Sadness and the Self in Early Modern England

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Sadness and the Self in Early Modern England
A review of Secret Contagions: 
Sadness and the Self in Early Modern England by Erin Sullivan.

The history of emotions is a burgeoning field within cultural history. In recent years, a number of key publications have mapped out the beginnings of a theoretical and methodological framework, and academic centres on the subject are mushrooming around the world. Erin Sullivan’s thesis Secret Contagions: Sadness and the Self in Early Modern England is a valuable new addition to this growing field, not in the least because of its innovative approach to the exploration of historical emotions.

Readers in the early modern period were extremely interested in sadness and grief: the period has been called melancholy’s ‘golden age.’ A number of books exploring this early modern fascination with grief have appeared in the past few years, such as Angus Gowland’s Renaissance Melancholy (2006), Jeremy Schmidt’s Melancholy and the Care of the Soul (2007), Jennifer Vaught’s Masculinity and Emotion in Early Modern English Literature (2008), and Gary Kuchar’s The Poetry of Religious Sorrow in Early Modern England (2008). Whereas these studies focus on particular kinds of sadness (melancholy, religious sorrow) and on particular genres of texts, Sullivan takes a wider contextual view by basing herself on a variety of sources ranging from plays and poems to doctor’s casebooks, diaries, and bills of mortality. In so doing, her rich thesis is able to show convincingly that multiple discourses of sadness (medical theory, moral philosophy, Christian theology) co-existed in the period, sometimes overlapping or conflicting with each other.

The thesis concentrates on the period between the accession of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558 and the Restoration in 1660. It is not, however, the particulars of Tudor and Stuart monarchies or the trauma of the civil wars, but the aftermath of the Reformation that forms the dominant historical context for Sullivan’s argument. The new forms of Protestant religious practice that took shape in early modern England shaped their own discourses of emotional experience. Sullivan concludes that whereas medical and philosophical advice tended to see grief as a damaging and therefore dangerous passion, these new Protestant ideas considered sadness in a more positive light, as a means to come closer to God.

Sullivan is not only interested in the way sadness is shaped by these co-existing discourses. What I found particularly captivating is her fascination with the way individuals used these different discourses of sadness to make sense of their emotional experiences in their own (written) expressions and representations. Inspired by developments in anthropology as well as the work of historian Charles Rosenberg, Sullivan moves from the social constructivist framework current in emotion history towards a model of thinking about the passions that leaves more room for individual agency, “recognizing that social processes are messy and that they are affected by people, just as people are affected by them” (88). Her approach in this way combines three key concepts employed in the cultural history of emotions, which Sullivan in her introduction neatly characterizes as “a set of theoretical nesting eggs” (30): Carol and Peter Stearns’s ‘emotionology,’ which focuses on dominant emotion discourses in a historical period; Rosenwein’s concept of ‘emotional communities’, which examines how social groups employ these discourses; and finally Reddy’s ‘emotives’ which focuses on the individual expression of emotions (although he also relates that expression to ‘emotional regimes’).

The first chapter, “Sadness and dis-ease in early modern thought,” distinguishes between four categories of sadness shaped by three different discourses. In a philosophical context, grief was considered as a disease of the mind that needed to be overcome by reason; medical discourse saw melancholy as a disorder of the physical body; and godly sorrow and despair are categories of sadness shaped by religious discourse that were considered to originate from conflicts in a believer’s conscience that could only be healed by God’s grace (65). Even as she makes these elucidating distinctions, Sullivan stresses that these are dynamic constructions that often merged and overlapped. Just as the authors of treatises on the passions have often crossed disciplinary boundaries in their choice of their subject, so do these categories know many different permutations. The bodily nature of grief, for example, also played a part in philosophical and religious discourses. What is more, points of conflict existed also within these discourses themselves. In medical theory, for example, the Galenic humoral model was challenged by chemically-based systems of medicine such as that of Paracelsus. Sullivan therefore stresses the importance of a context-dependent approach to representations of sadness, an approach also that takes into account the way these ideas were used in personal practice. These discourses, she writes, “did not form a whole to explain passions: an individual’s personal attitudes towards sadness depended on her particular outlook on life, as influenced by factors such as religiosity, level of education, and social standing” (83). After the first chapter has thus mapped these overlapping discourses of grief, the following four chapters each deal with a different aspect of grief in the early modern period.

