"‘Why is my pain perpetual?’ (Jer 15:18): Chronic Pain in the Middle Ages" Conference, 29 September 2017

Last Friday, I had the honour to host some of the leading researchers in historical pain studies at a one-day conference. Together, we probed chronic pain in the Middle Ages, breaking new ground as the first ever international, interdisciplinary academic meeting on this topic. Papers showcased the latest research in this area, highlighting the diversity of approaches needed to grapple with the multi-faceted nature of chronic pain.

We came together with some answers, it's true. But mostly, we met to ask questions, and plenty of them - on methodology, on sources, on ethics, on modern relevance, and more - in our collective pursuit of establishing the field. (For the conference's original Call for Papers which lays out the central topics of papers and our informal discussions, see here.) Below, I've posted resources to give a flavour of the meeting, and of our preliminary findings from the conference. You will find:

  • the full conference programme;
  • a transcript of the day's proceedings;
  • a Wakelet of the full live-tweet from the day.

There are several last-minute amendments to the conference programme. Firstly, three speakers sadly could not be with us, one from each panel: Katherine Harvey, Catherine Coffey, and Bianca Frohne. Due to some tech-based shenanigans, we could not have a video livestream. However, as a work-around, all panels and the keynote were recorded as audio files, which have now been transcribed. If you'd like to download the transcript as a .pdf, please see here. (Note, however, that the embedded transcript below is the truly final version, which has some corrections in that are missing in the pdf. The two documents also have different pagination.)

The day before the conference, I hosted a #certainpain Twitter chat. Questions revolved around the utility of historical pain studies for people living with chronic pain today. Spoiler alert! I argued hard for the intrinsic worth of such scholarship for the modern chronic pain community:

Representation *matters*. Be that contemporary media representation, political representation, or historical representation. [1] & being able to recognise that you are not alone, isolated in history - but others have come before you & lived is important [2]

The conference demonstrated amply that modern chronic pain sufferers are certainly not 'isolated in history'. In virtually every kind of document we have from the Middle Ages - personal letters, law, theology, romance narratives, hagiography, and so on - we can find traces of chronic pain experiences. Our work is now to bring these traces to greater light.

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Edited 19/12/17: Due to the impending demise of Storify, I've switched out the Storified content to a Wakelet collection.

Edited 10/05/18: Added transcript of papers, re-worded text appropriately.

Updated Info for 'Chronic Pain in the Middle Ages' Conference - Confirmed Speakers and SSHM Travel Bursaries

Conference Title: ‘“Why is my pain perpetual?” (Jer 15:18): Chronic Pain in the Middle Ages’
LocationInstitute of Advanced StudiesUniversity College London, London, UK
Date: Friday, 29 September 2017

 

Pain is a universal human experience. We have all hurt at some point, felt that inescapable sensory challenge to our physical equanimity, our health and well-being compromised. Typically, our agonies are fleeting. For some, however, suffering becomes an artefact of everyday living: our pain becomes ‘chronic’. Chronic pain is persistent, usually lasting for three months or more, does not respond well to analgesia, and does not improve after the usual healing period of any injury.

Following Elaine Scarry’s (1985) seminal work The Body in Pain, researchers from various humanities disciplines have productively studied pain as a physical phenomenon with wide-ranging emotional and socio-cultural effects. Medievalists have also analysed acute pain, elucidating a specifically medieval construction of physical distress. In almost all such scholarship – modern and medieval – chronic pain has been overlooked.

The new field of medieval disability studies has also neglected chronic pain as a primary object of study. Instead, disability scholars in the main focus on ‘visible’ and ‘mainstream’ disabilities, such as blindness, paralysis, and birth defects. Indeed, disability historian Beth Linker argued in 2013 that ‘[m]ore historical attention should be paid to the unhealthy disabled’, including those in chronic pain (‘On the Borderland’, 526). This conference seeks specifically to pay ‘historical attention’ to chronic pain in the medieval era. It will bring together researchers from across disciplines working on chronic pain, functioning as a collaborative space for medievalists to enter into much-needed conversations on this highly overlooked area of scholarship.

Relevant topics for this conference include:

  • Medieval conceptions and theories of chronic pain, as witnessed by scientific, medical, and theological works
  • Paradigms of chronic pain developed in modern scholarship – and what medievalists can learn from, and contribute to, them
  • Comparative analyses of chronic pain in religious versus secular narratives
  • Recognition or rejection of chronic pain as an affirmative subjective identity
  • Chronic pain and/as disability
  • The potential share-ability of pain in medieval narratives, such as texts which show an individual taking on the pain of another
  • The relationship between affect and the severity, understanding, and experience of pain
  • The manner in which gender impacts the experience, expression, and management of an individual’s chronic pain

Confirmed speakers:

