Physical Abuse


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    And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers; even as I received of my Father.
    Revelation 2:27

    Up to the fifth century AD, Christians seem to have had an inkling that there was something morally questionable about torture and killing. Christian torturers and executioners generally delayed their own baptism until just before death. The Church assured them that any sins of which they might have been guilty were thus washed away, and no lasting harm was done to their immortal souls. For the next 1,000 years and more, when Christianity was at the height of its power, the Church regarded brutality and killing as perfectly acceptable, and no such precautions were thought necessary. Mutilation, branding and flogging were commonplace. The Church found it acceptable for people to be flogged for the most trivial offences, even for things that today are not considered offences at all. Amongst them were vagrancy, drunkenness, drinking on a Sunday, having an illegitimate baby, even contracting smallpox.

    Torture had been used as punishment and as a method of eliciting information in ancient times, but thinkers like Seneca and Cicero had recognised both its injustice and its futility as a means of discovering the truth. Such ideas did not impress Christians, and as we shall see (page 410) the Church was responsible for introducing torture into almost all European penal systems, without any of the original roman safeguards.

    In England the provisions of Magna Carta (which had been denounced by the Church) had been interpreted as representing torture to be abhorrent to the principle of English freedom, and the common law did not permit its use*. When two inquisitors were sent to England in 1310 to extract confessions from Knights Templar, they insisted on using torture*. The king allowed some torture to be applied "according to ecclesiastical law", but apparently not enough to satisfy the inquisitors. The Pope (Clement V) wrote to King Edward II:

    We hear that you forbid torture as contrary to the laws of your land; but no state can override Canon law, Our Law; therefore I command you at once to submit these men to torture ...Withdraw your prohibition and we grant you remission of sins*

    In the seventeenth century James Felton defied Archbishop Laud's threats of torture on the rack, and the matter was referred to the courts. As a result the common law was confirmed, and torture was definitively declared to be unlawful in England. In 1689 the Bill of Rights explicitly prohibited its use, so now it was banned by statute as well.

    Elsewhere, torture was a favourite method of extracting confessions for offences both real and fabricated. In 1252, Pope Innocent IV explicitly sanctioned its use in his bull ad extirpanda. Inquisitors and their assistants were permitted to absolve one another for applying torture. It was applied liberally to obtain whatever confessions were required, and sometimes just to punish people that the Church authorities did not like.

    Voices raised against the use of torture were all secular. Early critics like Juan Luis Vives, Johann Graefe and Montaigne were regarded by the Church as its enemies. In 1740 Frederick the Great abolished torture in Prussia, and around the same time Voltaire lent his voice to opposing the use of torture in France. Despite the opposition of the Churches, secular powers succeeded in abolishing torture: in Italy in 1786, in France in 1789, in Spain in 1812, and so on. Pope Pius VII nominally banned the use of torture by inquisitors in 1816, but a blind papal eye was turned to its continued use for another 20 years or so.

    Paschal I (pope 817-824) blinded his opponents before beheading them. He was made a saint. Hadrian III (pope 884-885) was also keen on blinding his political opponents and once had a woman whipped naked through the streets of Rome. He too is now a saint. Over the centuries the Roman Church tortured, flogged, branded and killed countless thousands of people, many of them for crimes that no longer exist. Mutilation was a common punishment throughout Christendom. For example a crusader who struck another and drew blood was liable to have a hand chopped off. Other offenders suffered the removal of limbs, or of the nose, ears, lips, tongue or genitals. Branding was used to disfigure bodies, arms, hands, cheeks and foreheads.

    Bishops" courts in England passed sentences of whipping and branding even on their own clerics. The great English saint Thomas Becket was one of many who had recourse to the branding iron*. Mental incapacity was no defence. James Naylor imagined himself to be Christ and entered Bristol on a donkey in imitation of Jesus" entry into Jerusalem. Although obviously insane, he was brought before the House of Commons in 1656 and narrowly escaped being sentenced to death. Instead he was sentenced to a selection of lesser punishments. He was pilloried outside the Houses of Parliament, then whipped through the streets of Westminster to the City of London, receiving 310 lashes from a whip of seven knotted cords. He was then pilloried again at the Old Exchange. Later, his tongue was bored through with a hot iron, and he was branded on the forehead with the letter B (for blasphemer). He was then sent to Bristol where he was publicly whipped again, then returned to London for an indefinite sentence of hard labour in solitary confinement. He died soon after his release a few years later, a more merciful Parliament having taken pity on him.

    For many centuries Christian missionaries secured conversions by offering a choice between adopting the Christian religion and instant death. By the late Middle Ages this was seen to be a little harsh. Christian missionaries now routinely used torture to secure converts and to punish those who did not live up to requirements. Such practices had been assumed to have been abandoned during the Enlightenment, at least by Protestants, but a flurry of cases was exposed in Victorian times. In 1880 it was disclosed that a Free Church of Scotland mission to Nyasaland maintained a pit prison in which a man had died after receiving 200 lashes. A few years later a Nigerian woman died having had red pepper rubbed into her wounds after a beating. Such cases caused a scandal among European sceptics. Churches became more cautious about their methods, but such techniques may well have been used into the twentieth century.

