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Flagellation or flogging is the act of methodically beating or whipping (Latin flagellum, “whip”) the human body. Specialised implements for it include rods, switches, the cat o’ nine tails and the sjambok. Typically, flogging is imposed on an unwilling subject as a punishment; however, it can also be submitted to willingly, or performed on oneself, in religious or sadomasochistic contexts. In some circumstances the word “flogging” is used loosely to include any sort of corporal punishment, including birching and caning. The flogger, in various forms, has played a surprisingly vital role in shaping the history of mankind. Throughout the centuries, our ancestors have incorporated it not only into their sexual practices, but into their spiritual, judicial and even medical practices as well. Flagellation in the name of a god is far from being a rare thing. Nearly all of the mother religions, the ancient mystery cults of the great Mediterranean civilizations of Greece, Egypt, Rome and Persia, and even the religions of Islam and Christianity have, at some point in history, incorporated flagellation into their spiritual rites and practices.

In pagan Sparta each year, during a festival called ‘Day of Flagellations’, young men were brought before an altar dedicated to the goddess Diana where they were whipped for from dusk to dawn. People would turn out from all over the countryside to view the whippings and to cheer and encourage the boys to ‘bear the pain with fortitude.’ Priests, who would bear witness to the entire ceremony, would, at the end of the day, examine the wounds on each of the boys, and, according to the sizes and shapes of the wounds, would predict the young men’s futures. It was not uncommon for some of the boys to die from the terrible wounds inflicted upon them during this ceremony, often without ever having uttered a sound.

Shia Muslims flogging themselves

Syrian priest, like countless other religious leaders, believed that the gods could be appeased by the use of scourges and would spend hours whipping themselves profusely with an instrument made of twisted woolen cords armed with small bones. And, even today, Shiite Muslims indulge in the practice of public self-flagellation. In some Muslim countries, thousands of Shia Muslims march in massive parades while flogging themselves or each other on the back every year to commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein.

Christians in the Philippines practicing self flagellation

The Church adopted it’s use of the scourge from a tribe of monastics who settled in small communities in the Egyptian Desert in the year 381 AD. These ‘desert fathers’, who believed that any sort of physical pleasure was sinful, were avid practitioners of self-flagellation. They were of the opinion that pain and discomfort blunted cravings for the sensual pleasures of the flesh and proved the insignificance of the body. Following their lead, the Church, even in it’s earliest ages embraced the practice of flagellation, both self inflicted and otherwise. Indeed, the tales of flogging within the church are numerous. Take the Pazzi, St. Rose, for instance, who would often run out into the rose garden and roll around on the thorns, after which she would race back into the convent and demand to be tied up and beaten.

Flagellants. From a fifteenth century woodcut

By the eleventh century, the Church had even begun promoting flagellation as a form of penitence for it’s parishioners, much like the modern day ‘Hail Mary’ (and doled out equally as often). In the twelfth century, St. Dominic Loricatus (who carried his scourge with him everywhere and flogged himself every night at bedtime, where ever he might be) even established a scale of equivalents, 1,000 lashes being considered as the equivalent of the reciting of ten penitential psalms. The priests would usually do the whipping themselves, in a place attached to the church, with the penitent, more often than not, being entirely nude. And, I might mention, there are a great number of tales of confessors making use of their powers of absolution to force their parishioners to beat ‘them’.

Elizabeth Brownrigg flogging a servant

The Church neither promoted nor regarded flogging as a sensual act, though the numerous stories of and the zeal in which these floggings were given and received causes one to believe that the participants derived at least some pleasure from the act.

In Spain, young men imparted a tone of gallantry to their discipline, by flogging themselves beneath their beloved’s window. The young lady would then reward her suitor by lifting her veil for a brief moment.

