It’s the middle of the 6th century AD: the year 547, to be precise. Rome fell to the barbarians 71 years ago, so the Dark Ages are getting started. And in terms of modern fiction, that means spanking scenes are back!
So who will be the first to get spanked? Take your pick:
Actually that’s not a choice, because they’re both Theodora, the Empress of Byzantium: on the left, rendered in a contemporary mosaic, and on the right, played by Gianna Maria Canale in the Italian sword-and-sandal epic, Teodora, Imperatrice di Bizanzio (1954), directed by her husband, Riccardo Freda.
Our subject is, of course, the movie. (The date given at the head of the article is the one stated there, which is actually a few decades later than the events depicted.) Historically a courtesan who married the future Emperor Justinian, Theodora is toned down to an exotic dancer who captures his heart through her terpsichorean prowess. But she has another lover, Arcas the charioteer, played by Renato Baldini.
Byzantium is intensely interested in chariot-racing, and riven by obsessive passions, jealousies and rivalries around the two teams, the Blues and the Greens. Arcas drives for the Greens, so it was perhaps imprudent of Theodora to go out on a date with him dressed entirely in blue, right down, as we eventually see, to her panties (which are, of course, of questionable historical authenticity). So she duly pays the penalty:
One thing that’s piquant about the scene is that it’s an actual historical personage being spanked. That’s not entirely unique, as we can see if we fast-forward five centuries (or alternatively 28 years) to witness what becomes of this lady:
She’s Matilda of Flanders, seen on the left as chiselled by sculptor Carle Elshoecht in 1850, and on the right as embodied by actress Eniko Szilagyi in the 6-part Franco-Romanian television series, Guillaume le Conquérant, first shown in November 1982. Among many other things, the series dramatizes, and sanitizes, a famous incident immediately before her betrothal to the Duke of Normandy, the future William the Conqueror, played by Hervé Bellon.
In the lead-up, the 18-year-old Matilda tells her father, who has just agreed a marriage for her elder sister, that she is worried about being left on the shelf. He pooh-poohs this, and insists that she will be married when he can find an appropriate match consistent with his honor as Count of Flanders. The son-in-law he selects, however, is William of Normandy, who happens to be illegitimate, which in her view makes the proposed marriage inconsistent with her honor. She tells this in vivid terms to the ambassador sent to arrange the matter, and he returns affronted to Normandy, advising a declaration of war. William decides to take it as a personal insult rather than a diplomatic one, and rides straight to Flanders, where he bursts into the court and confronts Matilda.
In history, what happened next was a brutal assault that left Matilda injured and bedridden for days. In TV history, it was something much more obviously compatible with the idea of a ‘rough wooing’.
‘It’s lucky you’re not a man,’ William tells her, ‘rather than a naughty girl!’ But if she behaves like one, she will be treated like one. And with that, he hoists her over his shoulder and carries her out into the courtyard.
There she gets a pretty thorough public spanking (25 slaps’ worth of vigorous Foley work) in front of a crowd that enjoys the spectacle enormously – especially, by the looks of it, the young women.
Her father is all ready to take reprisals for the outrage, but Matilda stops him: the spanking has scotched all her previous objections and she is sure that William is the right man for her!
The French will tell you that the Normans are really just uncivilized Vikings, and it’s true that the Dark Ages were full of marauding barbarians out to rape and pillage and, sometimes, do what Duke William did to Matilda of Flanders, and also what happens to Snow White (Biancaneve) in this splendid cover painting for an Italian comic book of 1976:
It’s the function of the chivalrous medieval knight to defend fair ladies against this kind of monstrous deed, as we see in a 1939 run of R.B Fuller’s newspaper strip about the comical adventures of Sir Oaky Doaks. It begins with an unfriendly encounter with a knight errant, who jousts with Oaky before being revealed to be:
She has come in disguise to warn the kingdom that the Zoobies are coming: barbarians from across the sea who are only slightly less terrifying than the real-life Vikings, and have possibly even more outrageous accents. Oaky takes on the Zoobie King in single combat, on a promise that if he wins, his royal Zoobieness will peaceably take his troops back home again. The victory does indeed fall on Oaky, and the King is not only knocked cold but has to be saved from drowning. The first thing he sees when he recovers consciousness is Judy:
She rebuffs his advances in the firmest way she knows,
but this only convinces him that she is an even more desirable wife, and possibly one who will need some taming.
He immediately reneges on his promise, abducts Judy and sails off back to Zoobia with Oaky and his bald friend Cedric lashed to the mast. Judy is persuaded to change out of ‘poy’s clothes’, and she plays along in the hope of freeing Oaky. But she is caught struggling with the knots, and the consequences for her are not only unwelcome but also, by newspaper strip standards, quite extended:
This so enrages Oaky that he bursts his bonds.
He proceeds to deck the brute (‘I’ll teach you how to treat a lady’), but the victory is temporary: when they reach Zoobia, Oaky and Cedric are enslaved and sent to the mines. Judy, however, is able to save herself from an unwanted marriage, and subsequently rescue her friends, when she learns that Zoobie wedding protocol requires that the bridegroom may not see his bride’s face until after the ceremony – whereupon he finds himself married to an uncomely maidservant who has agreed to switch places and clothes with Judy (hence the gratuitous display of anachronistic bloomers above).
