(We're supposed to get as much as 1.5 inches of ice tonight and tomorrow. IF it happens - after all, this is Arkansas! - our power will probably go off and I may get a chance to try out my skills of living like someone from a pre-electric age!)
Last night, I was reading a passage from An Involuntary King by Nan Hawthorne in which the king is being treated for an arrow wound he received in a battle. The passage reminded me of two other things I've read: the scene in Janice Holt Giles' Hannah Fowler when Hannah and Tice are treating a wound on her father's badly infected leg, and a scene in a young adult book called The Apprenticeship of Lucas Whitaker, by Cynthia DeFelice, in which Lucas helps the local doctor with an amputation. The thread that tied all these thoughts together in my mind was, "Wow, people back then used to have to bear up under a lot more pain than we have to today!"
I guess what really made me think about that is that the healer in Hawthorne's book gave the king a little stick of wood to put between his teeth so he could bite down on it when the pain got too bad. I'd heard about women in childbirth being given a bit of leather to bite on; I guess I always thought it was just to give the patient something they could transfer the pain to - sort of like the old joke of hitting your thumb with a hammer when your toe hurts. But the healer told the king it would keep him from biting his tongue, which makes a lot of sense. I guess a person could also conceivably hurt his/her teeth by grinding them together while in pain.
I remember when I was reading the scene in Hannah Fowler thinking I didn't see how anyone could bear up under the treatment they were giving him - scalding hot rags applied to the outside of the wound, with nothing more than rum to dull the pain (it didn't work). Hawthorne's book had an even worse scenario - the healer was using boiling hot oil to cauterize the inside of the king's wound to stop the bleeding. The thing is, I trust both Giles and Hawthorne as researchers and believe that what they described must be a real method of treatment they found in records of past times.
I suppose we are a "soft" generation. We use ibuprofen to ease the slightest headache. Codeine is a part of any medicines we take to ease our sore throats, and pain medication is prescribed as a routine practice as a followup to any major injury or a surgery. Epidurals administered during childbirth are so common they've become a stock element in jokes. Don't get me wrong; I'm relieved that we have methods of pain relief that would keep me or those I care about from having to endure the terrible pain of these fictional characters. I do wonder, though, if we are doing ourselves something of a disservice by removing all trivial pain from our lives (if there is such a thing as "trivial" pain!). Does it make us less able to tolerate pain - emotional as well as physical - when it's necessary?