VI. Facing pain

Theologians sometimes justify pain in the name of faith or as a trial for the soul. But the medical texts of the 16th-18th centuries do not fit within this religious framework: they emphasize above all the intolerable nature of pain and the need to remedy it as soon as possible. Doctors, however, faced a number of obstacles.

A cognitive and emotional obstacle

Pain is hard to share. While patients are riveted with their present pain, doctors must attempt to imagine this pain that is not their own. They cannot always rely on their own experience, especially since memory alleviates the feeling of past pain, as some physicians note.

A practical obstacle

To be able to act at the right time, doctors and surgeons must not be afraid to cause pain.

Madame de La Guette - Making People Laugh at One's Pain

Patients often died because the procedure came too late. A surgeon was thus expected to act with “as much skill and as little feeling as possibleJosé de Sigüenza, Historia de la Orden de San Jerónimo [1605], Madrid, Bailly Baillière é hijos, 1909, vol. II, l. 3, p. 506., according to a witness to a particularly painful operation, described as “insufferableJehan Lhermite, Le passetemps de J. Lhermite, publié d’après le manuscrit original, Anvers, 1896, t. II, ed. E. Ouverleaux et J.-P. Petit, p. 117., that Philip II of Spain underwent in 1598.

Jehan Lhermite - The Spectacle of “Insufferable” Pain

Surgeons generally speak more about the pain they relieve than the pain they cause—which does not prevent them from sometimes being “moved to pityAmbroise Paré, Les Œuvres, 4th edition, Paris, Gabriel Buon, 1585, 12th book, chap. XXXVIII, p. 493. at the sight of their newly operated patients.

“For the Surgeon with a face full of pity makes the patient's wound verminousAmbroise Paré, Dix livres de la Chirurgie avec le magasin des instrumens necessaires à icelle, Paris, Jean Royer, 1564, sig. dd2r°., warns surgeon Ambroise Paré – in other words, if the surgeon feels too much pity, he may delay an operation and the wound may become infected.

Ambroise Paré - Healing without Causing Pain?

“I thus want the Surgeon to sympathize with the pain of his patientPierre Dionis, Cours d’opérations de chirurgie, démontrées au Jardin Royal, Brussels, T’Sterstevens et Claudinot, 1708, p. 13-14.. Losing one's temper with a patient who cries out or moans is as cruel as it is useless, according to Dionis (1708).

Pierre Dionis - The Surgeon's Humane Duty

A social obstacle?

Medical writings often comment on the pain of the great, especially kings and queens, but more rarely on the pains of simple people. Paintings, on the other hand, frequently depict ordinary pain in genre scenes. In 1669, the physician Paul Dubé insisted on the need to pay more attention to “the pains of the poorPaul Dubé, Le médecin des pauvres, qui enseigne le moyen de guérir les maladies par des remèdes faciles à trouver dans le pays, Paris, Edme Couterot, 1669, epistle., whose complaints were rarely listened to.

Paul Dubé - Representing the pain of the poor