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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. However, in British legal terminology, a distinction was drawn (and still is, in one or two colonial territories) between "flogging" (with a cat-o'-nine-tails) and "whipping" (formerly with a whip, but since the early 19th century with a birch). In Britain these were both abolished in 1948.
Flogging was a common disciplinary measure in the British navy that became associated with a seaman's manly disregard for pain. Aboard ships, knittles or the cat o' nine tails was used for severe formal punishment, while a "rope's end" or "starter" was used to administer informal, on-the-spot discipline.
Flagellation probably originated in the Near East but then spread throughout the ancient world. In Sparta, young men were flogged as a test of their masculinity. Jewish law limited flagellation to forty strokes, and in practice delivered thirty-nine, so as to avoid any possibility of breaking this law due to a miscount. Additionally they would have a doctor monitor the punishment, who would stop it if it became too much for the person to bear safely.
In the Roman Empire, flagellation was often used as a prelude to crucifixion, and in this context is sometimes referred to as scourging. Whips with small pieces of metal or bone at the tips were commonly used. Such a device could easily cause disfigurement and serious trauma, such as ripping pieces of flesh from the body or loss of an eye. In addition to causing severe pain, the victim would approach a state of hypovolemic shock due to loss of blood.
The Romans reserved this treatment for non-citizens, as stated in the lex Porcia and lex Sempronia, dating from 195 and 123 BCE. The poet Horace refers to the horribile flagellum (horrible whip) in his Satires. Typically, the one to be punished was stripped naked and bound to a low pillar so that he could bend over it, or chained to an upright pillar so as to be stretched out. Two lictors (some reports indicate scourgings with four or six lictors) alternated blows from the bare shoulders down the body to the soles of the feet. There was no limit to the number of blows inflicted - this was left to the lictors to decide, though they were normally not supposed to kill the victim. Nonetheless, Livy, Suetonius and Josephus report cases of flagellation where victims died while still bound to the post. Flagellation was referred to as "half death" by some authors and apparently, many victims died shortly thereafter. Cicero reports in In Verrem, "pro mortuo sublatus brevi postea mortuus" ("taken away for a dead man, shortly thereafter he was dead"). In some cases the victim was turned over to allow flagellation on the chest, though this proceeded with more caution, as the possibility of inflicting a fatal blow was much greater.
In the reign of Henry VIII was passed (1530) the famous Whipping Act, directing vagrants to be carried to some market town or other place "and there tied to the end of a cart naked and beaten with whips throughout such market town till the body shall be bloody".
Whipping was used during the French Revolution. On 31 May 1793, the Jacobin women seized a revolutionary leader, Anne Josephe Theroigne de Mericourt, stripped her naked, and flogged her on the bare bottom in the public garden of the Tuileries. After this humiliation, she refused to wear any clothes, in memory of the outrage she had suffered. She went mad and ended her days in an asylum after the public whipping.
Knouts were used in Russia for flogging as formal corporal punishment of criminals and political offenders. A sentence of 100 or 120 lashes was equivalent to a death sentence. Whipping was also a common punishment for Russian serfs.
Whipping has been used as a form of discipline against slaves. It was frequently carried out during the period of slavery in the United States, by owners of slaves and their employees. The power was also given to slave "patrollers," mostly poor whites, who had among their powers the ability to whip any slave who violated the slave codes.
No longer used in most Western countries, flogging or whipping is still a common punishment in some parts of the world, particularly in many former British territories and in Islamic countries under shariah law. Medically supervised caning is routinely ordered by the courts as a penalty for some categories of crime in Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and elsewhere.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, European armies administered floggings to common soldiers who committed breaches of the military code. During the American Revolutionary War, the American Congress raised the legal limit on lashes from 39 to 100 for soldiers who were convicted by courts-martial. Generally, officers were not flogged. However, in 1745, a cashiered British officer could have his sword broken over his head, among other indignities inflicted on him.
In the Napoleonic Wars, the maximum number of lashes that could be inflicted on soldiers in the British Army reached 1,200. This many lashes could permanently disable or kill a man. Oman, historian of the Peninsular War, noted that the maximum sentence was inflicted "nine or ten times by general court-martial during the whole six years of the war" and that 1,000 lashes were administered about 50 times. Other sentences were for 900, 700, 500 and 300 lashes. One soldier was sentenced to 700 lashes for stealing a beehive. Another man was let off after only 175 of 400 lashes, but spent three weeks in the hospital. Later in the war, the more draconian punishments were abandoned and the offenders shipped to New South Wales instead, where more whippings often awaited them. (See Australian penal colonies section.) Oman later wrote:
If anything was calculated to brutalize an army it was the wicked cruelty of the British military punishment code, which Wellington to the end of his life supported. There is plenty of authority for the fact that the man who had once received his 500 lashes for a fault which was small, or which involved no moral guilt, was often turned thereby from a good soldier into a bad soldier, by losing his self-respect and having his sense of justice seared out. Good officers knew this well enough, and did their best to avoid the cat-of-nine-tails, and to try more rational means—more often than not with success.
Meanwhile, during the French Revolutionary Wars the French Army stopped floggings altogether. The King's German Legion (KGL), which were German units in British pay, did not flog. In one case, a British soldier on detached duty with the KGL was sentenced to be flogged, but the German commander refused to carry out the punishment. When the British 73rd Foot flogged a man in occupied France in 1814, disgusted French citizens protested against it.
