A Study of Attitudes Towards Corporal Punishment as an Educational Procedure From the Earliest Times to the Present

by Robert McCole Wilson

table of contents


For a full understanding of the attitudes towards corporal punishment, like any other aspect of our society, we must go back to the earliest records. Fear of the rod was the educational legacy handed down from the earliest societies to modern Europe. Social and religious attitudes supported it, with only a handful of men speaking against it on the grounds of its debasing effects, or lack of success.

2.1 Primitive Tribal Societies

Probably the only generalization that can be made about the use of physical punishment among primitive tribes is that there was no common procedure. Among some tribes of Australian aborigines, for instance, physical pain was deliberately inflicted on the boy as a training for, and test of manhood (Elkin, 1964, chap. VII). Among certain tribes of North American Indians, however, the concept of deliberately inflicting pain on children was absent, but among others, beating was a common punishment. Pettit concludes that among primitive societies corporal punishment is rare, not because of the innate kindliness of these people but because it is contrary to developing the type of individual personality they set up as their ideal. He finds ridicule, praise, and reward more common (Pettit, 1946, 161). Flagellating is common among primitives as a cure for disease and as a sexual stimulant; frequently these latter are masked by religious ritual.

The degree to which religion, sex, the inculcation of obedience and the training for adulthood are sometimes mixed in the culture of primitive tribes is illustrated by the following description of a Hopi Indian puberty rite.

The whipping rite symbolizes the Hopi child training pattern. In it the mother of the Kachinas, represented by a masked female figure, holds a large supply of yucca switches while the Whipper Kachinas, represented by masked male figures, apply them to the nude boy supported and shielded by his godfather and his godfather's sister. Both the boy and his godfather stand on a large sand painting which represents the Kachina Mother and the Whipper Kachinas, while a segmented line drawn from the Kiva si'papu southeast shows the road of life with its four phases. Afterwards the Mother Kachina steps on to the sand painting and is whipped by the Whippers and then the Whippers whip each other. (Thompson & Joseph, 1944, 56)

An important point to be made here is that we cannot state that physical punishment as a motivational or corrective device is "innate" to man. Nor is it possible to have as a theme for this work the evolution of man as a pain-inflicter to a non-inflicter, however, likely that appears when we look at later developments.

Another point worth noting for later reference is that Rousseau's contention of the primitive man being punished only by the consequences of his own actions has not been sustained by anthropologists. 

2.2 Early Civilized Societies

In the texts that touch on the subject, physical punishment is mentioned as part of the methods used in all the ancient civilizations. Of the schools of Sumeria, for instance, Kramer says "most learning was accomplished either by rote or by copying; in the matter of discipline, there was no sparing the rod" (Kramer, 1958, 40). In ancient India, it was provided by the The Laws of Manu (formulated about 200 A.D., but based on earlier works) that "a wife, a son, a slave, a pupil, ... who have committed faults, may be beaten with ropes or split bamboo, but on the back part of the body only, never on a noble parts" (quoted by Woody, 1949, 163). In China bad scholars were "not infrequently punished every day" (Smith, 1899, 79).

While there is much evidence for its use, there does not seem to be any records of the theoretical justification for the use of punishment in education by the people of these times; it appears to have been accepted without question.

2.3 The Hebrews

An important exception to this is to be found in the Old Testament. Here the use of corporal punishment is not only justified, but recommended, time and time again.

My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord, neither be wary of his correction.
For whom the Lord loveth he correcteth; even as a father the son in whom he delighteth. (Proverbs, II, 11-12)
Who so loveth instruction loveth knowledge; but he who hateth reproof is brutish. (Proverbs, XII, 1)
He that spareth the rod, hateth his son; but he that loveth him, chasteneth him betimes. (Proverbs, XIII, 24)
A fool's lips enter into contention, and his mouth calleth for strokes. (Proverbs, XVIII, 6)
Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying. (Proverbs, XIX, 29)
Judgements are prepared for scorners, and stripes for the backs of fools. (Proverbs, XIX, 29)
Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it from him. (Proverbs, XXII, 15)
Withhold not correction from the child; for if thou beatest him with a rod, thou shalt deliver his soul from hell. (Proverbs, XXIII, 13-14)
A whip for a horse, a bridle for an ass, and a rod for a fool's back. (Proverbs, XXIX, 15)
For whom the Lord Loveth, he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.
If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then ye are bastards, and not sons. (Hebrews, XII, 6-8)

