Self-Flagellation (George Ryley Scott, 1968)

NOTE: This article is taken from The History of Corporal Punishment, pp. 98-108:


One of the most remarkable features of the life in the ancient monasteries and convents was the widespread practice of self-flagellation, and many people living today find it difficult to believe that there ever existed persons who would inflict pain upon themselves; just as they greet with scornful unbelief any statement that, either now, or in any other age, there are, or ever were, individuals who will or would willingly allow others to use the whip upon their bodies. In both cases, however, they are wrong. There were in the past both men and women by the thousands who flogged themselves; just as today there are men and women who not only allow themselves to be flogged, but who pay someone to wield the whip.

Reproduction of the crops used in the Middle Ages
Reproduction of the crops used in the Middle Ages

Now, in the case of religious self-flagellation there were many factors which had a share in promulgating the practice. In the first place it was, in many religious orders, a custom which new recruits seeking atonement were advised to observe; and, for the most part, they would no more have thought of rebelling against the practice than they would no more have thought of rebelling against any other of the numerous disciplinary measures they were expected to undertake, or the self-abasing observances to which they promised, all in humility, to submit. Also, there were stern days, when men and women, as I have already observed, were made of harder stuff than they are today, and rebellion against the rules of the order would have led to flogging anyway, and would most certainly have involved far more severe chastisement than anything they would administer to themselves. And although I am not going quite so far as to say, in regard to this self-flagellation, that it was exactly a case of force majeure, I do think, in many cases, the hint that most inmates would wish to expiate their sins and transgressions by self-flagellation may have been interpreted as something smelling suspiciously like a command.

There are, however, the strongest grounds for thinking that this explanation by no means suffices in all cases. It certainly does not, for instance, explain the self-flagellation, or the voluntary submission to whipping at other hands, in the so numerous cases of members of the royal houses, and of other exalted personages. It just as certainly does not explain the self-flagellation of the leaders of the various religious bodies, to wit, the saints, the bishops, and so on. For any convincing explanation, in all such instances, we must probe deeper.

In some cases, without doubt, we need look no further than the universal belief in the reputed medicinal and other virtues of flagellation. But here we have to grant the existence of some form of suffering, of some distemper, and a pretty severe attack of it at that—an explanation, therefore which is obviously restricted considerably in its application, and which in any case would not account, except in relatively few cases, for the continuance of the practice over long periods of time.

Finally, and most importantly, we are compelled to fall back upon the need which so often occurs in the case of religious fanatics—and it must be conceded that all who become monks and nuns are inclined to religious fanaticism, if not actually afflicted with religious mania—of finding some means of repressing the worldy cravings which arise irresistibly in their minds; hence the popularity of self-torturing in many and devious ways, of which, in ancient times, flagellation was one of the most widespread. The belief in the efficacy of the voluntary submission to pain or suffering or humiliation, as a means of expiation for a sin or transgression committed against God or the Church, was firmly established; and, indeed, to this day, is an integral part of many varieties of religion. Penance looms largely in the Catholic faith; it ranks as the fourth of the seven sacraments. It was this firm belief which let the leaders of the Churches, in those ancient days, go so far as to whip themselves, or to suffer whipping at the hands of their disciples, to wear sackcloth next to their skin, to martyrise their own flesh, to fast for long periods, to parade about in rags and filth, to humiliate themselves in a hundred different ways. It was, too, this self-same firm belief which caused them, whenever they happened to be beset with temptations, which was a frequent occurrence, to try to dispel such longings by self-punishment and self-humiliation.


One must not overlook the fact that in many cases the priests genuinely believed that self-punishment, being a form of sacrifice, would propitiate the god they worshipped. This provides one of the explanations of all forms of asceticism—from the chastity of Roman Catholic priests to the extreme self-tortures practiced by the yogis of Tibet and the fakirs of India. Also, and often coincident with this propitiation of their god, the arousing of the sympathy or compassion of the public, which, inevitably, is connected with any form of martyrdom, was no doubt in the minds of those indulging in self-flagellation.

