Diagnosing Deviance: aversion, obscenity and the senses in classical antiquity


Photo: Helen Frost, Faculty of Arts, University of Nottingham

Photo: Helen Frost, Faculty of Arts, University of Nottingham

This guest post by Mark Bradley is part of Disgust Weekin which a group of scholars from a range of disciplines explore different aspects of disgust.

Mark Bradley is Associate Professor of Ancient History and Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education at the University of Nottingham. He is author of Colour and Meaning in Ancient Rome (2009) and Editor of Papers of the British School at Rome. Together with Shane Butler (Johns Hopkins), he is co-editor of a series of volumes on ‘The Senses in Antiquity’, for which he has contributed a volume on Smell and the Ancient Senses (2015), and he is currently writing a monograph on Foul Bodies in Ancient Rome.

‘Papylus, your nose and your dong are both so long that when your dong grows, your nose knows.’ This short comic epigram by the Roman poet Martial caricatures the obscene Papylus by imagining him as a grotesque figure with a giant nose stretching out to meet his stinking phallus. But Martial’s Papylus was more than just a grotesque spectacle: the nose that mirrored his phallus drank up its own foul odours, conjuring up a host of associations with bestial stench, sexual obscenity and self-indulgent animal sniffing. Martial keeps Papylus’ foul body at a safe distance: the poet knows he stinks, and understands what that means, and his barbed satire warns his audience not to get too close.

Figure 1: Pan copulating with a goat. From the Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum. Museo Archeologico di Napoli (inv. 27709). Photo: author.]

Figure 1: Pan copulating with a goat. From the Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum. Museo Archeologico di Napoli (inv. 27709). Photo: author

For ancient Greeks and Romans, just as it is for us, disgust was the most visceral of human emotions. Ancient bile was triggered by fear, anxiety, hatred and aversion, and it bubbled up in every area of classical antiquity. And it often manifested itself through the lower senses – smell, taste and touch – experiences that lent themselves less to rational thought and more to basic animal instincts: things that stank, tasted vile or felt funny delivered immediate, tangible warning signs – the moist skin of old women caked in repulsive cosmetic concoctions was a particular favourite of Roman imperial satire, for example, as was the body odour of sexual deviants like Papylus. Ancients also used their eyes and ears to diagnose bodies or matter that did not conform to the expectations of society: complexions, cosmetics and clothing associated with bodies at the margins of civilisation; people who were too fat or thin, tall or short, or who had bits missing or sticking out where they should be; or the shrill voice of eunuchs – all alarm bells for Greco-Roman society, which had developed sophisticated models around beauty and ideal bodies that occupied the perfect, harmonious mean. From the ghoulish and ghastly figures of ancient myth to sexual perverts, unwanted immigrants and deviant emperors, examples of aversion to unwanted, unwashed and unsavoury bodies were legion in classical antiquity, an extensive corpus of evidence that allows us to probe the very foundations of ancient prejudice and the classical body image.

But, as the anthropologist Mary Douglas has shown us, disgust (just like beauty) is far from being a straightforward human universal. Excrement repulses us most of the time, but not necessarily when it is manure on a crop-field; Romans knew that urine smelled, but wouldn’t turn their noses up at it when it was used as a detergent on their clothes (conveniently re-named as lotium, ‘washing-up liquid’), and they had a thing for that rotten fish-paste they called garum, and the stinking shellfish-dye that coloured the clothes of senators, priests and emperors purple. So even what we think of as very basic responses to foul things could be recalibrated and re-learned: dirt is only dirt, foul bodies are only foul bodies, if they’re at odds with a notion of order or civilisation – if they’re out of place.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Lawrence Alma-Tadema, ‘The roses of Heliogabalus’ (1888). Photo: Wikimedia Commons


Unsurprisingly, antiquity’s rulers were subject to particular scrutiny, their bodies often probed and dissected in extraordinary detail: in their skin, flesh and bones, the usual story went, lay the key to their character and the regimes over which they were in charge. The stock descriptions of personal appearance in each of Suetonius’ lives of the emperors have been shown to be influenced by prevailing physiognomic doctrine, where bodily defects functioned as telltale signs of imperfections in the emperor’s character and personality: Caligula’s pallor and thin limbs pointed to the fragility of his mental state and leadership, while Vitellius’ obesity underpinned the greed that characterised his regime. Smell also diagnosed foul emperors: the deceptive effeminate use of perfumes and scents by depraved emperors like Caligula, Nero or Elagabalus; the destructive, flatulent Claudius pictured defecating himself as he died; or Maximinus Thrax, who drank so much wine and ate so much meat that he literally sweated buckets, which he would then exhibit by the pint.

This idea of innate foulness exuding from the emperor’s body is most vividly recounted in Lactantius’ description of the death of Galerius, persecutor of Christians, in AD 311, struck down by a terminal disease that started out as a malign cancer on his genitals, which spread around his body despite repeated surgery, eating away at his entrails and dissolving his buttocks in decay. Lactantius revels in his extended account of the gruesome disease:

As the marrow was assaulted, the infection pushed on inwards and seized his internal organs; worms were spawned inside him. The smell spread not only through the palace, but pervaded the whole city. No wonder, since now the tubes for his urine and his excrement were now melted together. He was consumed by worms and his body was dissolved into a state of rot amid intolerable pain.

[quoting Vergil’s Aeneid on the death of Laocoon:] “At the same time he raised terrible cries to the stars, like the bellowing of a bull when he flees the altar wounded”.

Meats cooked and warm were set near his putrefying buttocks, so that the heat could draw out the little worms: when these were broken up, an innumerable swarm of these creatures squirmed out, and the very disaster that had befallen his rotting flesh was fertile in generating a far greater quantity of them.

Lactantius’ gruesome description of Galerius’ illness was part of an indulgent and highly creative exercise in aligning pagan persecution of Christian belief with divine retribution and a graphic assault on the senses: the emperor’s body visibly wasted away, his cries of pain were the stuff of legend, the infection takes hold of his innards, worms eat him up, and the stench of his rotting body filled the entire city. Immediately following this passage, Lactantius imagines Galerius finally giving way and accepting God, and his horrific experience is imagined as the catalyst for Galerius’ Edict of Toleration toward the Christians, which was posted at Nicomedia in 30 April 311, shortly before the emperor finally succumbed to his illness. The rot attacking the state was represented most visibly, tangibly and redolently by the pagan emperor’s rotting body. In Lactantius’ account, the sensations it produced were far more than creative ecphrasis: they functioned as both measure and warning of a regime that required cleansing, correcting and re-ordering.

Deviant bodies, then, were the by-products of a social, political and moral dialogue. Bodies that didn’t fit were usually symptomatic of bigger problems within the state, whether that was sexual promiscuity, social anarchy or corrupt political regimes. And this corporeal deviance was diagnosed most prominently and explicitly through careful, keen use of the senses – through colour, smell, sound, even touch and taste. A fragment of one of Varro’s Menippean Satires, comparing the city of Rome to the human body, describes the senses as the city gates, portals that monitored the relationship between the inside and the outside, that kept an eye, ear and nose on the outside world. Sometimes, as we saw with Galerius, the senses worked in tandem, where lucid and articulate perception of bodies at the margins allows for the educated elite Roman a level of sensory enlightenment: keen eyes, ears and noses told you who to look out for, who to stay away from, and how to learn from others’ mistakes.

Contact mark.bradley@nottingham.ac.uk

Attractive Aversion in the Study of Seventeenth-Century Poetry

This guest post by Natalie Eschenbaum is paeschenbaumrt of Disgust Week, in which a group of scholars from a range of disciplines explore different aspects of disgust. Natalie K. Eschenbaum is Associate Professor and Chair of English at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. Her co-edited (with Barbara Correll) collection, Disgust in Early Modern English Literature (New York: Routledge, 2016) includes her essay, “Desiring Disgust in Robert Herrick’s Epigrams.”

Last year The New Yorker released a podcast entitled “The Pleasures of Disgust”; it opens with the podcasters describing the items that most disgust them (things like pretzel slime mold, silverfish, and bubble tea). What follows is an excited and playful discussion that touches on some important recent research on disgust by social psychologists and philosophers (like Colin McGinn and Johnathan Haidt). This podcast is one of many popular news engine pieces that responds to a surge in scholarly interest in disgust; the interest started with the pioneering work of psychologist Paul Rozin, who began researching the cultural evolution of the aversive emotion in the 1980s. According to The New York Times, disgust is now the “hot” new emotion to study: “Disgust is having its moment in the light.” Thanks to the recent Disney Pixar movie, Inside Out (2015), which introduces us to the anthropomorphized figures of a few different emotions (Joy, Fear, Sadness, Anger, and Disgust), we can now have a plastic “Disgust” figurine watch over us while we work, or we can fall asleep snuggling her green-hued likeness in plush form.

