11/7/12 - self-flagellation

In today's selection - in the Middle Ages, it became commonplace for religious leaders to flagellate themselves and members of their monastic orders:

"In monasteries and convents driven by the belief that redemption would only come through abasement, it is not surprising that forms of corporal punishment -- virgarum verbera (hitting with rods), corporale supplicium (bodily punishment), ictus (blows), vapulatio (cudgeling), disciplina (whipping), and flagellatio -- were routinely inflicted on community members who broke the rules. Disciplinary practices that would, in pagan society, have been disgraces inflicted only on social inferiors were meted out with something like democratic indifference to rank. Typically, the guilty party had to carry the rod that was used for the beating, and then sitting on the ground and constantly repeating the words Mea culpa, submit to blows until the abbot or abbess was satisfied.

"The insistence that punishment be actively embraced by the victims -- literalized in the kissing of the rod -- marked a deliberate Christian trampling on the Epicurean credo of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. After all, the experience of pain was not only punishment; it was a form of pious emulation. Christian hermits, brooding on the sufferings of the Saviour, mortified their flesh, in order to experience in their own bodies the torments that Jesus had had to undergo. Though these acts of self-scourging began to be reported in late antiquity -- they were novel and strange enough in the beginning to attract widespread attention -- it was not until the eleventh century that a monastic reformer, the Italian Benedictine Peter Damian, established voluntary self-flagellation as a central ascetic practice acceptable to the Church. ...

"Here is a description of the Dominican nuns of Colmar, penned at the turn of the fourteenth century by a sister named Catherine von Gebersweiler who had lived in the convent since childhood:

At Advent and during the whole of Lent, the sisters would make their way after matins into the main hall or some other place devoted to their purpose. There they abused their bodies in the most acute fashion with all manner of scourging instruments until their blood flowed, 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.

"This is no mere sadomasochistic fantasy: a vast body of evidence confirms that such theaters of pain, the ritualized heirs to St. Benedict's spontaneous roll in the stinging nettles, were widespread in the late Middle Ages. They were noted again and again as a distinctive mark of holiness. St. Teresa, 'although she was slowly wasting away, tormented herself with the most painful whips, frequently rubbed herself with fresh stinging nettles, and even rolled about naked in thorns.' St. Clare of Assisi 'tore apart the alabaster container of her body with a whip for forty-two years, and from her wounds there arose heavenly odors that filled the church.' St. Dominic cut into his flesh every night with a whip affixed with three iron chains. St. Ignatius of Loyola recommended whips with relatively thin straps, 'summoning pain into the flesh, but not into the bones.' Henry Suso, who carved the name of Jesus on his chest, had an iron cross fixed with nails pressed into his back and whipped himself until the blood flowed. Suso's contemporary, Elsbeth of Oye, a nun from Zurich, whipped herself so energetically that the bystanders in the chapel were spattered with her blood.

"The ordinary self-protective, pleasure-seeking impulses of the lay public could not hold out against the passionate convictions and overwhelming prestige of their spiritual leaders. Beliefs and practices that had been the preserve of religious specialists, men and women set apart from the vulgar, everyday imperatives of the 'world,' found their way into the mainstream, where they thrived in societies of flagellants and periodic bursts of mass hysteria. What was once in effect a radical counterculture insisted with remarkable success that it represented the core values of all believing Christians."


Stephen Greenblatt


The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began


Vintage/Anchor Books


Copyright 2011 by Stephen Greenblatt


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