Dec 212008

Largier, Niklaus. In Praise of the Whip: A Cultural History of Arousal. Zone Books, 2007 Link

I finally got through Niklaus Largier’s In Praise of the Whip. It’s long and pretty heavy going at times, and being translated from German probably didn’t help. There’s also some Foucauldian theory in it, though not a huge amount. If I ever do this book, it will be a lot more accessible than this book.

Largier starts off by saying that flagellation is not only a tactile experience, but a visual and even performative one. “The voyeur, then, is already on the scene, even when he or she never openly appears.” (pg.23) This jibes with Freud’s “A Child is Being Beaten” and Anita Phillips’ assertion that the masochist always suffers for somebody.

I have referred to flagellation [religious and erotic] as a ritual. This means not only that it is a matter of staging or of a living image, but also means that within this staging the performative moment is of greater significance than any representation of it.

In these tests, whether they have religious or erotic motives, flagellation serves as an image of of the stimulation of fantasy. For the female mystic, it is the site of a unification with the “spirit”; for the libertine, of a unification with the “flesh.” If we could state any specific thesis that emerges from this overview of flagellation, it would be that voluntary flagellation and the texts that cover it are concerned not so much with ‘sexuality’ (as all the sexual pathologists hold), but with the arousal of emotion and imagination. If we do not take the primacy of sexuality as our basis (as all of the moderns do), if we do not trace religious self-flagellation back to some sort of ‘repressed sexuality’, this is because erotica and religious flagellation emerge as rituals that aim to unfetter desire, imagination, and the passions.


This is a key point, and one that suggests flagellation and other voluntary ordeal rituals are a thing unto themselves that can be part of religion or part of sex, depending on the culture.

Largier starts off with the late medieval Christian flagellants, which he says are actually a late development and one that was never fully integrated into church practice. “As stated earlier, the penitential practice of voluntary self-flagellation received the name disciplina. Yet disciplina in the monastic and scholastic tradition does not primarily signify bodily ascesis, but more generally a kind of training that aims at a determinate conduct of life and leads to true knowledge.” (Pg.53) Flagellation was part of imitating Christ to achieve spiritual transcendence. “Here it was not only a question of a penitential gesture, but of a system of actions in which the salvation of the world would be attained through flagellation and through a radical likeness to Christ. Thus, every flagellant would work on the spectator like ‘a new Christ’ and thereby actually change the entire population into an image of Christ.” (Pg.108)

Flagellation was practiced by men and women, notably Saint Teresa of Avila. There were even reports of female flagellant companies in the 14th century.

It had an ambiguous position within ascetic or monastic practice, always tainted by the possibility of arousal, and when the lay flagellants started talking about flagellation as a sacrament, that’s when the church got really upset. Pope Clemens VI’s papal bull in 1349 banned public flagellation, but explicitly excepted self-flagellation at home or elsewhere if not done in connection with heretic groups. The papal ban was not aimed at individual ascetic self-flagellation, but intended to control flagellant processions. (Pg.156-157)

The big question is, when, where and how did flagellation stop being a religious practice and start being a sexual practice. Since before I started researching this project, I’ve know there were Christian flagellants, but there was little beyond hand-waving about how flagellation became kinky.

Flagellation was a viscerally moving element of religious practice by certain traditions, and became a bone of contention for anti-clerical critics, both Catholic and Protestant. Abbe Jacques Boileau’ 1700 book Historia flagellantium accused flagellants of perversion, madness, shamelessnes and superstition. In his earlier works, he also railed against low-cut dresses on women. The sight of pretty, swelling breasts passes through the eyes of the viewer to inflame sensuality and libertinage. Boileau was anti-Jesuit, claiming there was no scriptural basis for flagellation, and it was pagan in origin.

1700 was the turning point.

Around 1700 (anticipating the modern hegemony of sexual discourse), the critics of flagellation began to suppose that the imagined proximity to God and the images of spiritual voluptuousness staged in flagellation are really nothing but the fulfillment of an erotic-libidinous desire — a fulfillment that is both concealed and sublimated and that draws a perverse connection between desire and pain.

Lecherous monks and lascivious nuns were stock characters of erotic and anticlerical literature. Through countless ‘anecdotes’ and ‘histories’, which managed to circulate despite official suppression, these well-known figures nourished and roused the fantasies of historiographers and collectors. They were also the basis for anticlerical polemics in the Middle Ages and again beginning in the eighteenth century.

Pg. 222-224

The secrecy, ritual, and withdrawal that characterize spiritual lifestyles in the monastery more than anywhere else thereby supplement a projection in which abysmal desire, tormenting lust, and passionate fulfillment converge with unsurpassable expression. For this reason (to repeat a timeless stereotype that perhaps will live a bit longer), nothing is more salacious or prurient than the monk and the female sinner, the nun and her sisters, or the clerical garb that turns out to conceal satyrs and nymphs.


Around 1730, Largier locates what could be the nucleus of BDSM culture in the affair of merchant’s daughter Catherine Cadiere and her confessor, Father Girard. Catherine was a lovely young woman with “mystical”, “longing” pull away from worldly concerns. She joined a group of young girls lead by Father Girard, an exponent of Molinism. What followed was seduction via confession, flagellation, nudity, etc. Catherine had hysterical-mystical states, including visions and stigmata. Girard apparently raped her while she was unconscious. She had an abortion at Girard’s behest and he put her in a convent, where he visited her and corresponded with her. Girard went on trial (which is why this case is so well documented), supposedly protected by Jesuits. Catherine withdrew her statement so Girard went free, to outrage of the people, and he died the following year. Cadiere dropped off the books entirely. Even her date of death is unrecorded.