My own (academic) relationship with disgust began with the poetry of Robert Herrick, a seventeenth-century English vicar who wrote disgusting epigrams about a few of his village residents. For instance:

Reapes eyes so rawe are, that (it seemes) the flyes
Mistake the flesh, and flye-blow both his eyes;
So that an Angler, for a daies expence,
May baite his hooke, with maggots taken thence.[1]

This poem happens to describe one of the things that most disgusts me: maggots in rotting flesh. I remember physically cringing the first time I read “Upon Reape” in the late 1990s. I also remember immediately re-reading it. I found what the epigram described repulsive, but its poetic presentation perversely attractive. It was this emotional tug—of disgust and desire—that most attracted me to the study of disgust. If, as Aristotle claims, the purpose of poetry is to delight and instruct, I wondered why disgust delights and how or what it instructs. I also noticed that little critical attention had been paid to disgusting poems like “Upon Reape” up to that point; most readers had dismissed such poems as distasteful and unworthy of critical attention.[2] I wondered if there was critical aversion at play; I felt ill equipped to read disgust critically.

Literary scholars now have quite a bit of nuanced research to inform their readings of disgusting literary texts. In the collection I recently edited with Barbara Correll, Disgust in Early Modern English Literature (New York: Routledge, 2016), it struck me that many of the contributors were concerned with the crossing of disgust and desire. The New Yorker podcast discusses the pleasures of disgust too, and the fact that artists exploit the extreme and opposing reactions that disgust evokes. What is strange about disgust in the context of desire, of course, is that desire does not necessarily cancel out disgust. For example, when I desire to re-read a poem about rotting flesh and maggots, it is not to erase my disgust, but to intensify and to relish it; disgust thus becomes a desirable instead of an aversive emotion.[3]

Much seventeenth-century poetry poses desirable and disgusting images in opposition to one another. John Donne’s “Elegy 2: The Comparison” is a compelling example of this:

As the sweet sweat of roses in a still,
As that which from chaf’d musk cat’s pores doth trill,
As the almighty balm of th’early east,
Such are the sweat drops on my mistress’ breast.
And on her neck her skin such luster sets,
They seem no sweat drops, but pearl carcanets.
Rank sweaty froth thy mistress’ brow defiles,
Like spermatic issue of ripe menstruous boils, (ll. 1-8)[4]

This particular elegy has been the subject of great debate because the disgust is read as misogyny. In a recent article, Elizabeth Bobo summarizes the opposing readings: “Traditionally, the work has been understood as one which contrasts the good mistress of the speaker with the bad mistress of the addressee. More recent interpretations have disagreed, claiming that the poem describes a single woman, not two.”[7] Bobo argues that whether the poem is about a single women or two, the good mistress is consistently described in negative terms, and the poem demonstrates degrees of yuckiness in women as opposed to oppositions of good and bad. In a sense, Bobo has come to the opposite conclusion regarding Donne’s disgust than I did in my reading of Herrick’s; disgust eclipses desire, instead of the other way around. What I like about this reading is that it emphasizes how disgust dismantles binary oppositions. Disgust protests to be the opposite of desire, but it isn’t. And things that disgust can also titillate. Especially when they are crafted in poetic art.

Donne’s poem deals in similes; in the first lines, a mistress’s drops of sweat are likened to rose perfume, to a cat’s anal glands, to pearl jewels, and to oozing boils. The elegy ends with the narrator saying that the bad mistress should be left, and he in turn “will leave comparing thus, / She and comparisons are odious” (ll. 54-55). But the disgusting similes are the pleasure and art of this verse. Poets cannot stop comparing, so perhaps he means to leave his writing as it is (as opposed to leaving it behind). Comparisons might be hateful and repulsive, but they are never solely this. I admit I have trouble seeing aesthetic beauty in an oozing boil or a maggoty eye, although I appreciate that these items are as much the stuff of poetry as roses and pearls, and the ability to capture their vile natures in words is perversely pleasing. But even if there is beauty in disgust, I do not want to dismiss the charges of misogyny in this particular poem, because disgust is often used in violent and discriminatory ways against others. In fact, Donne’s elegy demonstrates how useful it can be to bring disgust to the fore and to break down the binary that gives it power.

This scholarly moment is asking us to take a serious look at disgust. My look has already shown me too much to summarize here, but I did want to share a taste of how poetry complicates the disgust/desire binary. Sometimes, I need to step away from my desk because this research makes me feel physically sick, but this most visceral emotion also draws me back for more, again and again.

[1] Herrick, Robert. “Upon Reape.” The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick. Ed. J. Max Patrick. New York: Norton, 1968. 371.

[2] Two scholars did critically address Herrick’s disgusting epigrams prior to the late 1990s: Coiro, Ann Baynes. Robert Herrick’s Hesperides and the Epigram Book Tradition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988; Schoenfeldt, Michael C. “The Art of Disgust: Civility and the Social Body in Hesperides.” George Herbert Journal 14, nos. 1 & 2 (Fall 1990/Spring 1991): 127-154.

[3] For an in-depth exploration of the aesthetics of aversion, see: Korsmeyer, Carolyn. Savoring Disgust. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

[4] Donne, John. “Elegy 2: The Comparison.” John Donne’s Poetry. Ed. Donald R. Dickson. New York: Norton, 2007. 26-27.

[5] Bobo, Elizabeth. “‘Chaf’d Muscatts Pores’: The Not-So-Good Mistress in Donne’s ‘The Comparison.’” ANQ 25, No. 3 (2012): 168-174. 168.

Disgust: The Very Word

Ben Disgust WeekContinuing Disgust Week, in which a group of scholars from a range of disciplines explore different aspects of disgust, Benedict S Robinson explores the history of the word itself.
Benedict S Robinson is Associate Professor of English at Stony Brook University. His field of specialization is British literature and culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His first book,
Islam and Early Modern English Literature, appeared in 2007; he is currently completing a second book called Inventing Emotion in Shakespeare’s England, the first piece of which appeared from ELH under the title “Disgust c. 1600” in Summer 2014.

Disgust is often called one of the “basic” emotions, to be explained in evolutionary terms as a reaction that protects us from contamination. The word disgust, on the other hand, has a more limited history, first appearing in English around the year 1600. Noticing this a few years ago led me to speculate that disgust constructs the sphere of aversive experience differently from older terms like loathing. The results of this work, published in 2014, argued that available concepts of aversion understood it primarily in terms of what we would call moral loathing; that such accounts had little interest in mere physical revulsion; that the word loathing tended to make moral loathing paradigmatic of the whole category; and that the appearance of disgust represents a distinct way of interpreting aversion, one more likely to be concerned with the experience of physical revulsion, and more likely to construe revulsion as a problem of essentially aesthetic, hygienic, and social distinctions. In fact I traced the origins of the word to new forms of cultural capital in the expanding metropolitan London of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Histories of emotion have long leaned on language as a primary source of evidence. Such arguments always face a theoretical problem about their reach. Do all linguistic changes map changes in conceptualization? Can we draw a line—as Anna Wierzbicka has tried to do—between semantic primitives and that realm of variability that is subject to the forces of history and culture?

That problem is obviously not one I can claim to solve here. But I want to suggest that one important way forward is to expand our use of linguistic evidence. Since that 2014 article, I have been looking for ways of using digital archives to study patterns in early modern language use; and I have been looking for ways of thinking about the evidence extracted from those archives in terms provided by certain strands of cognitive linguistics. My idea is that the digital humanities and cognitive sciences are a natural fit for each other, especially if we want a history of emotion that is something other than a history of theories of emotion: a history of the ways in which people wrote and spoke about emotion across a range of social and linguistic contexts. There have been several efforts to connect corpus linguistics to cognitive linguistics, but that work has largely been based on contemporary materials: we have cross-linguistic analyses but not cross-historical ones, despite a call for the latter by Zoltán Kövecses, in his account of the metaphors that structure the concept of emotion.

Early English Books Online, the central digital archive of early printed books, is an excellent resource for pursuing this kind of work, because—by comparison with other digital archives—it is very well-curated, as the product of about a century of bibliographical scholarship. The most useful engine for studying the contents of EEBO is provided by the Corpus Query Processor at Lancaster University, which accesses about a third of the EEBO corpus. The contents of CQP are tagged with part-of-speech tags, so that one can, for instance, look for the adjectives most commonly modifying forms of disgust:

_JJ disgust*

The results show a tendency to measure disgust almost as though it were a mass noun, including measures of some degree of subtlety: “little,” “small” (Fig. 1). What disgust generally measures is social antagonism, as we can see from searches that capture the nouns that tend to constellate with it:

_NN1 _CC disgust*

disgust* _CC _NN1

_NN2 _CC disgust*

disgust* _CC _NN2  (Fig. 2)

The collocates of disgust—words that co-occur with it at rates higher than we would expect based on a random distribution—confirm the link between disgust and social antagonism. The collocates of loathing, on the other hand, tend to constellate physical filthiness—indexed by reference to smell as well as taste—with some very large moral abstractions: the twelfth collocate of loathing is “sin.” In fact changes among the collocates of loathing after about 1609 suggest that the arrival of the new word may have shifted usage of the older one. The collocate lists are too extensive to include here, but they open the way to studies of idiomatic language use, even to modeling whole areas of discourse. One method I have been experimenting with is to use network analysis to investigate the multiple relations among a word’s collocates, by means of the open-source network analysis program Cytoscape (Fig. 3, Fig. 4). The results are preliminary, but they suggest that it might be possible to model lexical meaning in terms of the interaction of multiple discursive regions. The results suggest that disgust and loathing are built on distinct metaphorical construals. Disgust analogizes from bitter tastes to local social conflicts. Loathing analogizes from a repertory of loathsome objects to a language of moral corruption centered above all on sexual violations, as paradigmatic instances of the ostensible filthiness of sin.

