Did you ever read a book and come across a passage and say to yourself, "why did he stop there?" Well, I have and I decided to do something about it. In Ken Follet's book "World Without End" the village is getting back to normal after the ravages of the Black Death have receded. In a throwaway line the author states that a certain female character was "stripped and whipped" by the constable for stealing a chicken. Then he moves on. Well, wait a minute. Let's flesh this out......
It had been a hard Winter. But then again Winters were always hard on the peasantry of England in the 14th century. The Black Death had ravaged Europe. England was at war with France. The bridge over the river at Kingsbridge had collapsed. Conditions such as these made the keeping of the King's peace in every shire and village a difficult job. John Constable's job was to maintain the peace and protect property on behalf of the Prior of Kingsbridge. In this role he had the discretion and freedom to deal with petty crime, break up fights, settle minor disputes on the spot and generally keep order. His jurisdiction was only over the serfs. The landed gentry operated as a law unto themselves answerable only to the king. The clergy answered to the Prior, who was John's employer. John enforced the law for the Prior and also for the Reeve, who was the Earl's administrator. The Earl of Shiring provided protection in times of war and was chiefly responsible for combating outlawry as was common in feudal England and elsewhere in Europe.
But now it was spring. The bridge was under repair, but with so many deaths there had been few to work the land and food was scarce. Theft was on the rise.
For minor offenses John had the power to decide guilt or innocence and mete out punishment appropriate to the crime. A drunken brawl, a spat between neighbors, these offenses were dealt with on the spot. For more serious crimes, John would bring the accused before the Prior or the Reeve. The town had a square and in it were stocks and a stout post. Crimes could be punishable by confinement to the stocks or a whipping-or even sometimes, both. Gaol, for any length of time was not an option. Too many hands were needed to till the soil, husband the animals and make the goods. So, there was the lash and the stocks, and on occasion, the gallows, to keep order.
John employed a whip to mete out the town's justice. The whip was a single thong of braided leather, three feet long and tapering to a thin point. The braid was secured to the end of a wooden handle that was nearly as long. The long handle provided accuracy and leverage, and the lash was long enough to have some weight to it but short enough that John could ply it exactly as he wished. He was very skilled in its application. He could reduce the most hardened prisoner to piteous blubbering and pleas for mercy. A lashing at John's hands was an extremely painful experience. It was meant to be. The serfs of Kingsbridge were hard people and the keeping of order required that the citizenry fear the consequences of breaking the law.
John had been taught how to use the whip by his father, also a constable before him. Men were usually given the upper discipline. Forced to remove their shirts, they were secured to the whipping post with hands tied to a ring at the top of the post. If the number of prescribed stripes was large, however the prisoner was likely stripped naked so that the entire backside could be whipped. This was actually more merciful because too many lashes concentrated on the back could cause open lacerations and resulting infection. The stripes were usually laid on horizontally across the culprit's backside. Ten lashes might suffice for a drunken brawl. Other crimes such as theft could get the offender three dozen, a most severe punishment.
Women were given the lower discipline, mostly. For a minor offense a woman might be placed in the stocks and her skirts lifted, thus baring her buttocks. There were pegs at the top of the stocks which could hold her garments in place and out of the way. John could use a long switch, a birch rod, or on occasion, a butter paddle on the offender's bared buttocks. If the offender was to be whipped, however, it was at the post, and she was stripped naked to be flogged. Indeed it was sometimes his unfortunate duty to flog a woman accused of witchcraft. Just the previous Winter a poor wretch had been convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to be flogged to the blood, tied to the cart's tail and whipped again all the way to gallows crossing. Sometimes men were flogged this way, too, if the sentence called for a large number of lashes. John could lay stripes from an offender's calves to her shoulders if he wished, but chose mostly to concentrate on the back and buttocks.
This was a grim part of the job, but John worked for the Prior and if the offense required the punishment, he carried it out. Generally, however John sought to mete out justice in a way that the townspeople would support. He was not a tyrant and most agreed with his steady and seasoned judgment. Punishments were made appropriate to the crime.
