Is loneliness an exclusively 'modern' epidemic?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“An increasing number of historians have delved into the archives in order to discover how individuals of the past responded to feelings of emotional and physical isolation.”

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Loneliness is a ‘hidden killer’ and one of the largest health concerns which we face. Researchers have found that loneliness puts individuals at greater risk of cognitive decline and dementia, and that it is associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. One in four adults claimed to have experienced loneliness in the critical period of the COVID-19 pandemic. Repeated calls for governmental policies to tackle loneliness have been made by organisations including the Campaign to End Loneliness and the British Red Cross.

An increasing number of historians have delved into the archives in order to discover how individuals of the past responded to feelings of emotional and physical isolation. While rich pickings were drawn from the Enlightenment period and beyond, many of these scholars posited that people living in earlier periods had little concept of loneliness. People in the pre-modern era lived in crowded multigenerational households, and besides, God suffused all things. What is more, the actual word ‘loneliness’ was only used with increasing frequency from the eighteenth century.

Our online conference, ‘The Experience of Loneliness in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries’, sought to challenge these claims and to cast light simultaneously on the plight of the raging epidemic of academic loneliness, particularly in the arts and humanities. Taking place last month, almost two weeks after Loneliness Awareness Week (14–18 June), our conference attracted an international cohort of speakers, from Kraków to São Paulo. Our speakers investigated themes of isolation, ostracism, imprisonment, exile, and alienation in early modern texts. Even without our modern terminology, all of these figures from history found extraordinary ways to respond to these feelings.

Bereavement as a cause of loneliness emerged as one key thread within the conference. The daily tally of deaths from COVID-19, brought to us via multiple news outlets over the past fifteen months, has served as a constant reminder of the transience of life. Early modern people, too, recorded plague statistics. Katherine Austen, in her ‘Book M’, a series of manuscript meditations, noted a trip to Essex on 28 August 1665: ‘The day before I went there was dead that week before I went. 7400.’ In an age of high mortality rates, many of our historical figures recorded the debilitating impact of family deaths. ‘Grief doth all things els annihilate’, proclaimed Gertrude Aston sorrowfully upon the death of her father in 1638. A touching paper analysed the diary of the widower Alexander Brodie of Brodie, leader of the Scottish Covenanters in the mid-seventeenth century, arguing that the many losses he documented are crucial to understanding his religious introspection. Our forebears could be equally damaged by loneliness as a result of grief.

Professional loneliness, keenly felt both by humanities academics made redundant and arts professionals who lost their livelihoods in the pandemic, was also prevalent in war-torn England in the mid-seventeenth century. The Parliamentarian general Thomas, Lord Fairfax, found himself considerably brought down in the 1650s when physical impairment and the ascendency of Oliver Cromwell rendered him obsolete. At home in his wheelchair, he wrote poetry and translated the Psalms, a Biblical model of a lonely outcast addressing God. Poignantly, the speaker related the productivity of Fairfax to her own experience of researching him after redundancy. Despite the devastating consequences of professional loneliness, writers, past and present, find ways to channel it into something positive and productive.

Over the course of the two days, two conclusions were drawn. Firstly, in all the examples, community and collegiality were shown to be crucial to a sense of identity, belonging, and empowerment. Secondly, writing was an often-cathartic means to record, reflect on, and at times resolve problems relating to loneliness. Loneliness is a symptom of a system which at times alienates, isolates, or side-lines individuals. Compassion and community are our antidotes; to borrow a line from the poet-priest George Herbert, ‘[t]hey and my minde may chime / And mend my ryme’.

Amongst the most famous quotations in the entire canon of English literature is ‘no man is an island’, penned by the metaphysical poet John Donne in his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624). ‘No man is an island’; in other words, people require the company of others in order to thrive. Ten years earlier, he had written, in a letter dated 10 August 1614: ‘I began to apprehend, that euen to myselfe, who can releive myself vpon books, solitarines was a little burdenous’. As isolated and precarious early career researchers, fighting a losing battle against funding cuts and threats to our profession, our research and writings are beacons of love, hope and fulfilment. We might find solace in the evident turmoil in these words expressed by a man in his forties, seeking secular employment (unsuccessfully) before embarking upon his path towards becoming one of the greatest preachers of his day.

Homepage banner: (c) The Henry Barber Trust, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

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