Hanging and Flogging in Texas. From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper

Flagellation for punishment’s sake has been practiced throughout the world. In ancient Rome, judges would decorate the walls of their courtrooms with various types of scourges in order to strike fear into the hearts of criminals, many of whom would be ordered to endure whippings of such severity that more than just a few of them died from the wounds inflicted upon them; Austrian soldiers who misbehaved were made to run the terrible gauntlet; Russia has the knout; China still has the great bamboo; Turkey governs with the stick; the Siamese have their nightly birches; and, in Africa, there is ‘mumbo jumbo’.

A criminal gets a public flogging by two officials in Saudi Arabia in the late seventies

English schoolmasters learned to use the rod upon the backs of their students at a very early period in history. In fact, flogging is still common practice in many English schools even today. One schoolmaster, in the course of fifty years, administered to his pupils nearly half a million canings and twenty-four thousand floggings.

Flogging has also been reputed to have a good amount of medicinal value as well. At various times throughout history, it has been promoted as a way of ‘stirring up the body’s stagnating juices, dissolving the precipitating salts, purifying the coagulating humours of the body, clearing the brain, purging the belly, circulating the blood and bracing the nerves.’ It has been used as a treatment for insanity, laziness, depression, obstruction of the bowels and even for lockjaw and choking. And, during the years 1348-1349, when the Black Death was sweeping through Western Europe, it was promoted as both a preventative and a cure for the plague.

Though sexual sadomasochism has been practiced since ancient times, the first known written account was published, in the fifteenth century, by an Italian man named Pico della Mirandola. He told of a man who could only enjoy sex if he had first been beaten to the point of bleeding with a whip which had first been soaked in vinegar.

The first overtly pornographic work on the subject of flagellation was published in the year 1718, and was entitled ‘A Treatise on the Use of Flogging’. With the appearance of this book, flagellation became a passion throughout Europe, so much so that the French soon dubbed it ‘le vice anglais,’ the English vice, a nickname which would stick for centuries.

By the late 1700’s, dozens of brothels, dedicated exclusively to the practice of flagellation, were erected throughout Europe and enjoyed a huge success. In fact, one of these establishments, owned by a Mrs. Colet, was so popular that even King George IV made a well-known royal visit. Another madam, Mrs. Theresa Berkley (who, in the year 1828, invented a spanking bench known as the Berkley Horse or Chavelet), made the equivalent of $20,000 American dollars during the eight years in which she operated her flagellatory brothel, quite a substantial amount for her time. Also during this period, a man by the name of Chase Pine invented a machine which was capable of whipping up to forty persons simultaneously.

There are many tales of flogging amongst the ranks of nobility, including kings and queens. Among these tales is one of a certain nobleman who lived during the reign of King George II. This masochistic gentleman rented a house in St. James’ Place and hired an attractive, elderly woman as his housekeeper. One day each week, she had been instructed to lay out scrub brushes, mops, cleansers, and every other item necessary to clean a room, and to engage two women to meet him there on that day: one of these women was to ‘role play’ a housekeeper and the other a chambermaid. The nobleman would then dress himself up as a parish girl and begin scrubbing the room. Afterwards, either one or both of the women would scold for doing a poor job and then whip him, just as many parish girls were, in those days, whipped by their mistresses.

And then there is the tale of Queen Catherine de’ Medicis who would place her maids of honour over her knees and whip them. Even ladies of quality, living at court, were not exempt from this same type of chastisement, when they were naughty, whether they were in the immediate suite of the Queen or not, and pages often found themselves upon the whipping block as well.

Now, the flogger you see today is much different than the ones our ancestors used. In fact, often they would make due with whatever they could find at hand, be it a bundle of rods or switches, leather thongs, or any of a countless variety of other items.

There is little doubt that the scourge has played, and continues to play, more than just a passing role in the shaping of the history, and the future, of mankind. Even today, may people still find pleasure at the business end of the scourge. It is regarded among practitioners of BDSM to be a tool of sensuality… an instrument of passion and affection. Present day D&Ser’s use their whips with the safety and well being of their partner in the forefront of their mind. We have developed safewords to let us know when our partners limits have been reached and have educated ourselves in ‘safeplay’ practices so that we might be skilled in our whipping and thereby be able to to so without serious injury to our partners.



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