Self-Flagellation: Justice, Forgiveness and Pain

Prozession der Flagellanten. Gemaelde. 1813. Imagno/Getty

Put yourself in mindset of the medieval flagellants.

It's the 14th century and an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty permeates the grim realities of daily life. War ravages the population. Black Death creeps from door to door. All the while, God watches from on high, unmoved by ornate alters and serene prayers. Because pain is his language. Because blood is the only sacrifice he understands.

Flagellants from 'The Virgin of Mercy' by Pietro di Domenico.

The flagellants realize this dark fact. As penance for the sins of the world, these extremists march through the street, stripped to the waist or naked, chanting as they scourge their bodies bloody with knotted and nail-dragging whips.

Every night they suffer the same ordeal. Every night they seek to wash away the stain of sin with their own physical pain.

The Catholic Church condemned the flagellant movement, but the practice survives to this day in Central and South America. Meanwhile, some Shia Muslims practice self-flagellation on the Day of Ashura to commemorate the suffering of Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

Mortification of the flesh plays a role in various belief systems, but what can science tells us about the relationship between pain and redemption?

The Science of Flagellation

Strip away all the complexities of consciousness and you'll find that pain is little more than negative-reinforcement stimuli. "The stove is hot! Don't touch it!"

But humans make everything more complicated. We introduce such concepts as sin and redemption, justice and punishment, defilement and purification. And so our very concept of pain becomes muddied.

In 2011, psychological scientist Brock Bastian of the University of Queensland, Australia set out to understand why. Here's how his study went down:

  1. Bastian's team recruited young male and female test subjects under the guise of a mental and physical acuity study.
  2. The researchers asked the test subjects to write a personal essay about a time in which they ostracized someone. The aim here was to make them feel guilty or immoral.
  3. Meanwhile, a control group wrote personal essays about a routine memory.
  4. The researchers instructed both "immoral" volunteers and controls to hold their hand in a bucket of ice water for as long as they could stand it. Others dipped their hand in a soothing bucket of warm water.

Would "immoral" test subjects punish themselves with longer dips in the cold water? Would they feel better afterwards?

Iraqi Shiite Muslim holds a bloody sword during a self-flagellation ritual marking Ashura.

The answer was "yes" on both counts. Those who were primed to feel shame about past actions dipped their hands in the cold water for longer durations, described the dip as more painful and expressed reduced feelings of guilt afterwards.

Bastian argues that this experiment illustrates our culturally-altered understanding of pain. We've come to process it not only as negative environmental feedback, but as justice and punishment. On a psychological level, a little bit of self-inflicted pain rebalances the scales.

In closing, imagine our medieval flagellants as they retire from their rites, bloodied and pained but psychologically stilled. While ultimately helpless to alleviate the horrors of the world, they feel as if they've atoned for their sins and lightened the load for the rest of humanity.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.