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.

Also see:


Spiritual Fathers Who Are Defiled Along With Their Children (Peter Damian, 1049)

NOTE: The following article is the 6th and 7th chapters of Liber Gomorrhians (Book of Gomorrah), an 11th-Century Treatise Against Clerical Homosexual Practices:

Book of Gomorrah

O unheard of crime! O outrage to be mourned with a whole fountain of tears! If those who consent to the ones doing these things are to be punished with death, what torment could be thought fitting for those  who commit these great evils with their spiritual children—evils to be punished with damnation? What fruitfulness can still be found in the flocks when the shepherd is so deeply sunk in the belly of the devil? Who would still remain under the rule of one who, he knew, was separated from God as an enemy? Whoever makes a mistress out of a penitent whom he had spiritually borne as a child for God subjects the servant tp the iron rule of diabolical tyranny through the impurity of his flesh. If someone violates a woman whom he raised from the sacred font, is it not determined that he be deprived of communion without delay, and ordered to pass through public penance by censure of the sacred canons? For it is written: spiritual generation is greater than carnal.

Likewise it follows that the same sentence is justly inflicted both on one who has ruined a natural daughter and on one who has corrupted a spiritual daughter through a sacrilegious union, unless perhaps in this matter the quality of each crime is distinguished, since, although sinning incestuously, nevertheless, they each sinned naturally because they sinned with a woman. However, anyone who commits a sacrilege with his son is guilty of the crime of incest with a male and breaks the laws of nature. And it seems to me to be more tolerable to fall into shameful lust with an animal than a male.1 That is, one who perishes alone is judged much more lightly than one who also draws another along with himself to disastrous ruin. In fact, it is a sad situation where the ruin of one person depends in this way n the ruin of another so that while one is destroyed the other necessarily follows to death close behind.

Peter Damian is not an Orthodox saint. The Catholic Church commemorates him February 21.
Peter Damian is not an Orthodox saint. The Catholic Church commemorates him February 21.


However, that the arguments of diabolical fraud might not be hidden, I will bring into the light what was fashioned secretly in the workshop of ancie4tn wickedness. I do not accept that this hidden thing should go on, namely, that certain ones who are filled with the poison of this crime, as if taking heart, should confess to one another to keep the knowledge of their guilt from becoming known to others. While they shame the face of men, the authors of this guilt themselves become the judges. The indiscreet indulgence which each desires to be applied to himself, he rejoices to bestow on the other through a delegated change of roles. So it happens that although they ought to be penitents for their great crimes, nonetheless their faces do not pale with fasting, nor do their bodies waste away with thinness. While the belly is in no way restrained from the immoderate reception of food, the spirit is shamefully inflamed to the ardour of habitual lust,2 with the result that the one who had shed no tears for what was committed continues to commit more seriously what should be mourned.

But is a precept of the Law that when a person is covered with leprosy he be shown to the priests (Lev. 14:2). Now, however, he is shown to the leprous rather than to the priests since the impure confess to the impure the wickedness they committed together.3 But since confession is also a manifestation, what, I ask, does he manifest who tells the listener what is known; in what way is it to be called a confession where nothing is revealed by the one making the confession except what the listener already knows? Besides, by what law, by what right can he who is bound by the social bond of the evil deed bind or loose the other? Vainly does he strive to loose another while he himself is ensnared in chains. If anyone wishes to be a guide for a blind person, it is necessary that he himself see lest he cause the one following to fall, as the voice of Truth says, “If one blind man guide another, both fall into a pit” (Luke 6:39). And again, “You see the speck in your brother’s eye, and yet miss the plank in your own. Hypocrite, remove the plank from your own eye first; then you will see clearly enough to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Luke 6:41-42).

It is evident from these Gospel witnesses that those shrouded in the darkness of the same guilt strive in vain to recall each other to the light of penance.4 And while he is not afraid of perishing by leading another astray beyond his own powers, the one who follows does not escape the pit of present ruin along with him.

Illumination from Liber Gomorrhianus
Illumination from Liber Gomorrhianus


1. Perhaps an explicit contradiction of the “Second Diocesan Statute” of Theodulf of Orleans which reads, “For just as it is more abominable to mix with a mule than a male, so it is a more irrational crime to mix with a male than with a female.”

2. Elsewhere, Damian provides a detailed account of the relationship between eating and sexual arousal; see Letter 1.15 (PL 144, 230B-32A).

