What’s the story on that weird medieval cult, the flatulents? Plus: do the Chinese use Chinese water torture?

Dear Cecil:

I have a question that has plagued me for a couple of years now. A few years ago I had a history professor who told me about a group of monks called (and this may be spelled wrong, but it sure sounds funny) the flatulents. He told my class they were dedicated to relieving the pain of Jesus's atonement through self-inflicted injuries. To prove to us he wasn't lying, he showed us a picture of a large statue in Rome of a monk holding a wicked-looking whip. Did he just make this up? Was this statue dedicated to someone else? Was I duped by a man who has nothing better to do than make up a feeble story? PLEASE let me know!

PS: Could this be where those crazy stories about orgies in the Vatican sprang up? I mean, a story about masochistic monks could really get mixed up over the years.

Cecil replies:

Boy, you can say that again. A lot of people might think you were talking about the flagellants, Christians who believed in mortification of the flesh through ritual floggings. (One assumes this is the significance of the monk “holding a wicked-looking whip,” although who knows, perhaps the artist was depicting some other form of self-abuse.)

The flagellants were one of the more extreme expressions of medieval asceticism, arising first in northern Italy around 1260 and spreading within a short time to Germany, Bohemia, and Poland. You’ve heard the expression “whip yourself into a frenzy”? These guys weren’t kidding. They’d travel from one town to the next, whipping themselves and each other in public squares and urging the populace to repent. Grossed out by these macabre spectacles, the authorities had the movement suppressed. (No small task — what are you going to do, have the offenders flogged?) But from time to time flagellants of various stripes, as it were, have resurfaced. Even today the Hermanos Penitentes (Penitent Brothers) are said to practice secret flagellant rites in the back country of New Mexico, and similar displays take place among certain Islamic fundamentalists.

It’s all pretty bizarre, and one can’t help but think your idea about the flatulents is a superior alternative. There you are in some stuffy chapel, praying with the bros, quietly digesting the evening’s beans. Suddenly your stomach begins to rumble. The eyes of the assembly turn to you with apprehension. You struggle to elude the snares of the devil, but finally … well, let’s just say you break your vow of silence. I’m telling you, the flesh can’t get much more mortified than that.

Dear Cecil:

Why does the Canadian flag have a cannabis leaf on it? My mom will really be the talk of Lake Washington!!

Cecil replies:

Sorry, Lauren. Why don’t you and R.J. get together and hash it around?

Dear Cecil:

Did (or do) the Chinese torture prisoners using the Chinese water torture?

Cecil replies:

Probably not. “Chinese” is one of those all-purpose English pejoratives in which foreign is equated with weird. Two variants may be noted. The first is Chinese in the sense of “confused, disorganized, or inferior,” as in “Chinese fire drill” (a chaotic scene, or more commonly these days, the collegiate prank in which everyone tumbles out of a car at a stoplight, runs around to the other side, and piles in again), “Chinese ace” (a bumbling pilot), “Chinese navy” (a disorganized group), and so on.

The other sense is “exotic, mysterious, or devious,” as in Chinese handcuffs (the finger restraints that bind more tightly the harder you try to pull your fingers out), Chinese checkers (the game is said to have been invented in the latter 19th century by an Englishman), and of course Chinese water torture.

Most people understand Chinese water torture to mean driving a prisoner mad by dripping water on his forehead, although a few claim it refers to (a) near drowning or (b) stuffing a rag into the mouth of a prisoner and dripping water on it until it swells up and suffocates him. Chinese = confused is thought to have originated in Britain around World War I; Chinese = exotic/devious is perhaps a little older.

Word sleuth Barry Popik tells me the first known use of the term in question was Harry Houdini’s “Chinese Water Torture Cell,” a stunt introduced circa 1903 in which Houdini was lowered into a tank of water upside down and had to come out alive. Popik says the drip-drip-drip method of torture, not referred to as “Chinese,” is described in Brian Innes’s The History of Torture (1998) as having been invented by one Hippolytus de Marsiliis in 16th-century Italy. At some point subsequent to 1903, presumably, someone conflated Houdini’s trick with de Marsiliis’s torture, and the two have been linked ever since.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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