Flogging naked monks

Let me make it clear at the start: this post is not a gratuitous attempt at bumping up my page views. This is a serious question that needs researching and I have Latin texts to prove it. (Well, one Latin text at any rate).

Near the end of Hubert Mordek’s vast work on the transmission of Carolingian capitularies, Bibliotheca Capitularium Regum Francorum Manuscripta: Überlieferung und Traditionszusammenhang der fränkischen Herrschererlasse is a section where he gives the texts of additional capitularies not in the standard MGH edition. I was looking through these and found by chance (on p 1000) in the Capitulare monasticum I of 816 the following clause (c 15):

‘Ut nudi pro qualibet culpa coram fratrum obtutibus non flagellentur.’ (That naked men should not be whipped before the gaze of the brothers for any fault whatsoever)

In a text on monks, those who are getting whipped are probably the monks themselves, since the Benedictine Rule specifically decrees corporal punishment for them in some cases (chapters 23, 28, 30). Although I wouldn’t put it past monks to beat their familia (free and unfree dependents), I think they’d be less likely to be doing this publicly. The point that immediately occurred to me isn’t why the text talks about whipping monks publicly, it’s why it thinks it’s necessary to say they shouldn’t be naked. Or rather, why might some monasteries think it was reasonable to be beating their monks in the nude?

It was only when I came to think about the matter a bit that I realised my mental images of floggings are probably severely misleading on the crucial matter of clothing. When I think about them, I tend to be thinking either of eighteenth century sailors (probably via Hornblower novels) or Christ getting whipped before the crucifixion (via centuries of art). The ‘classic’ whipping is on the bare back. I presume this is firstly so the man with the whip can see what they’re doing, secondly so there’s less protection from the blows and thirdly so there’s less risk of infection in the wounds (which is what is most likely to kill you). By the eighteenth century trousers have been invented, so defiant heroes can show off their muscled torsos before being whipped, while remaining decently clad lower down. The gospels don’t actually tell us what Jesus was wearing when he was whipped (he has his clothes taken off when he has a purple robe put on him and again implicitly before he’s crucified). I don’t think there’s any evidence that the Romans left him his loincloth, that’s just polite artistic convention.

What about Benedictine monks? I am not an expert on early medieval underwear, but fortunately I don’t need to be, because St Benedict has a whole chapter on clothing in his rule (Latin version, English version). Benedict makes allowances for climate, but he thinks the standard clothing should be a tunic, a cowl, a scapular, stockings and shoes. Nothing underneath then, except on special occasions. For: ‘Those who are sent on a journey shall receive drawers (femoralia) from the wardrobe, which they shall wash and restore on their return.’ Property held in common includes underpants, therefore (femoralia literally means ‘thigh-coverings’). I suspect that one of the reasons monks were allowed these for journeys is that it otherwise it would be painful if they needed to ride.

If monks normally wore nothing under their tunic, then if they needed to have their backs bare everything had to be exposed. Which left only one option for the conscientious abbot who wanted both to provide an exhibition of exemplary punishment to his other monks and to obey Louis the Pious. The erring monk would have to be sent to the wardrobe to get himself some underwear before he was flogged. And I bet he was also expected to wash the bloodstains off them afterwards.


5 thoughts on “Flogging naked monks

  1. Clothing was community property (The goods of the monastery, that is, its tools, clothing or anything else… RB 32.1) and would fall under the injunction in 31: “He shall regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar.” (RB 31.10)

    Why risk damaging community property in the process of discipline?


  2. Ancilla-swapping in BurgundyI ran into Magistra in the Institute of Historical Research yesterday, just after she’d made her latest discovery—I swear, neither she nor I go looking for this stuff, and neither do we come across, in real life, like a pair of leering perv…


  3. Would not an alternative have been to forego “exemplary punishment” and resort to private whippings, just culprit monk and avenging abbot, removed from all other human sight?

    This would presumably be permissible on the conventional moral grounds used by censors in all ages, that the sight of the naked brother, which might excite to impure thoughts those less steadfast in the faith, could not possibly corrupt those whom God had ordained to be the instruments of his chastisement?

    I’m just asking.


  4. It’s pretty painful for a woman to walk long distances without any sort of shorts on. Chafing of the thighs occurs, unless one’s legs are very skinny indeed. The more you sweat, the less pleasant the chafing becomes.

    This is why one sometimes wears shorts under a skirt, if one is planning on walking a few miles in said skirt.

    One understands that men experience chafing also, possibly in more tender areas than women do. This is why men like “Gold Bond Medicated Powder”, and similar remedies.


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