Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

Christine Ebner, who as noted earlier imagined herself to have conceived a child by Jesus after being embraced by Him, cut a cross of skin over the region of her heart and tore it of, sufficiently demonstrating the linkage of sexual desire and masochism. (81)

It would not be necessary to dwell on these depressing details if it were not for the fact that the Church erected these appalling practices into a virtue, often canonizing those who practised them, as in the case of St. Margaret Marie Alacoque, St. Rose of Lima and St. Mary Magdalene dei Pazzi. It is true that her superiors forbade the Alacoque to practise excessive austerities, but she ingeniously found others. She sought out rotten fruit and dusty bread to eat. Like many mystics she suffered from a lifelong thirst, but decided to allow herself no drink from Thursday to Sunday, and when she did drink, preferred water in which laundry had been washed She, too, fell to the ground in convulsions and had the illusion that the devil was buffeting her. she said incessantly “ou souffrir, ou mourir”, either suffer or die. Not content with miraculously caused infirmities, rather like Christine Ebner, she cut the name of Jesus on her chest with a knife, and because the scars did not last long enough, burnt them in with a candle. Her respectful biographer, who has been at pains to emphasize her remarkable holiness and splendid example, here cautions his readers against imitating “this astonishing, not to say imprudent operation”. (99) She was Canonized in 1920.

The stories of these masochistic nuns indeed show a dreary similarity. St. Rose ate nothing but a mixture of sheep’s gall, bitter herbs and ashes. (214) The Pazzi, like the Alacoque, vowed herself to chastity at an incredibly early age (four, it is said). Like St. Catherine, she ran about in a frenzy, calling “Love, Love”. After a prolonged rapture in 1585, she had hallucinations of being mauled and pushed about. She would run into the garden and roll on thorns, then return to the convent and whip herself. She would have herself tied to a post and demand to be insulted, or drop hot wax on her skin. Like the Alacoque, she was thought a suitable person to put in charge of the novices, but whereas the latter had one of the novices dismissed for rivalling her in holiness, the Pazzi made one stand on her mouth and whip her. (65) She was canonized in 1671.

It is in the eleventh century that one first finds the Franciscans extolling self flagellation as a penance; and it is at the end of the same century, when the practice of confession became generally established, that one finds confessors also imposing sentences of whipping. At first the priests used to do the whipping themselves, the penitents usually being entirely nude, and the penance being inflicted in a place attached to the church. To judge from illustrations, the victims accepted the penance in just the resigned spirit in which today people accept the verdict of a doctor; and penitents, stripped naked, awaited their turn for treatment as placidly as patients at a doctor’s clinic. In the twelfth century St. Dominic made the practice widely known, and established a scale of equivalents, 1,000 lashes being considered equivalent to the reciting of ten penitential psalms. But the danger of priests indulging their sadistic instincts soon became evident, and other methods were evolved, especially public processions of flagellants, nude from the waist up.