Rather than developing from native English discourses, the association of Catholicism with sexual flagellation in late seventeenth-century England is mainly a product of the same southern/Latin/Catholic culture that produced the lives of the saints. Most of the same ingredients as are to be found in English writings – political and/or religious polemic, increasingly frank accounts of various permutations of sexual flagellation – can be seen in these foreign works, but there are also significant differences, the most notable being that, where the English accounts are mostly bawdy (that is, they poke fun at licentious behaviour, and the main response they aim to provoke is ribald laughter), the imported narratives are more clearly erotic.
The first such work, Chorier’s Satyra Sotadica, appeared in or around 1660. Turner considers this work so seminal that ‘Modern sexuality could be understood as a footnote to Chorier’, and tells us that – despite being available only in Latin (Sarah Toulalan, Imagining Sex:
Pornography and Bodies in Seventeenth-Century England, Oxford, 2007, p. 7, notes that an English version ‘was available by c. 1684’, but no copies appear to be extant) – by 1680, it ‘had penetrated so far into English society that schoolboys were reading it in a London dissenting academy’ (James Grantham Turner, Schooling Sex: Libertine Literature and Erotic Education in Italy, France and England, 1534–1685, Oxford, 2003, pp. 167 and 165). Like other works in the whore dialogue tradition, the discourse is between a more experienced older woman (Tullia) and a younger one (her maid, the fifteen-year-old Octavia), the former instructing the latter mainly in the pleasures of lesbianism but also – and this is one of the features that make Chorier’s text stand out – in the supposed delights of whipping and being whipped.
While Octavia’s main initiation is into lesbian love, the book takes in a variety of encounters in a generous embrace, and on several occasions their conversation strays into observations about the nature of pain, the first being Octavia’s comment that ‘incentivum factus est dolor pruriginosæ libidini’ (‘pain becomes an incentive to lascivious desires’), to which Tullia replies, ‘voluptatis confinium est dolor, ita & doloris voluptas’ (pain is at the edge of pleasure, and pleasure [at the edge] of pain’). Octavia then launches into a detailed account of herself and her mother Sempronia being whipped before the altar by the priest, Theodorus:
Well, says Theodorus, we will soon see which [of you] has the more valiant heart. Prepare yourself, Sempronia. Lend me your help, daughter, my mother says, that I may swiftly acquit myself of this pious duty. I take off her undergarment, her dress and her gown. She herself removes her underclothes to [bare] her loins, and goes down on her knees before the altar. Do not spare my impure flesh, holy man, she says …
(Nicolas Chorier, Aloisiæ Sigææ Toletanæ Satyra
Sotadica de Arcanis Amoris & Veneris [A scurrilous satire of the secret love and sex life of Luisa Sigea of Toledo], circa 1660; edition used, Amsterdam, 1678, pp. 200 and 202. The attribution to Luisa Sigea is false. My translation.)
The narrative continues in the same vein, leaving very little to the imagination, as both mother and daughter are whipped, to the satisfaction of the priest and themselves.
Chorier’s detailed and explicit sadomasochistic narrative breaks new ground in anti-Catholic discourse. A 1665 translation of Pierre du Moulin’s Le Capucin (Sedan, 1641) attacks Catholic penances from every possible angle, except from that of being a form of sexual perversion. Moulin mocks absurd penances, such as being forced to ‘eat with a Cat in the same dish’, ‘go about on all four like a beast’, or ‘lick up the others spittle’; he describes in detail the ‘pleasant exercise’ of whipping and the blood flowing from the wounds, concluding, ‘This whipping is a just action, for these Fathers deserve it well’. He notes that the Syrians and other ancient peoples carried self-mutilation to far greater lengths, that there is a kind of inverted arrogance in making a big show of how much one despises oneself, and that the early followers of Christ were known for their virtue and charity, not for their penances, saying,‘It is a grand abuse to make Piety consist in things wherein Christians may be excelled by Heathens. There is a proud humility, which despiseth it self, that it may be valued by others. The Apostles, and their Disciples, did not live so’ (Pierre du Moulin, The Capucin Treated, or The Lives of the Capucins with the Life of S. Francis their Patron, trans. from the French by ‘Philinax Orthodoxus’, London, 1665, pp. 21, 22, 43, 17, 18 and 40). Chorier completely bypasses such objections by describing
Sempronia and Octavia’s flagellation as sexually stimulating.
