Historical periods get shorter the closer we get to the present day, so you might be surprised to know that, as we leave the Middle Ages in the late 15th century, we reach the era that historians classify as ‘modern’, albeit with the first few centuries or so qualified as ‘early modern’.
We begin in 1490s Scotland with Mary Richmond’s historical novel Incredible Adventure (1969),
about a beautiful noblewoman’s romantic entanglement with one Richard, who is really Perkin Warbeck, the Yorkist pretender to the English throne. She is also not all that she seems at the start of the book: it’s not until after she has been spanked that we discover her true status, though there is a hint for the eagle-eyed in the discrepancy between the lowly plaid of her outer garments and the costly silk of her underwear.
The relationship gets off to a bad start when she tries to have him arrested on a false charge of horse-stealing, to which he responds by throwing her across his saddle and riding away with her.
He pulled her close till she was lying across his thighs, seized first one flailing arm and then the other and gripped her wrists together, so that she could not catch at the mare’s reins. … She struggled convulsively and with such wiriness that the rotten fabric of tartan skirt ripped about her.
To keep her quiet, he gives her ‘a sharp slap across her thinly covered buttocks’, and, after she attempts to escape and attacks him, he tells her:
‘You may be a woman, and I have come from a court where chivalry flourishes, but I am going to forget it and treat you like a rude and undisciplined child. And I hope you’ll profit from the lesson. I intend to make it a thorough one.’
With a jerk which drove all the breath from her body he flung her face downwards across his thighs once more, and pulled her arms behind her, pinioning her wrists; her head was again thrust into the folds of his coat. Her torn and ragged tartan kirtle was no protection and underneath it she wore only a thin silk shift. Richard spanked her mercilessly, holding her in such a way that her violent struggles were useless and she could not kick at his shin. He was aware that even in her humiliation and pain she took care not to kick the mare. She did not scream as he had expected her to, but tried to bite him. Finding it to be impossible, she burrowed her head further into his coat, and he felt her teeth tugging at it. Had she begged for mercy he would have stayed his punishing hand, but she did not make a sound, only renewed her frantic struggles, trying to fling herself over on her back. But when she realized that her shift, too, had ripped and was hanging about her, she lay quite still and took her punishment stoically.
Staying north of Hadrian’s Wall but moving on a couple of generations to the 1560s brings us to Mary of Scotland (1936), the John Ford movie starring Katharine Hepburn in the title role of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Fredric March as her lover, the Earl of Bothwell. We’re only here for a quick exchange between him and the Queen’s cheeky lady-in-waiting Mary Beaton (Frieda Inescort), in the center here:
‘For two farthings I’d put you over my knee,’ he tells her, in an idiom that, in an American movie of that period, combines the quaint with the quotidian. What it isn’t combined with is any action, so let’s head south to see if there are any pickings at the English court of the 1590s.
Here’s a newspaper advert for The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn in the title roles. Look to the bottom right:
‘Essex spanks the Queen’? Surely unthinkable! Let a contemporary review begin to clarify matters:
Perhaps the biggest laugh of the film occurs when Essex, in the rough horseplay of the period, spanks the Queen amiably on her bustle and the lady falls onto a flight of stairs in uproarious mirth.
Yes, it’s this sort of ‘spanking’, nothing more:
Will we get any further if we go forward another couple of generations? Surely one of the more spankable Queens of England is the wife of Charles I, Henrietta Maria.
She was born a French princess and was escorted to her new life in England by the Duke of Buckingham in 1625, as recounted in Kathleen Lindsay’s historical novel My Dear Heart (1970).
The Duke’s assessment of his charge, and the prospect of a successful marriage with the King, is pertinent:
‘What she needs is a damned good spanking before he takes her to bed. But I doubt if he’s the man to do it.’
Sadly it’s also prescient, because she doesn’t get the spanking.
Let’s pause momentarily in 1640, just before England descends into chaos, to see a bad girl presenting her bottom for what she later calls ‘some hard besom discipline’ from her father.
She’s Lucinda Lacey (Lucy Aston) in the first episode of the 1983 BBC serial By the Sword Divided, in which she runs away to escape an unwanted marriage, embarrassing her family and earning herself seven of the best. (In a later episode, she admits she deserved it, and marries the young man after all.)
That’s all a bit grim and punitive, but if we cross to the other side of the English Civil War, there’s plenty of straightforward spanking action waiting for us in the late 17th and 18th centuries. This is a popular period with the sort of romance novelist who caters to the taste for masterful men and tempestuous maidens, for whom we’ll allow Rachelle Edwards to stand as an example.
