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Writing the Self in Pain – Historical Perspectives

Pain as an affective, simultaneously sensory and emotional experience has made a prominent entrance into historical inquiries during the past two decades. Inquiries into what caused pain, how it was managed and endured, and how pain was constructed through the interaction of language, culture, society, body, and mind, have broadened our view of the experiential and mental landscapes of the past.

This international conference explores the manifold ways in which pain was described and made sense of by the sufferers of the past. Its focus will thus not be the medical experts or authorities, but the ‘self’ who suffered and described their pain as a sensory, emotional, and embodied experience.

We hope to shed light on the individual who tried to make sense of their own pain in different contexts and with the help of varying cultural resources, while remaining conscious of the construction of identities that went hand in hand in describing their own individual experiences of pain.

The goals of the conference

The goal of the conference is to access embodied experiences of pain through an analysis of descriptions of and allusions to pain in a great variety of self-writing (including but not limited to, for example, letters, diaries, autobiographies, spiritual writings, and travel journals and colonial texts). We encourage researchers in historical and related fields to inquire how sufferers conceptualised and understood their pain.

How did the intersectional categories and identities they inhabited influence the cultural resources available to them to make sense of their pain? Did the form and function of their writings shape the representation of their experience in crucial ways? How may we widen the lens of context and the genre expectations of our source material so as to catch in our net historical experiences of pain that have not been in focus before? What changes and/or continuities were there in embodied experiences of pain from the classical to the medieval period, or from the early modern to the modern period?

The conference is organised by the Research Council of Finland-funded research project, Experiencing Agony: Pain and Embodiment in the British Atlantic World, 1600–1900The project analyses descriptions of emotional and sensory pain, tracing historical breaks and continuities in how pain was experienced and expressed in the British Atlantic world and how social, cultural, and temporal change affected its embodiment on both an individual and social level. The conference organisers are planning to edit and publish a collection of articles/a theme issue on an international journal based on selected papers from the conference.

Keynote speakers

The confirmed keynote speakers for the conference are Joanna BourkeKatie Barclay, and Jan van Dijkhuizen, all internationally renowned experts on the cultural and social histories of experiences of pain.

Joanna Bourke is Professor Emerita of History at Birkbeck, University of London, and a Fellow of the British Academy. She is the prize-winning author of fifteen books, as well as over 120 articles in academic journals. In 2014, she was the author of The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers. In 2022, she published Disgrace: Global Reflections on Sexual Violence. Among others, she is the author of Dismembering the Male: Men’s Bodies, Britain, and the Great WarAn Intimate History of Killing (which won the Wolfson Prize and the Fraenkel Prize) and Fear: A Cultural HistoryWhat it Means To Be Human. She is currently writing a book entitled Evil Women. Her books have been translated into Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Catalan, Italian, Portuguese, Czech, Turkish, and Greek.

Katie Barclay is Future Fellow and Professor at the University of Macquarie, Sydney. She writes widely on the history of emotions, gender, and family life. Her publications include, among others, Caritas: Neighbourly Love and the Early Modern Self (2021) and Men on Trial: Performing Emotion, Embodiment and Identity, 1800-1845 (2019). She is currently working on a short monograph on the production of the self in the contemporary university.

Jan van Dijkhuizen is Reader in English Literature at Leiden University. His research focuses on early modern literature, with a special interest in the interactions between literature and religion, the cultural history of the body and the senses, manuscript culture, and the afterlives of early modern literary works. He is the author of Devil Theatre: Demonic Possession and Exorcism in English Renaissance Drama, 1558–1642 (2007), Pain and Compassion in Early Modern English Literature and Culture (2012), and A Literary History of Reconciliation: Power, Remorse and the Limits of Forgiveness (2018). He currently leads a research project on the ‘Poetics of Olfaction in Early Modernity’ (poem), funded by the Dutch Research Council.

Submitting a proposal

Individual paper proposals should consist of an abstract (c. 300) words), a brief biography (up to 200 words) and full contact information. Papers should be 20 minutes in duration. Proposals for full panels of 3-4 papers, with same details and a brief outline of the scope of the panel (150-250 words) are also welcome.

Ideas and explorations of sources that have thus far not been extensively examined from this perspective are particularly welcome. Presentations may address any time period or geographical location. Suggested topics for papers include, but are not limited to:

  • Methods and concepts of examining pain
  • Ontologies and epistemologies of pain
  • Colonial and cross-cultural negotiations of pain
  • Pain and the history of emotions and experiences
  • Senses, emotions, and the body
  • Vocabularies, metaphors and narrativity of pain
  • Practices and performativity of suffering
  • Religious suffering and supernatural pain
  • Alleviating and medicating pain
  • Changes and continuities in the embodied experiences of pain
  • Pain experiences and (intersecting) categories of gender, race, class, age, ability
  • Sympathy, empathy and pain
  • Reading pain from marginalised communities
  • Temporality and memory in writing about pain
  • Individuals and pain communities
  • Interdisciplinary approaches to reading pain

The deadline for proposals is 31 May 2024. Proposals, as well as any inquiries and questions, should be sent to the project email: (experiencing.agony@helsinki.fi)