The discipline was a whip used to inflict chastisement on the body as a means of mortification. Although it was originally an instrument of punishment, its use came to have a place among the common works of supererogation.
In its penal use, the discipline had a place in monastic life from its beginnings. The rule of St. Pachomius listed faults and the number of stripes with which each was to be punished. St. Benedict, too, decreed punishment by the discipline and for this reason is often pictured holding a bundle of switches. Monastic codes contained an elaborate ritual to accompany the imposition of penances. The punishment was not merely symbolic; offenders often were beaten until the blood flowed. The rule of St. Columban, however, limited the number of lashes at any one time to 25.
The employment of the discipline as a penal practice was replaced about the 12th century by its use for personal mortification. St. Peter Damian (d. 1072) was chiefly responsible for this. in his preaching and writing (e.g., De laude flagellorum, in Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 145:679–686), he urged on monasteries the use of the discipline as a way of imitating Christ. in the 12th and 13th centuries, voluntary flagellation became part of the penitential fabric of the religious life. Early ascetics used thorny branches, iron chains, leather straps tipped with metal or bone. Contemporary disciplines are generally made of several strands of rope bound together and knotted at the ends. Each community developed its own ceremonial accompaniment to the taking of the discipline. in some groups the flagellation was self–administered; in others, the superior or hebdomadary administered it. Generally, it was the practice to take the discipline in the church during the recitation of the Miserere or other Psalms.
The zeal for flagellation, so common in the Middle Ages, has declined in modern times. It remains in some religious communities as one of the religious observances inherited from the past. in such cases it is used with moderation, and spiritual authorities are generally slow to recommend its use.
Bibliography: l. gougaud, Devotions et pratiques ascetiques du moyen âge (Paris–Maredsous 1925) 175–199. d. gazeau, Catholicisme 3:880. É. bertaud, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. m. viller et al. (Paris 1932) 3:1302–11.
[p. f. mulhern]