Robyn, the 17-year-old heroine of In the Shadow of Tyburn (1979), insults her guardian’s friends and servants and, when he remonstrates, throws a slipper at him.
He caught it with remarkable dexterity and then he reached out to take hold of her.
‘Don’t dare to touch me!’ she cried.
Smiling slightly he did not heed her. He caught hold of her arm and sitting down on the edge of the bed he pulled her across his knee. Robyn screamed as the slipper came down on her behind with a resounding thud. Half a dozen times more the slipper came down on her and all the while she screamed with pain and struggled furiously to be free of his grip, in vain.
‘Someone should have done that years ago,’ he said quietly as she was allowed to struggle to her feet at last.
This is also the loose period setting for a lot of modern renditions of fairytales, when they aren’t back in medieval times. Cases in point might include the Czech film Honza Malem Kralem (1977), the American stage play Three Fairy Godmothers (1967),
and the long-running Dutch comic strip Douwe Dabbert, about the comical adventures of a gnome, which began in 1975 with ‘The Spoiled Princess’:
Of course, the awful Princess Pauline doesn’t get away with it,
and the upshot is that Douwe Dabbert is appointed to be her tutor!
But as well as refined royal courts, this was also a great age of maritime adventure, and therefore of rough, tough seafaring men like the pirate captain in Kathleen Lindsay’s romance Virginia (1969), who tells the stowaway heroine when she refuses to be put ashore:
‘If you speak one more word on the subject I’ll turn you face downwards over my knee and give you such a spanking that you’ll find it extremely painful to sit down for the next few days.’
Later on he marries her and, when she tries to leave him, he carries her to the bedroom, strips off her clothes and:
He turned her over and beat her as if she had been a naughty child. He had a hard hand and he let her feel the full weight of it. She writhed to escape the punishing blows, but it was useless. He had pulled her to the edge of the bed, bent her over it and locked her wrists behind her back. She bit her lower lip so hard, determined not to cry out or beg for mercy, that she felt the salty taste of blood in her mouth, but in the end her endurance gave way and she sobbed wildly.
Or, if you prefer non-fictional seamen, try the Danish movie Tordenskjold går i Land (Tordenskjold Goes Ashore; 1942), in which Hans Kurt plays the Scandinavian naval hero Peter Wessel (1691-1720), known as Tordenskjold (or Thundershield). In the film, he is trying to get the Admiralty to award him a command in recognition of his prowess in battle. But he has an aristocratic rival for the promotion, the Count von Schulenburg, whose Countess Elsebeth (Karin Nellemose) is ambitiously pressing his claim. In the course of the story she goes slumming in the Paradise tavern, posing as a maidservant, and has an altercation with Tordenskjold, which results in a spanking for her and a slapped face for him.
The passage from ‘early modern’ to ‘modern’ takes us into revolutionary and Napoleonic times, and, most pertinently, into the French occupation of Spain during the Peninsular War. But we’re not concerned with such high matters of moment, but rather with a spat between a passionate gypsy woman and a market trader, which will involved some squashed vegetables and a quite spectacular spanking.
It happens in the Spanish movie Carmen, la de Ronde (1959), in which Carmen the gypsy (Sara Montiel) has an altercation with Micaela (Maria de los Angeles Hortelano), which leads to a catfight that demolishes a market stall. (‘My tomatoes!’ the stallholder is heard to cry plaintively.)
And like many a catfight, this leads to a spanking, when Carmen turns Micaela over, pulls up her skirt, and gives her a thorough spanking on the seat of her thoroughly anachronistic (but also thoroughly splendid) frilly panties:
Proceeding further into the 19th century might seem supererogatory, for it includes the most familiar period setting of all, home to a popular movie genre that is strongly associated with spanking, from the wild frontier to the homestead.
We could have many examples, and have done previously, but let’s restrict ourselves to just one, and make it the case of the adventurer Casey Ruggles, who began his Western exploits in 1949 and, in only the sixth episode of Warren Tufts’ newspaper strip, catches a sneak-thief in the act while on his way to Gold-Rush California. Rough justice follows:
One reason not to linger over the Wild West is that there’s another frontier awaiting us that we don’t see nearly as much of. Go down under, young man (or whatever age or gender is more appropriate). For there’s more rough justice to be administered in colonial Australia, including in yet another romance novel by Kathleen Lindsay, Rustle of Spring (1967).
