Lashings of fervour or a lascivious sexual act?

In Praise of the Whip
July 13, 2007

Flagellation has long been used to express both libertinage and religious devotion, Jacob Middleton finds

Flagellation, at the beginning of the 21st century, is a practice that is seen as nothing other than abnormal and perverse. In submitting to flagellation, one is assumed to be a religious fanatic or sexual pervert, existing outside of the mainstream of society. From this viewpoint flagellation, once a mainstream practice in the societies of Europe, can only be seen as a strange, archaic ritual, practised by our barbarous ancestors before the establishment of a modern, enlightened world.

This conception of the past is challenged by Niklaus Largier in his In Praise of the Whip , a history of flagellation that attempts to place the subject within its proper historical context. Flagellation, as Largier points out, was a natural act for many, a means by which one might express libertinage or religious devotion through a ritualised act of punishment. It was not, he suggests, merely a means of inflicting pain but an intimate act of theatre designed to awaken the imagination.

This history begins with the ascetic practices of Christians in medieval Europe, where flagellation was not merely a penitential process but a form of religious arousal. Largier shows how the practice was a means by which Christians might attempt to deepen their faith through the process of acting out Christ's suffering. When popularised in the 13th and 14th centuries, these devotions became the "theatre of the flagellants", which combined mass flagellatory rituals with public marches, devotional songs and religious theatrics. Although only a minority of Christians would assume active roles in such events, Largier shows how they influenced devotional practices and how, in early modern Europe, private flagellation was an accepted and customary form of personal devotion.

The second part of this book shows how these images were adopted and absorbed into "lascivious fantasies". A key figure in this process was the flagellant priest, an individual who appears in real scandals and fictional accounts and whose sexual intrigues are camouflaged by the devotional flagellations he inflicts on his female followers. Flagellation thus became a route by which the intimacies of religion and sex were intermingled.

Again, Largier shows that the theatrical aspects of flagellation were more important than the desire to give or receive pain. He argues that the process was an act of sexual theatre that was "connected primarily with the desire for drama and the arousal of the imagination". This sees expression in the works of various "sadistic" writers, from the Marquis de Sade to Algernon Swinburne, who extolled the virtues of the rod but seemed more interested in the drama it created than the consequences of its use. This is the key to Largier's broad theory of the purposes of flagellation, which, he suggests, was designed primarily to produce what he sees as a boundless imaginative arousal. In both religion and sexuality, it is a process that encourages the subject to assume roles and express a devotion beyond what is normally expected. Flagellation is, as a result, capable of arousing both bodily sensations and intangible emotions.

This thesis is perhaps the weakest aspect of Largier's book, in that it attempts to unite various disparate practices with what he sees as an underlying emotional theme. Although there are certain similarities between ascetic devotions, sexual practices and even medical stimulation, "arousal" is an ambiguous process, and its application to flagellation requires an imaginative leap on Largier's part. He assumes that certain processes are at work within flagellatory practices, yet these "arousals" are intangible and seem to share little other than their linguistic labels.

Despite this criticism, In Praise of the Whip remains an intelligent and thoughtful work that shows great understanding of the role of flagellation in religious and sexual contexts. This is a work that escapes from the narrow and often prurient readings of flagellatory processes that have often dominated academic writing on the subject. While provocative, Largier's study is a valuable re-examination of flagellation, which should be on the bookshelves of all historians with an interest in religion or sexuality.

Jacob Middleton is a cultural historian, currently working on a history of corporal punishment in the schools of Britain.

First Impressions

This week's competition, in which you have to identify a book from its opening sentence, is from a work by a former lecturer in English at Oxford:

"When I was a child and was being fractious and contrary and generally behaving badly, my mother used to rebuke me by saying: 'One day someone will come and kill me and then you'll be sorry'; or, 'They'll appear out of the blue and whisk me away - how would you like that?'; or, 'You'll wake up one morning and I'll be gone. Disappeared. You wait and see.'"

* Entries, including postal address, should be sent to First Impressions, The Times Higher, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX, faxed to 020 7782 3300 or e-mailed to

The winner receives a £25 book voucher. The closing date is July 16.

The winner of last week's competition, who identified The Diviners by Rick Moody, was Christopher Betts of London NW6.

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In Praise of the Whip: A Cultural History of Arousal

Author - Niklaus Largier
Publisher - Zone Books
Pages - 528
Price - £22.95
ISBN - 9781890951658

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