  • Dr Katherine Harvey (Birkbeck, University of London, UK), ‘Chronic Pain and the Saintly Bishop in Medieval England’
  • Dr James McKinstry (Durham University, UK), ‘Headaches, Diseases, and Old Age: William Dunbar’s Diagnosis of Chronic Pain’
  • Dr Michele Moatt (National Trust and Lancaster University, UK), ‘Chronic Pain and Prophecy in the Twelfth-century Life of Aelred of Rievaulx
  • Catherine Coffey (Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland), ‘“Mit zwoelf tugenden stritet si wider das vleisch”: The Body Fighting the Flesh in Mechthild von Magdeburg’s Das fließende Licht der Gottheit
  • Katherine Briant (Fordham University, New York, USA), ‘Pain as a Theological Framework in Julian of Norwich’s Vision and Revelation
  • Dr Nicole Nyffenegger (Bern University, Switzerland), ‘Mary’s Perpetual Physical Pain: Affective Piety and “Doubling”’
  • Prof Wendy J Turner (Augusta University, Georgia, USA), ‘Mental Complications of Pain: Age and Violence in Medieval England’
  • Dr Bianca Frohne (University of Bremen, Germany), ‘Living With Pain: Constructions of a Corporeal Experience in Early and High Medieval Miracle Accounts’
  • Dr William Maclehose (University College London, UK), ‘A Locus for Healing: Saints’ Shrines and Representations of Chronic Pain’
  • Prof Esther Cohen (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), one of the foremost scholars on pain in the Middle Ages, will deliver the keynote address.

 

Members of the Society for the Social History of Medicine may apply for bursaries to facilitate attendance at this conference. Please see here for full details. 

The conference registration fee is £20. The fee is waived completely for concessions (students, the unwaged, retired scholars). Registration for the conference will open shortly, and be conducted via the UCL Online Shop, in the ‘Conferences and Events’ category.

If you have any queries, including access requirements, please do not hesitate to contact the organiser, Alicia Spencer-Hall (a.spencer-hall [at] ucl.ac.uk).

Logos for Society for the Social History of Medicine and the Institute of Advanced Studies at UCL.

Logos for Society for the Social History of Medicine and the Institute of Advanced Studies at UCL.

*UPDATED* CfP: 'Chronic Pain in the Middle Ages' Conference, London (UK), 29 September 2017

Conference Title: ‘“Why is my pain perpetual?” (Jer 15:18): Chronic Pain in the Middle Ages’
Location: Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London, London, UK
Date: Friday, 29 September 2017

 

Jef Safi - 'through the median void breath resiliAnces . .' (Via  Flickr ;  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

Jef Safi - 'through the median void breath resiliAnces . .' (Via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Pain is a universal human experience. We have all hurt at some point, felt that inescapable sensory challenge to our physical equanimity, our health and well-being compromised. Typically, our agonies are fleeting. For some, however, suffering becomes an artefact of everyday living: our pain becomes ‘chronic’. Chronic pain is persistent, usually lasting for three months or more, does not respond well to analgesia, and does not improve after the usual healing period of any injury. 

Following Elaine Scarry’s (1985) seminal work The Body in Pain, researchers from various humanities disciplines have productively studied pain as a physical phenomenon with wide-ranging emotional and socio-cultural effects. Medievalists have also analysed acute pain, elucidating a specifically medieval construction of physical distress. In almost all such scholarship – modern and medieval – chronic pain has been overlooked. 

The new field of medieval disability studies has also neglected chronic pain as a primary object of study. Instead, disability scholars in the main focus on ‘visible’ and ‘mainstream’ disabilities, such as blindness, paralysis, and birth defects. Indeed, disability historian Beth Linker argued in 2013 that ‘[m]ore historical attention should be paid to the unhealthy disabled’, including those in chronic pain (‘On the Borderland’, 526). This conference seeks specifically to pay ‘historical attention’ to chronic pain in the medieval era. It will bring together researchers from across disciplines working on chronic pain, functioning as a collaborative space for medievalists to enter into much-needed conversations on this highly overlooked area of scholarship.

Prof Esther Cohen (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), one of the foremost scholars on pain in the Middle Ages, will deliver the keynote address at the conference.

Relevant topics for this conference include:

  • Medieval conceptions and theories of chronic pain, as witnessed by scientific, medical, and theological works
  • Paradigms of chronic pain developed in modern scholarship – and what medievalists can learn from, and contribute to, them
  • Comparative analyses of chronic pain in religious versus secular narratives
  • Recognition or rejection of chronic pain as an affirmative subjective identity
  • Chronic pain and/as disability
  • The potential share-ability of pain in medieval narratives, such as texts which show an individual taking on the pain of another
  • The relationship between affect and the severity, understanding, and experience of pain
  • The manner in which gender impacts the experience, expression, and management of an individual’s chronic pain

 

If you’re interested in speaking at the conference, please submit an abstract of 250-300 words and a brief bio to the organiser, Alicia Spencer-Hall (a.spencer-hall [at] ucl.ac.uk), by 1 March 2017. Please also stipulate your audio-visual requirements in your submission (e.g. projector, speakers, and so forth).

NB. Speakers will need to register for the conference in due course. The registration fee is £20. The fee is waived completely for concessions (students, the unwaged, retired scholars). 

If you have any queries, including access requirements, please do not hesitate to contact the organiser. 

This conference contributes to the ‘Sense and Sensation’ research strand at UCL’s Institute of Advanced Studies. This strand also comprises a Reading Group focused on chronic pain. To join the Reading Group, please email the organiser, Alicia Spencer-Hall (a.spencer-hall [at] ucl.ac.uk).

[Updated on 18/01/17, to reflect extended deadline for receipt of abstracts.]