Monday, September 9th, 2019


The itch is inescapable, from chicken pox to conditions like eczema which many people suffer with for all of their lives. Itching is something most people want removed but throughout history people have made themselves itch as a form of self-punishment whilst others have had itching inflicted as a punishment.

Hair Shirts and Cilice: The Itch as Self-Punishment

The itch as self-punishment was a practice amongst Medieval Christians to inflict harm upon themselves as means of repentance. A cilice was worn next to the skin to deliberately cause discomfort, like itching. More commonly known as the hair shirt, the cilice was an undergarment made from coarse animal hair which would cause itching. Hair shirts would also become repositories for lice thus intensify the itching whilst others added twigs or thin wire to their hair shirts to make them more uncomfortable. One notable figure to wear a hair shirt was Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 to 1170, with it only being discovered when he was murdered in 1170 revealing that repentance was usually a private matter.

The cilice has developed to become any device worn to cause discomfort, not necessarily a shirt or to cause itching. In some modern religious circles, the cilice is still used and a metal spiked cilice, worn around the upper thigh, is considered the most controversial due to its graphic depiction in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. However, all types of cilice have the purpose of self-mortification. There are different reasons for corporal mortification, but they all have a spiritual link. The discomfort and pain caused by the cilice was considered to be imitating the suffering of Christ, during Lent and the crucifixion, which would help people repent for sins as well as resisting the temptations of the flesh in order to achieve spiritual goals.

Dante’s Inferno: Itching as a Punishment

Since the 14th century the itch has been understood to be unbearable and subsequently adopted as a punishment. Dante Alighieri’s Inferno depicts Hell as nine rings each one for a different sin. Falsifiers (alchemists, impersonators, counterfeiters and liars) were punished with ‘the burning rage of fierce itching that nothing could relieve’ in the eighth ring of Hell. This suggests that the torment of itching was understood in 1320, with only treachery receiving the worst fate, of being frozen in ice, in the last circle of Hell.

Today, there are tribes in India who inflict itching as a punishment. The Ao tribe in Nagaland, India use small triangular cages, made from bamboo and covered in itchy substance derived from plants, to punish social delinquents, like alcoholics and drug addicts. Called khujli ghar, these cages restrict movement and sleeping is an impossible task for fear of succumbing to never ending itching. Although this practice has been condemned by rights activists in Nagaland, the tribes are reluctant to stop using this punishment as it has proved to be more effective than the prison system for reforming delinquents.

The itch has proven to be something quite hard to liberate our lives from. Some Christians still use a cilice to cause itching whilst it was also highly feared according to Dante’s Inferno. It is still applied as punishment by the Ao tribe revealing the itch has a long and sometimes irksome history.

For more on the history of the itch, listen to our podcast!

By Jasmine Lethbridge

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