16.05.19, Geltner, Flogging Others

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Susan Amussen

The Medieval Review 16.05.19

Geltner, G. Flogging Others: Corporal Punishment and Cultural Identity from Antiquity to the Present. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2014. pp. 112. ISBN: 978-9-089-64786-3 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Susan Amussen
University of California, Merced

Flogging Others is a fascinating and learned exploration of the various meanings of corporal punishment across different societies. Central to Geltner's project is understanding flogging as historically and culturally situated: what it means that someone was flogged depends on where and when it happens. That Geltner does this in the space of less than one hundred pages of text indicates both the strengths and limitations of this work. Its strength is a tightly focused examination of the problem, so that the argument comes through with absolute clarity. On the downside, this requires, inevitably, a relatively high level of analysis, so while the discussion is always contextualized, local nuances may get lost in the process. Geltner's references allow readers to follow up on areas where they have questions, but this is obviously and explicitly an overview.

Geltner sees his work as an introduction, rather than a complete history of corporal punishment. Historians of punishment have paid corporal punishment scant attention, in comparison to execution and imprisonment, which has allowed assumptions about its history to go unchallenged. Using a historical and anthropological approach, Geltner demonstrates that rather than following a linear trajectory, the history of flogging is strikingly erratic, grounded in "legal, political, religious, and especially social contexts" (25). And while he acknowledges that almost all forms of punishment (including incarceration) can be defined as corporal, his attention focuses on what he calls the "staple" forms of corporal punishment--flogging, branding, and dismemberment. Such punishments, he shows, are almost never uncontested, but become important ways of creating boundaries between us (those who use corporal punishment well) and them (who do not). Thus, however it may look from the twenty-first century, the use of corporal punishment was never merely "thoughtless and brutal" (29), but based on an implicit and frequently explicit set of principles. This enables Geltner to track three ways in which corporal punishment communicates social values. First, it "indexes the varieties of social otherness" (26): corporal punishment almost always depended on who committed the crime against whom, so social class, ethnicity, and gender were all relevant. Second, it does so by mimesis, or imitating the crime in the punishment, as when the thief loses a hand. Finally, penal cultures indicate the severity of a crime by proportionality, the quantity of the punishment relative to that for other crimes.

Geltner's survey begins not in the west, which is the focus of most of his discussion, but in China. Here he demonstrates his approach by exploring the debate in the third century BCE about the necessity of corporal punishment: while Confucian commentators saw the use of corporal punishment by the Shang dynasty as evidence of its brutality, a legalist tradition countered by arguing that such views were themselves signs of moral decline. It is the debate that is significant for Geltner: it demonstrates the multivalence of various forms of corporal punishment. What constitutes a harsh punishment, and whether such punishments are necessary, depends on who is judging, and from what perspective. For instance, in Egypt, it is possible to read the introduction of corporal punishment not as increasing severity, but as moderation of previous punishments that included the denial of burial; flogging might hurt the body, but not being buried endangered the afterlife. What is key is the social meaning of a particular body; corporal punishments were almost always tied both to the willingness of a culprit to repent, and to the social position of both offender and victim.

These examples demonstrate Geltner's method, which is attentive to the intersections of penal regimes with religious and social systems. In ancient Greece, for instance, he argues that corporal punishment gradually disappeared from the public sphere, but not the private sphere: thus the western association of whipping with enslaved status. This connection between the public and private reappeared in the Victorian period: even as Victorian writers congratulated Europe on its greater humanity, flogging was common as a punishment for children at home and at school, and was even more common in European colonial regimes. European empires generally increased the use of corporal punishment from what had existed before imperial conquest. And lest readers seek to distance the contemporary world from flogging, he notes the imposition of chemical castration as a punishment for sexual offenders; additionally, some critiques of the modern carceral state have suggested the re-introduction of flogging as an alternative to imprisonment.

Geltner's argument will not be wholly surprising to those who have studied violence and punishment. Its major contribution is the scope of the argument: most scholars fix their gaze on one particular period, and not the sweep. And it is with the range of societies over three thousand years that the absence of a clear trajectory in the use of corporal punishment becomes startlingly clear. If there are intellectual targets for this argument, it is the ideas of Norbert Elias about the "civilizing process," and the related arguments of Steven Pinker, that the world is becoming less violent over time. More generally, it is the way even today flogging is a way of creating an "other." As he notes, "Medieval Europe is to the Western past what the Islamicate world is to the Western present" (62). That is, those who do not know much about either the medieval period or the Islamic world assume the worst about both. What is civilized is, Geltner repeatedly reminds us, in the eye of the beholder; and the contemporary world is no better than some imagined "medieval" one. Geltner is particularly good at pointing out what is not said, and the implications of defenses of corporal punishment. Looking at the contemporary world, he draws attention to Singapore, a westernized center of finance and capital, which uses flogging as a core element of its penal regime; yet it is uses of whipping in Sharia law that are branded as atavistic, not those in Singapore.

Inevitably in a short book of this scope, there are omissions. The most striking was the invisibility of women as the objects of corporal punishment ("correction") within the household. Yet it is not just slaves and children who were objects of domestic discipline, it was women. As Frances Dolan has shown in Marriage and Violence: The Early Modern Legacy (2008), there is a remarkable continuity in religious arguments about the correction of wives between the seventeenth and twenty-first centuries. Attention to such violence would not change the argument, but would enrich our understanding of what is at stake.

This is an important book for anyone interested in the history of violence or punishment, or interested in tracking historical change over the long term. It is, of course, by no means exhaustive, but by presenting the sweeping argument he has made, Geltner encourages specialists to do more to put their work in this larger context. He also makes corporal punishment, along with execution and imprisonment, a central concern of the history of punishment. The book's brevity is one of its virtues. It allows us to see a big pattern (or rather, the lack of a pattern), and rethink violent punishment as a marker of any particular form of society. For this, scholars of violence and punishment will all be grateful.

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