Does all of this this indicate that disgust and loathing construe aversion in distinct ways? It may: the collocate networks for disgust and loathing only overlap about 30%.

There are no doubt other and better ways of putting EEBO to use in studying the language of emotion. But this seems to me a vital direction for future research. Pursuing it also needs to mean looking beyond emotion words—which have been at the heart of so much work on the history of emotion—toward larger constructions and toward patterns of metaphor. What is entirely clear is that if digital archives are to be effective tools for scholarship they must be based on the results of traditional humanities research. Anyone who has tried to use Google Books as evidence of anything knows what an archive looks like when it has not been curated.

Fig. 1. ADJ-N Constructions

CQP search “_JJ disgust*” (351 matches in 287 texts)

Search result



great disgust



general disgust



little disgust



small disgust



particular disgust



deep disgust



high disgust



great disgusts



secret disgust



private disgust



new disgusts



new disgust



Fig. 2. N-CC-N Constructions

A. CQP searches “_NN1 _CC disgust*” and “disgust* _CC _NN1” (195 matches)

Search result






aversion / aversation















B. CQP searches “_NN2 _CC disgust*” and “disgust* _CC _NN2” (72 matches)

Search result





















Fig. 3. Disgust Collocate Network

Imaged via Cytoscape.[1]

fig 4

Fig. 4. Loathing Collocate Network
Imaged via Cytoscape

fig 5

[1] Shannon P, Markiel A, Ozier O, Baliga NS, Wang JT, Ramage D, Amin N, Schwikowski B, Ideker T. “Cytoscape: a software environment for integrated models of biomolecular interaction networks,” Genome Research 13.11 (2003): 2498-504.

Disgust and the Jury: “Horrible and Inhuman” Homicides; Beldotti’s Disgust

This extract, the second in our Disgust Week series, is taken from Professor Martha Nussbaum’s Book Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame and the Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), pp.168-171.

The book critiques the roles of disgust and shame in the law and its interaction with life and Photograph of Martha Nussbaumsociety. Her overall thesis is that these emotions should be handled with care, and that disgust should never be basis of a criminal conviction or as the basis for law, as doing so is an attempt to express a type of purity that is impossible in real life. In the section below, Nussbaum examines the role played by disgust as a physical and social contaminant and boundary violation, accompanied by a strong a visceral sensation, in ‘”Horrible and inhuman” homicides’. In this section, she uses a particularly graphic example of sexual violence and the strange requests of the perpetrator to ask whether disgust has a role to play in the law, even in extreme cases.

 Professor Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. Many thanks to Professor Nussbaum for granting us permission to use this extract.

We must now consider one more specific case, since it figures prominently in Kahan’s pro-disgust argument.[1] A murderer named Beldotti apparently killed in order to gratify sadistic sexual desires.[2] He strangled his female victim, cut off her nipples, and stuffed her into trash bags. Police recovered from his home numerous postmortem photographs of the deceased, posed with dildoes penetrating her vagina and anus. The jury found that Beldotti’s crime showed “extreme atrocity and cruelty” and sentenced him to life in prison without parole. While in prison, Beldotti requested that the dildoes, photos of the victim, the trash bags in which she had been placed, and other sexual paraphernalia be returned to his representatives outside prison. The state opposed this request, arguing that giving these items back, even if not to Beldotti himself, would “justifiably spark outrage, disgust, and incredulity on the part of the general public.” They urged that the property be put in the trash, and the Massachusetts Court of Appeals agreed, concluding that returning the property would be “offensive to basic concepts of decency treasured in a civilized society.”

According to Kahan, the Beldotti case shows that disgust plays an ineliminable role in criminal law by shoring up community morality: the result in the case, and what is good about it, cannot be explained without giving disgust a central role. Kahan argues that no concern with rehabilitation or specific deterrence could explain the result (given Beldotti’s life sentence), and that a concern with general deterrence would not explain the state’s refusal to surrender these particular items. The only remaining explanation, Kahan concludes, is disgust. If it had granted Beldotti’s request, the state itself would be “tainted” by the contamination his relics would impart. The request to put the items “in the trash can where they belong” is an unmistakable expression of disgust, and the case shows that this emotion is central to protecting society’s moral boundaries.

First of all, I am not persuaded by Kahan’s arguments about general deterrence. Obviously enough, to surrender to a murderer the paraphernalia he used in a murder would be a treatment so indulgent that it could well lessen the deterrent effect of his life sentence. The message is that he can have a good time in jail, indulging his sadistic fantasies, knowing that all his paraphernalia is safely in the hands of his agents. By contrast, giving his relatives back his keys or his wallet would have little tendency to make other sex murderers think that Beldotti had gotten away lightly; that would be a perfectly unremarkable thing to do with a prisoner’s effects, and it probably would never be publicly commented on or reach the ears of other sex murderers.

But the heart of the issue surely is that Kahan has forgotten about retribution. The most natural way to view the state’s refusal is as a retributive quid pro quo: you took a woman’s life with these sex toys, so to punish you we are going to refuse you the things that give you sexual pleasure.[3] The state mentioned not one reaction, but three: “outrage, disgust, and incredulity.” Kahan focuses only on disgust and contamination. But surely the first and third responses are also highly significant, and they go closely together. Outrage expresses the idea that it is unreasonable and wrong to reward Beldotti in just that area where he should be most severely punished. Such a reward would not only be astonishing—the response of “incredulity”—it would be a profound injury and disrespect to the dead, to anyone who cares about her, and to society itself. This sense of outrage is highly cognitive, expressing a reasoned judgment that can be publicly shared.[4] Its cognitions are not focused, as are those of disgust, on contamination to the self; they focus on the harm or wrong that has occurred. Outrage is thus closely linked to the idea of retributive punishment, to the thought that (instead of rewarding this guy by returning his murder weapons) we should be punishing him by denying him access to the tools he used to commit his hideous crime.[5]

Disgust is clearly in the picture; no doubt the state is right that the public would react with disgust (expressing a sense of contamination and defilement), as well as with outrage and incredulity, were it to grant the request. But outrage is sufficient to explain the result and why it is correct; we do not need to rely on disgust, as Kahan suggests. And outrage, as I have argued, is a moral sentiment far more pertinent to legal judgment, and far more reliable, than disgust. It contains reasoning that can be publicly shared, and it does not make the questionable move of treating the criminal like an insect or a slug, outside of our moral community. Instead, it firmly includes him within the moral community and judges his actions on a moral basis. Thus it avoids any tendency to portray the criminal as a monster, one whom none of us can possibly be.

Indeed, I believe it is clear that in the actual case outrage is not only the sounder response to Beldotti, but also more explanatory of the outcome and the opinions. For neither the state nor the court does treat Beldotti as an alien or a monster, with the eye of an “anthropologist disembarking on unknown shores.” They treat him as a perfectly sane person who has made an absolutely outrageous request. They react with “incredulity” because they assume that Beldotti is not a monster, but a sane human being, and must know that his request is outrageous. Were they thinking of him as like a slug or a heap of vomit, they would not be so outraged by the request, they would just see it as lunatic pathology. But they don’t: they know he is a human being with recognizable rationality, and that is why the right response to the request is anger. Disgust is there, but it is in considerable tension with outrage and incredulity. I suggest that the judgment in the case followed, rightly, the moral sentiment of outrage and indignation, which is much easier to square with treating Beldotti as a sane and responsible agent.

Disgust is a deeply embedded response. All adult human beings acquire it in some form, and all known societies teach it in some form. It may even be that many, or even most, human beings need some of it in order to live, because we cannot endure too much daily confrontation with our own decay and with the oozy stuffs of which our bodies are made. And although disgust does not do very well tracking genuine danger, it is a reasonably useful device for steering us away from danger when we are too young or too inattentive or ill-informed to ponder the merits of the case. We should not, however, conclude from these facts that disgust is a valuable response for legal and political purposes. Many responses that are deeply embedded in human life are morally questionable and unworthy of guiding public action. Disgust, I have argued, offers limited guidance in a narrow set of laws concerned with physical distaste and danger. But when it becomes a constructive criterion of legally regulable conduct, and especially when it conduces to the political subordination and marginalization of vulnerable groups and people, disgust is a dangerous social sentiment. We should be working to contain it, rather than building our legal world on the vision of human beings that it contains.

Edited by Richard Firth-Godbehere

[1] Dan M. Kahan “The Anatomy of Disgust in Criminal Law”, Michigan Law Review, 96, (1998), 1621-57; Kahan makes it clear that he is interested in this case in part because it is not a death-penalty case and thus helps us focus on the issue of disgust in isolation from the troubling problems of vagueness and capriciousness in the application of the death penalty.

