III. The signs of pain

Typical signs

Pain is sometimes associated with a physical movement of “contractionJean Chicot, « Dialogus de Dolore », Dissertationes Medicae, Paris, Langlois et Alliot, 1656, p. 203 ; Marin Cureau de La Chambre, Les Charactères des Passions, t. IV, De la douleur [1659], Paris, Jacques d’Allin, 1662, p. 76.” and shrinking into oneself, which corresponds to a feeling of compression and tightness. The frown is a characteristic feature of pain. On the other hand, joy corresponds to an effect of broadening and effusiveness.

... and signs that are sometimes ambiguous

However, the signs of pain can also be ambiguous: despondency and silence or even a slight smile or “sardonic laughter” can hint at intense or prolonged pain. When pain sets in, these signs evolve, and it is not uncommon to see a deeply affected patient reduced to silence. Some doctors of the time note that intense pain can bring about a state of sadness and a yearning for death that may obscure the usual signs.

In his Traité du rire (Treatise on Laughter) (1579), doctor Laurent Joubert speaks of the “laughing grimace” as a sign of pain in the diaphragm. In a soldier who has recently been operated upon, surgeon Ambroise Paré (1564) observes a sardonic laugh, or a rictus announcing convulsions.

Most Renaissance doctors, wondering about the ambiguous nature of this rictus, refer back to an adage by Erasmus, who describes a tradition perpetuated by several Classical authors according to whom “Sardinian laughter” is caused by a toxic variety of buttercup native to Sardinia: “Some say that there grows a particular herb on the island of Sardinia, called 'Sardinian herb'. It is true that it tastes sweet but, once ingested, it twists men's mouths into a grin of pain, so that they die as if they were laughingErasmus, « le rire sardonique » (adage 2401), transl. into French Geneviève Moreau-Bucherie, in Les Adages, ed. J-C. Saladin, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, « Miroir des humanistes », 2011..