The logic of the Hebrews' attitude is quite simple: the child, and the man, must be saved from damnation. Any punishment now is quite small compared with what he could suffer later. He who fails to punish the child for his wickedness is doing the child a grievous wrong, and is therefore sinful himself. We should note, too, that the lack of wisdom is also looked on as being sinful.

Probably this attitude comes, at least in part, from the desire in the patriarchal society for the elder to maintain his authority, where that authority was the main agent for social stability. But these are the words that not only justified the use of physical punishment on children for over a thousand years in Christian communities, but ordered it to be used. The words were accepted with but few exceptions; it is only in the last two hundred years that there has been a growing body of opinion that differed. Curiously, the gentleness of Christ towards children (Mark, X) was usually ignored.

The justification for beating is motivational: the child will be prevented from doing wrong by punishment and will be spurred into a moral and devout life. There does not appear to be any distinction between sin and failure to learn; if anything, failure to learn was regarded as a sin.

If the Old Testament attitude towards corporal punishment seems harsh by modern standards, we should note that in Deuteronomy (XXI, 18-21) a man with " a stubborn and rebellious son" is commanded to stone him to death.

In Talmudic times this doctrine seems to have weakened.

Only those pupils should be punished in whom the master sees that there are good capacities for learning and who are inattentive; but if they are dull and cannot learn they should not be punished. Punish with one hand and caress with two. (The Talmud, quoted in Cubberley's Readings, 1920, 42)

The recognition of individual differences is of interest, as is also the commendation to encourage rather than force. There is no suggestion, though, that inattention is anything other than the deliberate waywardness of the child. 

2.4 Ancient Athens

Most authorities agree that punishment was severe in the schools of classical Athens, though some argue that the poverty and servile status of the masters and their frequent incapacities of age or other infirmity would restrict their authority and power (see Woody, 1949, 301). Probably, as in most other times and places, discipline varied according to the temperament of the master and the child, and the conditions under which they were working. In a society where education was a private contractual matter, rather than one regulated by and officialdom in state or church, there was likely to be even greater variation.

Plato (427-347 B.C.) gives a typical description of the time: "if he [the child] obeys, well and good; if not, he is straightened by threats and blows like a piece of wood" (Plato, Protagoras, 1953 edition, 324).

Plato's comments on the usefulness of such practices is curiously modern: "the free man should learn no study under bondage. And while enforced bodily labours do no harm to the body, study forced onto the mind will not stay there" (Plato, The Republic, 1961 edition, 536). Here we see a confusion that is to re-occur. It is wrong for a citizen to suffer the indignity of force; it is not efficient to use force for intellectual growth. There is a confusion between what should be (ethics) and what will be a successful teaching method (motivation).

The alternative to punishment given in The Republic is almost a direct quote from a modern educational methods textbook. "Train your children in their studies not by compulsion but by games, and you will be better able to see the natural result" (Plato, The Republic, 537). In The Republic, Plato seems to think that the mere presence of good things, pleasantly presented, will lead to the love of, and right attitude towards music, gymnastic, mathematics, and of course, life. In such a situation, punishment becomes unnecessary.

This attitude in The Republic is quite in contrast to The Laws. Either Plato changed his mind, is inconsistent, or we must interpret The Republic as and ideal, and The Laws as a more practical approach.

