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.