New Worlds: Corporal Punishment

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Physical punishment is a topic so large, I have to split one part of it off up front: we won’t be talking about executions this week. Those are complex enough that they’ll get a future essay of their own. I’m also not going to discuss torture, in the sense of torments inflicted for the sake of getting someone to take a particular action (such as confess to a crime) or fulfilling some desire on the part of the torturer.

But make no mistake: a great many physical punishments are torture. The difference is in timing and intent, not the nature of the acts themselves.

This used to be incredibly common. Nowadays we’re concerned that spanking children with an open hand on the buttocks causes emotional trauma or violent tendencies; in the past, the saying was “spare the rod, spoil the child.” In the home, in school, in the workshop, in the military — wherever you went, some form of beating was a ubiquitous form of discipline. So much so, in fact, that we have a plethora of terms for the application of force to a body, depending on the tool used: whipping, flogging, caning, switching, birching, belting, slippering, strapping, and so forth, applied to the buttocks, the back, the feet, and other locations. If the critics are right (and they probably are), that very ubiquity fed itself; those beaten were in turn more likely to beat others.

“Running the gauntlet” deserves special mention here because it’s a communally-administered beating. Usually found in the military, this involves the victim passing between two lines of his fellows while they attack him. While it can be a form of execution, the terms set for it (what weapons the crowd is allowed to wield, the speed of the target’s movement, whether he is allowed to protect himself, and so forth) control its severity. And notably, when it isn’t meant to be lethal, it can carry a greater connotation of honor than submitting to an ordinary beating, because it involves facing one’s peers.

Other forms of corporal punishment deserve no better name than “maiming.” An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, could be quite literal; blinding was the official penalty for some crimes. So was the removal of one or both ears (cropping), or the nose (which could also just be slit open), or the lips: punishments whose sole intent was to disfigure the victim and flag them out as a convicted felon. So far as I know, amputation of a foot or a leg was less common — though it was one of the Five Punishments in the early Chinese dynasties, and runaway slaves might have their feet or legs permanently damaged — but hands were fair game, and so were tongues. More than a few societies have considered castration a suitable punishment for rapists . . . although then as now, many offenders escaped any form of justice, unless they assaulted a woman of higher social standing.

Back when we discussed body modifications in Year Two, some milder physical punishments came up as things people might do for beauty or for ritual. Tattoos can be works of art or ways to indelibly mark a criminal; the same goes for branding, though that latter is more often a punishment than a voluntary aesthetic choice. Even something like tongue splitting can be a personal choice, instead of a judicial sentence. Figging — the insertion of a peeled ginger root or radish into the anus or vagina, where it induces a sensation of burning — may or may not have been a real punishment in the past, but these days it’s a tool in the BDSM repertoire (and is specifically outlawed as a way to make a broken-down horse act more lively).

Next week’s essay is going to cover social punishments, but some things straddle that line. Take the pillory, for example — used here in the broad sense of “staking somebody out in the public square for a set period of time.” The classic pillory is a hinged pair of boards with holes cut out for the head and the hands, at a height that usually requires the occupant to bend forward the whole time (making this a stress position, itself a form of punishment); although these are sometimes called stocks, technically those were boards for the feet, instead. People could also be bound simply to the local whipping-post, which was a standard feature of some towns.

At its heart, the pillory was a tool for humiliation — more on that next week — but it could be combined with whipping, and whether it was or not, the crowd might choose to levy their own punishments. If the victim was lucky, the worst they suffered was rotten produce and dung; if they weren’t, it was stones, which might turn the whole affair into an extralegal execution. Sometimes the local forces of law and order had to station personnel around the pillory to shield the target from being murdered. On the other hand, a friendly crowd might keep the victim company and pelt them with nothing worse than flowers.

Because all these topics bleed into one another, I also have to pass over the question of enslavement as a sentence for certain crimes. For now, suffice it to say that while that isn’t directly a corporal punishment, it contains the near-certainty of that happening in the future. And the reason I bring it up is that there’s a closely related category which we are going to cover here: sentencing a criminal to penal servitude.

The (thin) difference between this and enslavement is that the state or other entity extracting the labor doesn’t own the convict, just the right to force them to do some kind of work. The labor isn’t always meant to be productive; sometimes convicts are ordered to carry out pointless tasks like walking on a heavy treadmill, turning a stiff crank, or moving cannonballs back and forth from one place to another. But since nobody profits from that, it’s far more common for the prisoners to be put to productive labor.

Some forms of this are light, such a knitting and sewing, and women and children in particular are more likely to be given such tasks. Picking oakum (pulling apart old ropes to make caulking material) was popular in Britain during the height of sail, as oakum was constantly needed on ships. Other forms are heavier, as when the aforementioned crank or treadmill gets attached to a machine to grind grain, or when prisoners are sent out in chain gangs to build roads or clear land. Working in a mine is dangerous enough that it’s proverbially a death sentence, a delayed execution with some profit along the way.

Although many forms of corporal punishment have been outlawed in various countries, penal servitude in some form or another is still extremely widespread. In the United States, prison labor is a billion-dollar-a-year industry, with inmates paid only a pittance for the work they’re required to perform. This has, not without justification, been compared to slavery — but the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, carved out an exception for those convicted of crimes.

As I said, though, slavery is a topic for another day. Next week we’ll turn our attention to the “lighter” options of social punishments.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


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