May 202013

In researching the history of consensual sadomasochism, there isn’t a comprehensive body of knowledge to draw upon, no established canon of reference works, no Journal of Sadomasochistic Studies.

Instead, I have data points: case studies, books (often anonymous), anecdotes, images, etc. I’ll admit that sometimes what is and isn’t a data point is decided on the “I know it when I see it” principle. Connecting those points requires a certain amount of guesswork and judgment calls.

For example: Dr. Samuel Johnson, English man of letters of the Enlightenment, and his relationship with his close friend Hester Thrale.  The latter’s posthumous effects, sold at auction in 1823, included a padlock and fetters. Thrale identified it as “Johnson’s padlock, committed to my care in the year 1768.” In 1767 or 1768, Thrale wrote that “our stern philosopher Johnson trusted me… with a secret far dearer to him than his life”. On other occasions , she wrote that “this great, this formidable Doctor Johnson kissed my hand, ay & my foot too upon his knees!” and quoted him saying, “a woman has such power between the ages of twenty five and forty five, that she may tie a man to a post and whip him if she will.” Finally, there is a reference in  Thrale’s journal to “the fetters & padlocks [that] will tell posterity the truth”, and Johnson’s own journal entry, dated 24 March 1771, about “Insane thoughts on fetters and hand-cuffs.” (in Latin) (Pg.387-388)

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May 262011

Gatrell, Vic. City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London Walker & Company, 2006 Pg. 331-44

Two women, one lounging with a birch whip, the other pushing a small boy towards the first

Lady Termagant Flaybum


The fill title of the above print, published by William Holland’s shop in 1786 by James Gillray (at the time an up-and-comer in his field), is Lady Termagant Flaybum Going to Give her Step Son a Taste of her Desert after Dinner, A Scene Performed Every Day near Grosvenor Square, to the Annoyance of the Neighbourhood. For a print commissioned as a particularly nasty bit of character assassination and slander, it’s a very well-done work. The faces are uncaricatured and finely detailed.

As Gatrell puts it, “The print carried its own pornographic shadow.” William Holland shared shop space with a publisher of flagellation literature, George Peacock. Peacock published works like Sublime of Flagellation: or Letters from Lady Termagant Flaybum to Lady Harriet Tickletail, of Bumfiddle Hall (c.1777-85) and Exhibition of Female Flagellants in the Modest and Incontinent World (1777). The latter claimed that women engaged in the pleasures of flagellation of their own and others’ children, as much as men. (I.e. projecting fantasies of sadism onto women.) Flagellation themes frequently appeared in Gillray’s work.

The “Lady Termagant Flaybum” name was already known, at least among the wealthier men who could afford such prints, before it was attached to Mary Eleanor Bowes (1749-1800). Born to great wealth and raised to be an educated and freethinking (and somewhat irreligious) woman, Bowes (later Lady Strathmore) was the partial basis for Thackeray’s novel Bary Lyndon. Her main character flaw was rotten taste in men (or maybe the pickings were just slim.) In 1777, she fell for and married all-around scoundrel Andrew Robinson Stoney, “the libertine adventurer incarnate,” as Gatrell puts it.

Stoney managed to get control of Bowes’ estates and used it fund his profligacy, while verbally and physically abusing her. (This came out in the divorce trial a decade later.) He coerced her into writing her own Confessions, a quasi-pornographic work detailing her own flirtations and adulteries, her attempt to get an abortion and her irreligion. When Bowes finally had enough, separated from him and started legal proceedings, his abuse shaded into revenge, stalking her and attacking her character.

Gatrell describes commissioning the Lady Flaybum print as “a resort to image magic against his wife in a culture highly respectful of the image’s power.” Gillray may have been incoherently instructed, as Bowes allegedly had an “unnatural dislike” of her eldest son (not her step-son), and there’s no evidnce she had anything to do with flagellation other than Stoney’s claims. Other Gillray prints picked up on Bowes’ supposed preference to cats over her own children by depicting her nursing cats at her breasts while her son cries, not to mention drinking with and sleeping with servants.

A few months after the publication of the Flaybum print, Stoney actually kidnpapped Bowes with the help of armed thugs and a bribed constable, and fled into the wilds with her, pursued by constables and angry locals. (Life was imitating a Gothic novel.) At last, she was freed and Bowes was stopped in a country field. She went back to London.

