The practice of scourging one’s self unknown to the early Christians

NOTE: The following is taken from the 3rd chapter of History of Flagellation Among Different Nations. New York: Medical Publishing Co., 1930: pp. 40-46. The practice of self-flagellation seems to have been unknown in Europe until it was adopted by the hermits in the monastic communities of Camoaldoli and Fonte Avellana early in the 11th century. Once invented, the new form of penance spread rapidly until it had become not only a normal feature of monastic life throughout Latin Christendom but the commonest of all penitential techniques—so much so in fact that the very meaning of the term disciplina was restricted to ‘scourge.’

 History of Flagellation among Different Nations

FLAGELLATIONS of different kinds being universally practiced among the heathens, this circumstance must needs have given but little encouragement to the first Christians, to imitate such mode of correction; and we may take it for granted that they had not adopted it. Indeed, we find that no mention is made of it in the writings of the first, either Greek or Latin Fathers; for instance, in the Epistles of St. Ignatius, the Apologies of Justinius, the Apostolic Canons, the Constitutions attributed to Clement the Roman, the works of Origen, the Stromata of Clement of Alexandria, and all the works in general of Eusebius of Cæsarea, of St. Chrysostom, of St. Basil, and of St. Basil of Seleucia. In all the above authors, no mention, I say, is made of flagellations; at least, of those of a voluntary kind; unless we are absolutely to explain in a literal manner, passages 41 in which they manifestly spoke in a figurative sense. We may therefore safely conclude, that the first Christians had no notion of those cruel exercises which prevailed in later days, and that to flay one’s hide with scourges or rods, as in these times the practice of numberless devotees, in or out of religious orders, were practices unknown to them.


Regard for truth, however, obliges us to mention one or two instances of flagellation, which are to be found in the history of the ancient eastern Anchorites, written by Theodoret, who has been above mentioned; but those instances are such, that certainly no argument can be derived from them, to prove that voluntary flagellations were in use in the times in which those Anchorites lived.

Theodoret of Cyrrhus - A History of the Monks of Syria
Theodoret of Cyrrhus – A History of the Monks of Syria

One of those instances is to be found in the life of Abrahames. It is related in it, that the Christian populace having attempted to seize the sheets in which the body of that saint was wrapped, the lictors drove them back with whips. Now it is obvious to everyone, that the lashes which these lictors bestowed, to and fro and at random, upon those men who beset them, were not willingly received by the latter. And the same may certainly with equal truth be observed of the flagellations inflicted upon the people (which is the second instance mentioned by Theodoret) by the collectors of the public tributes, who, he says, used to collect them with scourges and whips.

The Self-Mortification of Saint Benedict
The Self-Mortification of Saint Benedict

The rules of the first religious orders founded in the west, have been likewise silent as to the voluntary use of thongs and whips. The first rule, for instance, prescribed to the Benedictines, that ancient western order, does not mention a word about self-flagellation; and the same silence is to be observed in the rules framed by Ovisiesius [NOTE: This is a misspelling, it should be St. Orsiesius of Tabenna, disciple of St. Pachomius the Great; the Orthodox Church keeps his feast on June 15. We still have his Doctrina et tractatus].

The following is an instance of voluntary flagellation among the ancients, which was not only free either from the superstition or wantonness above mentioned, but was moreover produced by rational, and, we may say, laudable motives. The instance referred to is that of the flagellations bestowed upon himself by a certain philosopher mentioned by Ovisiesius.a Abbot of Tabennæ; by St. Aurelian, Bishop of Arles; by St. Isidorus, Bishop of Sevil; by St. Tetradius; and a number of others, whose rules Holstenius has likewise collected. From thence we may therefore conclude, that Christians in those times, had no notions of beatings and scourgings which are now so prevalent, and that the upper and lower disciplines were alike unknown among them.


The only author of weight, in the days we speak of, who seems to have made any mention of voluntary flagellations being practiced in the ancient monasteries of St. John Climax, who according to some accounts, lived in the middle of the fourth, and according to others, only in the sixth century. This author relates, that, in a certain monastery, “some, among the monks, watered the pavement with their tears; while others, who could not shed any, beat themselves.”


