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Towards a History of European Physical Sensibility: Pain in the Later Middle Ages

  • Esther Cohen (a1)
The Argument

The study of pain in a historical context requires a consideration of the cultural context in which pain is sensed and expressed. This paper examines attitudes toward physical pain in the later Middle Ages in Europe from several standpoints: theology, law, and medicine. During the later Middle Ages attitudes toward pain shifted from rejection and a demand for impassivity as a mark of status to a conscious attempt to sense, express, and inflict as much pain as possible. Pain became a positive force, a useful tool for reaching a variety of truths. While this attitude stemmed from the religious wish to identify with Christ's passion, it permeated and affected all spheres of cultural expression and investigation. Late permeated and affected all spheres of cultural expression and investigation. Late medieval medicine accepted pain, trying to relieve it only when it became dangerous to the patient. Given the existence of analgesic medicines at the time, this attitude is comprehensible only within the cultural context of the period.

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