Painful pleasures

Sadomasochism in medieval cultures

Christopher Vaccaro
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Painful pleasures organises its investigations into two sections, based on distinctions between religious and secular (con)texts. Part I explores the sadomasochistic pleasures of medieval monastic and mystical life, highlighting religious devotion, bodily renunciation, humility, and submission. Investigations into religious discourses expose the libidinal possibilities within penitential and correctional activities such as fasting and whipping. Within a swathe of early medieval hagiography, antique narratives provided eroticised examples of the will (and failure) of Roman magistrates to dominate the Christian martyr. Part II traces instances of dominance and submission within secular discourses, those more appertaining to life at court, in the marriage bed, and on the battlefield. Behaviours in this sphere might be in tension with the Church, evolving from more regionalised or even familial-kinship patterns. Chivalric romances told at court recount pleasures that resonate with those of the S/M world today and describe scenarios that fuel sadomasochistic fantasies. Painful pleasures compiles evidence of the ways in which power and control were eroticised in the Middle Ages, how sexuality was then, as today, imbued to varying degrees with a thrill of the chase and the capture, and how pain and humiliation could not only be pleasurable but central to formations of gendered identities and to spiritual advancement. It makes substantial gains in exploring the medieval terrain of eroticised power and pain and asks how looking at sadomasochism historically might affect our conception of the Middle Ages, and – preposterously – of ourselves.

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