The legal battles continued while Stoney was in prison, with Stoney using his wife’s extorted Confessions against her. They were openly published in 1793.

You could see this sordid affair as a collision between the old idea of libertinism and the idea of equal desire between the sexes, and the nascent cult of motherhood that would come to full fruition in the Victorian era. Bowes was as much of a female libertine as it was realistically possible to be, and Stoney’s principal attack on her character was that she was an abusive mother. She had no character to salvage, no way to turn public opinion to her side.

The two semi-pornographic works Stoney commissioned (so to speak) were used to control and to damage his wife via her public reputation (and sad to say, few people cared much about her situation.) What interests me is that these works may have been read as pornography by people who didn’t know or care about the real person they refer to. Furthermore, these images and texts may have hung around and been read by people long after Stoney and Bowes faded from public knowledge or been relevant. I can imagine people in later generations seeing the Flaybum print as inspiration for masochistic erotic fantasy. The two women in the print are depicted as beautiful, not grotesque caricatures as common in such prints.

Gillray was an interesting artist of this period. Whereas Rowlandson was erotic but light and fluffy and never without a humorous or satiric point, Gillray tended towards the blunt and the direct. The rule in high art was to show the moment before violence, but Gillray showed the event itself or its immediately and bloody aftermath. This is not to say that Gillray couldn’t be subtle and witty when he wanted, even about sexual matters.

James Gillray's 'Fashionable Contrasts' (1792), showing male and female feet in shoes, indicating their wearers are in the act of missionary intercourse.

As another example of fetishistic or perverse (mis)reading, this image could be also read as fodder for foot fetish fantasies.

Feb 052011

An Oxford academic says that an otherwise obscure 18th century collection of miscellaneous poems was in print for more than a century because it included a section of erotic verse.

The finding suggests that what we think of as high art and low art was being packaged, sold and read together in the 18th Century – and raises questions about whether the popularity of other bestselling books might have different explanations.

Dr van Hensbergen said: ‘I had just finished entering details of poems typical of miscellanies of the period- satires, imitations and amatory verse, when at the end of the second volume a new title page announced the start of ‘The Cabinet of Love’.

‘To my surprise, ‘The Cabinet’ turned out to be a collection of pornographic verse about dildos. The poems include ‘Dildoides’, a poem attributed to Samuel Butler about the public burning of French-imported dildos, ‘The Delights of Venus’, a poem in which a married woman gives her younger friend an explicit account of the joys of sex, and ‘The Discovery’, a poem about a man watching a woman in bed while hiding under a table.

Samuel Butler, you may recall, is no stranger to the kinky side of things. His mock epic poem Hudibras introduced the maxim “spare the rod and spoil the child” (not the Bible as is commonly believed), which is actually a reference to erotic flagellation.

This shows that in the 18th century pornography, as we would understand it today, was not a completely separate genre or category of media. A miscellaneous collections of poems might include sexual material. Something like this might have spread through word of mouth to the sexually curious.

This also brings up why I am so excited by the digitization of huge amounts of historical documents into searchable databases, which can open up new frontiers for historical research, particularly in the case of researching things other people haven’t already searched for. Overthinking It once did a semi-serious exploration of the history of Mr. T’s catchphrase “I pity the fool”, tracing it back to an obscure early 19th century book via Google Books. While this was in part a joke, it also showed the potential of new kinds of historical research.

Via io9

Mar 232009

The UK newspaper The Daily Mail provides a window into the private life of 18th century English writer Dr Samuel Johnson, specifically his masochistic relationship with another man’s wife, named Hester:

A sunny weekday afternoon in a well-appointed house in Streatham, South London. A generous lunch has been served, and the dining room has echoed with laughter and conversation.

A distinguished male house guest is left alone with his younger and much more attractive hostess. He murmurs something. She flushes and assents. They retire to a private room and lock the door behind them.

She sits on a chair and slips off her shoes. He kneels before her and takes her foot on his lap. He fondles it in his big hands, then stoops to kiss it.

Soon, at his urging, she has bound him hand and foot with padlock and chains, and he – suffused with shame and delight – is submitting to be whipped.

In one 1773 letter – written in elaborately formal French so that, if intercepted by servants, it could not be understood – he begged her [Hester]: ‘I wish, my protector, that your authority will always be clear to me, and that you will keep me in that form of slavery which you know so well how to make blissful.’

