“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.”

“Did our Redeemer not endure scourging?” Damian asked those critics who called into question his praise of the whip. Weren’t the apostles and many of the saints and martyrs flogged? What better way to follow in their footsteps, what surer method of imitating Christ, than to suffer the blows that they suffered? To be sure, Damian concedes, in the case of these glorious predecessors, someone else was doing the whipping. But in a world in which Christianity has triumphed, we have to do the whipping for ourselves. Otherwise the whole dream and doctrine of the imitation of Christ would have to be abandoned: “If I should wish to suffer martyrdom for Christ, yet do not have the opportunity to do so because the time of battle is over, by afflicting myself with blows, I can at least show my heart’s fervent desire.”

Self-flagellation, moreover, was not simply a consequence of a shortage of enemies. Jesus, the king of martyrs, was turned over to the smiters, Damian observed, “not only by Judas, but also by his Father and by himself.” Innumerable images depicted the agonies of the Man of Sorrows at the hands of the perfidious Jews, but the torturers were only the agents of God’s own design. The penitent who freely whips himself then becomes the mirror image of the original scene of suffering. Through what Largier admiringly calls his “mimetic intensity,” the self-flagellator turns himself into a living image of the Lord.

The whip then could be seen as the privileged instrument of self-transformation, an instrument with the power to remake the individual through fierce pain into a prefiguration of the resurrected flesh. “The body has to be shaped like a piece of wood,” explained one of the many texts that followed in Damian’s wake, “with beatings and whippings, with canes, scourges, and discipline. The body has to be tortured and starved, so that it submits to the spirit and takes perfect shape.” In the fervent enchantment of this “spiritual materialism,” as Largier terms it, all boundaries, restraints, and inhibitions drop away. Shame at appearing naked before the eyes of others has no place, nor does the embarrassment of being seen trembling, howling, or sobbing.

The Mosaic code placed strict limits on flagellation; the passage from Deuteronomy, cited above, goes on to specify “forty strokes, but no more; for if he is more cruelly beaten, your brother may die before your eyes.” But that was what Christians called the Old Law; the new dispensation took away all limits. If it is permissible to impose fifty lashes, Damian asked, citing customary monastic discipline,

why not also sixty, or if I may dare to go so far, why not a hundred? And if one is allowed to approach a hundred blows in this offering of loving devotion, why not also two hundred, why not three hundred, four hundred, or five hundred? Or why can we not proceed to a thousand and beyond?

The sound of the lash is music to the ears of the Lord. “Since the tambourine is made of dry skin,” wrote Damian, “he truly praises God on the tambourine who, when weakened by fasting, scourges his body with the discipline.” “God takes pleasure in these exercises,” as the nun at Colmar remarked of her self-flagellating sisters, and Damian agreed: “What a joyful, unique spectacle, if the heavenly judge looks down and man flogs himself to his depths….”

Flagellation then is a theatrical performance, a passion play, always performed, even in the isolation of a monastic cell, for a spectator. And the delight that this performance provides is not restricted to God and his attendant angels. Here again the nuns of Colmar are exemplary. “Their cravings were not in vain,” their chronicler wrote,

for they were filled to the point of overflow by the drops of grace that flowed over them. To those who came closer to God in all these ways, their hearts were illuminated, their thoughts became pure, their sentiments burned, their conscience was cleared, and their spirits were raised toward God.

The whip, in this account, cured the terrible state of desolation that so often afflicted monks and nuns in their cloistered lives, the psychological and spiritual condition that Saint Teresa and others termed “dryness.” Flagellation made its willing victims moist “to the point of overflow.” Largier cites a German Catholic handbook of pastoral medicine from 1887: “the purest, most ideal form of happiness is—pain.”

Given these testimonials, it is hardly surprising that the whip did not long remain the practice only of a spiritual elite. By the mid-thirteenth century it moved out beyond monastic walls. The credit, if that is the right term, for founding the first flagellant mass movement belongs to an Italian layman, Raniero Fasani. In May 1260, with the approval of the civic authorities, Fasani and a few companions whipped themselves publicly in the streets of Perugia. The voice of an angel, he said, “had informed him that Perugia would be destroyed if the inhabitants did not repent.”

The spectacle caused a sensation in the strife-torn city. For a month all work in Perugia was halted, while the inhabitants gave themselves over to repentance, and by September a peace procession of self-flagellating penitents set out for Bologna. The processions, as chroniclers of the time reported, spread from city to city: “nobles and commoners, old and young, even five-year-old children took part.” Warring factions were reconciled, cities declared peace, stolen goods were returned to their rightful owners, families stopped feuding, jails were opened, slaves freed, exiles allowed to return. “We could speak of a moment,” Largier writes, “of social utopian catharsis.”

By the autumn of 1261 the whole movement had dried up. Perhaps people tired of repenting and longed for their old quarrels; perhaps the authorities thought the whole mad business had gone on long enough. But the seed had been sown, and it flowered again, with a vengeance, almost a century later, in the wake of the greatest pandemic Europe has ever experienced, the Black Death of 1348.

