In Search of Early Modern Disgust

disgustWe’ve just published the second article in our rolling release of Volume 2. The piece is by Richard Firth-Godbehere (Queen Mary University of London) and considers how Thomas Wright’s 1604 work, The Passions of the Minde in Generall, might have fitted into his overall mission as an English Catholic preacher, particularly when read via Wright’s understanding of Thomas Aquinas’s passion of fuga seu abominatio.

Now, in this guest post, Richard shares his experience on the trail of an elusive early modern concept of disgust.

My article comes out of the research for my thesis, Understanding the Opposite of Desire: A Prehistory of Disgust 1598-1762. My overall work involves a linguistic dissection of the ways people tried to grapple with the idea that desire has an opposite, and the many ways those who tried to understand the passions described it. Succinctly put, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw English thinkers round on five keywords: abomination, aversion, eschewing, horror, and disgust. Each of these is an opposite of desire, but each has its own baggage, its own history and its own usages in a variety of discourses. As my article outlines, ‘abomination’ was often associated with a religious discourse. To feel abomination was to feel something towards that which God would reject: sin. Disgust, however became associated with another type of desire, the opposite of the desire for moral and material beauty, and in the early to mid-seventeenth century became a sort of anti-aesthetic sentiment through the British Taste school of Joseph Addison, David Hume, Lord Kames and so on.

My interest began, as often things do, with my love life. My wife, I am sure she doesn’t mind me saying, use to suffer from Emetophobia: fear of vomiting. Central to this particular phobia is a strong sense of disgust and sympathetic magic, coupled with an aversion to certain situations. As a mature student just beginning to become interested in the history of emotions, disgust became a focus, but when I attempted to find it in the historical record before about 1750 it, to my shock, wasn’t, quite, there. This is not to say a feeling we might call revulsion wasn’t there, just that the concept or idea of disgust itself was half-formed. It relied on secondary vocabulary and inference: words such as ‘vile’ and ‘loathsome’ were used. These described how revulsion felt or what was revolting to a degree, but not what revulsion was. My search for a disgust concept prior to c.1750 took me back to Middle English in the fourteenth century; to early uses of abomination alongside the fantastic word ‘wlotsomnes’: the best pre-c.1750 candidate for what we now understand of disgust. This word and the concept it signified was lost, and in its place a struggle raged in medieval thought for what was only ever called the opposite of desire. Aquinas claimed it had no name, while described it as a sort of fearful hatred, or fear, or hatred, or neither; it was rather unclear and confusing.

What was clear is that our feelings of repulsion and revulsion aren’t as simple as the English word ‘disgust’ paints them to be. Not everything we are repulsed by disgusts us, and not everything disgusting is repulsive. We can be repelled from venturing outside by a raging storm, while disgust can hold a strange fascination, even humour, through the scatological and our fascination with deformity. The Hebrews and Greeks knew this well. When St Jerome translated the Bible, he imposed upon over half a dozen words with subtly different meanings the word ‘abominatio’. This ranged from a word for the abomination of rotting meat to a word for the abomination of using more than one type of weight in trade. This was the source of the medieval and early modern historians’ confusion. A concept as clear as mud in the Vulgate; it flitted between that which is utterly vile and that which is merely a nuisance. Aristotle and Plato weren’t much more help, describing these feelings simply as ‘aversions’, the only clear example of which being the aversion amongst Greek philosophers from being specific about what aversions were. All that could be said for sure is that these things are the opposite of what we desire and so that is pretty much anybody said about them, until the seventeenth century.

This is where Thomas Wright comes in. Wright stands at the vanguard of an attempt to understand the passions in the light of the growing dissolution with the various schools of scholasticism. It is a discussion of the opposite of desire that would continue to the middle of the eighteenth century, and be touched upon by Catholics and Protestants, Hobbes and Descartes, the Cambridge Platonists, Natural Philosophers, Physicians, and the British Taste School where finally the idea of disgust as the emetic, anti-aesthetic sympathy that opposes beauty and desire, rather than just something of or in bad taste – took hold in English vocabulary. With a little help from Dr Johnsons popular dictionary.

This brings us back to Emetaphobia. Research has shown that many phobias have an element of repulsion or revulsion, often misconstrued (in my opinion) as disgust. Someone afraid of flying has a particular aversion to flying, combining claustrophobia, fear of a lack of control and other factors personal to that sufferer. Equally, an agoraphobic feels a strong sense of repulsion to open spaces, part of which is fear, part of which is something else – something not quite in our modern vocabulary. My argument is that it used to be in our vocabulary: as horror, or eschewing, or aversion, or abomination. My quest is to tease the uses of these words out to help us understand these passions as understood in the past, and these emotions as felt in the present.

You can read Richard’s full article, “For ‘Physicians of the Soule’: The Roles of ‘Flight’ and ‘Hatred of Abomination’ in Thomas Wright’s The Passions of the Minde in Generall”, here.


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