[2] Beldotti v. Commonwealth, 669 N.E.2d 222 (Mass. Ct. App. 1996).

[3] The fact that the items would presumably never again be in Beldotti’s possession is no more problematic for this interpretation than it is for Kahan’s, since both of us think, plausibly, that giving them back to his agents in accordance with his wishes is a way of letting him have his way concerning them.

[4] See Sunstein, Kahnemann, and A Shkade ‘Assessing Punitive Damages with notes on Cognition and Valuation in Law)”, Yale Law Journal, 107, (1998), 2071 ff, concluding that judgments and rankings of outrage in punitive-damage cases are surprisingly constant and predictable across experimental juries constructed to reflect variety of many different sorts; financial awards, by contrast, are not at all constant.

[5] This is not inconsistent with my claim, above, that giving him back his money or other property would not occasion outrage, even though he might have used money or other property to commit his crime. The sex paraphernalia were intimately connected with the specific nature of the crime and its terrible brutality in a way that other items of property were not. Money is a necessary condition for all actions, good and bad, in a modern society, and thus has no links with crime per se.

Gut Reactions: Fear and Disgust in Public Health History

As far back as Charles Darwin’s 1872 work, The Expression of Man and Animals, it has been assumed that the emotion of disgust is an evolved universal trait, found in all cultures at all times. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen presented evidence for a universal facial expression of disgust, all-but cementing it as one of the six basic emotions that are still used as the backbone of a great deal of emotion research.

This week, a group of scholars from a range of disciplines have come together to explore different aspects of disgust, attempt to define it and question whether it had an origin, whether it is universal, and whether it can even be called an emotion. The first in this series is a guest post by Guenter B. Risse.

Risse is professor emeritus of the history of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and currently affiliate professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Bioethics and Medical Humanities. He has been working on the inflPhotograph of Guenter B. Risseuence of emotions in public health, notably in his Plague, Fear and Politics in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012) and the recent Driven by Fear: Epidemics and Isolation in San Francisco’s House of Pestilence (University of Illinois Press, 2016) His blog attempts to sketch the dynamics responsible for the construction of health risks and drastic separation of persons deemed dangerous to society.

Testifying in April 1876 before a commission appointed by the California Senate to study the nefarious impact of Chinese immigration, Hugh Toland, a prominent surgeon and founder of his own medical school, asserted that 90 percent of venereal cases in San Francisco could be blamed on Chinese prostitutes. Engaging in “beastly sex,” they ultimately threatened America’s survival by “infusing poison into the Anglo-Saxon blood.” Revealing himself as a notorious racist, Toland expanded on the alarming incidence of “some of the worst cases of syphilis I have ever seen.” For a few dimes, white preteen local boys were initiated into the pleasures of the flesh with “frightful” consequences, poisoned by the seeds of a nearly incurable disease filling “our hospitals with invalids.” Indeed, some women in advanced stages of the disease came to the city hospital, where frightened and disgusted patients as well as physicians sought their immediate expulsion and transfer to a stigmatized isolation facility: San Francisco’s Pesthouse, where they briefly languished before dying.

Nineteenth-century pamphlet with an image of person affected by leprosy and text warning of 'The Dragon of Asia'

Pamphlet distributed in San Francisco by anti-Chinese politicians attempting to create fears of a leprosy epidemic, 1878

Migration from Asia was gaining momentum. Every ship brought hundreds of Chinese to America’s shores, some of them suffering from “loathsome” diseases. The use of this code word was deliberate; it was part of an emotional vocabulary designed to instill aversion. Loathsomeness implied a broad range of revolting feelings, from physical repulsion to moral contempt, fear to outrage, odium to horror. Primarily intended to identify acute infectious ailments with hideous skin manifestations, the attribution was also linked to cultural biases and presumed ethical infringements. Prominent among the “loathsome” diseases requiring removal were cases of smallpox, advanced stages of syphilis, leprosy, and plague, occasionally joined by certain disfiguring forms of cancer, crippling paralyses, as well as superficial tubercular lesions known as “scrofula.” Because of their overlapping symptoms and imprecise, shifting nomenclature, particularly with regard to the visible skin lesions, such contemptible diseases continued to be mired in clinical confusion and diagnostic quandaries.

With the help of disciplines like cognitive neurobiology, anthropology, as well as evolutionary, social, and clinical psychology, new insights are emerging concerning a broad range of sentiments and their influence on human beliefs and decision-making. Self-preservation is intuitive; emotion-driven behavior routinely responds to perceived risks. Negative feelings such as fear mongering and disgust appear to operate as an early warning system, detecting and opposing environmental dangers and social threats. While gruesome visual images provide physical, aesthetic and moral appraisals, smell and touch offer their own impressions and language to bolster aversive emotions. Such sensory cues trigger or enhance dread and repugnance.

Indeed, since ancient times, aversive sentiments have decisively contributed to the identification of epidemic threats, making possible their evasion or control. All diseased persons can become a menace; they turn into the ’other.” Feelings of avoidance are generated and expressed within particular social contexts shaped by biological, cultural, as well as political and economic factors. While the biological substrate of emotional responses is more or less the same; time, place, culture, and societal circumstances, as well as levels of scientific knowledge and the shifting ecology of disease, all determine their expression. Guided by the memory of previous vivid emergencies, new experiences can lead to notoriously flawed and often skewed “gut” reactions. These emotions influence the brain’s slower, conscious, and reflective rational network, particularly if they are fabricated or manipulated by particular ideologies or political and economic interests. Indeed, excessive and unreasonable emotional experiences have played an important role in human history, shaping notoriously biased responses in a hazardous world of crises, disasters, and pandemics.

Today humanity is said to be a visceral, disgust-obsessed species. Globalization and the formation of pluralistic societies seem to have enhanced feelings of fear, distaste, and revulsion that cover virtually all aspects of human relationships. Disagreeable feelings are facially expressed through a wrinkled nose, raised lips, and open mouth, often followed by the squeezing of the throat and nausea. This suggests that, in an evolutionary context, disgust was originally activated to protect us from orally transmitted threats, primarily the intake of unsuitable nourishment capable of triggering vomiting and diarrhea. In fact, the term “disgust”—literally, “bad taste”— refers specifically to the harmful qualities of spoiled foodstuffs, their detection, and gastrointestinal effects. Perhaps this “grossed out” or “yuck” feeling intensified in response to environmental changes and population density within early agricultural and pastoral societies exposing humans to greater health hazards. In an unfamiliar world of nourishment prone to decay, disgust served as a protective measure establishing rules and taboos concerned with food preparation and consumption. Beyond digestive avoidance, expressions of revulsion meshed with threats to bodily homeostasis. Sweat, saliva, stool, semen, decaying corpses, and deadly diseases made disgust the body’s key guardian. Provided with a host of new cues from sensory perceptions, humans withdrew and distanced themselves from a variety of disagreeable elicitors that came to include decomposing organic matter, spoiled foodstuffs, garbage, bodily fluids, dirt and wastes, as well as sewage.

Expansion of human populations multiplied the frequency and intensity of interpersonal contacts. Activated by novel sights, smells, and potential contaminants, emotions of dread and defilement came to shape and regulate social interactions. In fact, disgust has been coined the emotion of civilization, a key mechanism for setting physical and moral boundaries and guarding us against a widening spectrum of perceived threats. Strangers or unfamiliar “others”—were to be shunned or rejected. Individual and social prejudice as well as stereotyping morphed into powerful tools for constructing ideologies of nativism, race, and class that shaped political discourse. Divisions based on morality, ethnicity and nationality were accompanied by those based on religious beliefs and gender roles. Minorities were stigmatized, inequality justified, and violators of established rules punished.

Triggered by accelerated urbanization in late medieval and early modern Europe, the sanitary concept—filthy and spoiled environments breed poisons capable of causing diseases—was a key Western cultural creation shaped by repeated encounters with deadly epidemic disease. Clearing away rubbish and excrement from narrow, unpaved streets, opening drains, and cesspools and installing latrines in crowded cities, began as emotional imperatives rather than hygienic ones. Later, nineteenth-century public health policies drew on a powerful rhetoric that employed strong code words such as “filth” and “stink,” exacerbating potent feelings of revulsion and fear of contamination, especially in industrial urban areas of Europe and America.

The horrors of bodily infection and corruption initiate fight or flight mechanisms. At later stages, virulent syphilis displayed gruesome and disfiguring ulcers in various levels of decay. Called “gummas,” they destroyed the patient’s nasal cartilage, palate, and vocal cords. Similar fears were expressed about smallpox and leprosy. The former shifted from red spots to gray pimples or papules followed by vesicles filled with gray fluid. Denser in the face, palms of hands, and soles of feet, such lesions rapidly became grotesque pustules or pocks surrounded by a red halo. Confluent cases exhibited a swollen, bloody face with sunken eyes. Persons in advanced stages of leprosy displayed a leathery, frozen “leonine” visage, with swollen lips, flattened nose, all framed by reddish, dry, and scaly plaques, crusts, and tubercles. Lastly, bubonic plague with its characteristic “carbuncles” also could feature confluent dark bluish hemorrhages responsible for the disease’s early characterization as the “Black Death.” In sum, “foul contagious disease” could “ruin body and soul, bestowing a terrible burden on the next generation.”

