purpose of this paper has been to demonstrate how a study of
translations into English of Catholic literature sheds light on the way in
which certain types of narrative based on pain and suffering ceased to be
acceptable coinage in the language of religious discourse. The light it sheds
is necessarily partial, and gives rise, perhaps, to as many questions as it
answers. How is it, for example, that Bunyan paints as many scenes of
human misery and degradation as Gracián does, and is there any direct link
between the kind of discourse found in the narration of the life of
Magdalena de Pazzi and the pornographic discourses of masochism? But
these are not, I think, questions that can be answered by approaching
translations. Translation has been useful to us in demonstrating differences
in perception and discourse between Protestant England and continental
Catholicism during the seventeenth century. By highlighting those
differences we have seen the way in which the theological issues were
tangled with linguistic ones, and even identified some of the key
vocabulary which had such different resonances for the Catholic and
Protestant discourse communities and underpinned the differences between
them; and we have come to see how a certain kind of discourse came to be
separated from the moral basis on which it was founded and, once
separated, could not lay claim to any legitimate context and so drifted into
the realms of immorality and taboo.
Sophia University, Tokyo
Baltasar Gracián, El Criticon: Primera Parte: En la Primavera de la Niñez y en el
Estio de la Juventud ... (Madrid, 1651; edition used, Madrid, 1658), p. 208. In
quotations from this work, in addition to the standard MHRA modification of
17th century script (modernisation of ‘u’ and ‘v’, etc.), I have modernised the
archaic use of the tilde (such as ‘q’ + tilde, meaning ‘que’).
2 Baltasar Gracián, The Critick, trans. by Paul Rycault (London, 1681), p. 186. To disambiguate
the translation from the original, subsequent references to this work will be designated by the
name of the translator.
3 L.B. Walton, ‘Two Allegorical Journeys: A Comparison between Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress
and Gracián’s El Criticón’, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 36 (1959), pp. 28-36, notes a number
of resemblances between Bunyan and Gracián, though he stops short of suggesting that there
was any direct influence.
4 Michel de Montaigne, Essays Written in French by Michael Lord of Montaigne, Knight of the
Order of S. Michael, Gentleman of the French Kings Chamber, trans. by John Florio (London,
1613), p. 239. It is, perhaps, no accident that it was in Rome that Montaigne witnessed the brutal
act of officially-sanctioned gratuitous cruelty with which he illustrates his point.
5 A second translation of Saint Francis’s life was published in Silva, Chronicle, in 1618 (STC
6 (St. Omer, 1619). The translator of this work is unknown, but it contains an epistle dedicatory
and preface by Sir Toby Matthew and, to avoid confusion with the Italian original, further
references to this work will be designated by his name.
7 Trans. by Francis Bell (St. Omer, 1625).
8 Jan T. Rhodes, ‘English Books of Martyrs and Saints of the Late Sixteenth and Early
Seventeenth Centuries’, Recusant History, 22 (1994), pp. 7-25; p. 17.
9 Raymond of Capua, The Life of the Blessed Virgin, Sainct Catharine of Siena, trans. by John
Fen ([Douai], 1609), p. 16.
10 In this and subsequent references to Matthew’s preface roman lettering has been substituted for
the italic of the original.
11 A.F. Allison and D.M. Rogers. The Contemporary Printed Literature of the English Counter-
Reformation between 1558 and 1640: An Annotated Catalogue. Volume II: Works in English
(Aldershot, 1994), p. 107.
12 Vicenzo Puccini, Vita della Veneranda Madre Suor Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi (Florence,
1611), p. 3.
13 Matthew, in his preface, uses ‘ecstacy’ and this was also the word of choice of Thomas Smith,
the Protestant translator of Vincenzo Puccini et al., The Life of St. Mary Magdalene of Pazzi
(London, 1687). To avoid confusion, this translation will be designated henceforth by the name
of the translator.
14 See previous note. This work, translated from the French of Lezin de Saint-Scholastique,
Abregé de la Vie Admirable de Sainte Marie Madelaine de Pazzi (Paris, 1669), is based partly
on Puccini and partly on the Latin oration delivered at Pazzi’s cononization. With a preface and
followed by a discourse on ‘discerning and trying the Spirits, whether they be of God’, both
written by the translator, Thomas Smith.
15 Ann E. Matter, Preface to Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi. Ed. Armando Maggi. New York, 2000:
pp. 1-4; p. 3. Note that she is talking here of Pazzi’s own words, written down by her fellow
religious over a period of years, not of Puccini’s biography.
16 Eric John Dingwall, Very Peculiar People: Studies in the Queer, the Abnormal and the
Uncanny (London, 1950), pp. 119-144.
17 A similar half-horrified, half-fascinated reaction is to be found in Rudolph Bell’s Holy
Anorexia (Chicago, 1985), which includes a series of seventeenth century illustrations of Pazzi’s
life with such captions as, ‘At the age of eleven, Mary Magdalen de’ Pazzi spent entire nights
flagellating herself” and, ‘To combat fierce temptations against her chastity, Mary Magdalen lies
naked on a bed of sharp branches and splinters in the convent’s woodshed. Her flagellum is in
the foreground’ (figures 14 and 17, between pages 116 and 117).
18 Karen Halttunen, ‘Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain in Anglo-American Culture.’
The American Historical Review 100.2 (1995), pp. 303-334; p. 304.
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