3.The Migne edition (PL 145, 190B-D) adds a comment to this passage, which also applies to what immediately follows, suggesting that Peter Damian is not claiming that the confessions performed by such priests are invalid. The scholion applies particularly to the statement a few sentences later, “Vainly does he strive to loose another while he himself is ensnared in chains.” The scholion is probably correct, particularly when we recall the string defense Damian made of the validity of the ministrations by simoniacal priests in his Opusc. 6.

4. Literally, “whoever is shrouded in the darkness of the same guilt strives in vain to recall another to the light of penance.”

Lot's Wife

Book of Gomorrah: An 11th-Century Treatise Against Clerical Homosexual Practices (Peter Damian, 1049)

NOTE: The following article is the first four chapters of Liber Gomorrhians (Book of Gomorrah):

Book of Gomorrah

Peter Damian’s Liber Gomorrhians (Book of Gomorrah) is one of the most notable medieval pronouncements on the subject of homosexual practices. In fact, the work is unique in the medieval Christian literature of the West since it is the only continuous prose treatment of the various forms of homosexuality, the circumstances of clerical offences, and the proposed measures against such behavior.

Most of the penitentials from the 6th century to the 10th century have at least one canon concerning homosexuality, but more often than not they have several canons censuring the various forms of homosexual behaviour which are outlined by Damian in his first chapter. The Book of Gomorrah is precise and clear, tactfully introducing the required nuances without being vulgar or obscene.

The Book of Gomorrah is the first of Peter Damian’s works censuring clerical sexual abuses. The fact that the work was sent to Leo dates it to 1048-1054, the period of Leo IX’s papacy. The most commonly accepted date seems to be 1049—five years before the Great Schism. Although the tract is addressed to Leo IX, the structure of the work suggests that it was also meant to be read by those clerics who were actually engaged in homosexual practices. There is a canonical section (Preface, chs. 1-16, 26), which is addressed to the Pope, and a pastoral section (chs. 17-25), addressed to the offenders. The main purpose of the Book of Gomorrah is clear. Peter Damian, who is in doubt whether clerical offenders should be punished with deposition from their ecclesiastical rank for engaging in homosexual behaviour, wrote to the Pope requesting answers to several specific questions (ch. 26)

In the first chapter, Damian outlines three forms of homosexual activity (in addition to masturbation which he seems to put in the same class of acts against nature), but he is not always clear as to the agents and circumstances of the activities. He is alarmed by the spread of homosexual behavior among the clergy (Preface) but does not specify whether he means secular clergy, monastic clergy, or both. The two circumstances he does describe both involve confessors.

In the one case he condemns priests who, after engaging in homosexual acts together, confess to one another (ch. 7); in the other, he censures confessors who engage in such behavior with their male penitents (ch. 9). He also attacks the lower clergy in an impassioned argument against those “sodomists” who attempt to break into sacred orders (ch. 5). There is an ambiguous phrase in Damian which mentions falling “with eight or even ten other equally sordid men” (ch. 2). It is not clear whether this is a reference to promiscuous sequential acts with several different men or group activity. Pope Leo’s reply, which uses the phrase “with several,” is equally vague.

Damian’s reference to “spiritual sons” in chapter 8 is a reference to the male penitents with whom confessors were having sexual relations.

The two specific abuses, then, which Peter Damian singles out for particular mention are priests who confess to each other after sinning together, and priests who sin with their male penitents. He also wants to bar homosexual offenders from becoming priests.

Peter Damian received a reply from the Pope to his question in regard to the ecclesiastical censure of clerics engaged in homosexual practices. The Book of Gomorrah did not succeed in convincing the Pope to follow through on Damian’s call for the indiscriminate deposition of such clerics. Peter Damian never returned to an extended discussion of the theme again.

Peter Damian is not an Orthodox saint. The Catholic Church commemorates him February 21.
Peter Damian is not an Orthodox saint. The Catholic Church commemorates him February 21.


Peter, the lowliest servant of monks, to the most Blessed Pope Leo, the homage of due respect:

Since it is known from the very mouth of Truth that the Apostolic See is the mother of all the churches, it is proper that, should a doubt arise from any source whatever which seems to pertain to the care of souls, we have recourse to her as to the teacher and font of heavenly wisdom. Then from this one head of ecclesiastical discipline a light will shine to dissipate the darkness of doubt and to illumine the whole body of the Church with the glittering brightness of truth.

