Birching

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The Constable awaiting his "victim"

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.

The implement

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
Also see the page [ Birch-making tutorial ]

Position

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.

History

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.

History of birching

A girl is prepared for a birching. Note the tub in which two birch rods are soaked.
Medieval woodcut (1592) showing a school birching over a low block.

From antiquity throughout the middle ages up to well into the 19th century, birching was very popular for both the punishment of criminal offenders (either given on the back or on the bare buttocks) and for the punishment of children at home and in school. Birching was extensively used in the great public schools, most notably Eton.

For a severe birching, often two birch rods would be made. The delinquent would be birched with the first rod until too many twigs had broken off and it was no longer deemed fit for use. This might be the case after, say, 24 strokes. Then the second, fresh, birch was taken and the birching was continued until the second birch was also "used up".

Birching was so popular because it is very painful, but at the same time comparatively safe because the individual birch twigs are lightweight and air resistance ensures that you can't strike the skin too hard. Even heavy birching will cause only surface skin injuries (possibly drawing blood), but will do no deeper damage to the tissue or internal organs.

In the UK, birching as a judicial corporal punishment for young offenders was abolished in 1947. 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.

There were generally two main types of birch:

The "spray" type

Used in schools, the British navy, and judicially in prisons and by police officers after summary judgement by magistrates. It consisted of a "spray" of (usually) birch twigs tied to form a fairly loose bundle with a handle at one end

The "Isle of Man" type

This was used, as the name implies, on the Isle of Man to birch young male offenders and consisted of four to six hazel or willow rods bound together. This was generally thought to be more painful than the spray birch because, in effect, several cane-like rods were being applied to the bare buttocks with each stroke.

For judicial use, the dimensions (overall length, length of handle, diameter of spray and weight, etc.) were all specified for various ages of miscreants. The smallest birch being for boys age 10 and under, a larger, heavier one for boys aged 11 to 15, and the largest and heaviest birch for boys aged 16+, and adult men. In practice, the dimensions could vary enormously, as could the severity with which the strokes were applied. Judicial birchings of both boys and adult men were always applied to the bare buttocks.

Ceremonial birching

In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, boys traditionally awake young, nubile girls on the morning after Easter by dowsing them with water and whipping them on their buttocks or legs with a pomlázka, a specially-designed and decorated birch switch made from eight braided willow branches. The dowsing and whipping is thought to chase away illness and bad spirits, and to bring good luck, wealth and rich harvest for the whole year. (See Easter and spanking.)

Non-punitive uses

  • 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.

Birching 'furniture'

Eton School flogging block and birch.
Institutions that meted out a lot of birchings, such as schools, reformatories and prisons, often had specially designed items of furniture called birching table, birching block, birching horse, or birching pony. The delinquent was laid (and often restrained) over these to keep him or her in a good position for the duration of the punishment (see lying position, half-standing position and bent-over-object position). When furniture was not used, it was common for the miscreant to be "horsed" on the back of another person to administer a birching.

Judicial and prison birchings of boys aged 16 and over, and adult men, were done with the miscreant secured to a flogging triangle or A-Frame, which was the same apparatus which was used for administering the Cat O’ Nine Tails. For both types of punishment, the miscreant’s ankles would be spread wide apart, and secured to the bottom legs of the A-Frame. However, whilst the Cat was applied to the bare back with the miscreant in a standing position, the birch was applied to the bare buttocks with the miscreant bent over the leather padded “cross bar” of the A-Frame. His wrists were then secured to the base of the A-Frame’s third leg, at the rear.

Gallery (art)

Gallery (photos)


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