There is nothing in English discourse that approaches Chorier’s use of the whore dialogue to undermine the premises of Catholic penance; Butler’s condemnation of the ‘foul abomination’of mortifying oneself with ‘shameful, / and heathen Stripes’ (Samuel Butler, Hudibras. The Second Part, London, 1664, p. 72; 2.2., ll. 89–98), for example, while discursively similar, is far less explicit and condensed almost to the point of being epigrammatic. Chorier’s uninhibited and expansive narrative is distinctively southern, matched only by Jean Barrin [?], Venus in the Cloister, or The Nun in her Smock, London, 1683, which is so closely related to Chorier’s work that it contains a plagiarised (or at least closely adapted) version of the flagellation passage cited above.
Barrin’s work – translated into English in the same year as its
appearance in French – set as it is in a convent, and taking the form of a dialogue between two nuns, subverts Catholic discourse even more explicitly than Satyra Sotadica. The narrative begins as a more experienced nun, Sister Angelica, surprises the novice Agnes
practising ‘The Extatical Intromission’ (i.e., masturbating) and introduces her to the pleasures of the flesh. ‘Hold a little my Pretty Heart’, she exclaims, ‘I am all of a Flame, these Carresses have brought me into a Panting Condition’. She soon begins to show intense interest in what Agnes describes as ‘a severe Discipline, which I but yesterday inflicted upon it [i.e., her body] by order of my Confessour’. Examining – and kissing – the marks of the lash on Agnes’s buttocks, Angelica remarks, ‘you must be very devout at the Mystery of Flagellation, since you scourge your Buttocks at this rate’, and admits that ‘but yesterday I whipt one rather for my own satisfaction, than for any fault she had committed; I took great delight in contemplating her, she is very pretty, and is already thirteen years of age’ (Barrin, pp. 9, 11, 28, 30 and 33).
Interspersed with Angelica’s unabashed prurience are passages – such as this description of the dilemma of a nun named Dorothea –
which could come from a genuine devotional work:
… one day that she found her self more moved than usual … she had recourse to her Saint; represented to him with tears in her eyes, her face upon the floor, and her heart lifted up towards Heaven, the extreame danger she found her self in; related to him with a wonderful candour and simplicity, to how little purpose she had defended her self, and used all her efforts to repress the violent transports she was seized with.
Like the saints of Catholic hagiography, Dorothea sets out to subdue her fleshly appetites by chastising herself – although, unlike them, she does so naked before her spiritual advisor, who watches on unmoved – but ‘these sorts of exercises were so far from extinguishing the flames wherewith she was consumed, that on the contrary they had more and more augmented them, and had reduced that poor creature into such a condition, that she was hardly any longer able to bear with it’. She makes a final attempt to whip her flesh into submission, and then falls into an ‘amorous trance’, powerless to resist ‘the Laws of meer Nature’. Agnes, by now fully converted to her mentor’s predilections, declares that she would have ‘taken delight … to view her thus all naked, and to observe curiously all the transports, that Love would have caused in her at the moment she was overcome’ (ibid., pp. 141–2, 145 and 146).
It is not clear whether the author of this work intended it primarily as anti-Catholic lampoon or as pornography. In the wave of anti-Catholic hysteria which culminated in the Popish Plot it was accepted for its subversion of Catholic attitudes towards penance and mortification of the flesh, and was probably associated with anti-Catholic works of the period, whereas Robert Samber’s translation of 1724 – together with the 1718 edition of Meibom’s work in English – led to Edmund Curll, the printer, being convicted on a charge of publishing obscene literature. Up until the Restoration period, however, it appears that, while the Latinate may have been familiar with treatises such as those of Pico, Gretser and Meibom, and the debauched with the institution of the flogging school, the idea that beating might be a means of achieving sexual satisfaction was not widespread; it was certainly not widely disseminated in print, and even when printed reference to it was made it was not particularly associated with Catholicism, a link which seems not to have been established firmly in the popular imagination until Chorier and Barrin’s works appeared in English in the 1680s.