A certain abominable and terribly shameful vice has grown up in our region. Unless the hand of severe punishment resists as soon as possible, there is certainly a danger that the sword of divine anger will be used savagely against it to the ruin of many. Alas! It is shameful to speak of, shameful to suggest such foul disgrace to sacred ears! But if the doctor shrinks in horror from infected wounds, who will take the trouble to apply the cauter? If the one who is to heal becomes nauseated, who will lead the sick hearts back to health? Vice against nature creeps in like a cancer and even touches the order of consecrated men. Sometimes it rages like a bloodthirsty beast in the midst of the sheepfold of Christ with such bold freedom that it would have been much healthier for many to have been oppressed under the yoke of a secular army than to be freely delivered over to the iron rule of diabolical tyranny under the cover of religion, particularly when this is accompanied by scandal to others. For Truth says, “Whoever scandalizes one of these little ones, it were better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matt. 18:6).

Unless the strength of the Apostolic See intervenes as soon as possible, there is no doubt but that this unbridled wickedness, even though it should wish to be restrained, will be unable to stop on its headlong course.

images (3)


Four types of this form of criminal wickedness can be distinguished in an effort to show you the totality of the whole matter in an orderly way: some sin with themselves alone; some commit mutual masturbation; some commit femoral fornication; and finally, others commit the complete act against nature.1 The ascending gradation among these is such that the last mentioned are judged to be more serious than the preceding. Indeed, a greater penance is imposed on those who fall with others than on those who defile only themselves; and those who complete the act are to be judged more severely than those who are defiled through femoral fornication. The devil’s artful fraud devises these degrees of falling into ruin such that the higher the level the unfortunate soul reaches in them, the deeper it sinks in the depths of bell’s pit.



It is true that those liable to this ruin frequently come to their senses through the generosity of divine mercy, make satisfaction, and even piously receive the burden of penance no matter how heavy; but they are utterly terrified of losing their ecclesiastical status (lit. “order”). And some rectors of churches who are perhaps more humane in regard to this vice than is expedient absolutely decree that no one ought to be deposed from his order on account of three of the grades which were enumerated above. They maintain that only those should be graded who have clearly fallen into the ultimate act. Consequently, when someone is known to have fallen into this wickedness with eight or even ten other equally sordid men, we see him still remaining in his ecclesiastical position.

Surely this impious impiety does not cut off the wound but adds to the fire. It does not prevent the bitterness of this illicit act when committed, but rather makes way for it to be committed freely. In fact, a carnal man in any order fears and is more terrified of being despised in the sight of men than of being condemned at the bar of the supreme Judge. And so he prefers bearing the hardship of any strict penance at any price to being subject to the risk of losing his rank. While he is not afraid of losing the state of his honour through indiscreet discretion, he is encouraged to presume on the untried and to remain for a long time in what he presumed against his will. I would say that as long as he is not borne away to where he will suffer more severely, he continues to wallow voluptuously in the pigsty of foul obscenity into which he had fallen earlier.



It seems utterly preposterous to us that those who are habitually defiled with this festering contagion would dare either to be promoted to orders or to remain in their rank if already promoted since it is proved to be contrary to reason and against the canonical decrees of the fathers. However, I do not make this claim as though I were offering a definitively decisive judgment in the presence of your majesty, but simply in order to make my own opinion known.

In fact, this shameful act is not improperly believed to be worse than all other crimes since, indeed, we read that almighty God always dealt with this detested evil in one way. Even before he had placed the bridle of legal precept on the other vices, he was already censuring it with the punishment of a severe penalty. There is no need to mention that he destroyed the two famous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their surrounding regions by sulphur and fire from heaven (See Genesis 19). Scripture attests that he struck down Onan, the son of Judah, with premature death for this nefarious crime, “Onan knew that the descendants would not be counted as his, so whenever he had relations with his brother’s wife, he wasted his seed on the ground in order that children not be born in the name of his brother. And for this the Lord killed him, because he had done a detestable thing” (Gen. 38:9-10).2 It is also written in the Law, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have done evil and shall be put to death; their blood will be upon them” (Lev. 20:13).