And of all the animals the boy is the most unmanageable inasmuch as he has the fountain of reason in him not yet regulated; he is the most insidious, sharp-witted, and insubordinate of animals. Wherefore he must be bound with many bridles; in the first place, when he gets away from mothers and nurses, he must be controlled by teachers, no matter what they teach, and by studies; but he is also a slave, and in that regard any freeman who comes in his way may punish him or his tutor and his instructor, if any of them do anything wrong. (Plato, The Laws, 1953 edition, I, 644)

Other than this brief comment in The Republic, as Mahaffy says, there were "no eloquent protests against corporal punishment" in the Greek world (Mahaffy, 1881, 39).

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), for instance, did not believe that education could be pleasant or easy: "Now obviously youths are not to be instructed with a view to their amusement, for learning is no amusement, but is accompanied with pain" (Aristotle, Politics, 1943 edition, VIII, 5). Indeed should the child depart from desirable behaviour, he should be "disgraced and beaten" (Aristotle, Politics, VII, 17).

2.5 The Spartans

The Athenians were probably somewhat typical of most of the ancient Greek cities. But a notable exception was the more primitive, harsh and extremist society of Sparta. This society has provided an ideal for the efficient and obedient military state down to this century. Beatings were not only to promote obedience, but also to harden the body and soul, all in the service of the state.

The fullest picture of this is given in Plutarch's Life of Lycurgus, traditionally regarded as the founder of the Spartan system. These people regarded the sufferings of physical pain without protest as an integral part of courage, one of the most desirable aspects of manhood.

Of these [youths], he who showed the most conduct and courage was made captain; they had their eyes on him, obeyed his orders, and underwent patiently whatsoever punishment he inflicted; so that the whole course of education was one of continuous exercise of a ready and perfect obedience.
... if they were taken in the fact of stealing, they were whipped without mercy, for thieving so ill and awkwardly.
So seriously did the Lacedaemonian children go about their stealing, that a youth, having stolen a young fox and hid it under his coat, suffered it to tear out his very bowels with its teeth and claws and died upon the place rather than let it be seen. What is practised to this very day in Lacedaemon is enough to gain credit to this story, for I myself have seen several of the youths endure whipping to death at the foot of the altar of Diana. (Plutarch's Lives, 1950 edition, 62-64)

Here we have the same confusion we will see so often between ethics and motivation. Whereas many of the authors whom we look at protest beating as debasing as well as preventing learning, the Spartans are typical of so many early, and indeed more recent, peoples in believing the opposite: it is right and noble for the man or boy to suffer deliberately inflicted pain; it will also spur him to greater efforts. Here, too, we have flagellation in a religious situation. As Diana, or Artemis to the Greeks, was, among other things, the goddess of fertility, we can assume that this ritual had its sexual purposes in training for the adult role.

2.6 The Romans

There are a number of references to the use of corporal punishment in Roman schools by such people as Plautus, Horace and Juvenal. Usually they describe the schools as places of regular beatings with the scutia, a leather strap, the ferula, a rod, the flagellum, a whip of a number of knotted strands, or the virga, a birch-switch (Monroe, 1913, 86). These are the instruments which have been used, with modifications and variations, down to the present.

For a picture typical of the time we can turn to Martial (40-104 A.D.?).

What right have you to disturb me, abominable schoolmaster, object abhorred alike by boys and girls?
Before the crested cocks have broken silence, you begin to roar out your savage scoldings and blows. (Martial, Epigrams, 1919 edition, IX, 68)
Let the Scythian scourge with its formidable thongs, such as flogged Marsyas of Celaena, and the terrible cane, the schoolmaster's sceptre, be laid aside, and sleep until the Ides of October. (Ibid., X, 62)

Can we not feel here a contempt for the teacher who uses such methods for instruction? Perhaps one of the chief victims is the teacher who suffers disdain in the eyes of other men.

But one of the most influential men in the history of corporal punishment was also a Roman. Quintilian (35-95 A.D.?) is the first practising schoolmaster whom we have considered. On the matter of corporal punishment he has no reservations whatsoever.