Photograph of two black coated figures, with red, long-nosed masks.

So-called ‘Plague Doctors’

In this highly emotional context, sensory and social avoidance techniques designed to keep sick and malodorous people at bay came to rein supreme, enabling individuals and communities to avoid contamination and possible death. The task began with detection of prominent symptoms and signs of disease with the help of visual, odoriferous, tactile, and auditory sensations. Accounts of illness in family, friends, or society at large all also contributed to the experience. Proximity and personal recollections heightened contempt; avoidance of similar situations became routine. Memory of past epidemic disasters, coupled with plausible predictions regarding future crises, had lasting effects on human behavior. Remembrance stoked individual and communal imaginations to fashion a rationale for establishing quarantines and pest houses. Domains of disgust linked to the highly visible horrors of human flesh, such establishments came to represent physical and moral gatekeeping.

The idea that sick people must be separated from the healthy emerged at the junction between biology, on the one hand, and culture, politics, and nativism, on the other. Traditional narratives of public health depict a successful rational enterprise based on successive scientific discoveries, progressive legislation, and dedicated implementation. Yet, while historians have studied other institutions of confinement such as hospitals, asylums, and prisons, they have seldom examined quarantine facilities and pest houses. This omission partially stems from lack of documentation, a function of their frequently ephemeral nature and sordid reputation. Most establishments, often located near similarly unwholesome spaces such as dumps and cemeteries, were periodically destroyed to purge potential contaminants, only to be rebuilt at the already stigmatized site during subsequent emergencies. Although conveniently concealed from the public, pest houses represent another valuable “island for analysis” in the Foucauldian “carceral archipelago” of disciplinary institutions.

Cover of Risse's book, 'Driven by Fear'

Selected Sources

C. Strange and A. Bashford, eds., Isolation: Places and Practices of Exclusion, ed. by, London: Routledge, 2003.

Allan M. Brandt, No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States Since 1880, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Valerie Curtis, Micheal de Barra and Robert Aunger, “Disgust as An Adaptive System for Disease Avoidance Behavior,” Philosophical Transactions, Royal Society of London Biological Sciences 366 (Feb 12, 2011): 389-401.

M. T. Fessler and K. J. Haley, “Guarding the Perimeter: The Outside-Inside Dichotomy in Disgust and Bodily Experience,”Cognition and Emotion20 (2006): 3-19.

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, New York: Vintage, 1995

Elaine Fox, Emotion Science: Cognitive and Neuroscientific Approaches to Understanding Human Emotions, Basingstoke, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Johan Goudsblom, “Public Health and the Civilizing Process,” Milbank Quarterly, 64 (1986): 161-88.

Colin Jones, “The History of the Emotions and the History of Medicine,” Wellcome History 49, (Spring 2012): 5

Susan J. Matt and Peter N. Stearns, Doing Emotions History, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2014.

Colin McGinn, The Meaning of Disgust, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Susan B. Miller, Disgust: The Gatekeeper Emotion, Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press, 2004.

Jesse J. Prinz, Gut Reactions: A Perceptual Theory of Emotions, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Claude Quetel, History of Syphilis, trans. J. Braddock and B. Pike, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Paul Slovic, The Feeling of Risk: New Perspectives on Risk Perception, London: Earthscan, 2010.

Mary Spongeberg, Feminizing Venereal Disease: The Body of the Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century Medical Discourse, New York: NY University Press, 1997.

Peter Stearns, American Fear: The Causes and Consequences of High Anxiety, New York: Routledge, 2006.

M. Tybur et al., “Disgust: Evolved Function and Structure,”Psychological Review120 (2013): 65-84.

REVIEW: The Wicked Boy, by Kate Summerscale

Eleanor.betts (1)Dr Eleanor Betts recently completed her PhD in the School of History at Queen Mary University of London, researching Victorian responses to children who killed. Eleanor continues to work with the Centre for the History of the Emotions and is currently employed as an historical consultant and researcher by the National Trust and the Science Museum. You can follow her on Twitter @BettsEleanor. Below she reviews the new book by Kate Summerscale.

SPOILER ALERT: If you don’t want to know what happened to the boy murderer in Kate Summerscale’s book then you should read the book before you read this review!

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer, Kate Summerscale (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).

Wicked Boy coverThe Wicked Boy, Kate Summerscale’s latest exploration of Victorian murder and police detection, focuses on the crime committed by thirteen-year-old Robert Allen Coombes. In the summer of 1895 the body of a woman was discovered at 35 Cave Road in Plaistow, east London. Ten days previously Mrs Emily Coombes had been stabbed multiple times in the chest as she slept, the murder weapon discarded on the bed just inches from her corpse. Her two sons continued to live in the house knowing full well that the body of their mother lay decomposing in the upstairs bedroom. Their father was away at sea and they told neighbours that their mother was visiting family in Liverpool. A milkman, disturbed by a strange smell emanating from the Coombes family home and concerned by the number of flies buzzing around the front upstairs window, alerted the boys’ aunt. She barged her way into the house, marched upstairs and found the body of her sister-in-law. Robert then admitted to her that he stabbed his mother to death because she had unfairly scolded his younger brother. He was arrested, sent to trial and found guilty of wilful murder.

IPN 27 July

Illustrated Police News, Saturday 27 July 1895.

Newspapers throughout the country competed to report the latest news of ‘The Plaistow Matricide’. The case proved a particular sensation. Several graphic illustrations of the murder were printed in the press, tourists flocked to the Coombes’ house in Plaistow pestering neighbours for interviews and character testimonies, thousands of people mobbed the magistrates’ court in the hope of glimpsing the boy murderer. A narrative of Robert’s crime was published and adapted for stage, a melodrama staged at a penny theatre on the south bank, and a wax worker in Islington offered showmen the opportunity to buy wax-work images of the boy’s head. What made this case so sensational in the nineteenth century lends to the predicted success of Summerscale’s latest book. The idea that a young boy might be capable of wilfully killing his mother as she sleeps is horrifying. Rather than turning away in disgust, however, it is human nature to want to know more.

The book is divided into six sections. Part one explores Robert’s movements immediately after the murder and before his crime was detected. He takes his brother to watch cricket at Lords, they take the train to Southend-on-Sea and go fishing, they play Cowboys and Indians in the backyard and football on the street. A reader who is less well acquainted with the case does not yet know that the body of the boys’ mother is lying in the upstairs bedroom. The first three chapters read as an investigation of everyday childhood experiences in late Victorian east London. They play at the Balaam Street recreation ground, watch a melodrama staged at the Theatre Royal in Stratford and read numerous adventure stories and penny dreadfuls. Robert Allen Coombes appears to be a normal child, participating in the culture of Victorian boyhood.

Penny dreadfuls

Two of the penny dreadfuls in Robert’s collection

Parts two and three of The Wicked Boy focus on Robert’s journey through the criminal justice process: his arrest, the coroner’s inquest, the magisterial hearing, his time in gaol and, finally, the murder trial heard at the Central Criminal Court on the 16th and 17th of September. Summerscale skilfully weaves a narrative from the wealth of information provided in court records and articles printed in the press. Many nineteenth-century newspapers reported murder trials in considerable detail, often quoting witness statements and repeating opening and closing speeches made by lawyers. A full transcript of the trial is available to read on the Old Bailey Proceedings website. This source provides Summerscale with detailed information about the case, with accurate accounts of Robert’s movements before, during and after his arrest, and with first-person testimonies. She uses these testimonies as items of speech throughout the book. For instance Robert’s aunt shouts, ‘you are a bad, wicked boy’, when she discovers her nephew murdered his mother (p. 38). This line is taken from the aunt’s testimony in court, recalling how she discovered her sister-in-law’s body. A result of relying on court records to construct the narrative for her book is a clear, detailed and (as much as it is possible) a true account of the case. Summerscale could have sensationalised the story of murder committed by a child. Instead, she provides a book that will be of as much interest to scholars as it will to a more popular readership.

Aunts testimony

‘you bad, wicked boy’ – the aunt’s witness testimony, from the Proceedings of the Old Bailey online.

The fourth part of the book traces Robert’s life during the seventeen years he spent at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Though Robert was found guilty of killing his mother the jury considered he was insane at the time he committed the act. Rather than receiving a sentence of death, Robert was sent to serve an indeterminate period at the criminal lunatic asylum. He was the youngest person admitted to the institution by several years and was placed in Block 2 – a ward housing the more gentle and educated patients. Summerscale notes that this ward usually housed men from middle- and upper-class backgrounds. Robert had grown up in Liverpool and east London. He was the son of a merchant seaman, had attended local board schools and worked, for a time, at an iron works. His time at Broadmoor provided him with skills he would never have obtained in the outside world: he learned to play the cornet, violin and piano, he became a highly skilled chess player and grew adept at tailoring.


Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum in the 1890s

However, in my opinion this section is the weakest in the book. Access to Robert’s patient records is restricted so Summerscale is unable to provide a complete history of Robert’s experiences at Broadmoor. To get around this she offers a neat history of the institution and explores the life and crimes of some of Robert’s fellow inmates. I found this very readable, most histories require a bit of creative research to move a story forward. She explores the world in which Robert was placed, and provides readers with the opportunity to meet characters he might have met, to read about events Robert might have witnessed and to learn about the daily routines the boy murderer would have been subject to.

What I balk at is Summerscale’s tendency to play detective, analysing evidence brought to trial and coming to her own conclusions about Robert’s motive and his relationship with his mother. She reads items of evidence with a psychoanalytical approach, diagnosing Freudian tendencies in the behaviour of the boy murderer and turning to the child’s past to better understand his crime. This is certainly an interesting approach, but aside from that fact that it does not reflect the opinions and interpretations of such crimes offered by journalists and experts at the time, it is presented not as the author’s opinion but as a quasi-scientific retrospective diagnosis of Coombes. Having read numerous press accounts, the expert witness testimonies provided at the Central Criminal Court and the opinions of medical professionals in journals and magazines I have found no explicit references that promoted a psychoanalytical reading of Robert’s crime. Rather his mental aberration was explained in biological terms: he suffered head trauma during his birth and inherited a peculiar disposition from his mother.

Summerscale writes that she was intrigued by the murder committed by Coombes:

I was fascinated by Robert: in his court appearances he seemed hollow, light, scoured clean of feeling; and yet the killing suggested a catastrophic disturbance, and unbearable intensity, of emotion (p. 279).

In the final two sections of the book she traces Robert’s life after his release from Broadmoor. Did he commit any other crimes? Was he a psychopath, or just the victim of circumstance living in east London, surrounded by poverty and ill manners?

Robert immigrated to Australia in 1913. He was in military service for the entire duration of the First World War. As a stretcher-bearer he played a crucial role at Gallipoli, at the Battle of the Somme and in Flanders. He saved lives and was awarded the Military Medal for his bravery. Robert also volunteered in World War Two, lying about his age (he was 59 at the time). Summerscale dedicates the final chapter of her book to an instance of Robert’s bravery and kindness. He rescued a young boy who had been severely beaten by his father. Robert opened his home to the lad, taking him to school, helping with homework and teaching him a trade. He taught local children to play musical instruments and kept a vegetable patch, always finding time to say a friendly ‘g-day’ (p. 305). How was Summerscale able to trace this story? Well – the boy Robert saved grew into a man, a man who survived to his nineties and who gladly shared his memories of Robert Allen Coombes with the author.


Robert Coombes in the 1940s

What began as a story of a monstrous murder ends with a story of bravery and love. I’m going to admit now that I cried (properly wept) when I finished reading The Wicked Boy. Perhaps it was an outburst of emotion after having read the life story of someone who has appeared so frequently in my own research, or of jubilation that the boy murderer from Plaistow did not grow up to kill again. I think, however, that the tears were from guilt. I have treated Robert Coombes as a case – as an example of murder committed by a child. Summerscale treated him as a person. I think it important for historians to remember that we study the lives and experiences of real people – people who felt, who loved, who cried, who had wishes for the future and memories of the past. I was wrong to judge Robert Coombes by his crime alone. The murder took place on just one day of his life. He was no monster. He died a hero, and was remembered fondly.

Lies, Damned Lies and Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy

Chris MillardThis is a guest post by Chris Millard. Chris is a lecturer in history at the University of Sheffield, and has just completed his Wellcome Trust-funded postdoctoral research at QMUL with interests in the histories of psychological categories, the welfare state, the emotions and the idea of ‘parity of esteem for mental heath’. His book, A History of Self-Harm in Britain, was published (open access) by Palgrave Macmillan in 2015.

A few months ago, I spoke at one of the Centre for the History of the Emotions’ lunchtime seminars on the subject of my current research – a rare form of child abuse that used to be called Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. It is now known by the rather more descriptive moniker of Fabricated or Induced Illness by Proxy (FII by proxy). As the name suggests, it describes child abuse where a carer (overwhelmingly Mothers in the medical literature) either fakes or causes illness in those under their care.

A recent conviction for child abuse and welfare fraud has been in the news, making it timely to revisit the topic. In that particular case, Munchausen / FII  by proxy is not mentioned. However the case involves systematic faking of illness in two children by a mother who, according to the police ‘lied at every opportunity, presenting herself as a lone parent coping with ill and vulnerable children.’

Throughout this blog, I will use the terms Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy and MSbP because these were the terms in general use at the time (1970s-2000s). The term was proposed in 1977 by Leeds-based peadiatrician S.R. (Roy) Meadow, who described two long-running cases. In the first a 6-year-old girl had blood added to her urine samples, provoking increasingly invasive diagnostic procedures. In the second a 6-month-old infant was eventually killed by the covert administration of salt, which caused him to ‘fail to thrive’.

Meadow used the term ‘Munchausen’ in relation to these cases in homage to Richard Asher. Asher, a London heamatologist and polymath (and Father to Jane Asher), invoked the fictionalised figure of 19th-century raconteur Baron Munchausen in 1951 to describe patients who repeatedly presented at hospital, pretending to be ill. For both Asher and Meadow it was the long-running saga of these deceptions that made the Munchausen term seem apt.


Baron Munchausen, illustration by Gustave Doré

My point of entry into the tangled web of MSbP was a controversial set of convictions for child murder in the 1990s and early 2000s. The overturning of these convictions proved the undoing of Meadow, whose expert testimony had helped to secure the ‘guilty’ verdicts. Sally Clark, Angela Cannings, Trupti Patel and Donna Anthony were all accused of murdering their children, in cases previously categorized as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) – known colloquially as ‘cot death’. Meadow argued instead that these women had murdered their children for attention, and badly misused statistics in the process.

Meadow was struck off the medical register from gross misconduct in the aftermath of the successful appeals. Although he was later reinstated, he retired and went into near seclusion. My paper attempted to offer a new perspective on how this diagnosis of MSbP could have blown up so spectacularly in his face.

I tried to shy away from the explanations that emphasized Meadow’s misogyny and desire to persecute women. At the time of his case for misconduct with the General Medical Council, his sexuality was called into question in the press (as if it were relevant); his participation in an amateur dramatic production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (as the Witchfinder General) was also dredged up from his past. Blaming individuals and their real or imagined foibles and motivations is undoubtedly part of the story, but on its own is historically unsatisfying. Human beings make choices and act in certain ways whilst deeply imbedded in cultural assumptions and historically specific ‘common sense’. I sought a more structural backdrop to this controversy.

I came up with an historical comparison – looking at cases labeled MSbP during the first few years after 1977, and then those in the late 1990s (which led to convictions for child-murder). Two distinct pictures emerged. In the first set of cases, mothers presented children over and over again, sometimes for months and years before foul play was suspected. Huge amounts of evidence was collected that made no medical sense: foul, bloody urine samples were collected from one patient, with clear samples an hour or so either side. A child would relapse into a coma after a week of steady improvement; the child would improve again, only to become comatose once more, extraordinarily suddenly. In these cases extensive surveillance and monitoring was carried out, by nurses, and then, later in the 1980s, by covert video recording. MSbP was an eventual answer to make sense of an enormous amount of conflicting medical evidence. Sometimes exceptionally high-tech methods were used. A baby’s blood was marked with mildly radioactive substances to ascertain the bleeding point in its mouth – none was found. However, the blood around the infant’s mouth at the next episode contained no more than background radiation, and matched the mother’s blood type when tested. This was a long saga of cat-and-mouse, carried out in hospitals, under extreme levels of surveillance.

By contrast, the court cases of the 1990s/2000s were based upon infant mortality statistics for SIDS/cot death. SIDS is a blanket term used to refer to all sudden deaths with no discernible cause. In Sally Clark’s case, after her second son died suddenly she became a suspect for child murder. This was based on the supposed statistical improbability for two or more SIDS deaths in the same affluent, non-smoking family. This underwrote the infamous Meadow’s Law: ‘one sudden infant death is a tragedy, two is suspicious and three is murder, unless proved otherwise’. These cases were thus rooted in statistical reasoning and infant mortality calculations.

Thus it isn’t that Meadow got somehow ‘carried away’ with statistics, but that the whole basis for MSbP had changed. From a smorgasbord of conflicting medical evidence, over a long period and under tight surveillance, we can see a shift to a simplistic kind of statistical reasoning. This reasoning functioned as a sort of ‘pinch point’ or pivot: get this wrong and everything tumbles.

Whilst these objects – the hospital-based and statistically-based diagnoses – were connected by naming them both ‘Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy’, they were otherwise vastly dissimilar. In its migration from the hospital ward to the courtroom (via the Registrar General’s office for the statistics) – MSbP became a precarious allegation with a single point of failure. Context matters, and history is well-placed to provide it.

The pathology of suicide: between insanity and morality

Eva Yampolsky is a PhD student in the history of s200_eva.yampolskypsychiatry at the Institute of the History of Medicine (University of Lausanne) and a Swiss National Science Foundation research fellow at the Centre Alexandre Koyré in Paris. Her research focuses on the medicalization of suicide in France during the 19th century.