Knights aren’t always so successful in defending ladies’ honors (and bottoms). Oaky himself becomes the danger in a 1943 sequence when he’s based at the court of King Arthur. Here’s an example of his usual chivalry under provocation from the sorceress Morgana le Fay, at this point the strip’s regular villainess:
Things change when she poses as a damsel in distress, held captive by her own soldiers, and summons Oaky to her aid. The knightly code leaves him no option but to comply, even though he suspects a trap, which indeed it is: Morgana’s true objective is to seduce him, and she has procured a love potion from Merlin for the purpose. Unfortunately for her, Merlin is wise to her schemes and has supplied a ‘hate potion’ instead, which has a spectacular effect after she slips it into Oaky’s coffee:
Morgana’s kicking legs, and the resultant flying coffee table, show what a vigorous spanking this is. She is unsurprisingly affronted, and makes her escape vowing revenge:
But her next appearance in the series, involving an attempt to rob King Arthur’s treasury, also results in a sore bottom for her, albeit with a different immediate cause:
Let’s not get ahead of things, though. The effect of Merlin’s potion on Oaky turns out to be general rather than limited to Morgana: when he said all women needed a spanking, he meant it literally. When Morgana’s minions set upon him, his life is saved by a figure in armor, who turns out not to be all that she seems:
Not the wisest of moves, but his right hand doesn’t stay disabled for long, and soon there is an outbreak of sore bottoms in the city:
The upshot is a complaint to the King from the Camelot Women’s Club. Summoned to the royal presence to explain himself, Oaky willingly makes submission to King Arthur but won’t kneel to Queen Guinevere, which gives offense. But not nearly as much offense as what he does soon after:
The King and his cabinet are in two minds about this: Arthur remarks confidentially that he has wanted to do that to Guinevere for years, and the councillors give Oaky three cheers – then banish him from the realm for his foul and unchivalrous deed. Well, they really had no choice after the state of the Queen’s bottom got into the gossip columns:
But it seems even a renegade spanking knight has his uses. King Arthur send Oaky to the kingdom of Sissi, where King Henpeck III has a problem: he returned from the crusades to find that the women had taken over. Arthur promises to rescind Oaky’s banishment if he can sort it out. And so he gets to work:
So when Queen Addie Kate hears of the rampage and summons the girls of parliament to a sitting, there’s one slight problem – involving sitting. The infuriated Queen summons Oaky to her presence, but he spanks the pretty messenger and sends back word that Her Majesty’s turn will come in due course.
For the battleax Queen, this is going to be a final reckoning:
So when, with rolling pin in hand, she orders the spanking knight out of the kingdom, the outcome is a physical confrontation in which Oaky comes out on top:
The arrival of the veiled lady changes the dynamic. Merlin has established that Oaky will only snap out of his potion-induced hatred of women if he sees the face of the girl he loves, and has sent Princess Elaine to Sissi with that objective. At first it looks as if it’ll be her upturned bottom that Oaky sees, and not her face:
But she saves herself by timely unveiling:
One disappointing thing about the story so far is that it presents spanking as an act of general misogyny, largely because it is behavior that is the antithesis of Oaky’s usual chivalry towards ladies, the proper order of things that is now restored by the sight of Elaine. But earlier on, the royal messenger’s reaction to being spanked introduced a new note that complicates the conclusion:
To some (not all) of the recipients, spanking turns out to be welcome, even if only after the event. And so it is with the Queen of Sissi:
And that starts to break down the simple binary that opposes chivalry to misogyny, civilization to barbarism, with spanking always on the wrong side. But if spanking is sometimes a desirable or even necessary deed, what’s a very perfect gentle knight to do?
One answer is to have a sidekick, like Johan the Red Knight (de Rode Ridder), the Belgian comic-book hero whose adventures began in 1959. So it’s lucky for him that in 1977 he had a short-lived association with Storkas, a barbarian from the far north. Or, looked at another way, it’s unlucky for some.
Azurah, daughter of a dishonest merchant, appears in the story ‘The Galley-Slave’, written and drawn by Karel Biddeloo. She and her father are trying to get their rascally hands on a treasure map, and in the course of events, she’s very abusive to Storkas while he’s chained up, calling him a ‘retarded brute’ and a ‘clumsy meat-mountain’. So when she goes for a rest in her cabin, she’s unpleasanty surprised to find him free and come to visit. ‘You know what we do to naughty girls in my country?’ he asks her, then gives her a demonstration:
But some medieval adventurers just don’t worry themselves unduly about codes of chivalry when there’s a spanking deserved and due. Take the Spanish knight errant Captain Thunder (Capitano Trueno), who began a long run in 1956. In the 1961 story ‘The Queen of the Bandits’, he encounters the pirate Sivara, who tries to poison him, and he tells her without hesitation or embarrassment that she is a naughty girl and that he’s going to treat her like one:
Then there’s Sir Gawain, a Knight of the Round Table who in 1954 had an awkward encounter with a wife trying to make her husband jealous by flirting with him. The husband draws his sword declaring that honor demands Gawain’s death, to which Gawain retorts, ‘It is my knightly duty to see that justice is done.’
The outcome is ‘cries of injured dignity’, followed by ‘loud sobbing’. And to repeat: this wasn’t a breach of the knightly code, but a matter of knightly duty.
We’re in the world of Prince Valiant, created by Hal Foster in 1937, the purest, most civilized knight of them all, and one who also has no qualms about the forceful handling of marital disputes:
And, as usual, she seems content to be forcefully handled:
Here such behavior is only shocking to outsiders such as Ben Zirara, a friend of Sir Launcelot from a 1971 sequence, who is escorting a party of knights to his homeland in North Africa. He is a self-styled ‘protector of pure womanhood’ who has to be restrained when a husband chases his flirtatious wife into the woods and gives her an off-panel spanking:
He is, moreover, quite dumbfounded at the aftermath:
So knights and barbarians seem to have swapped attitudes: now it’s the barbarians who disapprove and the knights who spank, sometimes without even taking the trouble to dismount.
And that’s more or less where we’ll pick up in the next part of the series.