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

by Robert McCole Wilson

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3.5 England to the 18th Century

While the political, economic and other social changes in England were tremendous between 1500 and 1800, little change occurred in the methods of controlling the child; the rod was as much the agent of motivation and discipline in 1800 as it had been in the Middle Ages. Public opinion towards cruelty in all its forms changed little, and the attitudes of the clergy, as moral leaders, continued to support this view.

In the plays of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) we see a reflection of the attitudes of the time.

Take the correction mildly. Kiss the rod. (King Richard II, Act V, Sc 1)

Fie, fie! How wayward is this foolish love, That like a testy babe, will scratch the nurse and presently all humbled, kiss the rod. (Two Gentlemen of Verona, Act I, Sc. I)

There is general acceptance of corporal punishment as a usual method of gaining obedience, and an expectation that the victim will, after the event, be grateful that he has been corrected while bearing no hard feelings.

The attitude of John Brinsley (1585-1665) seems to be typical of the time. In his Ludus Literarius, or The Grammar Schoole, arranged in the form of a dialogue between two schoolmasters, we have a description of the methods which they feel are practical; it includes ten pages "of execution of justice in schooles by punishments." Corporal punishment is given the following authority.

Finally, as God hath sanctified the rod and correction, to cure the evils of their conditions, to drive out that folly which is bound up in their hearts, to save their soules from hell, and to give them wisdome, so it is to be used as Gods instrument to these purposes. To spare them in the cases is to hate them. To love them is to correct them betime. Do it under God, and for him to these ends and with these cautions, and you shall never hurt them: you have the Lord for your warrant. Correction in such manner, for stubbornnesse, negligence and carelessnesse, is not to be accounted over-great severitie, much lesse crueltie. (Brinsley, 1612, 290)

No detail is too unimportant to be left out.

To this end to appoint 3. or 4. of your schollars, whom you knowe to bee honest, and strong enough, or moe if need be, to lay hands upon him together, to hold him fast, over some fourme, so that he cannot stir hand nor foot, or else if no other remedy will serve, to hold him to some post (which is farre the safest and free from inconvenience) so as he cannot any way hurt himselfe or others, be he never so peevish. Neither that he can have hope by any device or turning, or by his apparell, or any other meanes to escape. (Ibid., 289)

Perhaps we should hesitate to condemn Brinsley and his fellows when we look at the stultifying curriculum, the general acceptance of violence, and the ignorance of any alternative methods of child management at the time.

Brinsley does see the value of making the school as inviting as possible.

Let the schoole be made unto them a place of play: and the children drawne on by that pleasant delight which ought to be, it can then no more hinder their growth than their play doth, but rather further it, when they sit at their ease; besides that coninuall experience doth confure this errour. (Ibid., 10)

In the midst of this harshness, there was one voice of protest, but a voice which, however reasonable it may appear today, was not strong enough to affect the prevailing opinion. Roger Ascham (1515-1568) is an outstanding example of those people who are so far ahead of their time, that only later generations can appreciate their value.

Ascham's first book, "teachyng the bringing up of youth," in his The Scholemaster, is basically a proposal that punishment should not be used to bring about learning, but should be replaced by praise and encouragement. His belief in human dignity and his compassion for the punished is seen in such phrases as "they would rather break him than bow him, rather mar him than mend him."

But his main criticism in the arguments he presents, is based on the uselessness of this as an aid to efficient learning. What is the use, he asks, in punishing a child for what he is? The only thing you succeed in doing is to make him hate the things you are trying to teach him.

Whereby many Scholers, that might else prove well, be driven to hate learning, before they know what learning meaneth: and so are mad willing to forsake their booke, and be glad to put to any kinde of living. (Ascham, 1863 edition, xiv)

But this I will say that even the wisest of your great beaters, do as oft punishe nature, as they do correct faultes. (Ibid., 11)

Much of the beating, he feels, is the result of the character of the teacher, or some private annoyance he has, rather than the student's lack of response.