By that boys should suffer corporal punishment, though it is received by custom, and Chrysippus makes no objection to it, I by no means approve; first, because it is a disgrace, and a punishment fit for slaves, and in reality (as will be evident if you imagine the age change) an affront; secondly, because, if a boy's disposition be so abject as not to be amended by reproof, he will be hardened, like the worst of slaves, even to stripes; and lastly, because, if one who regularly exacts his tasks be with him, there will not be the need of any chastisement...
Besides, after you have coerced a boy with stripes, how will you treat him when he becomes a young man, to whom such terror cannot be held out, and by whom more difficult studies must be pursued? Add to these considerations, that many things unpleasant to be mentioned, and likely afterwards to cause shame, often happen to boys while being whipped, under the influence of pain or fear; and such shame enervates and depresses the mind, and makes them shun people's sight and feel constant uneasiness ... scandalously unworthy men may abuse the privilege of punishing, and what opportunity also the terror of the unhappy children may sometimes afford others. (Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory, 1856 edition, I, III)

The earliness and completeness of this opposition to corporal punishment is notable. Probably no more lucid indictment of it has been made in the succeeding two thousand years.

It is noteworthy that we have the mixture, or confusion of ethical and motivational arguments which we have mentioned before. We should not do it, on one hand, because it is debasing, an ethical stand; but also, we must not do it because it will hinder rather than help learning, even to the extent of turning men from it in the future. There is a third note added here, too: that the use of corporal punishment is often more a reflection of the teacher's character than a considered teaching method.

It is worth pointing out that it is not so much the physical pain that concerns Quintilian, but the shame. The Spartans considered it noble to bear pain and saw nothing shameful in the beating itself, but Quintilian considered it appropriate only to slaves. The rightness or wrongness of corporal punishment, then, cannot be separated from the galaxy of attitudes that make up a society. The harm or good that an action can do largely depends on how the victim will likely react to it. And in large measure, a person reacts in the way his society expects him to react.

One other strong voice against corporal punishment was that of Plutarch (46-120 A.D.?) His attitudes are very similar to Quintilian's in advocating more positive methods of motivation.

This I also assert, that children ought to be led to honourable practices by means of encouragement and reasoning, and most certainly not by blows or ill-treatment, for it is surely agreed that these are fitting rather for slaves than the freeborn; for so they grow numb and shudder at their tasks, partly from the pain of the blows, partly from the degradation. Praise and reproof are more helpful for the free-born than any sort of ill-usage, since the praise incites them from what is disgraceful. (Plutarch, The Education of Children, 1927 edition, section 12)

Plutarch also tells us, with admiration, of the methods used by Marcus Cato in the upbringing of his children.

A man who beat his wife or child laid violent hands, he said, on what was most sacred.
... When he [Cato's son] began to come to the years of discretion, Cato himself would teach him to read, although he had a servant, a very good grammarian, called Chilo, who taught many others; but he thought not fit, as he himself said, to have his son reprimanded by a slave, or pulled, it may be, by the ears, when found tardy in a lesson. (Plutarch, Lives, 426]

As with Quintilian, it is not the physical pain that Plutarch is concerned with, it is the indignity.

In Roman times, then, we see a few people who deliberately reject the accepted and traditional practice of controlling and teaching the child through the fear of physical pain. But from all the evidence we have, they were exceptional, and even though Quintilian and Plutarch were read widely, there is no evidence that they had any real effect in their own time on changing the methods of discipline.

2.7 The Middle Ages

Teacher using whip,
by Laurentius Dyamas,
c. 1445 (detail)

Flogging was part and parcel, not just of education, but of life generally, in the Middle Ages. To some extent this was a bequest from Rome. "We may take it as certain that English and Western education directly inherited corporal punishment, as it inherited so many other vital characteristics, from Roman Imperial education" (Monroe, 1913, 85).

This may be so, but it was also a reflection of the violence and cruelty of Medieval times. And it was certainly reinforced by the Christian belief in the depravity of man. Beatings were administered to the physically and mentally sick as well as to the sinner, either by force or by his own request, for all these maladies were often attributed to the presence of evil in the accused. "To beat the devil" out of someone was not just a catch-phrase; it was often an attempt to purge a physical presence.