The theft of food and in particular, animals, was viewed as an egregious offense because it could mean the difference between life and starvation. So when John was told that Bess Hampton's chicken had been stolen, it was a cause for concern. The chicken had been kept in its coop which was attached to Cam Hampton's modest house, but when Bess went to fetch it for supper it was gone. John wasn't hopeful that he could identify the culprit. That the bird had been stolen was clear. The latch was undone and muddy footprints led away from Hampton's house. The imprint was small and not deep. John hoped it was not a child. For thievery a child could be birched in the stocks, a severe punishment if the child were malnourished. Either way, the chicken had a broken beak, hence it had been destined for the pot.
Fortunately the footprints did not lead to a child, but to the door of the house of Hugh Thompson whose wife Glynnie was cooking supper--- with Bess's chicken in the pot. The chicken's head with its telltale broken beak lay on the cottage's bare earthen floor. This is what John saw as he entered Glynnie Thompson's cottage. John could spot a guilty look and Glynnie's face gave her away, as he strode through the doorway. That look told him all he needed to know. Standing next to Glynnie was Elspeth, her grown 18 year old sister. Recently widowed as a result of the plague, she had moved into Glynnie's home. Elspeth tried to kick the lopped off head into the corner as soon as she saw John enter, but he saw the motion.
"I'll have that if you please," he ordered the girl. Not knowing who exactly was complicit in all of this, he addressed them both. "You are under arrest and you will both come with me to see the Prior."
Since this was not the Earl's business, jurisdiction fell to the Prior who presided over the affairs of the town that did not concern the Earl or his possessions. Prior Godwin was an ambitious man who disguised his ambition with piety. But he was also a dour man who believed that all God's children were sinners whose wicked impulses needed to be curbed. Under this Prior, discipline was harsh and it was with some trepidation that John brought the two offenders before him.
An audience was arranged in the abbey. In attendance were John Constable, Bess Hampton and Cam Hampton for the prosecution. Glynnie Thompson and Elspeth Thompson were in the dock. Hugh Thompson was there to plead for his wife's sake. He had returned from a supply trip just in time to see his wife hauled off by John Constable. He was understandably bewildered to see his wife and sister-in-law being led away in Constable's custody. Before the hearing could be arranged they were lodged in the town gaol, which held a few one room cells. Prisoners did not wait there long because guilt or innocence was quickly determined and the punishment swiftly carried out.
Hugh was granted leave to speak to her. When she told him what had transpired he could only say, "Good God, woman, what have you done?" He was genuinely afraid. People could be hanged for theft. Gypsies and outlaws had gone to gallows crossing if the theft were serious enough. It remained to be seen what the Prior would do.
First the Prior heard from Bess Hampton who complained that when she went to fetch the chicken it was gone. She had seen Glynnie earlier that day eyeing her coop. Cam Hampton had had the foresight to stock his supplies of animals with profits made from his business and knew that several of his neighbors coveted his good fortune.
Surprisingly, Glynnie admitted the theft, but defended her actions. "It is not fair that Bess and Cam Thompson have all of that food for the two of them. I have mouths to feed and my Hugh's shop has fallen on hard times. We haven't had fresh meat for a month. So when I saw the gate to the coop open, I thought she would not miss such a little thing. How could she not share with us?"
"And what about this one?" the Prior wanted to know, indicating Elspeth.
"I didn't steal," she said, pleading with the Prior.
"She sought to hide the evidence," said John. "Had she kicked the chicken's head under the table out of my sight there could be no means by which I could have determined whose chicken it was."
The Prior thought for a moment. "Here is my judgment," he said. "Glynnie Thompson, you are convicted of theft of Bess Hampton's chicken. This is a serious offense, likely born out of jealousy and envy. For this offense you will be lodged in the gaol until market day which is two days hence. At that time you will be taken to the square and stripped naked for the whipping post. You will receive 39 lashes from John Constable's whip."
Glynnie gasped. Thirty nine lashes was a severe punishment.