It was undoubtedly by these and other (true or apocryphal) analogous practices that the saints of old established and retained their reputations. There are for the finding many revealing instances. Thus in Lives of the Saints Canonized in 1839, in a reference to Saint Liguori, it is stated that he flagellated himself so severely that “one day his secretary had to burst open the door, and snatch the discipline out of his hands, fearing lest the violence with which he scourged himself might cause his death.” And, according to the same authority Saint Pacificus was accustomed to scourge himself to such an extent “as to fill all those with horror who heard the whistlings of the lash, or saw the abundance of blood which he had shed during the flagellation.” Then, too, there was the example set by the Biblical heroes. Saint Paul, revered of all associated with the Christian religion, was staunchly held up as a believer in and a practitioner of self-flagellation. “I keep under my body and bring it into subjection” (I Cor. 9:27). Here, if ever man did, he stands self-confessed. And we read in Psalms: “For all day long have I been plagued and chastened every morning.”

With all these ideas firmly embedded in the minds of the leaders of the sects, it is a matter for no wonder at all that, in the sincerely professed belief that they were upholding sound apostolic tradition, they prescribed these self-same forms of penance for their followers. Those who failed to mortify themselves, and to practice the discipline necessary to please the Church and placate their God would be denied entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. In these modern days of widespread agnosticism and atheism it is difficult, almost to the extent of bordering on the impossible, for the mind to realize just how powerful were these arguments of the Church, backed up, as they so effectually were, by the practises of the priests, the bishops, and the saints themselves. To be denied the benefits of the Church, and the expectation of a future existence in Heaven, would be far worse than a denial of a long life on this earth. It was mainly for these reasons that kings and nobles performed their humiliating and painful penances with all the ardor of their subjects.

The cunning priests, too, preying upon the ignorance, the superstition, and the credulity of the day, were not slow to call to their aid apocryphal accounts of benefits resulting to those who flagellated themselves, and of the ill-effects following upon failure to do so. In their own way, and allowing for the limitations of the age in which they lived, these early propagandists of religion could bring to their aid species of ballyhoo which were every whit as effective as the modern methods of publicity agents. There were the stories told of the power of severe and regular whipping to change the soul’s destination from Hell to Heaven; there was at least one account given currency respecting the self-flagellation indulged in by a gathering of priests around a dead monk’s bed causing him to come back to life; there was the tale, whispered into credulous ears, that those who refused to whip themselves, or to be whipped while upon this earthly sphere, were scourged good and plenty by every spirit inhabiting Purgatory.

Self-flagellation 1

Sex entered largely into the matter, fornication being one of the major sins against the dictates of the Churches. Self-punishment of various kinds were favorite methods adopted by the early saints to subdue sexual thoughts and cravings. There is a story that Peter the Hermit was compelled to lock himself up in his room and take the whip to his own flesh, in order to prevent himself seducing a pretty girl whom he had rescued from the clutches of a satyr. And although this particular story may be dubious of authenticity, there can be no manner of doubt that such-like self-punishments were very often thought to be necessary to subdue licentious thoughts and libidinous cravings. [In his excellent book, The Cruel and the Meek, Dr. Walter Braun brings out well the complete inability of the ancients to recognize that this so-called “mortification of the flesh” was likely to have precisely the opposite effects to those intended]. It was because of the urgency of these repressive measures that the saints, judging every other individual by their own standards, prescribed similar fustigations, tortures and humiliations in every case and circumstance. It is in just the same way that the modern theologian, moralist, or Puritan, finding certain measures essential for the subduing of his own libido, endeavors to make similar taboos or repressive measures universal in their application.

There are indications that self- or voluntary flagellation existed long before the establishment of monasteries and convents, though in most of the recorded cases there are grounds for surmising that they were of a sexual rather than a religious origin. Thus Herodotus, in referring to the custom among the Egyptians, at certain festivals, after feasting, and the offering of sacrifices to their god, of men and women, to the tune of some thousands, whipping each other to their hearts’ content, said he was “not allowed to mention the reason why these beatings were performed.” Apuleius speaks of priests who whipped themselves with scourges which they carried about with them for that express purpose.

Although the rules of the early monastic orders preserve discreet silence respecting any self-flagellating practices, this, says the author of The History of the Flagellants,

“has been amply compensated in  subsequent rules. Thus, the Carmes are to discipline themselves twice a week; the Monks of Monte Cassino, once a week; the Ursuline Nuns, every Friday; the Nuns of the Visitation, when they please; the English Benedictines, a greater or less number of times in the week, according to the season of the year; the Celestines, on the eve of every great festival; the Capuchin Friars, every day in the week, etc.” (p. 113).


But if in the rules of the orders this reticence was observable, biographers and historians were governed by no such principles.