The “secret contagions” of the title are quoted from The Uses of the Passions (1649), a translation of a treatise by Jean-François Senault. He uses these words as he ponders the ways in which mind, body, and soul affect each other in the experience of emotion. The second chapter, “Grief, death and the possibility of self-knowledge,” takes this issue of the relation between body and mind as its central question, focusing on the idea that one could die of grief. Drawing on the London Bills of Mortality, Donne’s poetry, the plays of Shakespeare and Samuel Pepys’ diary among many other sources, Sullivan shows that although grief is on the one hand seen as a passion that results in extreme physiological changes and could lead to death, other texts conceive of it more as a passion of the mind and connect it to human agency and understanding, a perspective that also allowed for a more positive view of grief as enabling personal insight and wisdom. The finding that these two discourses co-existed leads Sullivan to nuance the recent emphasis on the literal, material and bodily meaning of expressions such as “sunken spirits” or “broken hearts,” for example in the work of Gail Kern Paster. Rather, she underlines that this material view of the passions circulated alongside discourses that situated the passions in the mind, and which questioned the extent to which they materially altered the body.

The next chapter, “The problem of melancholy: theory, discourse and practice,” starts once again from a contradiction within a discourse, in this case that of melancholy. On the one hand, this type of humoral sadness caused by a surplus of black bile is associated with self-obsession and self-indulgence, while it is on the other hand also seen as conducive to intellectual and artistic creativity. The central question in this chapter is how individuals “square[d] the commonly voiced, negative views of melancholy with its more desirable possibilities” (144). Sullivan turns first to literary texts such as Milton’s “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” and Shakespeare’s As You Like It with its typical melancholic character Jaques, to find that literature tends to represent the ambiguous character of melancholy, showing its intellectual face but at the same time hinting at its negative aspects. She subsequently turns to doctors’ casebooks and patient narratives, to see how these two views of melancholy were experienced in medical practice. Sullivan discovered that doctors tend to associate the condition with rather mundane physical complaints, and that patients often turned to religion as a framework to explain their suffering and healing.

The final two chapters of the thesis explore the ways in which Protestant religious practice shaped new understandings of grief in post-Reformation England. In the fourth chapter, “Embodying faith: godly sorrow and the heart,” Sullivan again employs a broad range of sources including sermons, religious treatises, spiritual autobiographies, and the poetry of John Ford and George Herbert. She shows that in contrast to the prevalent conception of grief in medical and philosophical discourse, religious practice shaped a more positive experience of grief. As she puts it: “[t]he passive acceptance of sadness and suffering, believed to be sent from God, was one of the central ways in which believers could demonstrate to themselves and others the extent of their sorrow for sin, their connection with God, and their inclusion among the elect” (204). Interestingly, she also argues that in Protestant religious practice, the bodily aspects of grief were not eschewed: its understanding of grief was heavily based in notions of physical affliction. The heart, at once bodily and metaphysical in this discourse, functions as a reminder of grief’s “secret contagions”: the overflow between the bodily, mental and spiritual nature of sadness in religious practice.

Chapter five, “Tales of despair: narrative authority and interpretive possibility” establishes a fascinating link between the doctrine of double predestination and the notion of individual appropriations of existing discourses of grief that is so central to this thesis. Religious despair, if moderate, could be read as a sign of the elect, but in excessive form it was an emotion that pointed to the opposite. Because of this room for interpretation, “it became increasingly important that people wishing to identify themselves as among the godly narrated their experience of religious anxiety in a way that limited the potential for alternate interpretations” (249). In this thesis’ characteristic manner, the chapter turns to various expressions and representations of religious despair in a myriad of sources to explore the ways in which early modern believers narrated this form of sadness. In an entertaining example, Sullivan shows that attempts to relieve religious despair did not always have the intended effect. The anxiety generated by the doctrine of double predestination spawned a great number of works of “practical divinity” which sought to help their readers in identifying signs of their election by God. William Perkins published a “Table declaring the order of the causes of Salvation and Damnation,” which charted the various paths of life towards grace and reprobation (see illustration).

Perkins, "Survey or table declaring the order of the causes of salvation and damnation according to God’s word …”

The poem “The Distracted Puritan” (1648), however, suggests that these well-intended guides may have increased religious despair rather than relieved anxiety. Set to the tune of Tom of Bedlam, the speaker of the poem complains:

I observ’d in Perkins Tables
The black Lines of Damnation:
Those crooked veines
Soe stuck in my brains,
That I fear’d my Reprobation. (p. 281)

This is a wonderful example of what I consider to be one of the key strengths of this thesis: Sullivan’s attention to the ways in which the various discourses of grief were appropriated, combined, and reshaped by individual authors in early modern England.

Dissertation information: University College London, University of London, 2010. 348pp. Supervisors: Hal Cook, Andrew Wear, and René Weis.