"Elspeth, you were not involved in the theft but you attempted to hide the fact of Glynnie's guilt. This offense is similar to lying which goes against God's law. For this you will be lodged in the gaol until market day and on that day you will be placed in the stocks and given one dozen strokes with a stout switch."
The women were clearly distraught. Glynnie hugged Elspeth and they cried together bemoaning their fate. Then Glynnie turned to the prior. She fell to her knees. Clasping her hands together she pleaded for mercy.
"I am just a poor woman fallen on hard times. I'll never steal again, I swear it. Don't let him whip me, please. I can't bear it."
The Prior was having none of it. "The theft of food in times like these would have been grounds for the penalty of hanging. Be grateful that your lives are being spared. Your punishment will be an example to all who would flout the law and order of this priory and God's law as well. Thou shalt not steal. It is a law you know well."
He addressed John. "Make sure you lay on well, John Constable, for these wicked women have sinned and deserve to have their backsides soundly whipped."
Amid the women's wailing John took them both by an arm and escorted them to the gaol, there to await their fate on market day, two days hence. The cell was dark and cold. Glynnie's husband was allowed to bring them food and a blanket.
"Is there nothing you can do?" wailed Glynnie to her husband.
"I have tried to appeal to the Prior but he will not see me, wife. I'm afraid you will simply have to endure the stripes. You should not have stolen from Bess." Hugh was genuinely distraught. His own wife, to be stripped naked for all to see and shamefully whipped. He would have punished her himself, had the Prior allowed it. He'd have taken the leather to her all right. But it was too late for that. The law was the law. He'd have her back home soon and that thought gave him some small comfort.
Crowds began to gather early on Market Day. Normally it was crowded anyway, but word had spread that two women of the village were to be whipped that day. Whippings or executions were always guaranteed to draw crowds, especially when it was evident that one of those to be punished would be flogged naked-and an attractive woman to boot! The punishment, thirty nine lashes, dictated that Glynnie's clothing was to be removed. John knew that the stripes had to be spread out or her skin might break. The humiliation of being stripped naked was an unpleasant prospect, but it was for her own good. John reflected that she probably didn't view it that way.
As John expected, the women began to wail when he came to fetch them. It was noon and the crowd was tending toward unruly. John wished to dispatch justice sooner rather than later. Better to disperse the crowd before drinking and fights broke out.
"Come on now, you two. It's time," he said gruffly. John had deputized a pair of men that he had counted upon in the past. His son Tom was also with him. The young Tom had prepared the limber switch that John would use. It was three feet long, thick as the thumb at one end and tapering to the size of a little finger at the other.
The women tried to struggle but John had their hands bound in front of them. He tied a lead to both so he could lead them to the post and the pillory which were set upon a raised platform in the center of the square. Steps allowed the condemned to ascend the platform which was several feet high to separate the prisoners from the crowd, and to allow all to see justice being meted out. The procession emerged from the priory next to the square. The crowd saw them and began to jeer. The women visibly quailed at the verbal onslaught as they were led through the jeering throng.
"You'll dance a lively jig today," said a stout matron.
"Thief! I hope your backside is well striped." Said another.
Other comments of a similar nature were hurled at the women as they stumbled their way to the dais. When they arrived, the herald who accompanied the procession prepared to read the charges and the prior's judgment from a rolled parchment. The crowd grew silent.
"For the crime of aiding and abetting theft Elspeth Thompson has been convicted and her sentence shall be thus: to be placed in the pillory and given the lower discipline with twelve strokes of the switch."
The crowd roared. The men took notice. Elspeth Thompson was a comely girl with blonde hair and a pretty face.
"For the crime of theft of a chicken, Glynnie Thompson has been convicted and her sentence is thus: she shall be stripped and flogged at the post with thirty nine stripes well laid on."
Cheers and jeers erupted. The comely wench would be stripped naked for her whipping.
Now the crowd really took notice. Glynnie Thompson was a dark haired beauty and the fact that she was to be stripped naked had the onlookers keenly excited, especially the men. But women too seemed just as pleased at the prospect of a pretty woman like Glynnie stripped and bound at the post for the application of the lash.
