Flogged and Excommunicated!

During my stay more than twenty years ago with the monks at the Abbey of Triors, I was quite surprised by some of the chapters of the Rule of St Benedict. No community I know of uses corporal punishment, but that was not always the case.

Chapter 30: How Boys Are to Be Corrected

Every age and degree of understanding should have its proper measure of discipline. With regard to boys and adolescents, therefore, or those who cannot understand the seriousness of the penalty of excommunication, whenever such as these are delinquent let them be subjected to severe fasts or brought to terms by harsh beatings, that they may be cured.

Corporal punishment was still used in English schools in the 1960’s and 70’s. I was lucky never to have been caned, but I frequently got “six of the best” with a leather slipper between the ages of eight and twelve. I saw the effects of caning – as many bloody welts across the buttocks as the number of strokes given. A particularly harsh punishment is seen in this except from Lindsay’s film If… which is a satire of the English public school in the 1960’s.

The following scene from Tom Brown’s Schooldays shows one of the greatest and most enlightened educators of the nineteenth century, Dr Arnold of Rugby. O tempora, o mores.

I have to be honest, but being whacked did not make of me the stoical stereotype of an Englishman. It made me hateful or afraid of the one who was punishing me, including my own father for a time, often following a misunderstanding rather than stubbornness in wrongdoing. I have taken the liberal attitude in taking the side of abolishing corporal punishment. I recent years, I have followed news from my old school in York. It became coeducational and based on developing interest and curiosity, helped by intelligent teaching methods so that the pupil will work diligently and take his or her place in the community. How the old alma mater has improved! Already, when I was there in the 1970’s, our enlightened headmaster Peter Gardiner had almost done away with the cane and replaced fagging with daily house duties. He went much further by improving activities like sports and music.

We often bewail the way that many young people are not properly educated, and even qualified engineers write their own language very badly. This is something I constantly find in the texts I get for translation. The most common grammatical error in French is confusing a verb in the past participle and the infinitive – because they sound the same. More importantly, there is a profound cultural problem causing young people to lack respect for their elders or even other people in general. Even so, corporal punishment seems too simplistic in the conservative “make men of them” rhetoric.

Someone in the British Navy in the eighteenth century had the foresight to say “It is said that a flogging makes a bad man worse and breaks a good man’s heart“. Oscar Wilde wrote in his Ballad of Reading Gaol:

For they starve the little frightened child
  Till it weeps both night and day:
And they scourge the weak, and flog the fool,
  And gibe the old and grey,
And some grow mad, and all grow bad,
  And none a word may say.

What about monasteries in the medieval era? The idea of using punishment and sanctions like excommunication shows that the notion of vocation has developed. If someone feels that he is called to that way of life, surely he will work of his own accord to comply with the rule, the commands of his superiors and the will of God. Everyone falls short of the mark, but usually a person’s remorse and contrition is punishment enough. We all have to pick ourselves up and make a new attempt to climb the mountain.

If flogging and excommunication were needed at one time to keep novices in order, it is because they were sent by their parents to become Oblates – as my parents sent me to be a boarder at St Peter’s. Boarding can be an excellent experience for some youngsters, since they get more time for work and play, and they spend their holidays with their families. When examining any aspect of history, we have to be careful not to judge the values of those times by our own modern moral values. That would be the crime of anachronism. For example, the Inquisition might seem outrageous to us who are used to the notion of a right to freedom of conscience, but it was a fairer legal system than the average sheriff’s court dealing with highwaymen and robbers among others. In a monastery, corporal punishment was seen as a last resort when all other disciplinary measures were unsuccessful in bringing about a rational response.

Sometimes, children and adults will not respond to rational argument. I observe Dr Arnold’s dialogue with Tom Brown about the stolen chicken. It is when Tom Brown attempted an irrational explanation seemingly in bad faith, at the brink of lying, that the Doctor decided that “it is a tradition I’d best beat out of you“. Had Tom Brown admitted to stealing, he might have been spared the whacking on conditions like compensating the owner of the chicken and promising not to repeat the offence. Not all educators were up to this finesse of moral discernment.

We live in an imperfect world in which children and young people turn bad because of the bad example of their elders and those who should know better. I write from the point of view of one who has been privileged. Even so, I think there are better ways to reason with young people having won their respect than by flogging them or putting them in prison. Perhaps, in a more Christian world, some young wayward people could be entrusted to monasteries and do what monks do: pray and work, ora et labora. Others could be entrusted to the Armed Forces to be taught respect, obedience and a useful trade so that they can find work when they return to normal life. Community service is standard nowadays for those who would benefit from it.

And this to end on a note of humour:

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7 Responses to Flogged and Excommunicated!

  1. David Marriott says:

    Any who have undergone caning whilst in school (as I have done) will have heard those special words: ‘This will hurt me more than it will you’ – spoken by (in my case) the housemaster about to administer the cane to your nether regions. It was merely an excuse for the assault: a means of stating that if you, the young one, had not been so silly as to do whatever it was, then the housemaster could have had a pleasant evening, instead of having to steel himself to apply one of his canes to your backside: so, in effect, any pain and bruises were actually your fault!

    • Your reflection reminds me of the flogging in If… The victim gets up from the bar and puts on his jacket, and then shakes the hands of the “whip” (prefect, monitor, etc.) and thanks him. There is the old story of the man about to be hanged. As a last request, he calls his mother and pretends to want to whisper something into her ear. He bites her ear off. “Why did you do that?” – “Because you didn’t prevent me from doing the things that brought me here”. There was a lot of hypocrisy around corporal punishment, even when perverted sexual sadism wasn’t in question.

  2. Caedmon says:

    I can remember seeing ‘Bottoms Up’ at the local picture theatre in the 1950s, but couldn’t remember its name. I’m a Jimmy Edwards fan.

  3. Mr A says:

    St Peter’s School York had the best uniform back in those days: brown herringbone tweed jacket and grey flannel trousers: the reason I wished my parents had sent me there. I went to York ten years ago to watch my son’s school play them at rugby, and was disappointed to see that this uniform had been replaced by, I think, a crested blazer or suit – the generic secondary-school look.

    • Yes, it was a nice uniform and there were special blazers and ties for sports like rugby and rowing. I still have a grainy photo of me in uniform sitting at the organ of Holy Trinity Micklegate. On the right of this photo is the uniform I wore, except that the tie was like the one on the girl to the left. null

  4. Jamie Turner says:

    I was a cathedral chorister at Westminster Cathedral in the 1960s when the boys in the choir school were still disciplined with the strap, and quite frequently, too. It was called ‘the whack’ and you got it either after mass, before supper, or after prayers in the evening before bedtime. Either way you were usually in a small queue of around 2-5 boys outside the headmaster’s study waiting your turn to go in and bend obediently over the armchair, with bottom clothed or on more serious occasions, bared. There was no malice or excess to it, although it did hurt a lot: there were always muffled yelps and cries audible through the study door to the waiting victims, and few emerged without tear stained faces.

    The attitude among the boys was not one of resentment however, but of grim resignation to this accepted part of choir school life, or even some pride, as we knew that ours was an unusually disciplined schooling, and that we were boys with a particularly privileged and special duty of singing the daily offices in the country’s premier Catholic church. We took the whack completely for granted, which seems extraordinary now, but this was a different era. On one occasion all 26 choristers were strapped on the bare because no one would own up to breaking a window!

    In retrospect all this does seem harsh and ridiculously out-moded, which of course it was. I do now see that it was excessive. But I just wanted to emphasise that viewpoints can shift, and what may now seem cruel may have been intended as no more than rigorous and disciplined in another age.

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