The heroine goes progressively to the bad, perhaps in part because the hero’s initial efforts don’t go far enough. Early on, after she goes out unwisely alone and is attacked, he rescues her and tells her:
‘If you belonged to me I’d put you face downwards over my knee and administer a spanking that would leave your little behind sore for a month.’
That doesn’t happen, but in due course they are engaged, until she breaks it off and goes to lead a band of outlaws in preference to settling down to married life. He vows to find her, clearly intending to spank her when he does (‘then she should smart for it’), always assuming the law doesn’t take a harsher view and prescribe more terminal measures. He doesn’t believe it should:
‘The only way to use a rope on a woman is to lay it across her little behind. It soon brings her to heel.’
But in her case:
‘A rope won’t be necessary. My hand is quite hard enough for this job. You’ve had this hiding coming to you for over two years.’
He soon had her over his knees. She writhed, defying him, until she felt him tear at her breeches and the cloth ripped. Then he pulled them from her. The flimsy lace-topped chemise which was all she was wearing underneath was no protection from the punishment he was going to administer. How those men below would jeer if they could hear what was happening. Useless to prevent herself from crying out by crushing her wrists against her lips, for they were held firmly behind her back in such a way that she could not move them.
‘You’ve set your will against mine once too often,’ he told her grimly. ‘And now I’m going to break it, if it takes me all night.’
It took exactly seven minutes, and then she screamed for mercy and promised to tell him all he wanted to know. The stinging blows ceased, but he still kept her in the same humiliating position while he questioned her.
And it’s not only on the wild frontier that we find naughty girls being spanked, but at the heart of European civilization too. A case in point us the German operetta Königswalzer (King’s Waltz; 1955), set in 1850s Munich at the time of the marriage of the Emperor Franz Josef to the Princess Elisabeth of Bavaria, known less formally as Sissi. We shall soon have more to do with her, but for the time being we are more concerned with a love story on the next rung down. The imperial envoy charged with organizing the marriage, the Count von Tettenbach. falls in love with Theresa (Marianne Koch), the pretty daughter of the middle-class café owner Ludwig Tomasoni (Joe Stöckel), but Theresa’s younger sister Anni (Sabine Hahn) risks ruining everything when she too falls in love with the Count. Of course, he shows none of the interest in her that she thinks she deserves, so she makes matters worse by spreading the lie that he kissed and groped her, which threatens to compromise his integrity and therefore the success of his mission to Munich.
Stricken with remorse, Anni confesses the slander to her father and sister and, when he demands that she explain her behavior, declares that she wanted to show them that she’s not a child. This is never a very prudent thing for a naughty girl to say, and especially not when there is more than one aggrieved individual to collaborate in the administration of her just deserts:
Now, I said we hadn’t finished with Sissi, who did marry Franz Josef in 1854 and was his consort until her death in 1898. And in the same year that brought us Königswalzer, there began a series of romantic movies about her life, starring the young Romy Schneider. Sissi isn’t going to be spanked (though that fate did lie ahead for Romy), but she does blunder into a spanking scene early in the third and last film in the series, Sissi: Schicksalsjahre einer Kaiserin (Sissi: Fateful Years of an Empress; 1957). She is traveling in Hungary when she visits a gypsy encampment and hears the sound of a gypsy wife being spanked by her gypsy husband.
She intervenes to put a stop to this, but the wife doesn’t appreciate it and throws a basinful of water over her. This results, of course, in terrified gypsy discomfiture when it emerges who Sissi is, followed by another husbandly spanking as the sopping Sissi makes her exit.
‘Let’s leave the gypsies to their domestic bliss,’ suggests Sissi’s courtly companion, and she replies, ‘If she loves her husband enough to defend him after that spanking, he might as well go on spanking her.’
So now we have reached the second half of the 19th century – and having started in the caves of human prehistory, it feels almost like the day before yesterday. As I said earlier, historical periods seem to get shorter as we approach contemporary times; but surveys of spanking risk getting longer, and can have no hope of being comprehensive, or perhaps even representative. But still we can see a version of the same contradiction that appeared in earlier period settings: spanking often features on the margins, in countries and regions at the edge of civilization, done by uncouth sailors and frontiersmen and gypsies; but it is also reckoned to be a civilizing act that is done by ordinary parents, lawmen and other figures of accepted social authority. The implications of that are large, and they will continue to occupy us in the weeks to come.