For commonlie, many scholemasters, some, as I have seen, moe, as I have heard tell, be so crooked a nature, as, when they meete with a hard witted scholer, they rather break him, than bowe him, rather marre him, than mende him, for when the scholemaster is angrie with some other matter, then will he sonest faul to beat his scholer: and though he him selfe should be punished for his folie, yet must he beate some scholer for his pleasure: though there be no cause for him to do so. (Ibid., 11)

Another strong objection to punishment is that it is only a temporary help to learning: "But any learning learned by compulsion, tarieth not long in the minde" (Ibid., 28).

The relationship between the student and the teacher is a very important one if the student is to seek help when in difficulty. "Let your scholer be never afraide, to aske you any dout, but use discretlie the best allurements ye can, to encourage him to fame" (Ibid., 15). What then should be substituted? "Love is the best allurement to learning ... love is better than fear, gentleness better than beating" (Ibid., 68). The student, unlike that of Shakespeare, should come willingly to school: "the Scholehouse should be in deede, as it is called by name, the house of playe and pleasure, and not of feare and bondage" (Ibid., xv).

Ascham compares how eagerly the young gentlemen run to the stable, but must be forced to school. He says this is because of the superior teaching methods of the riding master who by "jentle allurements" breeds in them a love of riding. In the school they find fear and bondage; in the stable they find encouragement and freedom (Ibid., 29). Here Ascham seems to be overstating his case, however, for it is difficult to believe that even with the best teaching methods, or allurements, that most children would ever go to learn Latin as willingly as they would to ride horses.

We must be careful not to mistake what Ascham is advocating. He is against using punishment as a motivational device, as a device for making children learn who are not proceeding as rapidly as the teacher may wish. But he is not against punishment for bad behaviour -- in fact he advocates it.

And thus the children, kept up in Gods feare, and preserved by his grace, finding paine in ill doing, and pleasure in well studying, should easilie be brought to honestie of life, and perfitenes of learning. (Ibid., 36)

By no stretch of the imagination could Ascham be called permissive. He most strongly opposes what he sees as too much liberty given to the young men of his time. In fact he places next to beating too much liberty, as a major hindrance to learning. "I wish as moch now, to have yong men brought up in good order of living, and in some more severe discipline, than they commonlie be" (Ibid., 37). He sees discipline as coming from above; self-developed discipline seems to be foreign to his thought.

His lament for youth is one that could be heard in all ages:

Our tyme is so farre from that old discipline and obedience, as now, not onlie yong jentlmen, but even verie girles dare without all feare, though not without open shame, where they list, and how they list, marie them selves in spite of father, mother, God, good order, and all. The cause of this evill is, that youth is least looked unto, when they most neede of good kepe and regard. It availeth not, to see them well taught in yong yeares, and after whan they cum to lust and youthfull dayes, to give them licence to live as they lust themselves. (Ibid., 38)

For Ascham's own methods we have a hint from elsewhere. As the tutor of the future Queen Elizabeth, he used to "pinch, nip and bob [slap] the princess when she displeased him" (quoted by Andrews, 1889, 177). The present author was unable to find the original source of this statement, so was unable to judge its integrity. But assuming that it is correct, such minor measures would still show Ascham as being mild compared with the usual practice of his time. That Elizabeth regarded her tutor well is shown by his later elevation to high office.

Ascham's contemporary, Richard Mulcaster (1530?-1611), who was for twenty-five years headmaster of Merchant Taylor's School, and twelve years headmaster of St. Paul's School, felt that the rod had a definite place in teaching, but should be used purposefully.

