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The history of the whip, rod, and stick, as instruments of punishment and of voluntary penance, is a long and interesting one. The Hebrew words for "whip" and "rod", are in etymology closely related (Gesenius). Horace (Sat., I, iii) tells us not to use the horribile flagellum, made of thongs of ox-hide, when the offender deserves only the scutica of twisted parchment; the schoolmaster's ferula — Eng. ferule (Juvenal, Sat., I, i, 15) — was a strap or rod for the hand (see ferule in Skeat). The earliest Scriptural mention of the whip is in Exodus 5:14-16 (flagellati sunt; flagellis cœdimur), where the Heb. word meaning "to strike" is interpreted in the Greek and the Latin texts, "were scourged" — "beaten with whips". Roboam said (1 Kings 12:11, 14; 2 Chronicles 10:11, 14): "My father beat you with whips, but I will beat you with scorpions", i.e. with scourges armed with knots, points, etc. Even in Latin scorpio is so interpreted by St. Isidore (Etym., v, 27), "virga nodosa vel aculeata". Old-Testament references to the rod might be multiplied indefinitely (Deuteronomy 25:2, 3; 2 Samuel 7:14; Job 9:34; Proverbs 26:3, etc.). In the New Testament we are told that Christ used the scourge on the money-changers (John 2:15); He predicted that He and His disciples would be scourged (Mat., x, 17; xx, 19); and St. Paul says: "Five times did I receive forty stripes, save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods" (2 Corinthians 11:24, 25; Deuteronomy 25:3; Acts 16:22). The offender was to be beaten in the presence of the judges (Deuteronomy 25:2, 3), but was never to receive more than forty stripes. To keep within the law, it was the practice to give only thirty-nine. The culprit was so attached to a Low pillar that he had to lean forward — "they shall lay him down", says the law, to receive the strokes. Verses of thirteen words in Hebrew were recited, the last always being: "But he is merciful, and will forgive their sins: and will not destroy them" [Psalm 77:38]; but the words served merely to count the blows. Moses allowed masters to use the rod on slaves; not, however, so as to cause death (Exodus 21:20). The flagellation of Christ was not a Jewish, but a Roman punishment, and was therefore administered all the more cruelly. It was suggested by Pilate's desire to save Him from crucifixion, and this was inflicted only when the scourging had failed to satisfy the Jews. In Pilate's plan flagellation was not a preparation, but rather a substitute, for crucifixion.

As the earliest monuments of Egypt make the scourge or whip very conspicuous, the children of Israel cannot have been the first on whom the Egyptians used it. In Assyria the slaves dragged their burdens under the taskmaster's lash. In Sparta even youths of high social standing were proud of their stoical indifference to the scourge; while at Rome the various names for slaves (flagriones, verberones, etc.) and the significant term lorarii, used by Plautus, give us ample assurance that the scourge was not spared. However, from passages in Cicero and texts in the New Testament, we gather that Roman citizens were exempt from this punishment. The bamboo is used on all classes in China, but in Japan heavier penalties, and frequently death itself, are imposed upon offenders. The European country most conspicuous at the present day for the whipping of culprits is Russia, where the knout is more than a match for the worst scourge of the Romans. Even in what may be called our own times, the use of the whip on soldiers under the English flag was not unknown; and the State of Delaware yet believes in it as a corrective and deterrent for the criminal class. If we refer to the past, by Statute 39 Eliz., ch. iv, evil-doers were whipped and sent back to the place of their nativity; moreover, Star-chamber whippings were frequent. "In Partridge's Almanack for 1692, it is stated that Oates was whipt with a whip of six thongs, and received 2256 lashes, amounting to 13536 stripes" (A Hist. of the Rod, p. 158). He survived, however, and lived for years. The pedagogue made free use of the birch. Orbillus, who flogged Horace, was only one of the learned line who did not believe in moral suasion, while Juvenal's words: "Et nos ergo manum ferulæ subduximus" (Sat., I, i, 15) show clearly the system of school discipline existing in his day. The priests of Cybele scourged themselves and others, and such stripes were considered sacred. Although these and similar acts of penance, to propitiate heaven, were practised even before the coming of Christ, it was only in the religion established by Him that they found wise direction and real merit. It is held by some interpreters that St. Paul in the words: "I chastise my body" refers to self-inflicted bodily scourging (1 Corinthians 9:27). The Greek word hypopiazo (see Liddell and Scott) means "to strike under the eye", and metaphorically "to mortify"; consequently, it can scarcely mean "to scourge", and indeed in Luke 18:5, such an interpretation is quite inadmissible. Furthermore, where St. Paul certainly refers to scourging, he uses a different word. We may therefore safely conclude that he speaks here of mortification in general, as Piconio holds (Triplex Expositio).

Scourging was soon adopted as a sanction in the monastic discipline of the fifth and following centuries. Early in the fifth century it is mentioned by Palladius in the "Historia Lausiaca" (c. vi), and Socrates (Church History IV.23) tells us that, instead of being excommunicated, offending young monks were scourged. See the sixth-century rules of St. Cæsarius of Arles for nuns (P.L., LXVII, 1111), and of St. Aurelian of Arles (ibid., LXVIII, 392, 401-02). Thenceforth scourging is frequently mentioned in monastic rules and councils as a preservative of discipline (Hefele, "Concilieng.", II, 594, 656). Its use as a punishment was general in the seventh century in all monasteries of the severe Columban rule (St. Columbanus, in "Regula Cœnobialis", c. x, in P.L., LXXX, 215 sqq.); for later centuries of the early Middle Ages see Thomassin, "Vet. ac nova ecc. disciplina, II (3), 107; Du Cange, "Glossar. med. et infim. latinit.", s.v. "Disciplina"; Gretser, "De spontaneâ disciplinarum seu flagellorum cruce libri tres" (Ingolstadt, 1603); Kober, "Die körperliche Züchtigung als kirchliches Strafmittel gegen Cleriker und Mönche" in Tüb. "Quartalschrift" (1875). The Canon law (Decree of Gratian, Decretals of Gregory IX) recognized it as a punishment for ecclesiastics; even as late as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it appears in ecclesiastical legislation as a punishment for blasphemy, concubinage, and simony. Though doubtless at an early date a private means of penance and mortification, such use is publicly exemplified in the tenth and eleventh centuries by the lives of St. Dominic Loricatus (P.L., CXLIV, 1017) and St. Peter Damian (died 1072). The latter wrote a special treatise in praise of self-flagellation; though blamed by some contemporaries for excess of zeal, his example and the high esteem in which he was held did much to popularize the voluntary use of the scourge or "discipline" as a means of mortification and penance. Thenceforth it is met with in most medieval religious orders and associations. The practice was, of course, capable of abuse, and so arose in the thirteenth century the fanatical sect of the Flagellants, though in the same period we meet with the private use of the "discipline" by such saintly persons as King Louis IX and Elizabeth of Thuringia.


UNGER, Die Flagellanten (1902); COOPER (pseudonym), Flagellation and the Flagellants, A History of the Rod, etc. (new ed., London, 1896), an anti-Catholic and biased work; BARNEY, Circumcision and Flagellation among the Filipinos (Carlisle, Pa., 1903); CALMET'S Dict. of the Bible, s.v. Scourging; KITTO, Cyclop. of Biblical Lit., s.v. Punishment.

About this page

APA citation. Tierney, J. (1909). Flagellation. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Tierney, John. "Flagellation." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. September 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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