AskDefine | Define flagellation

Dictionary Definition

flagellation n : beating with a whip or strap or rope as a form of punishment [syn: whipping, tanning, flogging, lashing]

User Contributed Dictionary



Etymology 1

From the verb flagellate 'to lash, whip', from flagellatus 'flagellated', the past participle of flagellare 'to whip', itself from flagellum, the diminutive of flagrum 'whip'


  1. A beating consisting in lashes, notably as corporal punishment or mortification, such as (in principle implement-precise) a whipping or scourging.

Related terms

Etymology 2

From flagellum, 'elongated filiform appendage', itself a diminutive of flagrum 'whip', so closely related to etymology 1


  1. (botany) The formation by plants of flagella, or their arrangement.


Extensive Definition

Flagellation is the act of whipping (Latin flagellum, "whip") the human body. Specialised implements for it include rods, switches and the cat-o-nine-tails. Typically, whipping is performed on unwilling subjects as a punishment; however, flagellation can also be submitted to willingly, or performed on oneself, in religious or sadomasochistic contexts.

Disciplinary use and torture

Flogging is an approximate synonym that was probably derived from flagellum in the British navy, where flogging was a common disciplinary measure that became associated with a seaman's manly disregard for pain. Aboard ships, knittles or the cat o' nine tails was used for severe punishment, while a rope's end or starter was used to administer the lightest discipline to sailors.
Flagellation probably originated in the Near East but quickly spread throughout the ancient world. In Sparta, young men were flogged as a test of their masculinity. The Jews limited flagellation to forty strokes, and in practice delivered forty strokes minus one, 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 safely bear.
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 be made to approach a state of hypovolemic shock due to loss of blood. The Romans reserved this torture for non-citizens, as stated in the lex Porcia and lex Sempronia, dating from 195 and 123 BC. The poet Horace refers to the horribile flagellum (horrible whip) in his Satires, calling for the end of its use. 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 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 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"). Often 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.
Corporal punishment as whipping was especially popular in French Revolution. For example one of leaders of revolution Anne Josephe Theroigne de Mericourt went mad, ending her days in an asylum after public whipping. On the 31 May 1793 the Jacobin women seized her, stripped her naked, and flogged her on bare bottom in the public garden of the Tuileries. After humiliation shameless and bloodthirsty in delirium she started to live naked - refused to wear any garments, in memory of the outrage she had suffered.
While flagellation and other forms of corporal punishment are now forbidden in most Western countries, flagellation is still a common form of punishment around the world, particularly in Islamic countries. Medically supervised caning is also still used as a punishment for some categories of crime in Singapore and Malaysia

Flogging as military punishment

In the 1700s and 1800s, 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 an astonishing 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 unfortunately, 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.

Australian penal colonies

While 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 hands beneath a tripod of wooden beams (known as 'the triangle'), while either one or two floggers administered the prescribed number of strokes. During the flogging, a doctor or other medical worker was consulted at regular intervals as to the condition of the prisoner - if the offender had fainted from blood loss or suffered extreme skin and flesh loss from the back, the punishment was usually suspended until such time that the offender had sufficiently healed. Once healed, the remainder of the required strokes were administered. Punishment was usually limited to 20, 50 or 100 strokes at one flogging, though records exist of prisoners in Australian penal colonies such as Norfolk Island or Port Arthur receiving more than 3,000 strokes over a number of months or years.
Due to its prevalence, flagellation featured prominently in the culture of early colonial Australia. It was often a mark of pride for a flogged former convict to "show his stripes" (expose his flagellation scars) as an "iron man", or to hide them at all costs if an emancipated convict was attempting to rebuild some semblance of a normal life in society. Children in the Australian colonies were often observed playing "flogging games" where a doll or another child would pretend to be "strung from the triangles" and whipped.

