I'm reading the Cambridge medieval history collection, specifically the chapter on Roman law (Justinian and earlier, vol2, ch3), and there is this sentence pertaining to serfs:

And for some offences, e.g. marrying a freewoman, he was liable by statute, like a slave, to chains or stripes.

In an aha! moment I thought I'd stumbled on to the origin of striped prison uniforms, but so far google says that came about much later. So what are these stripes? Is it a reference to being whipped? Was it something they actually wore?

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    As it is a punishment, perhaps the marks left by whipping (but I can't confirm that 100%). Commented Jan 5 at 0:28
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    I can't find that quote anywhere... history without sources is like physics without units; only useful when drunk. The only reference I found to "stripes" in Justinian's code refers to construction of unauthorized worship facilities.
    – MCW
    Commented Jan 5 at 1:09
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    Seconding @LarsBosteen's comment: I have a dim impression that something like "to receive stripes" once-upon-a-time meant "to receive [whip] lashes"... Commented Jan 5 at 17:22
  • Very common in older British formal documents - whipping. See e.g. battlefields.org/learn/primary-sources/…
    – sq33G
    Commented Jan 7 at 12:17

2 Answers 2


From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

stripe (n.2)

"a stroke or lash with a whip," c. 1400, probably a special use of stripe (n.1), from the marks left by a lash. Compare also Dutch strippen "to whip," West Frisian strips, which apparently are cognate with the English word but are not attested so early. The notion might be the long, narrow, discolored mark on flesh from a stroke or lash.

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    The word 'strippen' in Dutch does not refer to marks left by a lash. That would be 'streep'.
    – Jos
    Commented Jan 5 at 3:35
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    @Jos Was a common spelling of words that well established in 1400s Dutch manuscripts?
    – Graham
    Commented Jan 5 at 10:13
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    @Jos: Meir has given a citation (from the Online Etymology Dictionary). The cited material may be wrong, but...
    – psmears
    Commented Jan 5 at 10:52
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    No way for me to judge, but this gives it as "to whip" and also marks it as obsolete ( books.google.com/… ) 1749; published in amsterdam
    – Yorik
    Commented Jan 5 at 16:08
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    FWIW, a relatively common reference is the Biblical quote used in Handel's Messiah, "By His Stripes, We Are Healed", referring to Jesus's scourging. Commented Jan 5 at 17:26

"Stripes" is used throughout the bible as a synonym for whipping or beating, or the results thereof.

An often cited passage occurs in Isaiah 53:5, - seen here in a number of translations.

  • "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed."

Here are about 30 biblical uses in this context. (The few in Genesis 30, and Proverbs 7:16 do not relate).

The King James Bible was first published in 1604 and uses stripes in this context throughout. This Google Ngrams plot shows shows the prevalence of the Isaiah quote in English literature. This usage in the still much read KJV version has very likely contributed to the ongoing usage of the term.

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