Birching is a (physical) corporal punishment with a birch rod, typically a spanking (i.e. given on the delinquent's buttocks, usually bared), although occasionally on the back and/or over the shoulders.
A birch rod (often shortened to "birch") is a bundle of leafless twigs bound together, much like a bunch of flowers, to form an implement for flagellation.
A single branch, on the other hand, when used as a disciplinary rod is known as a switch, if equally flexible, or else as a cane, cudgel or stick.
Contrary to what the name suggests, a birch rod is not necessarily made from a birch tree, as was the case with the Roman fasces, but can also be made from various other strong but flexible trees or shrubs, such as willow (hence the term willowing). A hazel rod is very tough, and therefore particularly painful; it was used on the Isle of Man until 1975, the last place in Europe to use the birch.
Another parameter for the severity of a birch rod is its size - i.e. its length, weight and number of branches. In some penal institutions, several versions were in use, which were often given names (rather like cane types). For example, in Dartmoor Prison the device used to punish male offenders above the age of 16 - weighing some 16 ounces and a full 48 inches long - was known as the senior birch.
There are several versions about the sense of soaking the birch in liquid before use, but as it takes in water the weight is certainly increased without compensatory air resistance, so the impact must be greater if the caner can use sufficient force.
In the 1860s, the Royal Navy abandoned the use of the cat o' nine tails on board its ships. The Cat had acquired a nasty reputation because of its frequent use in prisons, and was replaced by the birch with which the wealthy classes had been chastised in public schools. Ironically, the judicial system soon followed the Navy's example and switched to birches also. In an attempt to standardise the Navy's birches the Admiralty had specimens according to all prevailing prescriptions, called patterned birch (as well as a patterned cane), kept in every major dockyard, for birches had to be procured on land in quantities, suggesting quite some were worn out on the sore bottoms of miscreant boys.
The term judicial birch obviously refers to the severe type in use for court-ordered birchings, especially the Manx hazel birch. A 1951 memorandum (possibly confirming earlier practice) ordered all UK male prisons to use only birches (and cats o' nine tails) from a national stock at South London's Wandsworth prison, where they were to be 'thoroughly' tested before being supplied in triplicate to a prison whenever a procedure was pending for use as prison discipline.
By contrast, terms like Eton birch (after the most prestigious, and reputedly birch-happy, public school in England) are used for a birch made from birch tree twigs.
- Compare similarly bundled implements, such as Faggot
- In BDSM, the term birch is also used for an implement consisting of a bundle of thin canes
The victim can go over the spanker’s lap or knee (usually only young boys, as with an adult the arm is not free for full impact, and bigger boys can be quite heavy; girls are less often spanked, since for an effective birching, the buttocks must be bare -- in the case of girls, this exposes their genitals) but will often be bent over an object (as in the expression ‘over a barrel’) to raise the buttocks, and even tied down if likely otherwise to leave this position under the agonizing pain.
In some prisons a wooden apparatus known as birching donkey or birching pony, referring to the silhouette of an equine, was specially constructed for birchings. As there were no detailed rules, prisons and police stations over the empire devised, adapted and used myriad contraptions under even more numerous names that juvenile and adult offenders were bent over to have their bare buttocks professionally lashed; some models also allowed a standing or leaning position for other implements.
A simple alternative position known from school discipline is horsing (again an equine etymology), where the person to be spanked is hung by the arms from the neck and over the back of another person (e.g. a classmate), or on the shoulders of two or more colleagues.
It was the most common school, home and judicial punishment in Europe up to the 19th century when caning gained increasing popularity. A good, well-wielded birch is a very effective torment, more than presently often thought - in fact, there are accounts that even the legendary sting of the cat o' nine tails was less feared in certain prisons, although British judges usually prescribed the latter most for armed robbery, the birch for various lesser, 'unmanly' crimes such as indecent exposure - accordingly, the birch was generally applied to the bare buttocks (also on the continent), a humiliation usually befalling boys (like the boy's pussy, equally on the naked posterior), the 'adult' cat on the back or shoulders of adults.
In the United States, the paddle and whip-type implements including the prison strap have been more prominent.
Today birching is rarely used for judicial punishment, and has also almost completely died out as a corporal punishment for children. In Britain birching as a judicial punishment for young offenders was abolished in 1947, but the Isle of Man (a small island between Britain and Ireland with its own legal system as a crown dependency outside the UK) caused a good deal of controversy by continuing to birch young offenders into the 1970s. In the Caribbean Commonwealth Republic, Trinidad and Tobago the 1953 Corporal Punishment Act (http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/casos/articulos/seriec_123_ing.pdf Interamerican Court of Human Rights March 11, 2005 judgment in Caesar v. Trinidad & Tobago - §49) allows the High Court to order males, in addition to another punishment (often concurrent with a prison term), to undergo corporal punishment in the form of either a 'flogging' with a knotted cat o' nine tails (made of cords, as in the Royal Navy tradition) or a 'whipping' with a 'rod' [i.e. switch] of tamarind, birch or other switches and allows the President to approve other instruments; in 2000, the original minimal age was raised from 16 to 18, the legal threshold of adulthood (e.g. cases in 1999 on CorPun); corporal punishment in schools was completely banned, but there is reportedly wide support for a controlled reintroduction as recommended in 2004 by a government-initiated study.
- It remains as a nostalgic sadomasochistic practice, mainly in Northern and Eastern Europe.
- In Scandinavia, Finland and Russia there is also a tradition to strike one's body with soaked birch twigs in the sauna to increase blood circulation, opening the pores and as a form of massage. As these birch rods do not have their leaves removed, there is little pain involved.
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See sting and thud for more on this distinction.