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