For the rod may be no more spared in schooles than the sworde in the Princes hand.
Whatsoever parentes say, my ladie birchely will be a gest at home, or else parentes shall not have their willes.
Terme is as ye list, beate not you saye for learning but for lewdnesse. Sure to beate him for learning which is willing enough to learn, when his witte will not serve, were more than frantike: and under the name of not learning to hide and shrowd all faultes and offenses, were more than foolish: and what would that child be without beating, which with it can hardly be reclaimed? In whom only lewdnesse is the let, and capacitie is at will? The ende of our schooles is learning: if it fails by negligence, punish negligence: if by other voluntarie default, punish the default. Spare learning: so that still the refuge must be to the maisters discretion.
A wise maister, which must be a speciall caveat in provision, will helpe all, either by preventing that faultes be not committed, or by well using, when soever they fall out, and without exception must have both correction and curtesie, commited unto him beyond any appeal. (Mulcaster, 1581, 277-283)

Mulcaster seems to be struggling between what he felt desirable in theory, and what he felt had been necessary in practice. He realises that it is impossible to beat knowledge into the heads of pupils who lack the capacity for learning: "Surely to beat for not learning a child that is willing enough to learn but whose intelligence is defective, is worse than madness" (Ibid., 32). But where the capacity is present, but the inclination not, the use of the rod can be productive.

Before condemning Mulcaster as being less humane than Ascham, we should remember that Ascham's experiences in teaching were of a one-to-one tutorial nature, while Mulcaster had extensive experience with large classes. When we remember the violence and aggressiveness of the period, it is not difficult to realise that many of the pupils must have been difficult to control. For moral purposes, the two do not apear to be very far apart. But there still lies a basic difference: Ascham denied the use of punishment as an aid to learning, while Mulcaster felt there were occasions when fear was an acceptable motivation.

Among the few other voices that were raised in protest was that of Thomas Fuller (1608-1661) who was, among other things, chaplain extraordinary to Charles II. In an essay entitled "The Good Schoolmaster" Fuller states:

He is moderate in inflicting deserved correction. Many a schoolmaster better answereth the name paidotribus (boy-beater) than paodagogus (boy-teacher), rather tearing his scholars flesh with whipping than giving him a good education. No wonder if his scholars hate the muses, being presented unto them in the shape of fiends and furies. (edited by Eggleston, 1892, 75)

Richard Steele (1672-1729) of Spectator fame, also bewailed the lot of the English school child in his essay, "On Flogging at Schools."

The boasted liberty we talk of is but a mean reward for the long servitude, the many heart-aches and terrors, to which our childhood is exposed in going through a grammar-school. Many of these stupid tyrants exercise their cruelty without any manner of distinction of the capacities of children ... The sense of shame and honour is enough to keep the world itself in order, without corporal punishment, -- much more to train the minds of uncorrupted and innocent children. (Steele, 1885, 405)

Samuel Butler, in Hudibras, treats the use of whipping satirically. He suggests that often the person being whipped is suffering because he is some sort of social outcast or scapegoat. A person who is guilty goes free because of his special position in society. The general injustice is obvious, in context, to the reader. In the following passage he exaggerates, with ironic purpose, the common reasons, or rationalizations, for the use of whipping.

Second Part, Canto I.
Whipping that's Virtues Governess,
Tutress of Arts and Sciences;
That mends the gross mistakes of Nature,
And puts new life into dull matter,
That lays foundations for renown,
And all the honors of the Gown.
If Matrimony, and Hanging go
By Dest'ny, why not whipping too?
What med'cine else can cure the fits
Of Lovers, when they lose their Wits?
Love is a boy, by poets styl'd,
Then Spare the rod, and spoil the Child.
(Butler, 1967 edition, 811)

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) also treats the use of the rod satirically. In The Dunciad he describes the use of the rod as being the main instrument for successful teaching.

Book III, line 333 ff.
Proceed, great days! 'till Learning fly the shore,
'Till Birch shall blush with noble blood no more,
'Till Thames see Eton's sons for ever play,
'Till Westminster's whole year be holiday,
'Till Isis' Elders reel, their pupils sport,
And Alma Mater lies dissolved in Port!
(Pope, 1966 edition, 535)

Later a birch-crowned spectre arises as a symbol of schoolmasters.

Book IV, lines 139 ff.
When lo! A Spectre rose, whose index-hand
Held forth the Virtue of the dreadful wand;
His beaver'd brow a birchen garland wears,
Dropping with Infant's blood, and Mother's tears.
O'er every vein a shuddring horror runs;
Eton and Winton shake thro' all their Sons.
All flesh is humbled, Westminster's bold race
Shrink, and confess the Genius of the place:
The pale Boy-Senator yet tingling stands,
And holds his breeches close with both his hands.
(Ibid., 556)

But mockery such as this did little or nothing to bring about change. Far more typical of the time is Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). While he may not be the most profound commentator quoted in this work, he may be the most amusing.

