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corporal punishment, physical chastisement of an offender. At one extreme it includes the death penalty (see capital punishment), but the term usually refers to punishments like flogging, caning, mutilation, and branding. Until c.1800, in many parts of the world, most crimes were punished thus, or by such practices as confinement in the pillory or stocks, which combined physical chastisement with the humiliation of an individual possible in a relatively small, cohesive society. Flogging was especially prevalent, being used also to keep order among the institutionalized insane and in schools and the armed forces.
In America, a movement against the use of corporal punishment was led in the late 17th cent. by Quakers who achieved local reforms in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The 18th cent. saw a general reaction against violent punishment, and with the emergence of the modern concept of rehabilitating an offender, confinement has been accompanied more by forms of moral, rather than physical, coercion. Nonetheless, the use of the whipping post survived in the United States into the 20th cent., and was last used in 1952 in Delaware.
The effectiveness of corporal punishment has been questioned by criminologists and educators, but it is still widely used. Flogging, for instance, was not banned in South Africa until 1995, and caning is employed in Singapore and Malaysia. Within British and American prisons flogging and beating are still used unofficially, ostensibly to maintain order, often for retribution. Mutilation, including amputation of fingers and hands, is also used in some countries, especially in those whose legal system is based on Islamic law. Caning and spanking remain common in schools in some areas of the United States and Britain. Movements to restore or encourage corporal punishment of children recur periodically, as in rural and Southern parts of the United States. Opponents of corporal punishment in education note that under some states' laws the actions that may be used on children in schools would be crimes if used on an adult.
a special kind of criminal punishment, which had arisen even in antiquity and which has persisted in several countries into the mid-20th century. Corporal punishment consisted in the public infliction of physical torment on the offender—for example, by beating with sticks (rods, switches) or with a knout or whip, by the amputation of extremities, the excision of the tongue, the tearing of the nostrils, and branding. It was widely used to compel the payment of tax arrears (in ancient Egypt) and debts (Russian pravezh, or the exaction by force of a debt or damages); it was universally used as a means to deal with slaves and to punish offending serfs.
In Western Europe, various forms of corporal punishment were established in law from the 13th century. Corporal punishment figured prominently in, among others, the “bloody legislation against the dispossessed,” the Carolina, and measures taken against heretics.