Early modern medicine and surgery has been repeatedly described as largely ineffective and often painful. Surgery, in particular, in the era before anaesthesia could be very painful and dangerous. If this was the case, how did men in this period cope with the pain of medical treatment?
Several historians have looked at how ideas of masculinity related to pain and medical care. Alison Montgomery has suggested that as late as 1760 conduct literature, works which espoused the ideals of behaviour, were teaching men that displays of emotion were unmanly and womanish and that pain should be forborne with dignity.i But do we really think that men stoically suffered their pain in silence or with composed nonchalance. This image from 1649 clearly shows a man undergoing surgery on his back experiencing discomfort and pain. Montgomery also shows in her work that pain was expressed by male patients in their letters to physicians in order to highlight the severity of their disease.ii In addition, Robert Weston has suggested that it was the pain of a disease that meant that aristocratic men were willing to submit their bodies to the authority of surgeons and medical practitioners who could be of a lower social status.iii
It is clear that in sexual health disorders pain was important for establishing the severity of a man’s disease and for encouraging men to seek help for their problems. As can be seen in many surgical texts, medical practitioners were not oblivious to the pain that their patients felt. Often they recorded a simple statement that the condition was painful, as in this story recorded by Richard Wiseman:
A Gentleman of about Thirty years of age having from his youth been vexed with a fistulous Ulcer in his right Testicle, in progress of time a Tumour arose in the lower Belly over the Pubes, stretching to the right Groin. He consulted Mr. Jarman and my self. The Swelling was hard and painfull, but without Inflammation.iv
In other examples it is clear that pain and inconvenience, often caused by swelling of the part affected, prompted the patient to seek out medical help. Wiseman again wrote of a man with a watery hernia that he had been troubled with for some years, but now it ‘was grown so big, that he was not capable of following his affairs [without] much pain.’v
Pain was not only important for making men seek professional medical help, it was also important to the physicians and surgeon who treated them. The mitigation of pain appears to have been a central feature in their approach to treating male sexual and reproductive disorders. In John Banester’s surgical treatise, he noted that wounds of the privie parts (the genitalia) were ‘most perillous for paine’ and included several treatments, ‘that appeaseth paine, and defendeth the part: which thing is verie requisite in these places.’vi Many other texts also included remedies that eased the pain of these disorders, suggesting that this was an important part of the treatments that men sought.
Not only did surgeons describe remedies designed to mitigate the pain of men’s diseases but in some cases the continued persistence of pain could influence the type of treatment that was attempted, which is some cases could be rather drastic. In 1690 a twelve year old boy was treated for a tumour in his scrotum. However, the treatment was not entirely successful and his practitioners recorded that the ‘Testicle remaining of that Magnitude, might occasion the same Pains and Symptoms he had felt his whole Life … we concluded to amputate it, which was immediately performed. Luckily for this patient, as far as we know from the Surgeon’s text, the amputation was successful and the patient recovered to enjoy a good state of health.vii
So yes early modern medicine and particular surgery was painful, but men did not simply hide their feelings and push through the pain. Instead pain was an important part of the narrative of illness even in disorders that were already threatening a man’s masculinity. Pain therefore, became important to the surgeons who attempted where ever possible to mitigate and ease the pain and suffering of their male patients.
i. Alison Montgomery, (2011) (The) man, his body, and his society: masculinity and the male experience in English and Scottish medicine c.1640-c.1780. Doctoral thesis, Durham University. Available at Durham E-Theses Online http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/3452/, p. 29
ii. Ibid, 157.
iii. Robert Weston, ‘Men Controlling Bodies: Medical Consultation by Letter in France, 1680-1780’ in (eds) Susan Broomhall and Jacqueline Van Gent Governing Masculinities in the Early Modern Period: Regulating Selves and Others (Ashgate: Farnham and Burlington, 2011), pp. 227-246, at p. 237.
iv. Richard Wiseman, Severall Chirurgical Treatises (London, 1676), p.88.
v. Ibid, p. 130
vi. John Banester, The Workes of that Famous Chyrurian, Mr John Banester, in Five Books … (London, Thomas Harper, 1633), p.226.
vii. Observations in Surgery: Being A Collection of One Hundred and Twenty Eight Different Cases. With Particular Remarks on Each, or the Improvement of Young Students. Written Originally in French by Mr. Saviard, Chief Surgeon, and Operator in Midwifery, at the Hospital Dieu in Paris. Translated by J.S. Surgeon, (London, 1740), p.129.
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