The universal practice of the clergy, including nuns, of thrashing each other, received sanction from the highest officers of the Church. The offences for which it was inflicted and the methods of infliction were laid down in greatest detail even to a special shirt which opened down the back -- a device which has never, curiously, been incorporated into school uniforms. That the severity and frequency of this punishment was due not only to motives of cruelty is shown by the extent to which voluntary self-flagellation was common.

Indeed, voluntary self-whipping would have been regarded as the highest type of castigation, combining as it did all the usual virtues of the rod with the additional merits of abnegation, strength of will directed towards the Good, and the longing for perfection, to which correction -- whether we take it in a physical or a purely spiritual sense -- is ever the only road. (D'Olbert, 1956, 103)

This reached its peak in the fourteenth century in the Cult of the Flagellants, when long lines of believers travelled across Europe beating themselves and each other in penance for their own sins and those of society.

One of the most influential of Christian writers was St. Augustine (354-430). His attitude on the depravity of man is typical of an attitude which held sway for over a thousand years of Christian history. He believed that man was an inherently sinful creature, who sinned against God even when he knew it was wrong, and he knew that he would be punished for it. In the following passage we see this idea being put forward as an analogy with the deliberately sinful child. He also presents the idea that children will prefer play to learning, even though the learning is necessary to their well being. Of additional interest is his comment on the hypocrisy of adults who punish children for sins which they, the adults also commit.

Is there anyone, Lord, with so high a spirit, cleaving to Thee with so strong an affection -- for even a kind of obtuseness may do that much -- but is there, I say, anyone who, by cleaving devoutly to Thee, is endowed with so great a courage that he can esteem lightly those racks and hooks, and varied tortures of the same sort, against which, throughout the whole world men supplicate thee with great fear, deriding those who most bitterly fear them, just as our parents derided the torments with which our masters punished us when we were boys?
For we were no less afraid of our pains, nor did we pray less to Thee to avoid them; and yet we sinned, in writing or in reading, or in reflecting less on our lessons than was required of us. For we wanted not, O Lord, memory or capacity -- of which, by Thy will, we possessed enough for our age -- but we delighted only in play; and we were punished in this by those who were doing the same thing themselves. But the idleness of our elders they call business, while boys who do the like are punished by those same elders, and yet neither boys nor men find any pity. (St. Augustine, The Confessions 1948 edition, X, IX)

Man is sinful, and the result of this sinfulness, without divine intervention, is punishment. He is, of course, speaking of man's relationship with God. But human nature is such that many men take for themselves the task of assisting God.

The Rule of St. Benedict laid down the methods to be used in that order of monks, and these were to become the model for other orders.

Above all, there shall certainly be appointed one or two elderly brothers, who shall go round the monastery at the hours in which the brothers are engaged in reading, and see to it that no troublesome brother chance to be found who is open to idleness and trifling, and is not intent on his reading being not only of no use to himself, but also stirring up others. If such a one -- may it not happen -- be found, he shall be admonished once and a second time. If he do not amend, he shall be subject under the Rule to such punishment that others may have fear. (quoted in Cubberley's Readings, 1920, 58)

We know from other sources that corporal punishment was not only used in monasteries but was common. While this refers to monks, it is a fair assumption that the attitude towards children would be as stringent.

That the rules refer to corporal punishment only in passing indicates a general acceptance at that time of the procedure. There is no suggestion that the situation should be changed, or that the culprit's motives should be analysed; the offender must be punished, and to a degree that others will be deterred from the same actions.

But the picture is not entirely black. St. Jerome (331-420) recommends to a friend concerning his daughter's education: "Above all, that you must take care not to make her lessons distasteful to her lest a dislike for them conceived in childhood may continue into her maturer years" (St. Jerome, Letter to Laeta, quoted in Ulich's Readings, 1963, 165).

Luella Cole believes Alcuin (735-804), one of the best known teachers of the Middle Ages, and a protégé of Charlemagne, was an exception.

