We are all addicted to pleasure in many different forms; why is it that so many of us are addicted to pain? I don’t mean pain of loneliness, or pain of heartbreak, or existential pain—I mean the unmetaphoric physical pain of the whip that has been used for centuries as a sacrament, a salutary, or a stimulant. The love of the whip is too strange for simple answers, and scholar Niklaus Largier knows it. He has performed a huge amount of research into many arcane areas to produce In Praise of the Whip: A Cultural History of Arousal (Zone Books; translation from the German by Graham Harman), a big tour-de-force that examines the many aspects of flagellation. Largier has had to treat many erotic aspects of the subject, and his generous quotations from such pornographic classics as My Secret Lifeand reproductions of illustrations from Sade’s Justine are titillating, but that is certainly not the tone of the work. For one thing, it is as objective and academic as a book on this subject could possibly be, although with the many quotations from centuries of works, it is also entertaining. For another thing, Largier has not restricted the history to sexual flagellation. His subject is voluntary whipping (he does not cover punitive whipping), and almost half of his book has to do with religious flagellation, although there is a risk of overlap into the erotic whenever voluntary whipping is adopted even within the church.
I am not into flagellation myself (well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?), but if I were, I’d take the sexual kind. The religious kind is just too kinky. A medieval manuscript describes the practices of Dominican nuns at the turn of the fourteenth century, detailing blows from various instruments; despite the title of this book, such tools as birch or thorn branches, nettles, rods, or chains are all mentioned, as well as leather whips with or without knots or sharp metal thongs at the working end. The manuscript says that the nuns whipped and drew blood “… so that the sound of the blows of the whip rang through the entire convent and rose more sweetly than any other melody to the ears of the Lord.” One of the reasons for doing such a thing was to impress and intimidate the devil. In 1604, St. Francis de Sales wrote that presented with a flagellant accepting fifty or sixty blows from a whip, “The devil sees how one treats his comrade the body, and he flees from it.” Scourging the body meant that the body would not overtake the more important soul. A writer in the eleventh century wrote, “What a joyful, unique spectacle if the heavenly judge looks down and man flogs himself to his depths for his shameful deeds.” Another reason was the pure imitation of Christ; none of the stories in the Bible has Jesus voluntarily being whipped, or whipping himself (in one of the illustrations here from 1489, he does carry a scourge, and in another from 1649, a pretty, naked Mary Magdalene scourges herself), but that did not seem to bother flagellants, who felt that the whip brought them into an imaginary union with Christ or the martyrs who were whipped to death for his sake.
They also whipped themselves to save the world. Some insisted that flagellation produced a union with Jesus that was making his return all the more imminent. (I could not help thinking that it would be fun if those currently anticipating the Rapture would take up the whip rather than the bumper sticker, but this seems unlikely.) A flagellant could perform in public, and become for any spectator “a new Christ”, converting entire populations. While private self-flagellation was advocated as the proper technique by many, one city after another found irresistible the spectacle of hundreds of flagellants (tens of thousands, if the old texts are to be believed). In the fourteenth century, traveling flagellants were convinced they had just the thing to convince God he ought to withdraw the plague he had instituted as a punishment for sinners. They combined whipping with song and dance numbers, making their own sort of liturgy and services. The church proper rejoiced in its holy men who practiced asceticism, but it fretted that the popular flagellants were becoming an alternative church, and authorities began to legislate the practice out of existence.
It never went completely away, especially in its non-public form, and was heavy on the minds of many Catholic thinkers. In 1700, Abbé Jacques Boileau wrote a history of flagellation, in which he wrote that flagellation could be a product of madness, or worse, of perversion and shamelessness, especially if the whip were applied as “lower discipline” rather than upon the upper ranges of the back. Whipping was a show, he wrote, even if done in private as a show for the Lord, and it always carried the risk of an erotic tang. Boileau’s essay got on the list of prohibited books, but the writers of the Enlightenment seized upon flagellation as a shameful part of the church they opposed. There were certainly sexual abuses of flagellation within abbeys and nunneries, but this was easily exaggerated and dramatized. Largier writes, “The secrecy, ritual, and withdrawal that characterize spiritual lifestyles in the monastery more than anywhere else thereby supplement a projection in which abysmal desire, tormenting lust, and passionate fulfillment converge with unsurpassable expression.” When anti-Catholic writers told these stories, it was easy to concentrate on the female sinner who got an absolving administration of the birch from her confessor, or the monk who enjoyed fundamental discipline administered by a pretty nun.
In other words, misbehavior by religious people became a staple of pornography, and whipping was a particular part of sexual activity that was emphasized in pornographic stories. Largier does not give the reason (only guesses) that the English should have become a center of what has been called “the English vice,” even though a nineteenth century writer wrote that in England “there are no Jesuits to be found.” Birching for hire was described in My Secret Life, and in an unexpected encroachment of automation, Mistress Berkly invented a machine that would do the whipping on a prone and naked gentleman patron. She made enough money (perhaps not all from her machine) in London that she bequeathed a huge sum to her brother, a missionary in Australia, but he wouldn’t touch it. Whipping was not just an English vice, it was a medical one. A volume On the Use of Whips in Medical Practice and in Matters of Love, published in 1669, bore the motto, “Cruel flagellation prepares the pleasures of Venus./ As long as it hurts, it helps. Then let there be pain!” There were many case studies published through the nineteenth century of men like the one “who was unable to perform his marital duties unless he was heartily whipped with rods.” The science behind such applications had to do with the transfer of heat to the organs of generation; one could not whip the genitals directly because “the genital areas are known to have an uncommon excitability and cannot possibly endure blows of the rod for as long as needed for blood to flow.” The hindquarters, however, could “accumulate the heat of life in a specific part of the body” and hence “promote the erection of the member.” No matter the medical seriousness of such discussions, the texts tended to get republished and supplemented with “case studies” that Largier says, “enriched their subject with gratuitous erotic details.”
Largier’s book is written in a serious and academic tone; if you didn’t know what a “praxis” was before, you will get examples of the use of this word many times in each chapter. The language is entirely consistent with the academic studiousness throughout the book, but the subject is one that at times cannot but excite laughter and wonder. Indeed, Largier remarks on the work of a 1698 medical treatise, that it shows that the “stimulation of flagellation consists instead in the fact that it is part of the variety of the world in all its richness.” That’s a perfect reason for an academic treatise on this far-from-trivial topic, and Largier’s comprehensive book disperses plenty of such stimulation.
© 2007 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.