What was probably a rather sordid case of a clergyman sexually abusing his charge caught the public imagination, and inspired anti-Catholic and particularly anti-Jesuit propaganda and also pornographic/libertine writings. Often, there was no clear boundary between the two. Both Voltaire and Diderot wrote books which could be classified as pornography. “Libertine” was both a sexual and a philosophical identity.

“Giovanni Frusta” (a pseudonym for Karl August Fetzer) wrote an anti-flagellation and anti-Jesuit book in 1834, that included told an anti-Jesuit, fictionalized version of the Girard-Cadiere story. In the 16th century, Brother Cornelis Adriensen, a lascivious monk, tried to seduce a young woman named Calleken Peter. Calleken met two other women who were instructed in discipline by Cornelis, for whom confession is a means to seduce and defile, and nudity, instead of being a holy act, is a means of seduction. There was lots of doubletalk about overcoming shame and inner hypocrisy. Callekan eventually questions Cornelis’ teachings. She educates herself via reading the Bible, finding nothing in it about flagellation. Eventually she becomes a good Protestant girl.

Largier theorizes that priests are disruptive interlopers in the Protestant/bourgeois household/mind, encouraging imagination and fantasy instead of pragmatism. They upset the “economy of desire.”

Later pornographic/libertine works included the Marquis d’Argens’ Therese Philosophe (1748), with characters whose names are anagrams of “Girard” and “Cadiere.” This novel was in turn referenced in one of the Marquis de Sade’s novels. However, Therese was a much more humanitarian and Romantic (in a philosophical sense) work than Sade’s nihilistic and Gothic work. In modern terms, Therese is sex-positive, while Sade is gonzo porn.

Note also that the Girard-Cadiere case was a decade or two before Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and John Cleland’s Fanny Hill. You can see Lovelace and Clarissa as secularized versions of Girard and Cadiere: worldly, seductive, charismatic villain versus innocent heroine. This initiatory structure is also found in other BDSM fantasies, such as The Story of O and its many imitators. The protagonist is (voluntarily or not) initiated into a new, truer society.

“At first it was the ecclesiastical heresiologists and Inquisitors who believed that the ‘free spirits‘ and flagellants were those who went naked by night and devoted themselves without limit to their cravings; in the eyes of libertines and Enlightenment figures, the same role was ascribed to church Inquisitors and to priests in general — and especially to the Jesuits. It was they who were supposed to uncover souls in the darkness of the confessional, encourage the expression of desire, and seduce minds and ultimately bodies. For anticlerical Enlightenment critics, no less than for pornographers, priests had become the agents of physical desire pursued in the manner of a satyr — a desire in which word and image, spirit and flesh, became convertible in an unregulated circulation of fantasies and of the body. In this way, we could rightly designate clerics, monks, and nuns as the inventors of the thoroughly eroticized soul and of the underground libertine lifestyle.”

Pg. 322

This is an interesting parallel to the way proponents and opponents viewed the institution of slavery in the antebellum South. Northern critics like Harriet Beecher Stowe saw slavery as an institution that fostered incest, homosexuality, rape, sadism and other forms of sexual anarchy, while Southerners saw the absence of slavery as allowing unlimited sexual license. Orientalist writers also fantasized other realms in which sexual norms were different, as utopia or dystopia.

Pornography has far more in common with this priestly realm than with the crude or obscene medieval and early modern ‘popular’ traditions of lewdness and bawdiness to which it is sometimes linked by literary scholarship. The pornographic literature of modern times has little to do with that vulgar tradition. (…) Hence, the erotic fantasies that find cultivated expression in Pietro Aretino’s Ragionamenti (Dialogues) and his Sonetti lussuriosi (Lewd sonnets), which became determinative and paradigmatic for the ensuing centures of pornographic literature (one need only think of the readings of Therese), did not rise up ‘from below’, as the carnivalistic thesis holds. They are due instead to a subtle play of images at the other end of the scale of literary-poetic culture from the ‘people’s’ end. The patristic, medieval, and early modern reports of ‘Adamites’ (also an elite movement, assuming it existed) mostly transmit slanderous or condemnatory statements. But here they form an imaginary foil that at certain points (such as in flagellation, nakedness, and in antinomian arguments) employed more or less genuine historical events to stimulate the fantasies of a poetically inclined elite. On the side of the Inquisition, as on the side of pornography, the transmission of these stories pursued a similar aim — the arousal of the passions for or against either libertine freedom or free-spirited heresy and shamelessness.


I don’t know if I agree with the last point. To my mind, porn is very much about fantasies, and often the lower classes’ fantasies about the elite.

So, to sum up, flagellation is an imaginative act that could not be contained within the religious strictures of the Catholic church. Critics claimed it was actually sexual, and as it was gradually disowned as a religious practice (and much more slowly as a judicial or pedagogical practice), those charges became the basis for sexual fantasies. This coincided with the rise of the secular philosophy of sensibility in the early 18th century. Around the same time, it cross-pollinated with Orientalist and Africanist fantasies of slavery.

Nowadays, Western secular culture has a hard time thinking of flagellation as a religious practice, and we view sexuality as a more powerful force in human affairs.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>



This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.