But there are signs that Hester – initially compliant – was an increasingly reluctant dominatrix. ‘I will detain you no longer,’ she wrote in reply, ‘so farewell and be good; and do not quarrel with your Governess for not using the rod enough.’

Even so, power play was an integral part of their relationship. In 1779 Johnson told Hester: ‘A woman has such power between the ages of 25 and 45 that she may tye a man to a post and whip him if she will.’

Hester later wrote: ‘This he knew of himself was literally and strictly true I am sure.’

And in a diary entry about her relationship with Johnson – whom she called ‘my slave’ – Hester wrote: ‘The fetters and padlocks will tell posterity the truth.’

This is an instance of the use of Master-slave terminology in an erotic sense, decades before the Munby-Cullwick relationship, which may not have been quite as unique as I thought.

The book is Samuel Johnson: The Struggle by Jeffrey Meyers Link

Dec 112007

GJ Barker-Benfield, The Culture of Sensibility, 1996 University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0226037142

I finally got through The Culture of Sensibility, which focuses on the transformation of post-Restoration England and how that affected class and gender.

New wealth flooded into England, creating a solid middle class and a market for consumer goods, the “nation of shopkeepers.” When men met for business, they had to convince each other they were not thugs who would rob each other. Thus, they created manners and rituals to regulate interactions. The irony is that the wealth that made all this “civilizing” possible came from the Atlantic slave trade.

At the same time, natural philosophers like Isaac Newton and John Locke presented a new, secular model of human nature, that of sensibility. Human beings were born as blank slates and created through their experiences, which affected their nerves. Nerves were how people felt and experienced things, and if a person’s nerves would do the right things, they would feel appropriately in response to stimulus. To observe a suffering person would induce feelings of sympathy (not empathy) in the observer and naturally create a desire to help that person. Indeed, an observer of greater sensibility might feel more distress than the person who is actually suffering.

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Dec 032007

Family Portrait

Stone, Lawrence. “Libertine Sexuality in Post-Restoration England: Group Sex and Flagellation among the Middling Sort in Norwich in 1706-07” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 1992, vol. 2, no.4, pp. 511-26

For a while, I’ve been saying that Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick were the world’s first consensual BDSM relationship, but they may have some competition.

…it is astonishing to discover a small coterie of middle- and lower-middle-class young professional people, in the first decade of the eighteenth century, in the ex-Puritan provincial town of Norwich, palying such exotic erotic games as voyeurism, group sex, wife-swapping, the trimming of pubic hair, and extensive bisexual flagellation. At the center of all this deviant activity was a young bookseller bookbinder, Samuel Self, who styled himself “Mr.” and was a member of that ambiguous new urban class, the pseudogentry.

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Jul 312007

Though Pico dela Mirandola’s text has the virtue of being early, the primary text of the history and science of sadomasochism is A Treatise on the Use of Flogging in Medicine and Venery by Johann Heinrich Meibom (aka John Henry Meibomius), 1590-1655. Meibom published his treatise in 1639, and it was still being referenced more than 200 years later when people tried to explain masochism.

I finally found an online copy of the complete text in English, an edition published in Paris in 1898. It’s a dense read, but interesting in several respects.

Meibom cites several examples that sexual masochism does exist, but then dismisses the arguments that this is a result of astrological influences (as Mirandola did) or local custom. He proceeds to establish a mechanistic, physiological explanation, that the loins or reins are related to the male reproductive capacity, and in certain men, especially older ones, arousal and ejaculation depends on excess mechanical stimulus to the loins.

Meibom has no psychological theory, and particularly no theological theory, for masochism. The sex act and its aberrations are purely physiological events, in keeping with the materialist philosophy of the Enlightenment. God, sin, penance or mortification of the flesh has no part in it.

Three centuries after Christianity effectively banned mortification of the flesh from lay religious practice, voluntary flagellation still exists and is viewed in completely secular terms.

May 182007

Brissenden, R.F. Virtue in Distress MacMillan, 1974

My readings on slavery and sympathy brought me to the concept of sensibility. This is a key concept in how we think about human nature, and I think will prove to be a key issue in the history of BDSM.

We’re used to thinking of reason and emotion as being opposing forces in the human mind. In the late 18th century, however, thinkers like Rousseau and Locke developed the idea of sensibility, which is part of a related cluster of related words with shifting meanings, including “sense” (both as in “the five senses” and as in “common sense”), “sentient”, “sensation”, “sentiment” and “sentimentality.”
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