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On the medieval uses of whips

Humans and whips. They’ve got a long, tangled history—far too long to address in any one post. So today I’m going to focus on flagellation: the strange practice of plying a whip against one's own flesh, particularly as engaged in by medieval Christians of western Europe.

Perhaps you remember Silas, the black-clad monk played by Paul Bettany in The Da Vinci Code movie (right). He was clearly a fanatical and “medieval” nutcase—as illustrated by his penchant for whipping himself bloody. The Middle Ages are often understood as barbaric: centuries of wild emotions, bad and mad behaviour and, of course, religious extremes. Thus, medieval people whipped themselves bloody to purge themselves of sin with distressing frequency. Silas is a throwback to these dark times.

Well, no. It seems that for the first 500-odd years of the Middle Ages, no monk or any other variety of Christian was plying a whip against their own skin. Desert Fathers and later hermits and holy people might starve themselves or live in a cave, but they didn’t get creative with a whip.

Did medieval people whip others? Absolutely, but whipping as punishment also happened in Roman times beforehand and the early-modern centuries after the European Middle Ages. Whipping others as a form of discipline is not uniquely or even particularly medieval. But flagellation—whipping oneself as penance for sin—did begin in this period. In the middle of the Middle Ages, in fact: it was first advocated for monks by Peter Damien in the eleventh century. Damien encouraged his monks to get naked together and whip themselves as a group. Sounds incredibly risqué? No, this was a penitential act. Only God could forgive you, but you had to show Him you were truly sorry.

Even so, self-whipping probably wasn’t a widespread medieval activity, even among monks. It didn’t really catch on until a few centuries later ...

Then, in 1260, ordinary people began to whip themselves in public in Italy. It started in Perugia, now central Italy, and spread through the land like a holy contagion. The Chronicle of Genoa tells us:

“suddenly the whole city was moved by the will of God, so that small and great, nobles and commoners, day and night, proceeded from church to church, whipping themselves and singing angelic and celestial songs .... Many enmities and conflicts, both old and new, in the city of Genoa and almost everywhere else in Italy were turned to peace and concord.”

This strange and sudden phenomenon apparently arose in reaction to the political violence that was rife in Italy at the time. Self-afflicted violence to counteract external violence. A hermit with a fondness for flagellating probably began the whole thing when he had a vision of the Virgin Mary. The Virgin warned him that mass penance was required to avert the wrath of God. The hermit passed the message on, and people took power into their own hands—in the form of a whip.

After some months, the flagellation frenzy died down and, in 1261, Pope Alexander IV decreed that self-whipping be confined to private, individual devotions. As a result, mass flagellation largely disappeared ...

... until nearly a century later, when an even greater form of external violence appeared in Europe. The Black Death.

The bacterium Yersinia pestis hit Europe for the first time in nearly 800 years in October 1347, making landfall in Sicily, thanks to Genoese sailors fleeing the plague-ridden near east. By 1348, plague was decimating the population of southern Europe and spreading north. We don’t know how many people it killed, but a third of Europe’s population within three years is a generally accepted estimate. Medieval people explained the epidemic in different ways—astrological, well poisoning, bad air—but clearly God’s wrath was at the root of it all. One solution? Appease God’s displeasure with human sin by doing extreme penance. Bring on the whips.

In 1348, a chronicler described processions of men in Austria walking barefoot, fasting, and entering churches to whip themselves over their naked shoulders. The trend caught on and, in 1349, flagellants were active in Hungary, Poland, Germany, and the Low Countries. Of course, not everyone responded to plague by whipping themselves, but bands of such penitents could easily number 100. For example, on one day the German town of Erfurt closed its gates to 3000 flagellants.

Again, eventually the Pope put his foot down. Initially well-organised and well-behaved, the groups of flagellants were now engaging in extreme and unacceptable ways. Yes, worse than beating oneself bloody. They interrupted church services or refused to revere the Eucharist; they claimed the blood they shed mingled with Christ’s and that simply whipping oneself bloody could save your soul. Clearly heretical claims. And flagellants were joining in the trend of killing Jews. Remember that well-poisoning explanation for plague? Word was the Jews were doing it.

So, at the end of 1349, Pope Clement VI decreed that flagellants would henceforth be excommunicated. They were impious people who abused Jews, acted violently, damaged property, and claimed false religious authority. In short, if you must whip yourself, for the love of God, do it privately and only for sin a priest has already absolved! True, there were some outbreaks of public flagellation after this point, but in the main, the Pope’s orders were obeyed. Whipping oneself was again confined largely to monasteries and devout private religious practice.

Yet, according to Patrick Vandermeersch, even self-whipping within monasteries underwent shifts over time. For example, the Jesuit Order, founded in post-medieval 1540, promoted a gentler form of flagellation. Ignatius of Loyola, its founder, even invented a new type of whip so it could be used more often but with less damage. No more bleeding, please!

The terminology of whipping too was changed. Self-whipping used to be called flagellation. From the 1500s on, it was referred to as “discipline”, which had previously meant whipping by someone else.

It is possible too that the preferred part of the body one whipped also changed. Medieval flagellants took off their shirts and whacked themselves over the shoulders. Vandermeersch suggests that the early-modern preference was for whipping the buttocks. Given, however, that self-whipping of naked bums usually occurred in private, this is a hard point to prove.

One point respectable historians either sidestep or simply deny is any connection of self-whipping with sexual pleasure. For example, Nagy and Biron-Ouellet happily focus on the extreme emotions obvious in flagellant processions, pointing out that:

“All the senses of the body were activated ... one was exposed to the sound of the whipping and crying, the sight of lacerated flesh, the smell of blood, the pain of the scourging, the taste of tears .... Gestures, sensory experience, and emotions were intertwined.”

But they note that, of course, such “culturally meaningful violence had nothing to do with sadomasochism bringing erotic pleasure to its practitioners.” Heaven forbid.

Dear reader, let me push the bounds of respectability. With so much heightened emotion and feeling involved, is it probable that erotic pleasure was completely bypassed? Are human feelings so compartmentalised that “all the senses” but the erotic were activated?

I suggest not. In fact, I have spent a whole novella exploring how one medieval whip practice might bleed into another. (Pardon the pun.) My Lady of the Whip opens in plague-ridden medieval London. Lady Bess picks up a whip to defend herself in the madness and one thing leads to another ...

Some References:

Nagy, Piroska, and Xavier Biron-Ouellet, “A collective emotion in medieval Italy: The flagellant movement of 1260”, Emotion Review, 2020, pp. 1-11.

Patterson, Keith Charles, “The flagellants of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries: Their rise and decline”, MA thesis, 1977.

Vandermeersch, Patrick, “Self-flagellation in the early modern era”, 2009, pp. 261-273.


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