Moreover, blessed Pope Gregory testifies to the fact that a man who has fallen into that crime which the Old Law commands to be condemned by death must not be promoted to ecclesiastical orders. In his letters he writes to Bishop Passivus, saying:

“Your fraternity has known well for how long a time Aprutium has been without pastoral care while we searched unsuccessfully for someone worthy of ordination, but because Importunus is reported to me as having conducted his life consistent with his moral principles and is praised for his zeal in psalm-singing and his love of prayer, we wish that your fraternity have this man present himself to you, and that you discover from [an examination of] his soul how far he has advanced in good deeds. And if no faults are found in him which stand in the way as items punishable by death under the rule of sacred Law, let him be ordained by you as either a monk or subdeacon. After a further period of time, if it please God, let him be promoted to the pastoral care.”3

So from this we clearly gather that any male who falls into sin with a male—into that crime, as we showed above, which is surely to be with the zeal of psalm-singing, and is distinguished in his love of prayer, and leads a full religious life under a witness of approved reputation, can indeed receive full pardon for his offence, but he is never permitted to aspire to ecclesiastical orders. For even though that venerable man Importunus—marked with the badge of such a religious and upright life and decorated with the glories of the virtues—is first extolled with so much fervent praise, afterwards it is said of him, “If no crimes which are punishable by death under the rule of sacred Law stand in the way, he is to be ordained.”

Surely it is clear that a person who has been degraded by a crime deserving death is not reformed so as to receive an order of ecclesiastical rank by any sort of subsequent religious life. Nor can one who has certainly fallen into the pit of a mortal fault rise to receive the highest of honours. Consequently, it is clearer than light that whoever is convicted of having fallen in the aforesaid manner—which undoubtedly is a mortal crime—that person is promoted to an ecclesiastical rank entirely against the norm of sacred Law and the rule of divine authority.



But perhaps someone will say, “There is an imminent necessity and there is no to perform a sacred function in the church. The judgment which was first based on the pronouncement of divine justice is reasonably modified by the proposed necessity of the situation.”

To this I reply briefly. Did not the necessity also weigh heavily when the Papal See lacked a shepherd? Will a judgment be owed in favour of one man which, if upheld, will result for the benefit of an immense multitude be violated for the benefit of a single person? But now let the great preacher himself also come forward and let what he thinks of this vice be more expressly known. He says in the Epistle to the Ephesians, “Make no mistake about this: no fornicator, no unclean or covetous person has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Eph. 5:5). Consequently, if an unclean man has no inheritance at all in heaven, by what presumption, by what rash pride should he continue to possess a dignity in the Church which is no less the Kingdom of God? Surely, one who disregards the divine law by falling into sin will not dare to defy it by ascending even to the office of ecclesiastical dignity. Furthermore, he saves nothing for himself, because he is not afraid of defying God in everything.

Indeed, this Law was enacted particularly for those who violated it as Paul attests when writing to Timothy, saying, “The Law is not made for the just, but for the unjust, for the irreligious and the sinful, for criminals and the defiled, for those who kill their fathers and their mothers, for murderers, for fornicators, for male bed-companions, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and those who in other ways flout sound teaching” (1 Tim. 1:9-10). Since it is clear that the Law was passed for male bed-companions so that they would not dare desecrate the sacred orders, by whom, I ask, will the law be kept if it is defied particularly by those for whom it was enacted?

Even if a person is perhaps said to be useful, it is right that the care with which he obeys the authentically sanctioned commands should be in proportion to the prudence he shows in living up to his natural talents. The better anyone’s knowledge is, the worse is his sin, since the person who could have prudently avoided sin if he wished will inevitably merit punishment. As blessed James says, “When a man knows the right thing to do and does not do it, he sins” (James 4:17). And Truth says, “When more has been given a man, more will be required of him” (Luke 12:48). If the right order of ecclesiastical discipline is confused in learned man, it is a wonder it is kept by the ignorant. If one of the learned is admitted improperly to an ecclesiastical order, he seems, as it were, to offer his followers and, I might say, to the more simple, the path of error which he himself approached to tread with the swollen foot of pride (see Ps. 36:12). Nor must he be judged solely because he sinned, but also because he invited others to emulate the sinning by the example of his own presumption.

Illumination from Liber Gomorrhianus


1 This division is a summary of the detailed descriptions in Burchard’s “Interrogatory for Confessors,” Decretum 19.5. The expressions “mutual masturbation” and “femoral fornication” are used to render what are literally “some by the hands of others” and “others between the thighs” respectively. See the very old (ca. AD 550) division in the Synod of the Grove of Victory, canon 8 in Irish Penitentials, 69, which reads, “Whoever commits the male crime as the Sodomites [shall do penance] for four years; whoever in the thighs, three years; whoever by the hand of another or his own, two years.”

2 The point here seems to be that Onan’s contraceptive act was as “unnatural” as homosexual acts since both were punished with death.

3 John the Deacon, Life of Gregory (PL 75, 137B).