Chroniclers of the lives of the early Christian theologians refer to various devotees of the cult of self-flagellation. There was Saint Pardulph, who removed every atom of clothes during Lent, and was thrashed daily, in accordance with his own orders, by a disciple. Others wielded the whip themselves. There was Saint William; there was an abbot of Pontaoise, by name Gualbertus; there was Abbot Guy of Pomposa; there was Saint Romnald; and there was various personages of lesser importance. The usual practice was to flagellate daily, continuing the process as long as it took to sing or recite selected psalms or other Biblical passages.

All this flagellation among the saints and the monks, however, appears to have been sporadic up to, at any rate, the end of the first thousand years of the Christian era. Propaganda for flagellation, such as it was, remained restricted more or less to the somewhat crude accounts of benefits received by flagellants, conveyed by word of mouth from one worshipper to another. It was not until the year 1056 that a certain newly created Cardinal, by name Peter Damian de Honestis, initiated a campaign to popularize flagellation. The result of this campaign was to set the whole of Christendom using the whip. Kings and commoners theologians and criminals, nobles and peasants vied with each other in the avidity with which they whipped themselves and one another.


It is mainly to the writings of this same Damian that we are indebted for much of the information available respecting the practice of self-flagellation among the theological leaders of his time. As an instance, Saint Dominic Loricatus was accustomed to divest himself of every stitch of clothing, and, wielding a birch in each hand, flog every part of his body within his reach, continuing the fustigation as long as it took him to recite the psalter—not once—but three separate times from beginning to end. On special occasions, it appears this same saint whipped himself while singing through the entire psalter “twelve times over,” a procedure which filled even the grim, sadistic and fanatical Cardinal “with terror when he heard of it.” Another notable self-flagellating monk was Saint Rodolph, who shut himself up in his cell, and sang through the whole psalter to the accompaniment of vigorous whipping.

Now, all modern scepticism notwithstanding, and allowing for the exaggeration which is one of the major sins with which propagandists are so often afflicted, it may be set down as a solid fact that many of these accounts of the self-flagellatory practices of the saints and their disciples are perfectly true accounts. Anyone who has dug deeply into religious origins and practices, pagan and civilized, and who is thoroughly acquainted with the genesis of the various faiths which at one time or another have swept the world, is well aware of the lengths to which, in their fanaticism, men and women will go. And these accounts of self-flagellation of the ancients in a considerable number of instances, are supported by evidence of a nature sufficient to establish, beyond any reasonable doubt, the existence of the phenomenon. At the same time, one must not close one’s eyes to the fact that many of the stories which have been made much of by credulous writers, have gathered, in travelling down the ages, a good deal of fictitious trimming; and that, apart from the carefully suppressed motives which no doubt prompted many religious leaders to stage their exhibitions, there were undoubtedly many instances in which hallucinations entered into the matter. It is highly probable that, in numerous cases, vivid imaginations transformed a soft whip into a terrible knout; a few slight weals on the buttocks into a blood-striped body.

The use of other and more agreeable disciplinary methods is mentioned by the author of The History of the Flagellants in a notable passage which reads:

“Indeed, an infinite variety of instruments have been used for that purpose, whether they were contrived at leisure by the ingenious persons who were to use them, or were suddenly found out, from the spur of some urgent occasion. Thus, incensed Pedants, who could not quickly enough find their usual instrument of discipline, have frequently used their hat, their towel, or, in general, the first things that fell under their hands. A certain gentleman, as I have been credibly informed, once flagellated a saucy young fish-woman with all the flounders in her basket. Among saints, some, like Dominic the Cuirassed, have used besoms; others, like St. Dominic, the founder of the Dominican Order, have used iron chains; others, have employed knotted leather thongs; others have used nettles, and others, thistles. A certain saint, as I have read in the Golden Legend, had no discipline of his own, but constantly took, to discipline himself with, the very first thing that came under his hand, such as the tongs for the fire, or the like. St. Bridget, as I have read in the same book, disciplined herself with a bunch of keys; a certain lady, as hath been mentioned in a former place, used a bunch of feathers for the same purpose; and lastly, Sancho did things with much more simplicity, and flagellated himself with the palms of his hands.”