    While the Church held sway, it supported all manner of absurdity and horror. It was the custom for Christian teachers to punish a servant lad when a royal pupil had misbehaved. (This is the origin of the term whipping boy.) As long as someone suffered, justice was somehow thought to have been done. Such an inequitable concept was comfortably accommodated within the Church. Corporal punishment has always featured strongly in church schools until recent times, but it was not confined to schools.

    When society shared common Christian mores, corporal punishment was widespread: it was practised extensively in Christian seminaries, monasteries, convents, orphanages, mental hospitals, armies, navies, prisons and homes. Birching was practised in British prisons until 1968.


    The sjambok is a heavy leather whip used extensively in Africa, It is traditionally made from an adult hippopotamus hide. It is also known as a litupa, imvubu, kiboko and as mnigolo. In the Portuguese African colonies and Congo Free State it was called a chicotte, from the Portuguese word for whip. There it was sometimes rendered even more lacerating by adding nails. A strip of the animal's hide is cut and carved into a strip 3 to 5 feet (0.9 to 1.5 m) long, tapering from about 1 inch (25 mm) thick at the handle to about 3/8 in (10 mm) at the tip. This strip is then rolled until a tapered-cylindrical form is acheived. The resulting whip is both flexible and durable. The sjambok had a variety of uses, from cattle driving to flogging slaves. In the Belgian Congo, the instrument was also known as fimbo and was used to force labour from local people through flogging, sometimes to death.


    A slave is whipped with a chicotte
    Congo Free State c. 1905
    Slavery was practiced at this time under the Catholic monarch Leopold II of the Belians.
    Countless slaves were flogged to death there, often for failing to meet their rubber production quotas.
    Read more at Christian atrocities


    For more than 1,000 years Christianity set the standards. During that time many suffered physical abuse. Prisoners were tortured in bishops' torture chambers. Noses were split, ears cropped, tongues bored, backs whipped, foreheads and cheeks branded, limbs crushed or cut off. It was not only prisoners who suffered. Slaves were thrashed to death. Uncooperative potential converts were physically coerced. Christian husbands beat their wives. Canon law specifically permitted wife beating, so it took place at every level of society.

    All this has changed through the gradual adoption of secular ideas, and the Churches have now ceased to oppose such changes. Now we learn from the mainstream Churches that Jesus has always been against all kinds of beastly behaviour. William Empson's observation that Christianity is a “religion based on torture” was palpably true in his own day but is now only obvious to historians.

    Today, the recieved Christian view on physical abuse is identical to the one developed by secular liberal social workers - though there is still a steady stream of child deaths attributable to severe beatings administered by Christian parents, whose defense is that they are merely following traditional practices and biblical injunctions.



    A Spanking Stick, still available on Christian websites.
    This one is advertised on and is printed with biblical texts.




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    § As Sir Edward Coke put it in the early seventeenth century in his Third Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England (1654) "there is no law to warrant tortures in this land". The practice was not as laudable as the theory, for Thomas Cromwell had already introduced torture into England, having seen it used in Continental Europe. Statute law takes precedence over the common law. Specific statutes could therefore be passed (e.g. for the Court of Star Chamber). Alternatively, the accused could be removed to other territories under the monarch's control (e.g. to Scotland, or to French possessions). In some cases the Royal Prerogative was invoked, or the common law was simply ignored. But the important point is that ecclesiastical law, which did allow torture, was not generally admitted in England.

    §. Pope Clement V had sent two inquisitors (the Abbot of Lagny and Sicard de Vaur) to investigate charges against the Knights Templar. These were the first and only inquisitors to operate in England. Barber, The Trial of the Templars, pp 199.

    §. Letter from Pope Clement V to King Edward II of England. Regestum Clementis Papae V, nunc primum editum cura et studio Monachorum Ordinis S. Benedicti (Rome, 1885-92) year 5, no. 6670, pp 84-6. The English translation is quoted from G. G. Coulton, Medieval Panorama, Cambridge University Press (1947), p 380. Clement was asking for the Templars to be taken to Ponthieu, in Edward's French territories, where the inquisitors could work normally. It seems likely that the inquisitors could not get the results they wanted in England because the civil authorities were insisting that the rules be followed, and that the tortures applied should not cause permanent injury or violent effusion of blood. These rules were routinely ignored in France, and nearly all French Templars either died under torture or else confessed to charges put to them. For a full account of this whole sad business see Barber, The Trial of the Templars, especially pp 197-199.

    §. Pollock and Maitland, The History of English Law, vol. 1. p 444, citing Herbert of Bosham, Materials for History of Becket, iii. 265 (whipping) and Fitz Stephen, Materials, iii. 45-6.

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