July 01, 2002
We Have A Winner: 'The English Vice' Explained

Three weeks ago I wrote about a linguistic and ethnological problem that has been bugging me (off and on) for more than twenty years. In the middle of a conversation about ethnic adjectives such as 'French toast' and 'the French disease' (syphilis), my professor, a young Englishman,

suddenly burst out: "Maybe you can tell me. What is the English vice? Is it masturbation? Shyness? I've always wondered." As a student, I was too bashful to answer the question, not least because I was unsure (as I still am) whether 'le vice anglais' refers primarily to buggery or flagellation. I did think it was amusing how much he underestimated the hostility of those who assign names to vices. Whatever the English vice is, it's a lot worse than he had imagined.

(Sorry about quoting myself: easier for me than rewriting and easier for you than a bare link.) Quana Jones of Eristic has now e-mailed a convincing solution to the problem:

The 'English vice' is spanking on the buttocks sometimes refered to today as 'corporal punishment'. A comprehensive treatise on the history of this activity (particularly Victorian attitudes) is Ian Gibson's The English Vice: Beating, Sex and Shame in Victorian England (book reviewed here).

"The English Vice" can be confidently asserted to have been spanking the buttocks, however, 'flagellation' is another term that is sometimes used but is less specific. The Seventeenth century physician John Henry Meibomius wrote 'A Treatise on the Use of Flogging in Medicine and Venery' in an attempt to stamp out this practice which he claimed increased the "venery" of men. He goes into great detail to prove his point drawing on writers such as Juvenal, Ovid, Apuleius and Catullus (to name a few). The translated treatise can found here.

The English 'public' school system used corporal punishment for many years and and it is claimed that many an English schoolboy acquired a taste for such treatment that carried on into his adult life. You may recall Swinburne's many references to Eton's block and 'birching', claiming that his own proclivity for that particular pasttime had been cultivated by such school practices.

Of course, there is also the other opinion. That is, that the English vice is whatever the French say it is. I suppose the same could be said to be true about the "French vice".

John & Antonio of Inside Europe: Iberian Notes (now back in business) had already (in the comments to my previous post) said that "[i]n Spain they talk about 'disciplina inglesa'", but it's nice to have specific evidence and a bibliography. Of course, all this may be more than some of my readers wanted to know. I shudder to think what kind of Google hits I will get from it.

Why the confusion? I suppose the English are thought to be prone to buggery, but no more so than several other nations, and less so than the Greeks -- hence "the Greek vice", "doing Greek", and equivalent euphemisms. Apparently the English have spanking and flagellation all to themselves. (I use both terms since etymologically 'flagellation', from Latin flagellum, "whip, lash, switch", implies use of a whip rather than bare hands.) Of course, buggery and flagellation are not incompatible: was it Churchill who defined the traditions of the Royal Navy as "rum, sodomy, and the lash"?

If I lived in San Francisco, I would go down to Hard On Leather Goods and pick out some appropriate prize for the solver of this linguistic puzzle. Just kidding, Quana! Even if you're into that kind of thing, I'm sure whips are easy enough to find in Texas.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at July 01, 2002 07:40 PM

BTW In the 1970s, the "English (or British) disease" was used by the French (and others) to mean the almost constant industrial strife that afflicted the UK at the time (strikes and walk-outs at the drop of a hat etc.). Nowadays, it seems to have spread across the Channel...And I guess two other nations are candidates for sharing the "English vice" of flagellation : France, home of sadism ; and Austria, home of masochism (after the 19th century novelist Leopold Sacher-Masoch).

Posted by: Murti Bing on July 2, 2002 08:00 AM

as i'm working on boy's flogging i have been interested in this article ; do you by any chance know which date the whip / birch started to be used in the English public school system and why this means was chosen instead of any other ?

Posted by: agnes on April 1, 2003 10:08 AM

This is why I love the web. When I needed a hyperlink for "Le Vice Anglais" you were there for me. Thanks! ;-)

Posted by: SpankBoss on April 9, 2003 01:24 AM

The confusion expressed by Dr. Weevil as to whether the English vice was flagellation or buggery is easy to understand: the cradle of both was the same English Public School (as in "Tom Brown's Schooldays"). Corporal punishment was considered normal, both by the staff but also senior pupils were expected to punish juniors. Add the normal adolescent infatuation with sex, a lack of the opposite gender, and you get a thoroughly confused environment where burgeoning sexuality manifested itself both as flagellation and buggery. However, as the main article notes, there's nothing exceptionally English about buggery.

As to the comment regarding the English Malaise, note the difference between an illness (malaise) and a vice. A malaise can be treated, possibly cured, and is probably outside the control of the patient. A vice is entirely within the control of the "victim", and indeed it may be perfectly acceptable, socially, to have and sometimes even cherish one's vices (smoking, drinking, gambling, etc).

Lastly, to the question when it started: the Romans certainly used punishment beatings in schools (and brothels, but not as punishment for the clients...) so the question probably boils down to an idea that the first scholastic corporal punishment probably took place the same day tha first school was in session...


Posted by: Malcolm on April 22, 2003 11:38 PM

Dear Agnes,

You may find something of interest connected with your research at the School Corporal Punishment forum:


Posted by: Karen on April 30, 2003 05:30 PM