There is now less flogging in our great schools than
formerly, but then less is learned there; so that what
the boys get at one end, they lose at the other.
(Boswell, 1887 edition, 407)

Johnson apparently believed that his own scholarship was largely due to the rigorous teaching methods he underwent. The rod, he says, is very effective in getting children to learn, clearly a motivational approach.

One of the most interesting things he says in favour of the rod is that it does less harm in the long run than other methods of motivation.

Indeed Johnson was very sensible how much he owed to Mr. Hunter. Mr. Langton one day asked him how he had acquired so accurate a knowledge of Latin, in which, I believe, he was exceeded by no man of his time; he said "My master whipt me very well. Without that, Sir, I should have done nothing." He told Mr. Langton that while Hunter was flogging his boys unmercifully, he used to say "And I do this to save you from the gallows." Johnson, upon all occasions expressed his approbration of enforcing instruction by means of the rod. "I would rather (said he) have the rod to be the general terror to all, to make them learn, than to tell a child, if you do thus, or thus, you will be more esteemed than your sisters and brothers. The rod produces an effect which terminates in itself. A child is afraid of being whipped, and gets to his task, and there's an end on't; whereas by exciting emulation and comparisons of superiority, you lay the foundations of lasting mischief; you make brothers and sisters hate each other." (Ibid., 45-46)

His attitude lies largely in his view that children are unable to act logically; they act from emotions, and it is the emotion of fear which will spur them to learning.

Children, being not reasonable, can only be governed by fear. To impress this fear, is therefore one of the first duties of those who have the care of children. (Ibid., 281)

The educational practices in England of the time are illustrated by the following rules for a Latin Grammar School in 1734.

Imprimis, Whatsoever boy comes to School past 7 o' th' Clock in the Morning In Summer time, and past 8 o' th' Clock In ye Winter time (without Shewing good reason) Shall receive 3 Lashes.
Item, Whosoever absents himself from School, either by Truantry, by trying to stay at home, or otherwise; Shall incur his Master's highest displeasure, suffer The hissing and Scoffing of ye whole School, Tarry Behind the Rest one hour at Night for a week, and Besides (as a suitable Reward for his -- ) shall Suffer 12 Lashes.
Item, Whatsoever Boy shall at any time Curse, Swear, Or take the Lord's Name in vain, Shall assuredly Suffer for such offence, 15 Lashes.
Item, What boy soever addicts himself to Obscene Talking or foolish Jesting, shall suffer for each Such Transgression.
Item, What Boy soever absents himself from the Service of Almighty God on the Sabbath day, and Spends that day in a wicked man'er In playing & running about, Shall receive 20 Lashes.
Item, Whosoever steals from or defrauds his School- Fellow of Ink, Pens, Paper, Quills, or any Other Thing Whatsoever, Shall certainly, when found out and detected, Receive 9 Lashes. (in Cubberley, 1920, 390)

John Locke (1632-1704), one of the most influential of English philosophers, is against the use of corporal punishment for much the same reasons as the earlier opponents.

Beating is the worst, and therefore the last Means to be used in the Correction of Children; and that only in the Cases of Extremity, after
all gentler Ways have been tried and proved unsuccessful. (Locke, 1968 edition, 148)

Great severity of punishment does but little good, nay, great harm, in education; and I believe it will be found out, coeteris paribus, that those children who have been most chastised seldom make
the best men. (Ibid., 149)

Locke maintains that most of the beatings at schools are the result of poor teaching methods and unsuitable material being taught. All too often beatings harden the offender and make him more obstinate. In the few cases where it is necessary, it must be well done "that the Child should not quickly forget it." Occasionally there will be one who will be so intractable that even this will not work; here all a father can do is pray for him.

But Locke also reinforces the philosophical basis for the need in education for "hardening" the child.