At the urging of New Hampshire Senator John P. Hale, the United States "Congress banned flogging on all U.S. ships in September 1850." Hale was inspired by Herman Melville's "vivid description of flogging, a brutal staple of 19th century naval discipline" in Melville's "novelized memoir" White Jacket. Melville also included a vivid depiction of flogging, and the circumstances surrounding it, in his more famous work, Moby-Dick.
Military flogging was abolished in the United States Army on 5 August 1861.
One of few countries where corporal punishment is still officially used in the armed forces is Singapore, where military legislation provides that errant soldiers can be sentenced by court-martial to strokes of the cane.
Once common in the British Army and British Royal Navy as a means of discipline, flagellation also featured prominently in the British penal colonies in early colonial Australia. Given that convicts in Australia were already "imprisoned", punishments for offenses committed in the colonies could not usually result in imprisonment and thus usually consisted of corporal punishment such as hard labour or flagellation. Unlike Roman times, British law explicitly forbade the combination of corporal and capital punishment; thus, a convict was either flogged or hanged but never both.
Flagellation took place either with a single whip or, more notoriously, with the cat o' nine tails. Typically, the offender's upper half was bared and he was suspended by the wrists beneath a tripod of wooden beams (known as 'the triangle'). In many cases, the offender's feet barely touched ground, which helped to stretch the skin taut and increase the damage inflicted by the whip. It also centered the offender's weight in his shoulders, further ensuring a painful experience.
With the prisoner thus stripped and bound, either one or two floggers administered the prescribed number of strokes, or "lashes," to the victim's back. During the flogging, a doctor or other medical worker was consulted at regular intervals as to the condition of the prisoner. In many cases, however, the physician merely observed the offender to determine whether he was conscious. If the prisoner passed out, the physician would order a halt until the prisoner was revived, and then the whipping would continue.
Female convicts were also subject to flogging as punishment, both on the convict ships and in the penal colonies. Although they were generally given fewer lashes than males (usually limited to 40 in each flogging), there was no other difference between the manner in which males and females were flogged.
Floggings of both male and female convicts were public, administered before the whole colony's company, assembled especially for the purpose. In addition to the infliction of pain, one of the principal purposes of the flogging was to humiliate the offender in front of his mates and to demonstrate, in a forceful way, that he had been required to submit to authority.
At the conclusion of the whipping, the prisoner's lacerated back was normally rinsed with brine, which served as a crude and painful disinfectant.
(See also: History of Australia).
According to the Torah and Rabbinic law lashes may be given for offenses that do not merit capital punishment, and may not exceed 40. However in the absence of a Sanhedrin, corporal punishment is not practiced in Jewish law. Halakha specifies the lashes must be given in sets of three, so the total number cannot exceed 39. Also, the person whipped is first judged whether they can withstand the punishment, if not, the number of whips is decreased.
During the Ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia young men ran through the streets with thongs cut from the hide of goats which had just been sacrificed, and women who wished to conceive put themselves in their way to receive blows, apparently mostly on the hands. The eunuch priests of the goddess Cybele, the galli, flogged themselves until they bled during the annual festival called Dies sanguinis. Greco-Roman mystery religions also sometimes involved ritual flagellation, as famously depicted in the Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii, apparently showing initiation into the Dionysian Mysteries.
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The Flagellation refers in a Christian context to the Flagellation of Christ, an episode in the Passion of Christ prior to Jesus' crucifixion. The practice of mortification of the flesh for religious purposes was utilized by some Christians throughout most of Christian history, especially in Catholic monasteries and convents.
In the 13th century, a group of Roman Catholics, known as the Flagellants, took this practice to its extreme ends. The Flagellants were later condemned by the Roman Catholic Church as a cult in the 14th century because the established church had no other control over the practice other than excommunication. Self-flagellation remains common in the Philippines and Latin America.
Some members of strict monastic orders, and some members of the lay organization Opus Dei, practice mild self-flagellation using an instrument called a "discipline", a cattail whip usually made of knotted cords, which is flung over the shoulders repeatedly during private prayer. Pope John Paul II took the discipline regularly.
St. Therese of Lisieux, a Carmelite nun of late 19th-century France who has now been declared a Doctor of the Church, is an influential example of a Catholic Saint who questioned prevailing attitudes toward physical penance. Her view was that loving acceptance of the many sufferings of daily life was pleasing to God, and fostered loving relationships with other people, more than taking upon oneself extraneous sufferings through instruments of penance. However as a Carmelite nun, she practiced voluntary corporal mortification.
Flogging is a form of punishment used under Islamic Sharia law. It is the prescribed punishment (hadd) for offences including fornication, alcohol use and slander and is also widely favoured as a discretionary punishment (ta'zir) for many offences, such as violating gender interaction laws. Punishment is normally carried out in public. Rape victims are also sometimes flogged. In Islam, lashes for punishment for women are often performed with the Qu'ran under one arm to minimise the swing and as a reminder of the source of legislation. They are not supposed to leave permanent scars, and when the number of lashes is high, are frequently done in batches to minimise risk of harm. Such protection does not exist in the case of lashing for men.
In some Shi'ite communities worldwide, Shi'ites march in massive parades while flogging themselves on the back with knives, blades and chains every year to commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein. Some of these self-flogging rituals include zanjeer zani, talwar zani, qama ka matam, and tatbir. This happens in many countries of the world including India, Pakistan, Iraq and Lebanon. In Iran there is an unannounced ban on the use of knives and sharp blades for Mätam or flagellation but chains can be used. In Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia, these practices are strictly forbidden in every form.
Because practices such as starvation, sleep denial and flagellation are known to induce altered states, flagellation may be used by religious ecstatics and mystics as part of ritualistic practices or ceremonies to achieve unusual states of mind.
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