In Violation of Personal Peace: Trauma In Art Within The Period Of Westphalian Measures

There’s this idea in modern thought that we are incredibly abnormal, because of the way in which people’s pain is so explicitly broadcast for us all to see. However, the idea that emotional trauma originated with Freud in the late 19th century seems incoherent; consider the depictions of violence that started with the origins of written history, and continue to the present day. It surely follows, then, that trauma can be depicted in early modern periods, and that thus people were psychologically similar to persons from the present day.

While painful for the tree, I don’t think this is the right way to depict trauma, as it were…

Firstly, we have to define trauma in a sociomedical viewpoint. Cathy Caruth defines traumatic experience as “a response, sometimes delayed, to an overwhelming event, that takes the form of intrusive thoughts and behaviours, and heightened arousal to (and avoidance) of the stimuli leading to the event.” These responses are obviously not a modern phenomenon, due to the nature of ultraviolent stimuli prior to the development of Freud’s theories. What is lacking, is direct evidence; as we cannot directly interact with the victims of this traumatic event, we must find ways in which the persons have expressed it which do not involve clinical interrogation. Therefore, turning to sources such as writings, or artistic works may prove to be the best way in which to diagnose traumatic expression. Since written meaning can often be unclear, artistic expressions tend to be a purer expression of their mental state.

Rocking facial hair, too.

Jacques Callot is your typical 16th century WASP (except that he was French, and Catholic…so not really, but you get the point) who specialised in creating massive amounts of wooden carvings which portrayed everyday life in Lorraine during the 1620s and 1630s, during the end of a period of massive religious violence that had changed the face of Europe as the Protestant and Catholic branches of the Latin Church evolved. In doing this, religious and political coherence was split down, creating a rift in the established society of Europe. While most of Callot’s work can be said to be a simple portrayal of everyday life in the period, a piece such as The Hanging (extracted from his Miseries of War) is a bit more graphic in its portrayal.

“So why are all of those men hanging about for so long?”

Yeah, it’s a bit gruesome, isn’t it?

There are some really interesting aspects of what would generally be considered traumatic expression in this particular image, though. Consider that there are no obvious portrayals of public figures in this work; it’s as if the faceless and nameless are being left to die, rather than the ministers and lords. In this sense, Callot appeals to the viewer’s sense of communal trauma; if this violence oppresses the entire community, then surely the internal trauma that he would have felt would be shared by the other persons around him. You could have been one of those hung in the trees.

Furthermore, look at the role in which religious icons play in this particular image. The man on the ladder giving the Last Rites, the gamblers at the bottom of the tree, even the cruciform shape of the tree, all of these are pretty explicit references to the religious nature of the violence that surrounded Callot at the making of these etchings. Furthermore, while these constitute Caruth’s “arousal”, the “avoidance” aspect is shown when seeing the lack of violence that occurs to these religious figures; not a priest is shown dead, not a cross is shown broken, not a church is shown desecrated. So Callot essentially avoids showing the things that traumatise him the most, restraining his emotional output in order to try (and fail) to portray these events in a balanced light.

“It’s a bit hard to hold the apple with no hands, isn’t it?”

Consider the image The Firing Squad. While the image itself is rather violent in its execution of the unknown condemned in the middle, the foreground shows two soldiers laughing at a dog which has wandered into this scene of ultraviolence. An artist under great personal duress will react with levity and humour in order to hide the anguish that goes on within them. Callot is essentially displaying that while the entire community is emotionally harmed by the violence going through their town, a small percentage of them can turn away and laugh; it’s the only way to truly cope, lest they be dragged under.

Trauma thus is hardly a modern invention to explain away the abnormal reaction to transformative events in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It can be seen that artistic depictions definitionally fill the socio-medical definitions of trauma set out by modern psychotheorists. The idea that traumatic expression is a modern phenomenon is thus proved false; expressions of fear, anger and sadness through the pre-20th century period show that people still felt emotionally violated by overwhelming events much the same as they do today.

If You Want To Read More About How People Are Really Screwed Up In History, Here’s Some Stuff To Check Out:

Jacques Callot, Large Miseries of War, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, (Rogers Fund, 1922)


Cathy Caruth, Trauma: Explorations in History, John Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, 1995)

Graham Dawson, “Trauma, Place and the Politics of Memory: Bloody Sunday, Derry, 1972-2004”, History Workshop Journal, Issue 59 (Spring 2005)

Paul Lerner and Mark Micale, Traumatic Pasts: History, Psychiatry and Trauma in the Modern Age, 1870-1930, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 2001)

Mathew R. Martin and James Robert Allard, Staging Pain, 1580-1800; Violence and Trauma in British Theater, Ashgate Publishing (Farnham, 2009)

Theodore K. Rabb, The Struggle for Stability in Early Modern Europe, Oxford University Press (New York, 1975)


One comment on “In Violation of Personal Peace: Trauma In Art Within The Period Of Westphalian Measures

  1. nicolajblack says:

    Liam, this is a really engaging and unique topic – we’re constantly reminded to make ourselves distinct from our historical counterparts – because we can’t understand their historical context and we shouldn’t try to (because emotions cloud judgement and blah blah blah). What we’ve overlooked, and what you’ve pointed out in this riveting blog post, is that trauma is not historically or contextually distinct, and that we can learn a lot from the way it has been represented – perhaps it’s also a new medium or bridge to understanding the past?

    You’ve made this really understandable and accessible, and concise.

    Nice pictures too.

    Nicola Black

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