The Sex Issue

The Allure of the Whip

The long and curious history of arousal.

In Praise of the Whip by Niklaus Largier.

In 1700, the abbé Jacques Boileau published a book called Historia flagellantium that would forever change its subject. He argued that whipping as a form of penance had no biblical authority, that it was of pagan origin, and that, at best, it belonged to an earlier, more spiritually heroic age. That had all been said before. What got him on the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books by 1703 was a story about Father Cornelius Adriaensen, a 16th-century priest who, after striking his young female acolytes with knotted cords, went on to tenderly touch their naked buttocks and thighs with his rods of willow and birch. More shockingly, Boileau claimed that Adriaenson’s evident pleasure was not an exception but the rule—that flagellation was, by its nature, erotically ambivalent and deliberately so. His book signals the great divide: From 1700 forward, the whip would be identified less with piety or penance than with sexual arousal. 

In In Praise of the Whip, Niklaus Largier, a professor of German at the University of California-Berkeley, uneasily straddles this watershed. On the one hand, he insists that accounts of the scourging and bleeding of medieval men and women, expressive of their deepest spiritual longings, should not be read through the lens of Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom or Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s 19th-century classic, Psychopathia Sexualis. The story he wants to tell is one of discontinuity: The first half of this book is about ascesis and explores the rigorous pursuit of self-denial; the second is about erotics, and examines the equally rigorous quest for pleasure.

On the other hand, Largier recognizes that Boileau had a point: Whipping, and the literature about whipping—with its repetitiveness that mimics the repeated strokes of the lash—is arousing. And of course the body, which is the site of the theater of self-flagellation, is also the site of arousal. But arousal does not necessarily mean sexual arousal. Largier’s central insight is that both before and after 1700, the purpose of the lash, and of reading about the experiences of others being beaten, has been to excite passion, desire, and fantasy—to arouse the imagination. It is a challenge to the confines of flesh, a mobilization of the body in the interests of transcending ordinary space and time, whether it is God or a more sensual self that the flagellant finds there. After Largier, the lash can no longer be identified as merely a tool of either piety or pornography.

In the beginning, however, the whip was wielded in the name of spirituality. Largier’s story has its origin in the early eighth century when St. Pardulf, a monk in the region of Limoges, France, asked one of his students to strike his naked body with rods as a form of penance during Lent and as a stimulus to prayers that focused on the passion and sacrifice of Christ. St. Peter Damian, the great 11th-century monastic reformer and the towering figure of Largier’s account, made flagellation a regular part of monastic religious practice. In a series of letters and in his biography of the first great superathlete of self-laceration, St. Dominicus Loricatus, Damian argued that the highly ritualized staging of suffering in the flesh was not to be understood primarily as punishment or as a severe form of penance for sins absolved at confession. Nor was it, as Largier insists, meant to be a denial of the body. Quite the contrary. Flagellants were to whip themselves bloody with metal-studded scourges, brambles, and knotted cords while reciting psalms or other prayers as a way of engaging their bodies and their imaginations in the task of communion with God. Submitting to the whip was to be a form of spiritual imitatio Christi, a matter not so much of pretending to become the suffering Christ—that would be blasphemous—as of imagining the enormity of His sacrifice and of his obedience to the will of the Father.

The 1700 divide makes it hard not to regard the almost universal adoption of ritual whipping in the convents and monasteries of medieval Europe as a form of lunacy or, at best, as a thinly disguised form of sexual sublimation. And Largier does not make it any easier with the many accounts he translates from Latin and Middle High German. After hours of bloody scourging, the nuns of the convent of Unterlinden were, a contemporary writes, “inflamed with divine fire … their cravings were not in vain, for they were filled to the point of overflow by the drops of grace that flowed over them.” But they were simultaneously overwhelmed by the power of the psalms they were reading and the rosaries they were reciting. The miracle of the sacrifice and resurrection—the whole of eschatological time—was focused on the bleeding flesh of the believer as a nun or monk chanted songs of repentance and hope. The rite was a way of going beyond words, and even beyond reason, to a direct experience of God.

The practice did not stay cloistered for long. First in the 1260s and then again after the Black Death in the late 1340s, flagellation also moved out of doors. Bands of laymen and even laywomen roamed the country, stopping off in towns and prostrating themselves on the ground in the form of the cross, whipping each other as they walked or lay down. Some of this was within the bounds of orthodoxy. But the Inquisition periodically unearthed crypto-flagellants with strange views; the church was not happy with the lay leadership of perambulating groups whose authority seemed to question the necessity of priests. And the church, as Largier points out, understood that ecstatic flagellation comes very close to the heterodox claim that one can have an unmediated encounter with the Godhead.

Yet clerical authorities could not suppress the practice. The Reformers, opposed to flagellation for different reasons, had more success. Luther, like Largier, appreciated that the whole point of the rite was “the arousal of the emotions and the imagination,” which Luther condemned as a distraction from direct engagement with the word of God; like Catholic images, flagellation led believers toward an idolatrous emotionalism. The ritual, however, returned with renewed vigor in the spiritual exercises of the most militant of the new orders born of the Counter-Reformation: the Jesuits, who thought they could have it all—arousal and reason.  

Here we arrive at Voltaire, who famously mocked the perversions of his Jesuit teachers, and at Sade: We are on the other side of the divide. Even if Boileau was right that there was more sexual arousal lurking in religious flagellation than Largier acknowledges, something new and different is plainly happening in the 18th- and 19th-century pictures and texts discussed in the second half of In Praise of the Whip. (Suddenly, it’s clear why Catholic Europe produced all the great early classics of pornography: Here was a culture well-versed in mobilizing the body in the interests of the imagination and arousal.) The pictures that accompany Enlightenment texts are the first clue that eschatology has become pornography: In place of pious-looking people with pained expressions, there are erections, fellatio, hands everywhere. An underground best seller like Thérèse Philosophe is not just an explicit account of the sexual awakening of a girl through the exertions of an older man, through whipping and watching whippings; it is also explicitly designed to awaken desire in the reader. The many works in this genre come to be seen as self-consciously literary works about a self-consciously theatrical practice—as porn, the crack cocaine of the imagination in the service of erotic arousal. The great 19th-century collectors of flagellation literature, whom Largier discusses, got all this.

But Largier himself is only half-heartedly interested in explaining the change, because his real commitment is to a deep continuity in the history of arousal. After 1700, as before, flagellation is about getting beyond the body by means of the body. In other words, for the nun as for Sade, flagellation was a way to go beyond human finitude through pain, through an arousal of the flesh inseparable from the imagination’s intense engagement. Somehow the nun got a glimpse into salvation, a time beyond time; somehow Sade imagined the dissolution of a self in death and unbearable pleasure. And in the 20th century, the story is still fundamentally the same. When Monsieur de Charlus  is whipped in Proust’s Le Temps Retrouvé (Finding Time Again), we are once more given a model for how the senses—the smell of the madeleine in the most famous case—and the imagination transcend time through memory.

If there is a great divide around 1700, it is in the purposes of arousal, in the goal of the transcendent impulse. In our era, the medieval singularity of purpose is gone. People whip themselves or each other in the service of self-creation, as a route to a more authentic self, as a rejection of norms, as a tribute to the power of theatricality and performance in making a life. And people read about it for all the same reasons—the reasons we seek arousal, which Largier helps us understand as an awakening of our senses in the service of escaping our sensory limitations. The history of arousal that Largier offers is thus very near the heart of the history of being human, that is, the history of being creatures who are both profoundly embodied and inextricably caught up in imagining ourselves capable of transcending mere matter through giving meaning to what we do.