In the beginning, and other traumas, by Roy Porter
Thinking about shame causes us some confusion. We recognize it's an important moral and mental trait, but find it hard to put our finger upon what precisely it is - how, for instance, does it differ from guilt or embarrassment? The problem partly stems from the cheapening of the idea in common speech: "So you can't join me for lunch? What a shame." It also comes from our awareness that the word has two apparently contradicting inflections: shame can be a painful feeling brought about by consciousness of guilt or degradation, but it can equally refer to the impulse to avoid this - in other words, to a sense of pride and decency.

A brief history of shame can rescue us from our confusion. It shows our puzzlement stems from the fact that, right from the beginning, the idea was attached to precise predicaments in our Western culture: specific historical or mythical instances have served as the great exemplars of what shame was. Its roots go back a long way and, as so often, the Judaeo- Christian and the Classical reinforce each other.

The Bible relates the first story of shame.

The Lord creates the world and plants Man in

the Garden of Eden. Taking pity upon Adam for his lack of a "helpmeet for him", He causes Adam to fall into a deep sleep, and makes Eve out of his spare rib. The King James version then goes on

to say that man should "cleave unto his wife",

and they shall be one flesh. "And they were

both naked, the man and his wife, and were

not ashamed."

And we all know what follows: the Devil tempts Eve, the first pair bite the forbidden fruit, "and the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons." And, from initially being unashamed, they are overtaken by it. Original Sin leads to the expulsion from Paradise, and the human condition is Fallen.

And, thanks to this fable, shame has ever since, in our usage, been indelibly stamped with sexual connotations. It's almost as though, had Freud never existed, it would have been necessary to invent him. Taken in the connotation of humiliation, shame is thus a mortifying feeling of nakedness - of being without a fig-leaf even to hide our fault, our remorse. In that sense, shame is, quite literally, a bodily thing; it is having our genitals on show and being self-conscious of it - somewhat like our ears tingling when we feel sure someone is talking about us.

Two things have followed from this perception of shame etched on to the body. In technical, stuffy, or euphemistic speech, the female genitals became called the pudenda - Latin for "shameful things" (in his notebooks, Darwin used the abbreviation, pud.) There lies the explanation why archaic accounts of the human body stated that the inglorious vagina (the wound, or split) had to be veiled by pubic hair - in German the term is, significantly Schamhaar, shame hair. Besides, to make things yet more intricate still, long-standing moral and artistic conventions insisted that the hair in turn had to be airbrushed out, lest that which it was meant to conceal would further draw attention to the shame.

Something interesting has taken place here.

We have moved from the mutual humiliation

or guilt of Adam and Eve to the female pudenda. The Bible tells of many subsequent instances of shame - for example, Judas Iscariot's when he receives the 20 pieces of silver. But, in traditional Christian teachings, it's always the female body that carries the scar of sin and bears the brunt.

It's also the woman's body that is meant to exhibit shame in its positive sense: the virtue of modesty and decency. And that is through the blush. To us nowadays, it's astonishing just how much significance was attached to blushing in earlier times. But Polonius-type moralists, and suitors weighing up potential brides, habitually thought a lady's capacity to blush was practically as important as her virginity, indeed was the best index of it. And the lack of the blush - a woman's inability to crimson over - gave the game away: evidently she was quite shameless. Displaying the all-too-common male prurience in these matters, the novelist Henry Fielding pried into the issue. Why was it, he asked, that women in modern, corrupt times so often powdered their faces and then hid them behind lace and masks? It was precisely to conceal the fact that they had lost the capacity to blush; their red-painted cheeks were intended to serve as an artificial blush, a camouflage (today we use the word blusher to hide the barefaced cheek of shamelessness. "When a woman is not seen to blush," he moralised indignantly, "she doth not blush at all." And all men knew what that meant. In short, humanity's shame ended up being borne by womankind alone. And this Christian twist in the tale was reinforced by another parable, this time from pagan antiquity, the rape of Lucretia.

Go back to the early Rome of the kings. Collatinus, a member of the royal family, boasts to his companions of the peerless virtues of his wife, Lucretia. The king's rakish son, Sextus Tarquinius, resolves to put her virtue to the test. He shows up at Lucretia's house in the guise of a wayfarer and begs hospitality. In the dead of night and armed with a sword, he creeps into her bedroom. When she resists his blandishments and menaces, he threatens that if she does not let him have his way with her, he will kill her and her negro slave, and then, having placed their corpses on top of each other, announce to the world that he had discovered them together in adulterous embrace, and (naturally) killed them on the spot. Faced with this danger to her reputation, Lucretia yields. Tarquin then departs.

But next morning, she summons a family conference. She tells her father and husband of Tarquin's heinous deeds, calls upon the kinsmen to avenge her, takes the sword of her ravisher, and declares she will slay herself, rather than let the story of Lucretia furnish women with a bad example. Mortified with shame, she will not allow the name of Lucretia to become a cloak for indecency, a justification for shameless women. She dies, vindicated.

Lucretia's story was told again and again down the centuries - as in Shakespeare's "Rape of Lucretia" - and it became a favourite subject for painters such as Titian. The matron was constantly esteemed as a paragon of womanhood, an exemplar of how the truly modest lady would (of course) prefer death to disgrace: her profound sense of shame would stop at nothing to spare her reputation. That was precisely the image of womanhood a patriarchal society craved. Down the ages, women who have been subjected to childhood sexual abuse, incest and rape have surely experienced many of the feelings of helpless humiliation that arises from being forced into situations similar to Lucretia's; they have, in some ways, been able to put themselves into her shoes.

Yet St Augustine threw a spanner into the works. Far from holding up Lucretia as a paragon, that mighty early theologian condemned her. She was a self-murderer, a woman who first gave her consent, and then, from foibles of outward vanity, committed suicide - for Christians a shocking sin - so as to reclaim her reputation. In a way that seems hardly gentlemanly, Augustine even impugned Lucretia's motives. After all, she had submitted to Tarquin's sexual attack: this, he says, "perhaps could not have taken place without some physical pleasure... a consent of the mind." We may distrust what Augustine was up to - he sounds like all those smutty judges or pseudo-Freudian psychologists who say rape victims are asking for it, that their "no" really means "yes", and who question their bona fides (sneaking pleasure without responsibility). But his analysis was to have a lasting impact upon our society, in two respects.

For one thing, doubts like Augustine's ensured that the whole question of shame was ever after to be bound up with the problem of female sexuality. In the Western world - though perhaps not in other cultures - the equivalent case with men is not one of shame but of honour. Male honour has had little to do with the predicament of sexuality.

It has been totally associated with questions of integrity, courage, loyalty, patriotism and similar qualities appropriate to men of affairs. And time was when gentlemen did the decent thing: if their honour was impugned, they fought a duel; if they had indeed sullied their name, then they blew out their brains. What has happened to such honourable traditions?

And there's another conclusion to draw from Augustine. He was implying that, in all these matters of rectitude, what should really count was not reputation - for him, as a Christian theologian, a tinsel thing - but guilt, the true inner state of the conscience. The point is revealing. Augustine's distinction, however fine, helps explain why the idea of shame is one that has grown somewhat hazy and foreign to us. For Christianity shifted our culture's centre of moral gravity from ignominy to contrition, from outward to inward, from the witness of the body to the balance of the mind.

We have thus switched, anthropological theorists often tell us, from a "shame culture" to a "guilt culture". That transformation is usually presented as progress. But why should we be so sure?