Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Suppose that some chosen individuals, lovers of study, united together after a thousand catastrophes had happened to the world, and employed themselves in worshipping God and regulating the time of the year, as is said of the ancient Brahmins and Magi; all this is perfectly good and honest. They might, by their frugal life, set an example to the rest of the world; they might abstain, during the celebration of their feasts, from all intoxicating liquors, and all commerce with their wives; they might be clothed modestly and decently; if they were wise, other men consulted them; if they were just, they were loved and reverenced. But did not superstition, brawling, and vanity soon take the place of the virtues?

Was not the first madman that flogged himself publicly to appease the gods the original of the priests of the Syrian goddess, who flogged themselves in her honor; of the priests of Isis, who did the same on certain days; of the priests of Dodona, named Salii, who inflicted wounds on themselves; of the priests of Bellona, who struck themselves with sabres; of the priests of Diana, who drew blood from their backs with rods; of the priests of Cybele, who made themselves eunuchs; of the fakirs of India, who loaded themselves with chains? Has the hope of obtaining abundant alms nothing at all to do with the practice of these austerities?

Is there not some similarity between the beggars, who make their legs swell by a certain application and cover their bodies with sores, in order to force a few pence from the passengers, and the impostors of antiquity, who seated themselves upon nails, and sold the holy nails to the devout of their country?

And had vanity never any share in promoting these public mortifications, which attracted the eyes of the multitude? “I scourge myself, but it is to expiate your faults; I go naked, but it is to reproach you with the richness of your garments; I feed on herbs and snails, but it is to correct in you the vice of gluttony; I wear an iron ring to make you blush at your lewdness. Reverence me as one cherished by the gods, and who will bring down their favors upon you. When you shall be accustomed to reverence me, you will not find it hard to obey me; I will be your master, in the name of the gods; and then, if any one of you disobey my will in the smallest particular, I will have you impaled to appease the wrath of heaven.”

If the first fakirs did not pronounce these words, it is very probable that they had them engraved at the bottom of their hearts.

Human sacrifices, perhaps, had their origin in these frantic austerities. Men who drew their blood in public with rods, and mangled their arms and thighs to gain consideration, would easily make imbecile savages believe that they must sacrifice to the gods whatever was dearest to them; that to have a fair wind, they must immolate a daughter; to avert pestilence, precipitate a son from a rock; to have infallibly a good harvest, throw a daughter into the Nile.

These Asiatic superstitions gave rise to the flagellations which we have imitated from the Jews. Their devotees still flog themselves, and flog one another, as the priests of Egypt and Syria did of old. Among us the abbots flogged their monks, and the confessors their penitents — of both sexes. St. Augustine wrote to Marcellinus, the tribune, that “the Donatists must be whipped as schoolmasters whip their scholars.”

It is said that it was not until the tenth century that monks and nuns began to scourge themselves on certain days of the year. The custom of scourging sinners as a penance was so well established that St. Louis’s confessor often gave him the whip. Henry II. was flogged by the monks of Canterbury (in 1207). Raymond, count of Toulouse, with a rope round his neck, was flogged by a deacon, at the door of St. Giles’s church, as has before been said.

The chaplains to Louis VIII., king of France, were condemned by the pope’s legate to go at the four great feasts to the door of the cathedral of Paris, and present rods to the canons, that they might flog them in expiation for the crime of the king, their master, who had accepted the crown of England, which the pope had taken from him by virtue of the plenitude of his power. Indeed, the pope showed great indulgence in not having the king himself whipped, but contenting himself with commanding him, on pain of damnation, to pay to the apostolic chamber the amount of two years’ revenue.

From this custom is derived that which still exists, of arming all the grand-penitentiaries in St. Peter’s at Rome with long wands instead of rods, with which they give gentle taps to the penitents, lying all their length on the floor. In this manner it was that Henry IV., of France, had his posteriors flogged by Cardinal Ossat and Duperron. So true is it that we have scarcely yet emerged from barbarism.

At the commencement of the thirteenth century fraternities of penitents were formed at Perosia and Bologna. Young men almost naked, with a rod in one hand and a small crucifix in the other, flogged themselves in the streets; while the women peeped through the window-blinds and whipped themselves in their chambers.

These flagellators inundated Europe; there are many of them still to be found in Italy, in Spain, and even in France, at Perpignan. At the beginning of the sixteenth century it was very common for confessors to whip the posteriors of their penitents. A history of the Low Countries, composed by Meteren, relates that a cordelier named Adriacem, a great preacher at Bruges, used to whip his female penitents quite naked.

The Jesuit Edmund Auger, confessor to Henry III., persuaded that unfortunate prince to put himself at the head of the flagellators.

Flogging the posteriors is practised in various convents of monks and nuns; from which custom there have sometimes resulted strange immodesties, over which we must throw a veil, in order to spare the blushes of such as wear the sacred veil, and whose sex and profession are worthy of our highest regard.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01