Once the link was made, English anti-Catholic polemic, rather than emulating the discourse patterns of the whore dialogue, tended simply to associate Catholic mortification of the flesh with the practices of the flogging cully. One anonymous controversialist, for example, writes of the Catholics that ‘their Whips for the Devil are no more to be valued than the Rods that excite the decayed Venery of old Lechers in common Brothel-houses’ (A Whip for the Devil; or The Roman Conjurer, London, 1683, p. 140), and John Oldham equates the Catholic penitent with the reprobate emerging from a whipping at a brothel:
In came a ghastly Shape, all pale, and thin,
Assome poor Sinner, who by Priest had been
Undera long Lent’s Penance, starv’d, and whip’d,
Or par-boil’d Lecher, late from Hot-house crept …
(John Oldham, Poems, and Translations by the Author of the Satyrs upon the Jesuits, London, 1683, p. 164)
The old arguments continue to be aired; Stillingfleet, for example, contrasts those who think ‘no sight more pleasing to God than to see men lash and whip themselves for their sins’ with those who believe ‘he is as well pleased at least, with hearty repentance, and sincere obedience without this’ (Edward Stillingfleet, A Discourse Concerning the Idolatry Practised in the Church of Rome and the Danger of Salvation in the Communion of it, London, 1671, p. 217), William Sherlock argues that the ‘External and Ceremonial Righteousness’ of Catholic penances is merely a compensation for ‘true and real Holiness of Life’ (William Sherlock, A Preservative against Popery being some
Plain Directions to Unlearned Protestants, how to Dispute with Romish Priests, London, 1688, p. 46) and, notably, Drelincourt’s Popish Errors says almost nothing about penances and mortifications. At the same time, though, a more explicit and uninhibited note begins to creep in. While du Moulin, for example, in the earlier part of the century, is as scathing as he can be in his descriptions of the penances of Francis of Assissi and the Capuchins, there is frequently virtually no
difference between his discourse and the Catholic discourse he attacks. His account of Francis – ‘Finding that his carnal concupiscence continued, he ran to his garden, and gathering a great heap of snow, he plunged himself in it over head and ears, stark naked’ (Pierre du Moulin, The Capucin Treated, London, 1665, p. 59) – differs from a Catholic account only in that he expects his readers to disapprove. By contrast, Brown, writing at the end of the century, writes, with a dry, economic irony that renders commentary unnecessary, that during the first millennium of Christianity, ‘the sanctifying Miracles of Whip cord were not so Universally acknowledged then as afterwards, nor St. Francis’s receipt for an erection by running into a heap of Snow so generally made use of’ (Thomas Brown, The Late Converts Exposed, London, 1690, p. 14). The whore dialogue was not directly emulated in English attacks on Catholicism during this period, but it nevertheless disrupted the stylistic norms of polemical writing. Brown’s work may not be set in Mediterranean gardens or within the adobe walls of a southern European convent, but it does have a setting – the urbane world of a London coffee house – and his work exemplifies a new frankness that uses sexuality to undercut and obviate logical argument. Jacques Boileau’s Historia Flagellantium (Paris, 1700) effectively decided the debate on self-flagellation in the Catholics’ disfavour, but by then the whore dialogue had already done its work, associating Catholic practices in general – and self-flagellation in particular – with the promotion of the very vices they were supposed to cure.
Adapted from Pain, Pleasure and Perversity: Discourses of Suffering in Seventeenth-Century England (Ashgate [now Routledge], 2013), Part 1, “The Suffering of Others”, Chapter 3, “Polemic, Pornography and Romanticism: the Subversion of Catholic Asceticism”.