At the turn of the 19th century, with the birth of modern psychiatry and the penal transformations in France, the question of suicide is viewed from a new perspective. Indeed, its status transforms from being a crime or a “vice” before the French Revolution to that of a pathology. This shift results in part from an underlying conceptual ambiguity within the psychiatric discourse, by which the criminal is rearticulated in terms of pathology. My study focuses more specifically on the ambiguity between two French terms: le moral, the intellectual and psychological functions of the mind, and la morale, morality or social values. Its objective is to show how morality [la morale] as a group of social rules and values operates within medical theories on the mind or psychological functions [le moral]. As the relationship between the physical and the moral is rethought, so is the relationship between le moral and la morale (Postel 1981; Pigeaud 2001; Charland 2008, 2010). I further examine how this influence of morality on psychiatric theories allowed psychiatrists to appropriate and redefine an entire spectrum of deviant behaviors (Lantéri-Laura 1979, 1981), which had until then remained outside of the parameters of pathology.

The medical definitions of le moral (psychological functions) at the beginning of the 19th century reflects the opposition between two schools of thought: the spiritualists, like Julien Joseph Virey (1819), who claims that “our moral faculties represent a principle that is superior to that of the body” (272), and the physiologists, like Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis (1802), who states that “all vital movements are the result of the impressions received by sensitive parts” and defends reciprocal influence between the body and the mind, between le physique and le moral (85). In opposition to Cabanis, Virey defines le moral in terms of the soul, the “driving force”, a principle superior to the body, and which constitutes not only the place of intellectual and affective disorders, but also the determining force behind all of our actions.

While supporting Cabanis’s position on the relationship between the body and the mind, Jean-Etienne Esquirol approaches this question from a disciplinary perspective. According to Esquirol, insanity and the moral affections [affections morales] that cause it first and foremost concern the alienist. It is thus no longer for the metaphysician to study the sick soul, nor for the moralist to control the passions, nor for the anatomist to reduce insanity to the brain as an organ, but rather it is for the alienist to encompass the body, the mind [le moral] and morality [la morale] of man (Esquirol 1805). Indeed, when Esquirol distinguishes between moral treatment [traitement moral] and moral hygiene [hygiène morale], the first relates to the expertise of the alienist, the latter to that of public hygiene. As both lie within the purview of the doctor, the ambiguity between le moral and la morale conjugates the mental sanity of an individual with the social values, norms and behaviors, such as family, education, religion and work, but also diet and physical exercise.

Engraving of Esquirol

Engraving: portrait bust of Esquirol by A. Tardieu
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Before the 1820s in France, numerous doctors and early psychiatrists had already approached suicide in terms of psychopathology. Nonetheless, the medical community was far from a consensus on the psychopathology of suicide. Since the 1820s, suicide was defined by some as a “moral perversion” of the instinct of self-preservation (Prichard 1835), by others as a monomania, but more systematically this act constituted a symptom of insanity and was from that moment on inscribed entirely within the medical framework (Esquirol 1821; Leuret 1836).

Following this redefinition of suicide as a symptom of insanity, a medical debate takes place in France during the 1840s and 1850s. In opposition to the theory according to which all suicides are pathological, certain alienists, including Égiste Lisle, Étoc-Demazy and Brierre de Boismont, adopt a new, more nuanced position, claiming that a certain group of suicides are not caused by mental derangement (Mucchielli and Renneville, 1998). As Brierre de Boismont remarks, “by maintaining that suicide is always a symptom of insanity, one denies the influence of ideas and beliefs” (482). According to this alienist, there are two types of suicide, one concerns moral perversion whose causes include “education, passions and the neglect of one’s duties” (social and religious ones), and the other is pathological. Non-pathological suicide, according to Brierre de Boismont, calls for what Esquirol named “moral hygiene,” which address issues of morality and social values. The aim of this new position, however, is not to normalize an entire category of suicides, for it lies within the larger spectrum of medical expertise, and more specifically within the objectives of public hygiene. Indeed, as the prospectus of the first French journal specializing in public hygiene announces: “Medicine must not only study and cure diseases, it has intimate relations with social organization; sometimes it helps the legislator to create laws, it often enlightens the magistrate on their application, and it always oversees, along with the administration, the protection of public health” (Annales d’hygiène publique et de médecine légale, 1829, 1st issue, v). The religious and moral undertones of the alienist discourse permit, in part, to expand this scope of medical expertise. When Brierre de Boismont writes that “the doctor’s mission is to cure illnesses [le mal] or better yet to prevent it” (xiii), this statement can lead to some confusion. Indeed, the French term “le mal” was used at that time to refer both to “evil” and to “illness”. The alienist’s statement must thus be understood not only in the pathological sense, but also in a moral and religious one. This ambivalence in meaning finally brings us back to the distinction between le moral and la morale. The blurred line between the two can help us to further explore the moral and religious foundations of early psychiatry.

Etching of a man in a strait-jacket

Etching from Esquirol’s ‘Des maladies mentales’, 1838.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.


Alexandre Brierre de Boismont, Du suicide et de la folie suicide considérés dans leurs rapports avec la statistique, la médecine et la philosophie, Paris, G. Baillière, 1856.

Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis, Rapport du physique et du moral de l’homme, t. 1, Paris, Chapart, Caille & Ravier, 1802.

Louis C. Charland, « A moral line in the sand : Alexander Crichton and Philippe Pinel on the psychopathology of the passions », in Louis C. Charland et Peter Zachar (dirs.), Facts and Value in Emotions, Amsterdam/Philadelphia, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2008, p. 15-33.

—, « Science and morals in the affective psychopathology of Philippe Pinel », History of Psychiatry, 2010, vol. 21, no. 1, p. 38-53.

Jean Etienne Esquirol, Des Passions considérées comme causes, symptômes et moyens curatifs de l’aliénation mentale, thèse de médecine de Paris, 1805.

—, art. « Suicide », in Dictionnaire des sciences médicales, t. LIII, Paris, Panckoucke, 1821.

Georges Lantéri-Laura, Lecture des perversions : histoire de leur appropriation médicale [1979], Paris, Economica-Anthropos, 2012.

—, « L’appropriation psychiatrique des comportements suicidaires », in J. P. Soubrier and J. Verdinne (eds.), Dépression et suicide. Aspects médicaux, psychologiques et socio-culturels (Comptes rendus de la xie réunion de l’association internationale pour la prévention du suicide, Paris, July 5-8, 1981), Paris, Oxford, New York, Toronto, Sydney, Frankfurt, Pergamon Press, 1981.

François Leuret, « suicide » (pathologie), in Dictionnaire de médecine et de chirurgie pratiques, t. 15, Paris, Mequignon-Marvis, J.-B. Baillière, 1836.

L. Mucchielli et M. Renneville, “Les causes du suicide : pathologie individuelle ou sociale ? Durkheim, Halbwachs et les psychiatres de leur temps (1830-1930)”, Déviance et société, no 1, 1998, pp. 3-36.

Jackie Pigeaud, Aux portes de la psychiatrie. Pinel, l’Ancien et le Moderne, Paris, Aubier, 2001.

Jacques Postel, Genèse de la psychiatrie. Les premiers écrits de Philippe Pinel, Paris, Le Sycomore, 1981.

James Cowles Prichard, A treatise on insanity and other disorders affecting the mind, London, Sherwood, Gilbert, and Piper, 1835.

« Prospectus », in Annales d’hygiène publique et de médecine légale, 1829, série 1, no. 1.

Julien-Joseph Virey, « moral », Dictionnaire des sciences médicales, v. 34, Paris, Panckoucke, 1819.

The Future of Emotions and Emotional Utopias: Notes at the Beginning of a Project

A guest post by Richard Ashcroft, Professor of BioethicsRichard Ashcroft photo in the Department of Law at Queen Mary University of London, based on his recent Work in Progress Seminar.

These notes were the basis of my work in progress to the QMUL Centre for the History of Emotions lunchtime seminar on June 22nd 2016.

I am at the beginning of a long-deferred book writing project on bioethics and Utopia. The book is my attempt to think about the relationship between ethics and utopian thinking, and about some of the ways in which current medicine and biotechnology engage with the utopian imagination. One interesting area where medicine and bioethics are trying to improve human life is in the area of difficult emotions from fear to romantic passion. Now read on…

I am a bioethicist: one of those peculiar but increasingly numerous people who works on the ethical, legal, social and policy problems arising from medicine and the life sciences. My academic background is in history and philosophy of science (mainly philosophy and social studies of science), and I am not in any sense a historian. But I like to think historically about things, in particular about styles of thinking, conceptual change, and about contingency. So I am very glad to have the opportunity to think aloud about a problem which I am working on at the moment which should form part of my book and get historians’ feedback.