It is highly probable, too, that many flagellations of which sanguinary accounts were given, never actually took place at all. We see indications of this in numerous stories of the saints being flogged by the devil—stories which are either due to hallucinations, or are plain fabrications. Saint Anthony describes one such incident. Saint Hilarion was repeatedly belabored by Satan, who, says Saint Jerome, “bestrides him, beating his sides with his heels, and his head with a scourge.” And there is the remarkable account given by the famous Saint Francis of Assisi concerning his struggle with and terrible flagellation at the hands of the devil, which rendered essential his hurried departure from Rome, a tale which is bound to arouse suspicion in any logical mind when it is coupled with the fact that the inhabitants of that city gave the saint plainly to understand that he was not wanted, and that his stay might involve danger to himself.

The necessity for absolution caused many a royal personage to submit to the discipline of the whip, and there can be small enough doubt that the knowledge that flagellation, voluntary or otherwise, would atone for sins of pretty nearly every description had a good deal to do with the popularity of the practice among the rich and the powerful. I have an idea that there are today men by the hundred who would gleefully submit to the pain and humiliation of birching if this represented the utmost penalty they would be called upon to pay as punishment for the commission of a major crime.

In English history, we have the well authenticated case of King Henry II. His resentment against Thomas  Becket, his Archbishop of Canterbury, had led him, in a fit of passion, to say “what sluggard wretches, what cowards, have I brought up in my court, who care nothing for their allegiance to their master: not one will deliver me from this low-born priest.” It was a most unfortunate speech, even for the King, in view of the subsequent assassination of the Archbishop, and there were those who were not slow to accuse Henry of complicity in the murder. As an act of atonement he allowed himself to be flogged in Canterbury Cathedral. Nor was this an isolated example. Prince Raymond VI was whipped in Valencia, at the Church of Saint Giles; the Emperor Henry submitted regularly to flagellation; Foulques, Count of Anjou; William, Duke of Aquitaine; Raymond, Count of Toulouse, all allowed themselves to be whipped. And, in the 11th century, one of Italy’s leading aristocrats, the Marquis of Tuscany, was flogged by an abbot in the church.

Early 14th-century representation of Henry and Thomas Becket
Early 14th-century representation of Henry and Thomas Becket

Henry IV of France was more wily. When, after excommunication, he was ordered to submit to flagellation for the securance of absolution, he instituted the system of vicarious punishment, whereby the guilty and atoning party could hire someone to take his place. Two of his ambassadors, by name Du Perron and D’Ossat, at his request, submitted their bodies to the strokes of the rod in his stead. Shortly afterwards they blossomed into cardinals, which fact seems to indicate the nature of the reward promised them for their services. This was in 1595, and the practice thereafter seems to have been expanded even to the lengths of self-flagellation, men being willing to flog themselves as a measure of atonement for the sins of anyone prepared to pay their fees.

The fair sex, too, adopted flagellation as a means of securing absolution. Maria Magdalena, a Carmelite nun, flogged herself nearly every day, as well as submitting to flagellation by others. So, too, did Catherina of Cordona, another nun belonging to the Carmelite order: she ended her career as a raving lunatic. Saint Hardwigge, Saint Hildegarde and Saint Maria, are all examples of women who attained notoriety through self-flagellation. Queen Anne of Austria allowed the discipline to be administered to her by one of the Benedictine confessors.

But, if we are to accept the testimony of Damian, the earliest authority on flagellation, there was one woman, known as the widow Cechald, who easily capped the lot. A lady of gentle birth and of no little dignity, she lashed herself no fewer than 300 times. It certainly seems a tall story, and we may be excused for doubting the reverend historian’s accuracy, or, alternatively, marvelling at his credulity.

Church Councils frequently ordered penitents to submit to the discipline. They had no recourse but to obey, and the punishments they submitted their bodies to, cheerfully or otherwise, were terrible, and to modern ears, incredible. Apropos of this, Lea says:

“Stripped as much as decency and the inclemency of the weather would permit, the penitent [resented himself every Sunday, between the Epistle and the Gospel, with a rod in his hand, to the priest engaged in celebrating mass, who soundly scourged him in the presence of the congregation, as a fitting interlude in the mysteries of the divine service. On the first Sunday in every month, after mass, he was to visit, similarly equipped, every home in which he had seen heretics, and receive the same infliction; and on the occasion of every solemn procession, he was to accompany it in the same guise, to be beaten at every station and at the end. Even when the town happened to be placed under interdict, or himself to be excommunicated, there was to be no cessation of the penance, and apparently it lasted as long as the wretched life of the penitent, or at least until it pleased the inquisitor to remember him and liberate him” [Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, 1906, pp. 464-5 ].

1904 illustration of a medieval Spanish flagellant.
1904 illustration of a medieval Spanish flagellant.

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