John Constable motioned to his men, indicating Elspeth. "Untie her and put her in the stocks," he said. Elspeth struggled but it was no use. They forced her head and hands into the yoke and brought the top half down. She was helpless and bent over. In this position her buttocks were thrust out prominently. She babbled woefully as John Constable took up her skirts in back, baring her nicely rounded buttocks for all to see. The twin cheeks were shapely and full. Bent over as she was, her bottom jutted out lewdly. She could well stand the punishment with a proud rump like that, thought John. The skirt was kept out of the way by stuffing the ends in holes in the cross bar and securing them with pegs. Her feet were strapped together making any but the slightest movement impossible. Satisfied that his prisoner was secured, John asked his son to hand him the switch.
John stood to the left of the pillory and slowly tapped the switch against Elspeth's quivering seat. "Twelve strokes, Elspeth Thompson," he intoned.
He drew back his arm. The switch hovered in the air at the apex of his backswing. Then Swissh...thwick! it descended with a blur landing square across the crowns of Elspeth's bottom. Elspeth screamed and a vivid red line appeared across the center of her bottom.
John placed the switch a little lower. Tap, tap, then a second swish...thwick! rang out. Elspeth cried out in pain. The switch whined through the air again. Swishh....thwick! Elspeth shrieked louder.
John proceeded to deliver a slow, deliberate switching. He carefully lined up each stroke, marking the spot of its intended impact with a soft tap. Each time the switch landed, it struck with a swish....whuick! that made Elspeth's bottom cheeks quiver. Her shrieks grew more frantic with each stroke. John ignored them. All prisoners screamed under the lash and Elspeth was no exception. John knew it was a painful switching. The red weals John placed across her buttocks and her piteous cries were evidence to John that the punishment was having the proper effect. Elspeth drummed her feet and tried to weave her body around, but the stocks held her fast. It only made for a lascivious display as her buttocks jiggled. It couldn't be helped. John would wait until her writhing had stopped and would then apply another stroke. Swishh...whiuck! "Yeiiii...ahh!" shrieked Elspeth. Horizontal weals laddered her shapely bottom cheeks.
"She's getting it good, mind you," whispered one stout village woman to another. "I'd not want to be in her shoes," admitted her friend. "John Constable can fair lay on a right and proper switchin'. Look at her dance."
A village woman said to her daughter, "Such is the price of sin, daughter. See how her buttocks quiver when the switch strikes."
Indeed the switching was a sound one. By its end Elspeth was crying heartfelt sobs and her bottom was a patchwork of angry red stripes. He commanded his son to unlock the stocks and let her rise. She rose from her bent over position and her hands flew to her scorched backside, unmindful of her partial nudity.
It was now time for Glynnie's whipping.
"I'll untie you, madame, but you must remove your dress. Else we'll have to do it for ye."
"Oh please, John Constable, don't strip me naked. It's shameful, is what it is. Oh don't," Glynnie begged.
"I got my orders, and what's shameful is your stealing. Come on now, off with your clothing."
Glynnie began crying but she knew that if she did not obey, her clothes might be torn or cut off and clothing was too precious to allow that to happen. So, choking and sobbing, she stripped off her smock. Underneath was a shift made of a coarse cloth which she slowly and reluctantly pulled over her head. Underneath that she was naked. There were murmurs in the crowd as Glynnie removed her clothing, for Glynnie was a young and very fetching young wife. She had dark hair and a voluptuous body. Her waist was small but her hips were wide and she had well formed breasts.
John gripped her by the arm and led her to the post. As he stretched her arms above her head to secure them to an iron ring, all could see her lovely buttocks, twin full ovals separated by a dark crease. She had to lean forward slightly and this pose thrust her buttocks back as if to present them for correction. With her ankles secured with shackles to the post at the bottom she could move little.
John stepped back. She was ready. The spectators grew quiet. It wasn't every day that a pretty young wife was bared and secured to the post for a good sound whipping. Glynnie looked fearfully over her shoulder at John as he hefted the whip, flicking it to limber his arm and test its flex. He stood to the side and slightly to Glynnie's rear. He was ready to begin.
