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Medieval 'chastising' whip found at UK abbey

A whip used by monks to chastise themselves has been found at Rufford Abbey. The medieval item was found in 2014 but a recent discovery has revealed its importance.

Medieval 'chastising' whip found at UK abbey
Pieces of a punishing copper scourge, or whip, that may have been used by repenting 
medieval monks to chastise themselves, unearthed at Rufford Abbey 
[Credit: Nottinghamshire City Council]
A medieval whip used by monks to chastise themselves has been found at Rufford Abbey. The whip – or cat o' nine tails and scourges as they were also known – is one of only four to have been found in the country.

It is made of woven copper wires braided together, and could have been used by monks to keep the Black Death at bay. Emily Gillott, a community archaeologist at Rufford Abbey, said the find gave a glimpse into the darker side of life at the Abbey in the Middle Ages.

She said: "We were very surprised to find it because these are incredibly rare. They are made of woven pieces of copper alloy and therefore would normally be recycled to use as other things. At first we thought it was jewellery, because Vikings often used woven wires as jewellery but that didn't quite make sense."

Ms Gillott spotted a similar whip during a visit to Rievaulx Abbey, another former Cistercian abbey, in Yorkshire, and finally the discovery made sense. "I just saw it and thought 'that is exactly what we had found' so I sent it off for tests and to have it cleaned in York," she said.

The whip itself was found during a dig in 2014, but the recent discovery has only just revealed how important the find was. "The Black Plague was seen as punishment by God, so the monks may have used the scourges to punish themselves so they didn't get the plague," Ms Gillott, who has worked at Rufford Abbey for 12 years, added.

"It's a bit unusual and quite dark, but is important because it shows you what life was like. We've seen indications of the whips written in texts but to find them is very rare."

The Black Death plague ravaged the country from 1348, and put an end to prosperity at Rufford and the Abbey went into decline. It is believed the Cistercian monks used the scourges in this period in an attempt to keep the Black Death at bay, or for the mortification of the human body.

Glyn Coppack, from the department of archaeology at the University of Nottingham, said: "There must be a number of unidentified scourges from monastic excavations, but apart from the one from La Grava I have not seen any others myself. I suspect they are very rare indeed, and this is an exceptional find."

Councillor John Knight, committee chairman for culture at Nottinghamshire County Council, added: "Each archaeological dig at Rufford Abbey unearths something new about its remarkable history and this is another fascinating discovery which helps us to build a picture of what life could have been like for the monks living in the Abbey during the dark days of the Black Death and its aftermath."

Author: Jon Pritchard | Source: Nottingham Post [March 30, 2016]

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