Raniero Fasani and his followers were not motivated by the mystical dream of an ecstatic union, through self-inflicted pain, with Christ. They were driven by the vision of an enraged God whose violent anger at man’s sins could only be appeased by the conjoined intercession of the Blessed Virgin and the fierce blows of the whip. As the terrible plague swept through Europe, in some regions killing as many as two thirds of the population or more, this same vision of divine wrath made perfect sense. Flagellant processions arose everywhere, from Calabria to Sweden, from Madrid to the Buda hills by the Danube.

In the mass flagellation movement that arose in Italy in 1260, women were excluded from the public performance of penance and were urged to whip themselves in the privacy of their homes. By contrast, in 1349, as a chronicler from Magdeburg noted,

great crowds of women could be seen entering into processions while chanting their songs and whipping themselves in the same way [as the men]. Their backs were fully bared, while their faces were veiled, and they wore a cloak that covered their sex and their breast.

The processions, generally a crowd of fifty or sixty with one or more elected leaders, were highly ritualized. For thirty-three and a half days—the number was meant to correspond to the number of years of Christ’s life on earth—the penitents marched in long files, two by two, from place to place. Their heads were covered by cowls, topped by hats adorned with red crosses, and there were red crosses too on their coats. Singing songs as they marched, each flagellant carried a scourge, its straps furnished with knots or sharp points of iron.

When they reached a stopping point, the church bells rang, and the townspeople ran to watch the twice-daily ritual:

The participants threw themselves to the ground in a circle with their upper bodies bared. By means of their bearing or through a mimed gesture, each one let it be known what he or she thought needed to be repented. Perjurers, for instance, extended three fingers in the air, while adulterers would press their lower bodies to the earth. The master of the throng then stepped over the first one, touched that person with the scourge, and absolved the penitent of his or her sins with a phrase of absolution. The absolved party then rose and, along with the master, stepped over the body of the next one. This was repeated until all were standing. The entire throng whipped themselves subsequently through three rounds while chanting prayers and songs.

As such a description makes clear, the term “performance” is not a figure of speech: these were elaborately choreographed spectacles, with music accompanying the rhythmical sounds of the whip and dripping of the blood. At the end of each performance a flagellant who was able to read stepped forward and read a message from the Lord to the gawking crowd. A Strasbourg chronicler who took notes on one such message enables us to have a taste of the God whom the rituals were attempting to placate:

Earthquakes, famine, fire, locusts, ravens, mice, hailstorms, frost, storms, and numerous wars. I have sent all of this to you because you have not kept Sunday holy. Since you are obviously blind and deaf to the words of my voice, I have sent you much pain and trouble, even letting the wild animals devour your children…. I swear to you by my right hand, by my divine power and greatness, that I will completely extinguish you if you do not keep the Sabbath….

The chilling warning did not greatly differ from the warnings issued by inquisitors, mendicant friars, and the occasional parish priest to their terrorized auditors. But there are signs that officials of the Catholic Church were made queasy by this popular piety. There was a risk that the excitement provoked by flagellation would get out of hand and escape the control of the clerical hierarchy. Churchmen feared that whipping would seem not to supplement but to substitute for the Church’s traditional therapies for the sinful soul. “Many flagellants,” the influential chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Gerson, wrote in 1417, “do not concern themselves with the sacrament of confession and with sacramental penance, but assert instead that flagellation is a stronger means of purification of sin than all confession.”

If, as was generally the case in Italy, the Church exercised close supervision over the processions, there was little threat. But north of the Alps, in the Netherlands, in southern France, and above all in Thuringia, the whip seemed alarmingly indifferent to the interests of the Vatican and the doctrines of its approved theologians. On October 20, 1349, Pope Clement VI issued a bull forbidding public processions. Self-flagellation could henceforth be practiced only at home or under much closer clerical supervision. But though the mass movement waned as the plague diminished in intensity, the popular excitement it had aroused did not vanish. Charismatic preachers, like the Spanish Dominican Vincent Ferrer, made matters worse by intensifying the apocalyptic expectations of the crowd and urging repentance through collective public flagellation. Rumors began to circulate in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries about a heretical sect, the so-called Cryptoflagellants, who rejected the Church’s monopoly on grace and believed that self-flagellation was the sole means of salvation. Though papal inquisitors hunted down adherents to this heresy and burned many of them at the stake, the disquieting rumors continued to circulate.

The papal bull of 1349 banning processions mentions something that does not greatly interest the author of In Praise of the Whip but that may be worth pondering. The Pope blames flagellants for the murderous pogroms against the Jews that erupted throughout the lands convulsed by the Black Death. It is not possible, Largier remarks, “to see the flagellants as the sole parties responsible for the anti-Jewish pogroms, as the papal document suggests.” True enough, but so simple a dismissal seems to slight the obvious link between flagellation and Jew-hatred. No doubt there were many incentives for believing that Jews, though they were dying of the plague alongside their Christian neighbors, must be poisoning the wells: the Church had for centuries taught that the Jews were the crafty and implacable enemies of the faithful. But it certainly cannot have helped that thousands of the faithful, in a state of semihysteria, enacted on their own bodies the blows that the Jews were said to have rained down upon the meek Lamb of God.

