Dot writes: I was having rather an interesting little discussion with my sophister Old English class today (i.e. third- and fourth-year undergraduates) about pain. We were talking about how modern people expect not to have pain, or even discomfort, but medieval people had no anaesthetics, no antibiotics, large amounts of manual labour, lots of corporal punishment, bad dentists, hard beds and cold houses. Pain must have seemed much more ordinary and inevitable; and one is often struck by how little sympathy medieval texts seem to show for the pain of others. One student adduced the merriment when John the Carpenter breaks his arm in the Miller’s Tale as an example. (Devotional literature meditating on the sufferings of Christ is obviously an exception; attitudes to pain are tied up with genre.)
However, almost all of us have in fact failed to stay insulated from pain and had at least a few nasty accidents, especially in childhood. I, for example, managed to slam the car door on my hand on Hugh’s birthday a couple of weeks ago. It hurt so much I had to sit on the stairs with my head between my knees so as not to pass out. I was surprised that there was subsequently very little appearance of bruising and the agony abated quite quickly, but the middle finger has remained tender, and today I noticed that it has a hard lump where the door hit it. So I am wondering exactly what damage I did to it. If I had broken the finger (a hairline fracture, say) wouldn’t there have been more persistent severe pain and more bruising than I experienced? But the lump doesn’t feel like a bruisy lump; it feels like a bony lump. What could it be?
Most of my experiences of pain have been somehow more manageable than I expected. Which is not to say that I am volunteering for more of it, and I suspect I have never truly been tested. But pain seems, often, to be curiously forgettable. Maybe this depends on the circumstances of pain. The mind and body heal more quickly from the pain of accident or effort than from experiences of powerlessness: I’m thinking of those horrible stories of people whose anaesthetic fails in the middle of operations and who have ghastly flashbacks for years afterwards. But people quite willingly volunteer to run marathons repeatedly, and have babies repeatedly, and other strikingly painful things. And they tell stories of how they fell out of trees onto their faces (as one of my students did) as an amusing and curiously creditable anecdote of youth.
Moral: people are odd.