Plenty of open Air, Exercise and Sleep; Plain Diet, No Wine or Strong Drink, and very little or no Physick; not too Warm and straight Clothing especially The Head and Feet kept cold, and the Feet often used to cold Water, and exposed to Wet. (Ibid., 137)

English schools, particularly Public Schools and their followers were to hold fast to this approach up into the present century. To bear discomfort and pain without flinching was a necessary mark of a gentleman. To show distress when being caned was to suffer the contempt not only of the master, but also of one's peers.

Today this has various names: intestinal fortitude, "guts", and so on. In the 18th century it was referred to as "bottom", a word derived from a stable ship having a well-built hull or bottom (White, 1962, 68).

The idea of training children to bear hardship without emotion is not, of course, new. We have seen it in the Spartans, and it was part and parcel of the Stoic philosophy. But in modern times, it seems to be far more prominent in the English than in the Continental, particularly French, outlook. The "stiff upper lip" is an essential element of the stereotyped British character, and may in large measure account for the acceptance of the use of pain as a regular procedure in English Schools long after it was almost eliminated on the Continent.

The situation in the English colonies appears to have been a reflection of the Mother Country. In 1660, the rules introduced in Harvard College included the following:

It is hereby ordered that the president and fellows of the Harvard College have the powers to punish all misdeeds of the young men in their college. They are to use their best judgement and punish by fines or whipping in the hall publicly, as the nature of the offense shall call for. (quoted by Cubberley, 1919, 57)

There is record of a student being publicly whipped for blasphemy in 1674. The chastisement was preceded with a prayer.

Christopher Dock, who is reputed to have published in 1750 the first book on teaching in what was to become the United States of America, described his methods as follows:

When all the little ones have recited, these [those who have not been able to recite the scripture passage] are asked again and any one having failed in more than three trials a second time, is called "Lazy" by the entire class and his name is written down. Whether such a child fear the rod or not, I know from experience that this denunciation of the children hurts more than if I were constantly to wield and flourish the rod...
Where the Lord does not help build, all that build work in vain. The slap of the hand, hazel branch and birch rod are means of preventing a wicket outburst, but they cannot change the stubborn heart, which holds us all in such a sway since the fall, that we are all inclined more to the bad than to the good, so long as the heart is unchanged and not renewed by the spirit of God. But while the seed of wickedness is present, remove it, not only from ourselves, but from our fellow man and from our youth. (edited by Knight and Hall, 1951, 32)

3.6 Summary

The educational dimension of the Renaissance was restricted to a few schools and a few writers. The rediscovery of Classical writers such as Quintilian helped stimulate a more humane approach to teaching methods, first in Italy with Vergerio, Vittorino and Guarino, all practising schoolmasters. In the north, those notable and influential writers, Erasmus and Montaigne, strongly denounced the physical cruelty which characterised the treatment of children. Most of the Protestant leaders, with their literal interpretation of the Old Testament edicts, accepted corporal punishment as the appropriate method of saving the child from his inherited evil tendencies. A significant exception to this was Comenius who denied the efficacy of chastisement in motivating children to learn; he did, nevertheless, accept it as a final resort for moral purposes.

Organised Catholic orders originating in France, particularly the Jesuits and the Christian Brothers of de la Salle, organised teaching methods to a much more subtle degree than had previously been attempted. While the control of the child was extremely important, the crude method of physical violence was kept to a minimum, and later outlawed, at least in theory, in their schools. Continental schools were later to be a contrast and an example to the schools in the English-speaking world in this matter.

There was an unfulfilled hope in the 16th century, with Mulcaster and particularly Ascham, that England would develop less rigorous teaching methods. Occasional protests, either directly or in satirical literature, were made against the brutality of the English schools in the following two-hundred years. John Locke opposed the use of punishment in the learning situation, but he also reinforced the general English belief in the need for a "hardened" character. This public belief in, and acceptance of, physical pain, plus the lack of any regulations which set down minimum standards of acceptable practices, allowed the schools of England their freedom to continue ancient practices undisturbed by outside interference.


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