That this current of violent hatred receives so little attention in Largier’s book seems linked to his overarching vision of medieval flagellation, a vision that centers almost entirely on the way that this “experimental exercise of pictorial-affective arousal” serves as “the condition of possibility of spiritual experience.” Largier’s brilliant explication of this exercise, with its ambiguously sensuous craving of the absolute, is in effect his own remarkable praise of the whip, a subtle apologia for the most extreme form of Catholic penitential discipline.


When, in the latter half of In Praise of the Whip, Largier turns to the fate of flagellation in modern society, there is, perhaps predictably, a falling off. Luther and the other Protestant reformers who regarded flagellation with horror and disgust are given short shrift, as are Catholic reformers like Erasmus. They represent, as Largier depicts them, a dead loss, not a loss of faith but a loss of mimetic intensity. A ritual reenactment that had merged the flagellant, in his lacerated flesh, with the Savior is displaced by merely symbolic recollections and verbal promises.

For Largier the key figure in the modern assault on flagellation as a spiritual practice is the Catholic theologian Jacques Boileau, whose Historia flagellantium (History of the Flagellants), published in 1700, changed everything. Boileau not only assembled a mass of evidence that called into question the theological and historical justification for flagellation, but he also argued that flagellation is a form of barely covert erotic arousal. The sensation of a whip striking the buttocks, or even the image of this act, works on both body and imagination as a sexual provocation. “The impressions thereby awakened flow into the brain,” Boileau claimed, “where they paint living pictures of forbidden desires, which captivate the brain with their deceitful magic and deliver chastity to a life-and-death struggle.” “To my knowledge,” remarks Largier, “this is the first time this danger was identified.”

Already in 1606, in Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare, as we have seen, was able to make sophisticated use of the erotic allure of flagellation. He would not have done so were he not confident that his large popular audience would easily understand. So what was decisively new about Boileau? In part the force of his argument depended on the speaker—this was not a vulgar playwright, or a pornographer, or a Protestant; it was the Abbé Boileau, doctor of theology at the Sorbonne and canon of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. And in part its force depended on the specific object of attention: this was not about the whip in the bordello; it was about ascetic flagellation, about an ecstatic rush of what were called the “animal spirits,” about the nuns’ experience of being “filled to the point of overflow by the drops of grace that flowed over them.” Once the charge was leveled, it was impossible ever again to silence it. Flagellation was not to everyone’s taste, but it was “essentially” and “actually” about sexuality, specifically about deviant or perverse sexuality.

Largier does not accept this modern revelation. “We are interested,” he writes at the outset, “neither in psychohistorical explanations nor in the psychological motives that feed the desire for the whip.” He refuses to follow Freud and Richard von Krafft-Ebing and to treat flagellation as a sadomasochistic pathology. He knows perfectly well, of course, that since the eighteenth century flagellation has become a privileged feature of pornography, much of it showing the imagined exploits of monks and nuns, and he rehearses in detail some of its highpoints: the 1748 underground classic Thérèse Philosophe, the “flogging” poems of Swinburne (“How each cut makes the blood come in thin little streaks/From that broad blushing round pair of naked red cheeks”), startling moments in Joyce and Proust, and above all, of course, the works of the Marquis de Sade. Sade’s libertine extravaganzas are the best of the lot, in Largier’s view, because they programmatically reject all conventional heterosexual intercourse and devote themselves, in the manner of a twisted ascetic monk, to achieving a permanent state of “undisciplined and undisciplinable arousal.”

But although he invokes Georges Bataille and Michel Foucault in an attempt to celebrate their subversive power, there is at the heart of these pornographic exercises a sadness that Largier is unable to allay. The concept of arousal, so central to this book, comes to seem increasingly empty or elusive, a strategy to avoid asking, let alone attempting to answer, key questions. Why are certain people in certain times and places drawn to a particular form of arousal bound up with violent domination and submission? Why do some imaginations like to feast on the spectacle of blood on the back or the buttocks? Why should any human experience of pleasure be intertwined with pain?

Having rejected all psychological and psychohistorical explanations, and having refused to credit any therapeutic or medical accounts of flagellation, In Praise of the Whip begins as a loving reconstruction of mystical experience and ends as something like an anthology of scabrous passages conjoined to an intelligently annotated scholarly bibliography. The attendant spirit of its closing sections is not the “Divine Marquis” but a nineteenth-century English bibliophile, Henry Spencer Ashbee, who published, under a pseudonym, an immense “Bio-Biblio-Icono-graphical and Critical” index of prohibited books. “To read the assembled titles,” Largier writes, in sentences befitting a scholar who has spent years ferreting out the fugitive traces of flagellation,

excites the fantasy in a manner altogether comparable to that of reading the texts themselves. Indeed, the experience is perhaps even stronger, since it presents the unattainable texts as phantasma of an even less accessible world and thereby stimulates both desire and imagination simultaneously.

This Issue

November 8, 2007