The Court Companion Who Took On The Beatings
If you are familiar with the GRR Martin novels “Game of Thrones”, or similar epic sagas, you have probably heard of the term “whipping boy”.
But, did you know it was a real job that existed through post-Medieval Europe and not at all a literary invention?
European monarchs, especially the English ones, were seen as rulers by Divine Right, who were appointed by God and so answered to God alone. Much like the Egyptian pharaohs, they were untouchable.
Touching a royal parsonage was forbidden, and doing so could lead to severe punishment, even death. An exception to this rule would be, for instance, saving the King’s life.
Tutors, Master at Arms, and others in charge of the King’s education were unable to flog him or physically punish him when he misbehaved. It is for this reason that a whipping boy was introduced.
Whipping boys were usually high-born companions of minor noble houses whose families had high expectations and wanted them to rise through the ranks of nobility. Other times though, the boy could be a street urchin without family, or from a very poor background whose family could not afford to send him to school.
Once a boy was selected he would then join and live in the royal court and become the King’s intimate companion. He would be educated alongside the noble student and shared many of the privileges of royalty.
However, if the young prince did wrong, misbehaved, or did not follow through with his studies, the whipping boy would be punished instead.
Many forms of punishment were common, such as whipping the palms of the hands, kneeling on corn, and also whipping on the back and rear cheeks were also common. Whipping was usually done with a long and flexible crop, but the use of a flogger for more severe punishments was also within the scope of available punishments.
Punishing the boy was somewhat considered a form of punishment to the prince.
The strangeness of the concept was that someone the young prince cared about was made to suffer, and therefore it was hoped that morality, compassion and pity would kick in on the young noble, and would serve as motivation to not repeat their transgressions.
However, morality and kindness would not always work depending on the person’s nature and disposition. Such was the case with the young Louis XV of France (1710–1774). Records indicated that his whipping boy was a cobbler’s son. In 1825, Jacques-Antoine Dulaure called the method method “strange”, “rather barbarous”, and “iniquitous”, and said Louis continued to neglect his studies regardless.
Truth or Myth?
Many modern scholars bring into question the existence of whipping boys, while other historians consider that these boys were just mere servers of the young princes and monarchs.
However, putative records show the practice survived under various guises and names until the 18th century in Europe, and the 19th century in China. “Whenever the Son of Heaven is naughty or inattentive, the ‘ha’hachutsze is beaten or disgraced.” In the East Asian world, the Divine Rights of Kings was known as the Mandate of Heaven.
What Does Whipping Boy Mean Now?
The term whipping boy has become a synonym for a scapegoat, patsy, fall guy, stooge, sacrificial lamb and cannon fodder.
The first allusive use of the term was done by The Times, in 1857:
“Or will the public have still reason to say that M. Migdeon, even supposing all that has been brought against him true, is merely the whipping boy?”