It is a reflection of his excellence as a teacher that, at a time when flogging was practically universal, there is no mention of it in Alcuin's letters. This omission is significant; since he wrote freely about whatever struck him as important and was always greatly concerned with the moral development of his pupils, he would certainly have mentioned flogging if he were in the habit of using such discipline. (Cole, 1965, 129)

This seems to be a very large inference. Rather it seems that if he objected to the prevailing practice he would have said so.

Generally it was expected by teacher and pupil alike that physical punishment was part of learning. In one of his Colloquies, Aelfric, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 10th century, has a master say "Will you be flogged while learning?" which brings the reply "We would rather be flogged while learning than remain ignorant; but we know you will be kind to us and not flog us unless you are obliged" (quoted in McCallister, 1931, 115).

The Babees' Book was a book on manners that formed part of the education of Chivalry for the upper classes; it was probably first used in the 11th century in France. The rules were written in verse form so that children might remember them easily. The following is a stanza from "How the Good Wife Taught her Daughter."

And if the children be rebel and will not bow them low,
If any of them misdo, neither curse them nor blow; [blow=scold]
But take a smart rod and beat them in a row,
Till they cry mercy and their guilt well know,
Dear child, by this lore
They will love thee ever more
My lief child.
(quoted in Fuess and Basford, 1947, 552)

The following excerpt is from a Morality Play written by John Skelton (1460?-1529) and first performed between 1515 and 1520. While no pretence is made that the work is significant in the development of educational thought, it probably reflects reasonably well the attitude of the times. As can be seen, the disobedience and sinfulness of children is blamed on parents' indulgence, particularly in their failure to use corporal punishment. Adversity speaks:

Yet sometimes I stryke where is none offence
Because I would proue men of theyr pacyence.
But nowe a dayes to stryke I have grete cause,
Lydderyns so lytell set by Goddes lawes,
Faders and moders that be neclygent,
And suffre theyr chyldren to have theyr entent,
To gyde them vertuously that wyll not remembre,
Them or theyr chyldren , bycause ofte tymes I dysmembre;
Theyr chyldren, bycause that they have no meknesse,
I vysyte theyr faders and moders with sekenesse;
And if I se thereby they wyll not amende,
The Myschefe sodaynly I them sende;
For there is nothynge that more dyspleaseth God
Than from theyr chyldren to spare the rod
Of correccyon, but let them have theyr Wyll.
(Skelton, Magnyfycence, 1908 edition, 60)

The influence of the Old Testament decrees can be seen here, and here also is reference to the long familiar English proverb, "spare the rod and spoil the child."

Popular attitudes on corporal punishment supported by religious decree were to continue with little change from traditional practices for several centuries even after the Middle Ages merged into Modern Times.

2.8 Summary

Corporal punishment was frequent among primitive tribes, but not universal. In those early civilizations where a formal literary education was instituted, such punishment seems to have been universal procedure for maintaining discipline and enforcing learning. Probably the earliest record of justification for its use is that found in the Old Testament where it is advocated as necessary for saving the child's soul from damnation because of ignorance or error. Among the ancient Greeks and Romans it was accepted as the usual practice, possibly reinforced by the desire to develop hardiness and instant obedience. An extreme case of this latter was to be found among the Spartans. During the Middle Ages it was in general use supported by religious belief and popular opinion.

Only a few voices were raised against corporal punishment before modern times. Plato, though not consistent, opposed it on one occasion. The strongest voices against its use were those of Quintilian and Plutarch, their main objection being that it debased the receiver; but they also maintained that it was a poor teaching method in that it did more to prevent learning than to help it.

Among early societies it is difficult to separate its use as a time-worn practice from religious purgation, sexual stimulation, the general violence of the times, and an easy method of compulsion in place of more subtle teaching methods. There was unlikely to be any reform until a sophisticated methodology of teaching was developed and the concepts of the child's nature and rights were changed.


Home Next


Suggestions or comments to the author:

Mail to rmw@island.net

©  Copyright 1997-2000 Robert M. Wilson