John held the handle in his right hand and drew the lash through his left, then with a circular motion he swirled the whip over his shoulder. As his arm descended the tip accelerated and landed full across the crowns of Glynnie's buttocks with a loud crack. "Aieee...!" She shrieked in pain and jerked herself up on tip toe. A red line appeared across her bottom.
The spectators winced with Glynnie. Only one lash, but if that one was exemplary, the woman was in for a painful chastisement.
John turned to his son. "Count," he said. "That was one." He drew back the whip for another stroke. It landed in nearly the same spot with a "whifft....crack!" Glynnie shrieked again and danced in her fetters. John drew the strand though his fingers a third time as his arm drew back and with a fluid circular motion the whip's tip flew back over John's shoulder before reversing direction as John brought his arm forward. With a whine it descended to impact Glynnie's lush bottom cheeks which rippled as the whip struck. "Yahhh.....owww!" cried Glynnie and she rose on tip-toe again, obviously in severe pain.
John had a technique. He stood to the side of the post and raised both hands over his head. Then he drew the whip back letting the lash slide through the fingers of his left hand. Taking a step forward he would pivot and swing his arm towards Glynnie. The whip traced a wide arc before impacting the soft target flesh with a loud crack. Using the same practiced stroke John laced Glynnie's buttocks with ten red weals that had her wailing and dancing on her toes. Her jiggling buttocks provided a lurid spectacle for the crowd who had gathered to watch the punishment, and many a hand strayed under a tunic as the whipping progressed.
John next applied several strokes to Glynnie's back and shoulders. She screamed anew at this different, but no less intense, pain from the lash on a different place. He placed seven or eight red stripes across her back then directed the lash to the tops of her thighs. These lashes made Glynnie shriek in agony.
Glynnie had never felt pain like this. It felt as if her backside were burning with the fires of hell. Each lash was a line of pure fire. Glynnie could only writhe and cry out in her agony and beg John Constable to stop. But she knew he would not stop until she'd been given the full dose of 39 lashes. She was delirious with pain and had no idea how many strokes she had absorbed.
To the spectators it was the lurid display they had anticipated. It wasn't every day that a beautiful woman was lashed naked at the post. Glynnie writhed at the post like it was a lover with whom she consorted. Each lash made her body spasm. Her rippling flesh juddered with each crack of the whip, especially her buttocks which were dark red and seemed swollen to twice their normal size.
John paused and wiped the sweat from his brow. He could hear the snatches of conversation from the crowd who craned their necks to get a good look at the naked woman at the whipping post.
"Do you see those welts, woman? Take care you obey the law." The woman shivered, no doubt imagining her naked body tied to the post and awaiting the lash.
Another woman said to her companion, "Did you see how she danced under the whip?" The companion said, "A shameful spectacle, but it serves her right. She should dance a merry jig to John Constable's whip."
Glynnie wriggled at the post sobbing for mercy, but there would be none until it finished. Her buttocks rippled at the impact of the lash and many would later remark how Glynnie had rubbed herself on the post like it was a lover, the whip spurring her on to greater passion.
John had laid thirty lashes across Glynnie's backside and she was striped from her shoulders to her knees. Time to drive the lesson home, thought John.
Swisshhh.....thwick! The whip fell full across Glynnie's buttocks again and she wailed, "Aieee....ahhh....!"
Whirrr....whack! This time it landed with a loud splat. Her body jerked. The opulent cheeks of her behind juddered. The whip whined its song of pain as John Constable meted out the remainder of the lashes using that fluid stroke that striped Glynnie's bottom until it was a seething mass of swollen red.
"Thirty nine," announced John when the last lash had struck. "It is finished. Take her down." The men untied the naked woman, her body streaked with red stripes from her shoulders to her thighs, and tossed her shift to her. Weeping and shaking she managed to pull it over her head. "It's over now," bellowed John. "Go about your business." The crowd began to disperse. Justice had been done.