The body of shame

David Fergusson, preaching in Dunfermline in 1572, said that discipline was necessary not to expunge sin but to condition the penitent out of sinful habits by educating them in their transgression (Fergusson 1860, 63-4). In saying this, he perhaps understood something that has been overlooked by scholarship on the Reformation to date: how shame conditions. Shame is widely assumed to be an explanation in itself for the efficiency of punishments such as the sackcloth. However, relying on shame as an intellectual concept, without addressing why shaming has the capacity to condition, is to overlook its situation within the body. In biblical terms, shame is something that can be worn: it is in and of the body, not just the mind:

'They that hate thee shall be clothed with shame; and the dwelling place of the wicked shall come to nought' (Job 8).

'They shall also gird themselves with sackcloth, and horror shall cover them; and shame shall be upon all faces, and baldness upon all their heads' (Ezekiel 7).

In order to translate the performance of discipline in the kirk, and to interpret that performance, an embodied understanding of emotion must be brought into discussions of the Reformation. Every emotion, all cognition (whether acknowledged or not), is an inherently embodied experience, and should be understood as such (Johnson 1999, 100).

Shame has symptoms. Shame can make an individual feel hot or cold, or both at the same time; make their face redden, their ears burn. It can make the body sweat, the mouth turn dry; limit the ability to move, create the uncontrollable urge to run away. Shame affects posture, leaving the individual feeling small: they may slump, perhaps even want to curl up. It can induce crying, headaches and nausea; make the ears ring; leave the body weak or shaky, even make the individual want to die. Shame is an embodied emotion.

This understanding of shame complicates the interpretation of discipline experiences. Many individuals would not have experienced the material culture of discipline in the direct and linear manner that might be predicted; physical properties of artefact on the body, non-evident and shaming properties on the mind. Some penitents may have been 'shameless', even seeming to enjoy their infamy (cf. Graham 1996; Todd 2002), chastised only by the corporal aspect of their punishment. For others, the discomfort of corporal punishment may have been far less unpleasant than the physical symptoms of shame they engendered.

Shame's destructive power is considered to come from the fact that while guilt focuses on a particular discrete act, removed from permanent character traits, shaming and experiencing shame involves understanding a single act as indicative of an individual's entire nature (Garvey 1998). In modern contexts shame has been linked to an increase in the risk of suicide; one reason shaming punishments are advocated against in legal theory (Garvey 1998). Likewise in the past, shame could have been devastating, destroying an individual's entire identity. To the Reformed Scot, the nature to which their shame attested was one of inherent sinfulness (Calvin 1975 [1536]).

Mellor and Shilling (1997, 22, 98-130) argue that the Reformation was a dramatic shift away from the body and community and towards the mind and individual, associating the medieval with 'carnal knowing': knowledge of the world experienced through an inextricably connected body and mind. With the Reformation, they argue, knowledge became cognitive and rational, originating from a mind experiencing separation from the body. They fall back on the commonly articulated explanation that this was the result of 'shame' and of the loss of bodily knowledge of the divine experienced through the sacraments and Eucharist in favour of the Word, and words. However, in interpreting the role of discipline artefacts in regulating shame, mind and body cannot be seen as experienced separately as Mellor and Shilling suggest (1997). Rather, they were connected intimately, in complex ways, mind and body at once complementing and opposing one another. The performance of complex discipline practices mediated by material culture suggests that this was achieved through carnal as much as cognitive learning.

Choose your own | The Body of Christ | Sackcloth | Discipline culture


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