Association with religion


The Flagellation refers in a Christian context to the Flagellation of Christ, an episode in Jesus' physical degradation leading to the Crucifixion. (See also: The Passion, Jesus and the Money Changers). The practice of mortification of the flesh for religious purposes was utilized in the Christian Flagellant movements of the 13th century, and is still very common, to this day, in the Philippines and Latin America. Some strict monastic orders such as the Carmelites still practice mild self-flagellation using an instrument called a "discipline", a cattail whip made of light chains with small spikes or hooks on the end, which is flung over the shoulders repeatedly during private prayer. Practitioners are cautioned against over- or underuse of the device.


Flagellation is still in use today under Islamic Sharia law in Saudi Arabia and Iran for various crimes, particularly sexual crimes.
While Self Harm is forbidden in Islam a few Shi'a Muslims perform self-flagellation to mourn the death of Hussain during Muharram. Most usually beat their chests with their hands. The practice is common among Shiites in the Middle East and Asia.

Ecstatics and Mystics

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.

Erotic use

In the sexual sub-culture of BDSM, "flagellation" involves beating the submissive partner and is a form of impact play. Such a flogging is not always delivered with forceful blows; sometimes it is done with very soft blows, repeated a great many times so as to make the skin sensitive. Thus, the softest impact will eventually feel very intense. Flogging for erotic thrill, typically with implements such as floggers, whips, paddles, or canes, has been called the "English vice". See also paraphilia.
The flogger used in this context has a large number of soft broad thongs made of suede, leather, or comparable materials. Its impact is felt as an impact ("thud") leaving a stinging sensation. Used with light or medium intensity, it can almost act as a form of massage. Used intensely or for longer periods, it becomes painful. Flogging with this implement, usually on the shoulder blades, buttocks, or other fatty areas of the body, can leave bruising but does not cut or permanently mark the skin.

See also

References and further reading

  • Bean, Joseph W. Flogging, Greenery Press, 2000. ISBN 1-890159-27-1
  • Conway, Andrew. The Bullwhip Book. Greenery Press, 2000. ISBN 1-890159-18-2
  • Gibson, Ian. The English Vice: Beating, Sex and Shame in Victorian England and After. London: Duckworth, 1978. ISBN 0-715612-64-6
  • Martin, James Kirby & Lender, Mark Edward. A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763-1789. Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1982. ISBN 0-88295-812-7
  • Oman, Charles. Wellington's Army, 1809-1814. London: Greenhill, (1913) 1993. ISBN 0-947898-41-7
  • Rothenburg, Gunther E. The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. ISBN 0-253-31076-8
  • Tomasson, Katherine & Buist, Francis. Battles of the '45. London: Pan Books, 1974.
flagellation in Czech: Bičování
flagellation in German: Flagellation
flagellation in Modern Greek (1453-): Μαστίγωση
flagellation in Spanish: Flagelación
flagellation in Persian: شلاق‌زنی
flagellation in French: Flagellation
flagellation in Italian: Flagellazione
flagellation in Japanese: 鞭打ち
flagellation in Polish: Chłosta
flagellation in Portuguese: Flagelação
flagellation in Swedish: Kroppsstraff
flagellation in Ukrainian: Бичування
flagellation in Chinese: 鞭打

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Albigensianism, Catharism, Day of Atonement, Franciscanism, Sabbatarianism, Trappism, Waldensianism, Yoga, Yom Kippur, abstinence, anchoritic monasticism, anchoritism, asceticism, austerity, bastinado, basting, battery, beating, belting, buffeting, caning, clubbing, cold purgatorial fires, corporal punishment, cowhiding, cudgeling, drubbing, eremitism, fasting, flailing, flogging, fustigation, hair shirt, horsewhipping, lacing, lashing, lustration, maceration, mendicantism, monachism, monasticism, mortification, penance, penitence, penitential act, penitential exercise, pistol-whipping, purgation, purgatory, puritanism, rawhiding, repentance, rigor, sackcloth and ashes, scourging, self-denial, self-mortification, spanking, strapping, stripes, swingeing, switching, thrashing, trouncing, truncheoning, voluntary poverty, whipping
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