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Religious flogging

by Gert Hekma in History & Politics , 04 juni 2003

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

The Belgian religious scientist living and working in Groningen, Patrick Vandermeersch, has written an in-depth study on flagellation, “The flesh of passion.” On the cover Luca Signorelli's “The whipping of Christ,” two near naked men whipping a well-built, tied-up Son of God. Who had hopes for a book about catholic S/M, sorry!

Whipping rage

Vandermeersch treats the sexologist study of sadomasochism, quoting from the works of Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Havelock Ellis and Sigmund Freud, but the central question remains the place of body and passion in (catholic) faith. The major part of the book is devoted to a historical survey of whipping in catholic theology and practice.

The man who gave a strong impetus to a heavier penalty for sodomy, Petrus Damianus (1007-1072), at the same time inspired the whipping of oneself as a religious and repentance technique. Very successful in execrating sodomy, his call for flagellation didn’t meet similar approval. Maybe monks and nuns were already flagellating each other in those days - and not themselves -, but some two centuries later saw the rise of a veritable whipping rage. Not for erotic satisfaction or as an alternative to sodomy, since all sex outside marriage was strictly forbidden.

Yet lust must have been an unavoidable side-effect for many beginners and some die-hards. The aim was repentance though. In imitation of Jesus who prior to his crucifixion had been whipped naked, worshippers were supposed to do likewise. A believer torturing himself shared physically in the suffering of Jesus without intervention of priests or others. Many religious scientists objected Damianus’ beliefs about this form of repentance, seeing this desire to imitate or even outdo Christ as pride, since these flagellants were inflicing on themselves what Jesus was done to by others.

Damianus objected to this, since ultimately Jesus had wanted his flagellation and death by crucifixion himself. At the beginning of the fifteenth century the prominent theologist Jean Gerson opposed the flagellation mania since God is love, not suffering. Moreover, His Son had sacrificed himself for the sins of mankind, thus following in his footsteps was out of the question.

With the transition from Platonic to Aristotlean thinking in the Middle Ages a shift occurred from spirit to body, from Jesus as the word made flesh to a man of flesh and blood. God and man approached each other more closely. For mystics like Hadewijch and Ruusbroeck spiritual love culminated in a near-erotic union with their God of worship. Such thinking left no room for the body and for flagellation.

In 1349 for the first time large groups of flagellators roamed Europe from Hungary to Holland. Since they adhered to heretic views like their refusal to recognize the authority of the cloth, these sects were banned by the pope himself. Yet they later began appearing again here and there.
In the 16th century a countermovement got the upperhand again in the catholic church. Flagellation as a form of repentance became a regular, but highly secretive practice in convents, while also brotherhoods were being formed whose members flagellated themselves in parades on religious festive days.

In 1585 the French king Henry III, notorious for surrounding himself with "mignons" (pretty boys), founded a “Brotherhood of Death,” whose members congregated each Friday night for some serious self-flagellation. Although libels paid ample attention to his pederastic pursuits, his opponents never made the link between whipping and lust. In those days self-flagellation wasn’t viewed as a sexual appetite of masochists.

Besotted theories

Flagellation brotherhoods, quite popular in Spain for instance, did meet with disapproval now and then. Their processions wouldn’t bridle, but inspire lust. Some young men trying to win the favor of girls whipped themselves until bleeding under the window of their objects of desire as a sign of their religiousness and virility. Excessive eating and drinking at times followed a good catholic procession. Despite such criticism and despite religious and sexual modernization, the custom is practised in Spain up to this very day.
Already in the early seventeenth century the first book was published, presenting flagellation as a medicine against impotence. From the eighteenth century, flagellation was seen as sexual expression. Especially in Britain, where men visiting brothels wanted to re-experience the excitement brought on by the spankings they once received in boarding school.

All kinds of besotted theories went around why spanking would inspire the male member to rise. Most explanations were physiological. In the nineteenth century, Krafft-Ebing used to refer to these theories. While monks and nuns kept on flagellating themselves till way into the twentieth century, most sexologists and protestants saw the practice as a sexual perversion for which the cause since Freud was to be found in early childhood.
Vandermeersch emphasizes different forms and explanations of masochism. In imitation of Freud and quoting Ann Philipps, he considers linking sadism with masochism an impossibility, since a masochist needs one of his own to help him get his satisfaction, not a sadist who puts his own pleasure first and abuses his masochistic victim to this end.

Vandermeersch needs this Freudian detour to reach his conclusions, diverging into several directions simultaneously. His main plea concerns the physical aspect of devotion. In imitation of Aristotle, he presents the physical as happy and chtonic. The body offers possibilities to be used, not to be forbidden. That’s why he recounts with pleasure his visitis to the last place in Spain where flagellation is still practised, in San Vicente de la Sonsierra.
His theoretical considerations, turning into redundant abstractions, try to emphasize that believing (or not) is only interesting, when it can be discussed as freely as he does in his book. Belief can’t do without a bit of scepsis or ambivalence. It is about a growing understanding of traditions, like the love of flagellation which these days is even abhorred by believers.

Almost simultaneously with Vandermeersch’ book a similar publication Lob der Peitsche. Eine Kulturgeschichte der Erregung (München, Beck, 2001, E 30,00) by the German language professor from Berkeley, Niklaus Largier, came out. The lengthy quotations make it a lot thicker and it has pictures which aren’t in Vandermeersch’s book. Where the latter follows a psychoanalytical-religious line which I find hard to follow, Largier’s book offers neither a logical head nor historical tail to its mishmash.
The title might tickle a masochist’s mind, yet Vandermeersch offers food for thought to all persuasions and commends physical practices that have been developing from medieval and religious to post-modern and sexual. For this reason I prefer his book.

Patrick Vandermeersch, La chair de la passion. Une histoire de foi: la flagellation, Paris: Cerf, 2002, 280 p, E 30,00 (in France).



In the New Issue of Gay News, 323, July 2018

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