Corporal punishment in Middle Ages reassessed by Leicester academic


Beaten into them: Representations of chastisement of medieval students

The savage history of beating, flogging and whipping schoolchildren for educational benefit has been studied by an academic.

Dr Ben Parson, from the University of Leicester, has written a paper on corporal punishment in the Middle Ages and come to the conclusion that classroom beatings may not have been as brutal as thought.

Strict rules for when and how youngsters should be punished were set out by Dominican friar, Vincent of Beauvais, in the 13th century.

His reasons for the use of physical discipline included, pain to help students remember their mistakes and beating to instil morality.

Dr Parson said he found evidence beating pupils went hand-in-hand with helping them learn — or so teachers believed.

His paper, The Way of the Rod: The Functions of Beating in Late Medieval Pedagogy, looked at the history of classroom castigation.

He said: “Why do schoolchildren need to be beaten?

“For much of the history of education, there has been a general acceptance instruction should be accompanied by violence.

“The long-standing link between schooling and flogging is attested by a host of artefacts, from the whipping stools that survived in many early schools to Harrow Punishment Book, in which Edwardian schoolmasters assiduously recorded the punishments meted out to their charges.”

The practice was outlawed in the UK in 1987, but some still claim youngsters would benefit, said Dr Parson.

“Even today the association persists. After the riots of August 2011, there were widespread calls to ‘bring back the strap’ or ‘return to a clip round the ear culture’, voiced by MPs and journalists alike,” he said.

“However, what these sources and statements fail to reveal is why corporal punishment should make instruction more effective and how exactly it assists in the acquisition of knowledge.

“It is the purpose of this research project to account for this strange association.”

Dr Parson examined texts from the Middle Ages and concluded while the use of punishment instruments was more aggressive than in recent times, teachers were not sadistic.

He said: “Although their assumptions fall far outside the bounds of acceptability for us, the ways in which medieval writers treated corporal punishment is very much to their credit.

“Even when in agreement boys needed to be beaten, teachers did not take this responsibility lightly, but with a level of care and sensitivity that remains impressive.”