Certain operations that are vitally necessary for the patient cannot be carried out “without extreme pain”, according to the 16th-century surgeon Ambroise Paré, who recounts the tragic story of Archagatos. Archagatos performed amputations until he was stoned to death by the Romans, who viewed him as a torturer. Paré laments: “Oh, the ingratitude, to have devoted all of his fortune, mind and time to learning his art, and while practicing it to be thus massacred and killed!Ambroise Paré, Les Œuvres, 4e éd., Paris, Gabriel Buon, 1585, p. 4-5.“
Pain management is often viewed as a modern novelty, a practice that barely existed in the past.
However, pain was already a major concern in the 16th - 18th centuries. Although the medical arts of the time were in part powerless against it, doctors nonetheless mention it frequently in their writings and always seek to relieve it.
Focusing on the 16th - 18th centuries allows us to shift and reorient our view of pain. This detour into the past can help us gain fresh insight into current issues and practices.
Let us start by clearing up a few prejudices.
An age of dolorism?
The notion of dolorism does not appear until the 20th century. But it is often used to describe a conception of pain associated with the Christian religion: physical pain is supposed to further one's spiritual enlightenment – an attitude that was in truth often criticized in the 17th century.
Philosophers, like Montaigne, and surgeons, like Dionis, proclaim the right to moan and cry out when one is in pain. They decry the injunction of Stoic philosophy to overcome pain and hide any signs of it.
The concept of empathy was not used in the 16th -18th centuries. Physicians spoke instead of pity or compassion, pain felt when witnessing the pain of others, the cement of social cohesion. Many accounts of illness reveal the extent to which the expression of compassion for the patient contributes to the construction of sociability, especially at court.
The term analgesic did not exist yet; remedies against pain were described as anodynes. These included opium poppies, as well as other plants known as “narcotics” or “stupefiers”.