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The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne/Burned on the water.” So begins Shakespeare’s greatest evocation of erotic arousal, Enobarbus’ celebrated account in Antony and Cleopatra of the way the Egyptian queen’s appearance on the river Cydnus first “pursed up” the heart of the Roman general. For Niklaus Largier it would come as no surprise that Shakespeare has Cleopatra’s seductive tableau include a playful, fleeting image of flagellation:

   The oars were silver,

Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made

The water which they beat to follow faster,

As amorous of their strokes. (2.2.200–203)*

Largier’s splendid, five-hundred-page In Praise of the Whip shows in stunning detail the rich history of such scenes, for the most part carefully crafted to captivate the beholder’s fantasy and to awaken the senses.

Brief as it is, Shakespeare’s image contains many of the elements that endlessly resurface in this history: blows delivered by whips or (as here) rods, the rhythmic keeping of time, the accompanying music, the mounting excitement that at once feeds upon and plays off against the steady repetition of the “strokes” (a word poised between blows and caresses), the ambiguous intertwining of pain and desire.

Shakespeare does not quite call the experience love. The cunning little word “as” in the phrase “As amorous of their strokes” calls attention to metaphor or imagination, the realm of “as if.” On the shifting sands of this realm, according to Largier, flagellation’s palace is built, and here too Shakespeare seems uncannily alert to a long history. Cleopatra’s appeal is linked far less to what she actually is—if one could ever determine that—than to the fantasies that she excites. What she offers has nothing to do with the attributes that Shakespeare and his contemporaries routinely associated with “normal” feminine allure: blond curls, fair, unblemished skin, the blush of youth, and a chaste, meek, and silent disposition. “Think on me,” she muses, figuring her dark complexion as the consequence of delicious sexual violence at the hands of the sun god, “That am with Phoebus’ amorous pinches black,/And wrinkled deep in time” (1.5.27–29). On her barge she creates an elaborate spectacle not so much for Antony’s eyes as for his fantasy to feast upon. The glimpse of the water agitated by the strokes is meant as an example for him to follow, a promise of the particular kind of pleasure that he will receive.

The “serpent of old Nile,” as Antony calls her, is the master-mistress of the scourge and the whip, time-honored aids to flagging sexual desire. “See where he is,” she instructs an attendant, “who’s with him, what he does.”

I did not send you. If you find him sad,

Say I am dancing; if in mirth, report

That I am sudden sick. (1.3.2–5)

The queen’s servant Charmian is mystified by what she calls this “method” and urges her mistress to “cross him in nothing.” Cleopatra knows better—“Thou teachest like a fool, the way to lose him”—and instead gives her aging lover the pain to which he is addicted.

Desire, as Shakespeare envisages it in Antony and Cleopatra, has nothing to do with a longing for fulfillment or the dream of an imaginable future. It is a state of arousal, and if this arousal is linked to any hope at all, it is only the hope of remaining aroused. For some, in the play and in the long history of the play’s reception, Antony’s addiction to this form of desire is a tragic loss of honor; for others, it is a cause for celebration, a triumph of the erotic imagination over time, nature, and death itself. This short-circuiting of time in the ceaseless renewal of desire is the meaning of Enobarbus’ famous tribute to Cleopatra:

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale

Her infinite variety. Other women cloy

The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry

Where most she satisfies. For vilest things

Become themselves in her, that the holy priests

Bless her when she is riggish. (2.2.240–245)

It is precisely when she is “riggish”—that is, when she acts most like a whore—that the Egyptian queen becomes the center of a religious cult, blessed by the holy priests. A familiar Jewish and Christian charge against paganism, with its temple prostitutes and notorious rituals of flagellation, is transformed here by Shakespeare into wonder, delicately laced with irony and admiration.


But as Niklaus Largier’s book amply demonstrates, it is not necessary to go back to pagan antiquity to find a ritualized link between erotic arousal and holiness. That link was central to the ascetic practices of medieval Christians. Here is a celebration 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 the end of matins and compline, the sisters remained together in the choir and prayed until they received a sign, upon which they began the most rapturous forms of worship. Some tormented themselves with genuflections while praising the power of God. Others, consumed with the fire of divine love, could not hold back their tears, which were accompanied by rapturous crying voices. They did not move from the spot until they glowed with fresh grace and found the one “whom his soul loveth.” (Canticles 1.6.) Finally, others tortured their flesh by maltreating it daily in the most violent fashion, some with blows from rods, others with whips equipped with three or four knotted straps, others with iron chains, and still others by means of scourges arrayed with thorns.