To those instances of involuntary flagellations, during the times of the eastern Anchorites and the first monks, we may, I think, safely add those which 43 the devil, jealous of their merit, has inflicted upon them; a case which has frequently happened, if we are to credit the writers of those times.


In the lives of the saints remarkable virtues are recited; whether it was that those saints, after having dreamed of such flagellations, fancied they had in reality received them, and spoke accordingly, or that they had some scheme in view when they made complaints of that kind. St. Francis of Assisi, for instance, as is related in the Golden Legend, received a dreadful flagellation from the devil the very first night he was in Rome, which caused him to leave that place without delay. And, to say the truth, it is not at all unlikely that, having met there with a colder reception than he judged his sanctity entitled him to, he thought proper to decamp immediately, and when he returned to his convent, told the above story to his monks.


Among those saints who received flagellations, or visits in general, from the devil, St. Anthony is however the most celebrated. As some times the devil, as is mentioned above, flagellated him vigorously; and at others, employed temptations of quite a different kind, in order to seduce him: thus, he assumed in one instance the shape of a beautiful young woman, who made all imaginable advances to the saint; but, happily, all was to no purpose. The celebrated engraver, Callot, has made one of those visits of the devil to St. Anthony, the subject of one of his prints, 44 which is inscribed the “Temptation of St. Anthony;” and he has represented in it such a numerous swarm of devils of all sizes, pouring at once into the saint’s cavern, and exhibiting so surprising a variety of faces, postures, and ludicrous weapons, such as squirts, bellows, and the like, that this print, may very well be mentioned as an instance, among others, of the great fertility of the imagination of that engraver.


Besides the persecutions which St. Anthony suffered from the devil, he has the further merit of having been the first institutor of the monastic life, several other hermits having in his time chosen to assemble together, and lived under his direction; and though he has not expressly been the founder of any particular order, yet it is glory enough for him to have been the father of the whole family of friars and nuns. In more modern times, however, his relics having been brought from Egypt to Constantinople, and thence transferred to Dauphine, in France, a church was built on the spot where they were deposited, and a new order of friars was a little after established, who go by the name of Monks of St. Anthony. These monks form a kind of order distinct from all others; but yet they have no less ingenuity than the other monks for procuring the good of their convent, as may be judged from the following story, which, I think, I may venture to relate as a conclusion of the chapter.


The story I mean, is contained in the book of the 45 Apologie pour Herodote, which was written about the year 1500 by Henry Etienne, on purpose to show that those who entirely reject the facts related by Herodotus, on account of their incredibility, treat them with too much severity, since a number of facts daily happen which are altogether as surprising as those that are found in that author.


Before relating the story in question, the reader ought to be informed, that St. Anthony is commonly thought to have a great command over fire, and a power of destroying, by flashes of that element, those who incur his displeasure. The common people have been led into this belief, by constantly seeing a fire placed by the side of that saint in the representations that are made of him; though this fire is placed there for no other reason than because the saint is thought to have the power of curing erysipelas, which is also called the sacred fire (ignis sacer,) in the same manner as St. Hubert cures the hydrophobia; St. John, the epilepsy; and other saints, other disorders. A certain monk of St. Anthony (to come to our point) who was well acquainted with the above prepossession of the vulgar concerning his saint, used on Sundays to preach in public, in different villages within a certain distance from his convent. One day he assembled his congregation under a tree on which a magpie had built her nest, into which he had previously found means to convey a small box filled with gunpowder, which he had well secured therein; and 46 out of the box hung a long thin match, that was to burn slowly, and was hidden among the leaves of the tree. As soon as the monk, or his assistant, had touched the match with a lighted coal, he began his sermon. In the meanwhile the magpie returned to her nest; and finding in it a strange body which she could not remove, she fell into a passion, and began to scratch with her feet, and chatter unmercifully. The friar affected to hear her without emotion and continued his sermon with great composure; only he would now and then lift up his eyes towards the top of the tree, as if he wanted to see what was the matter. At last, when he judged the fire was very near reaching the gunpowder, he pretended to be quite out of patience, he cursed the magpie, and wished St. Anthony’s fire might consume her, and went on again with his sermon; but he had scarcely pronounced a few periods, when the match on a sudden produced its effect, and blew up the magpie with her nest; which miracle wonderfully raised the character of the friar, and proved afterwards very beneficial both to him and his convent.



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