The Moral and Spiritual Implications of Illness and Suffering: the 2017 EMRC Conference

By Alanna Skuse

It’s now 48 hours since the end of the Reading Early Modern Research Centre’s 2017 conference, and I have sufficiently recovered to write up some observations from the event. (How can sitting down for two days be so exhausting?)

This year’s conference theme was ‘Complaints and Grievances’, and both the Wellcome Trust and the Health Humanities Research Group generously helped to fund a medical humanities strand which attracted speakers from various corners of the globe. This aspect of the conference intersected neatly with the University of Reading’s increasingly active medical humanities scholarship, including the cluster for Health Humanities.

Among those who travelled some distance to attend was the plenary speaker Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen (University of Leiden), a literary historian whose work has been central to the recent foregrounding of pain as a scholarly topic. His nuanced presentation on ‘Affliction, Consolation and the Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern England’ dealt provocatively with the question of what comfort and solace religious faith might (or might not) offer to those struggling under various kinds of grievances. His account of Nehemiah Wallington’s inconsolable grief at the death of his infant daughter was a moving reminder of the limits of consolation in the face of tragedy.

Appropriately, the topics of suffering, succour, consolation and punishment ran through many of the papers. Most of the papers in the medical strand focussed on the practical ‘complaints’ of early modern life, with topics ranging from sexual health (Jennifer Evans, Mona O’Brien) to accident and injury (Craig Spence), poverty (Sarah-Jayne Ainsworth, Hannah Worthen), self-help in illness (Hannah Newton, Elizabeth Hunter) and epidemics (Paola Baseotto). In discussions, however, it quickly became evident that underpinning these investigations were common questions about the . Did God send suffering as a punishment for wrongdoing or as a valuable opportunity to strengthen ones faith? Was the correct response to suffering resignation or active struggle? Did early modern people believe that they were bound to suffer, or that they had a right to health and happiness?