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. For God takes pleasure in these exercises of humility and worship and does not fail to hear the groaning of those who are filled with penance.

This is no mere hagiographical (or sadomasochistic) fantasy: a vast body of texts and images lovingly scrutinized by Largier confirms that such rituals were widespread in the late Middle Ages. They were noted again and again as a distinctive mark of holiness. Saint 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.” Saint 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.” Saint Dominic cut into his flesh every night with a whip affixed with three iron chains. Saint 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, Elizabeth von Oye, a nun from Zurich, whipped herself so energetically that the bystanders in the chapel were spattered with her blood.

These, of course, are among the spiritual superstars of an age that prized such extravagant performances. The nuns of Colmar, and their innumerable sisters and brothers, were more ordinary team players, and yet they too, as we have seen, routinely drew upon what must have been a thriving cottage industry that produced instruments of torture. Their self-scourging was voluntary—some of the sisters contented themselves with repeated genuflecting (painful enough, no doubt) and with rapturous tears—and yet for many of those locked for life behind high walls, forever breathing the damp air of fervent piety and competitive spiritual emulation, volition may have seemed beside the point. For centuries, and indeed in certain monastic circles into the present, the whip and the rod were a familiar part of the cycle of life, a feature of certain seasons of heightened worship or even a daily discipline. “Flagellation,” Largier writes, “came to be practiced in almost every order and every monastery in Europe.”

Such widespread use of the whip in rituals of penance was new. Flagellation, to be sure, had been used as a punishment in antiquity: “If the guilty man is sentenced to be flogged,” Deuteronomy declares, “the judge shall cause him to lie down and be beaten in his presence” (25.2). In Rome schoolmasters and slaveholders were expected to punish by flogging, and whipping was a frequent prelude to Roman executions. Hence prior to his crucifixion, according to the gospels, Jesus was tied to a column and scourged.

In late antiquity Christian hermits, brooding on the sufferings of the Savior and the wickedness of fallen man, mortified their flesh, often in spectacular acts of self-punishment, while in monasteries and convents the ancient 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 those who broke the rules. Typically, the guilty party had to carry the rod that was used for the beating, and then, while sitting on the ground and constantly repeating the words Mea culpa, submit to blows until the abbot or abbess was satisfied. “She is to be struck with rods on her naked back,” a judgment issued in July 874 reported of a nun named Duda,

not in the presence of men but before the eyes of her abbess and fellow sisters, so that the torture may serve as an example to others, and so that the flesh that led her to this misconduct will be forgiven, and so that the blows that cause blood to appear on the skin will also cause the blood of the soul to flow by causing the flow of tears.

But 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. Damian’s enemies complained that this penitential exercise was an innovation—a serious accusation at that time—and though Damian appealed to tradition and cited precedents, Largier supports the charge. Indeed the innovative character of his teaching makes Peter Damian one of the two heroes of In Praise of the Whip. The other hero is the Marquis de Sade.

Largier is not interested in psychological explanations of either of these very strange figures—or indeed of the whole phenomenon of flagellation—nor is he greatly interested in historical or medical explanations. His primary focus is on what the act meant for those who engaged in it, and his tone is respectful, even admiring. Two features of the medieval practice strike him as particularly novel. First, flagellation was no longer principally a form of public punishment inflicted on a malefactor by someone else; it was a voluntary act that could be carried out in private, if one chose, and by one’s own hand. Second, it was no longer merely one of a number of possible punishments that would serve in a ritualized atonement for guilt. It was instead, Largier writes, a central “part of an eschatological drama performed within human life and aiming at the bodily presence of the suffering of Christ.”

  1. *

    Shakespeare’s source, Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives, mentions “the oars of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sounde of the musicke of flutes,” but the water’s perverse sexual arousal is the playwright’s own characteristic touch.

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