There is currently a very widespread debate about the idea of human enhancement, and about particular proposals for enhancement. This debate is in some sense a continuation of the older debate about the Perfectibility of Man and is in tension with the equally long-running debate about the perfectibility of society (Utopianism, for short). Much of the writing about human enhancement when I first began to pay attention to it in the early 2000s was about the ethical status of enhancements which (purportedly) could improve attention, or intelligence, or recovery from injury. There was a focus, in other words, on human traits which are important in a world organised around competitive labour markets in a capitalist economy. It’s not that these traits are only important in such a world; but their status as ethical (indeed, some argued, necessary and obligatory) was generally defended on the basis of their continuity with other non-medical enhancements such as private schooling and tutoring, sports coaching and indeed existing medical enhancements such as cosmetic surgery. They focus on obtaining advantage in competitions for economic, social, erotic and other scarce goods. As this debate developed, the critique that enhancement was really just a kind of continuation of capitalism into human physiology was noted, and other types of enhancement began to be discussed. For example, recent work on the ethics of human enhancement includes arguments for the use of drugs to ease the pain of heartbreak, and, more ambitiously, genetic modifications which might make humans more prosocial, more cooperative, and less inclined to discount the welfare of future generations (as an intervention to try to moderate behaviour which damages the climate).

If we look at these more recent debates we see that emotions are at their heart as states to be shaped, produced and controlled, with a view to improving and sustaining human welfare at both the level of the individual and in society at large. In other words, these debates are elaborating the outlines of emotional Utopias. They are defining ideal emotions, ideal ways of being emotional, and ideal ecologies of emotion.

When I began to think about this I realised that what I needed to know more about was the history of emotions. I asked the History of Emotions list-members about this, and got some fascinating responses, some of which fed into my ideas below, but the predominant response was that this was an interesting question and it had not been much explored (or explored enough). This was encouraging!

Obviously historians of Utopias must have written about emotions in Utopia, and I am very interested in that. But we can go further. The thought struck me that if emotions have histories, then they must also have futures. So we can learn from the history of emotions not only what people have thought about future emotions, but also about the historicity of emotions. So in what follows I want to lay out some ways in which we can think about the future of emotions, and emotional change.

1. Emotions about the Future

Most of us have emotions about the future, related to hopes and fears and curiosity about what may happen. When I gave this seminar the Referendum about the UK’s membership of the European Union had yet to take place, and my example was fear about the outcome of that Referendum. At the time of writing, we now know the outcome of the Referendum but its practical implications remain far from clear. So we have traded fear about the outcome of a specific, quite definite event for fear about or indeed excitement about the outcome of a long and uncertain sequence of events with no definite time horizon.

We also often act in light of emotions we anticipate feeling, either because we want to experience that emotion or because we want to avoid it: for instance, we might anticipate feeling regret if we do something and it goes wrong, so decide not to do it in order to avoid that feeling.

Many of our actions in light of emotions about the future or anticipated emotions shape our individual conduct. But they can also play out at a societal level, as indicated by Auden’s designation of the 1930s as the “Age of Anxiety”, and as discussed in Richard Overy’s recent history of Interwar Britain, “The Morbid Age”. So we can think not only about how individuals alter their conduct in light of their emotions about the future and anticipated emotions, but also about how societies can produce and shape environments conducive to or inhibitory of certain patterns of feeling.

This sort of thinking about future emotions leads directly to two kinds of theoretical question for me: a normative question about what sorts of emotions are apt and morally desirable, and second order questions about what we want to want and how we feel about what we feel.

2. Conceptual ChangeErewhon cover

Following Thomas Dixons’s lead, as set out in his “From Passions to Emotions”, we can note that the very concept of an “emotion” having arisen might fall into abeyance. However, even though we can acknowledge this it is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to think what a future conceptual scheme might be. Perhaps the best we can do is to imagine alternative societies in which emotions/feelings and cognitions combine or are instantiated otherwise than they currently do. A good example of this kind of writing is Samuel Butler’s “Erewhon”, in which the emotions elicited by illness are shame, disgust, and fear, as illnesses are considered much as we consider criminality and antisocial behaviour.

3. Different Emotions from Other Places

The idea that other cultures, separated from us in time or space, might have different emotions to those familiar to us is a stock theme in discussions of emotion and human nature. We can easily imagine cultural transmission of such emotions, just as the “uptick” in speech became prevalent in the UK through the 1990s to the present, or as the transition from a shame culture to a guilt culture is purported to have taken place in Europe between Antiquity and Modernity. Again, it is hard to project what these transitions might be, or how they might arise, but they are at least imaginable.

4. New Emotions

Genuinely new emotions, previously unexperienced or at any rate unnamed in human cultures, might arise. One question to ask about this is about the underlying physiology of such new emotions. If we follow William James and take it that emotions follow physiology, rather than the other way around, then it might be possible to produce novel emotions by altering, or intervening differently in, human physiology. As well as producing new emotions (how and why?), we might at least try new ways to regulate emotions. New ways of regulating emotions are readily imaginable: for example those who argue for pharmaceutical intervention in romantic love suggest that both fidelity and the pain at relationship breakups can be moderated medically. But altogether new emotions are much harder to imagine. One line of thought would be to look at the social or psychological functions of familiar emotions and then think functionally about social needs or interests and design emotions accordingly.

5. Historical Questions

Stepping back from these ways of conceptualising “future emotions” analytically, we can ask how, in the past, have people thought about the future of emotions? And how have they thought about emotions in ideal societies?

I am very conscious here that all I have really done is raise some questions. I hope at least they provide some food for thought and research. As I work through these ideas over the coming months, I look forward to learning more from historians about the future!


During the question and answer session I was asked some challenging and interesting questions. Among the ones I managed to jot down:

  • Emotionless futures: one kind of vision of the future is a future in which a society could function perfectly well with either no emotions at all, or with a very restricted range of emotions. The Vulcan society, exemplified by Mr Spock, in Star Trek is one such. They quite deliberately tried to dispense with emotions, as productive mainly of misery and irrationality.Mr Spock imageMy response to this is that Mr Spock is not emotionless; several episodes turn on Spock developing emotions and his ways of coping with this. His species appears to have emotions on a cyclical basis, to do with mating and reproduction, much as many animal species have fertile and infertile seasons. It is quite hard to imagine species with no emotions at all, unless we think non-biologically. Our AI overlords may well be emotionless, though some have speculated that emotions are actually functionally necessary for intelligence.
  • Do experiments with psychedelia suggest the possibility of new and differently regulated emotions?
    The theory of psychedelic drugs as openers of the “doors of perception” is attractive, though not one I have any first-hand knowledge of. However the reports I read don’t so much suggest new emotions as the familiar ones, less easily controlled and rationalised, and responding to the (heightened) sensory experiences in the usual (though heightened) way. What is perhaps most interesting is the idea of taking drugs specifically in order to experience certain emotions, on a controlled and planned basis (much as shamans fulfil their social roles in highly structured and social understood ways).
  • One form of emotional future is captured in the idea of Paradise; the history of ideas of Paradise would be a good place to look for the history of emotional ideality.
    Indeed. One interesting question relates to the decline in the idea of Paradise, and the rise of the idea that Paradise might be absurd or just boring. In part this suggests that emotional Utopias are not Utopias of bliss, but Utopias of interesting things happening. A favourite book of mine is Michael Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time Trilogy, which projects a sort of Aubrey Beardsley-inspired paradise of the aesthetic on to the end of the world itself. Different characters experience different emotions quite deliberately as part of their personal aesthetic style, rather than from any physical or social necessity.
  • In the talk, I mentioned the diagnostic function of Utopian writing, in analysing what is wrong with present society, and the symptomatic reading of Utopian writing, read critically to understand the desires and fears of the writer (either personally or as a specimen of a kind of typical ideology of his or her time). I was challenged to think about:
    • How emotions display or relate to what it is that we value
    • How Utopian writing and rhetoric produce their emotional effects in the reader, and the thought that it Utopian emotions are not just “in” the text but those produced by the text
    • How a symptomatic reading of Utopian texts which focusses on desire as lack takes on trust too much from Lacan, and that a more interesting approach would be to think about desire for pleasure and enjoyment, more along the lines suggested by Deleuze and Guattari in their “Anti-Oedipus”.

Richard Ashcroft tweets @QMULBioethics

New Publications, January-June 2016

A round-up of publications on the history of emotions from January to June 2016.

If you would like your publication to be featured in the next quarterly round-up, please send the details (including a link to more information or the full article) to emotions@qmul.ac.uk by 1 October 2016.

An additional list of publications is also published monthly on H-emotions: https://networks.h-net.org/node/6034/discussions/133983/ann-new-publications-july




  • Anderson, Miranda. (2016). “Francis Bacon’s Flux of the Spirits and Renaissance Paradigms of Hybridity and Adaptation.” In Giglioni, G., Taylor, J., Corneanu, S. and Jalobeanu, D. (eds), Francis Bacon on Motion and Power. Switzerland: Springer, 2016.
  • Porter, A. (2016). “Compassion in Soranus’ Gynecology and Caelius Aurelianus’ On Chronic Diseases.” In Georgia Petridou and Chiara Thumiger (Eds.) homo patiens coverHomo Patiens: Approaches to the Patient in the Ancient World, chapter 10 (pp. 285-303), Boston, Mass: Brill.
  • Rajamani, I. (2016). Pictures, emotions, conceptual change: Anger in popular Hindi cinema. In M. Pernau & D. Sachsenmaier (Eds.), Global conceptual history: A reader (pp. 307-336). London: Bloomsbury Academic.