Flaying, also known colloquially as skinning, is a method of slow and painful execution in which skin is removed from the body. Generally, an attempt is made to keep the removed portion of skin intact.
A dead animal may be flayed when preparing it to be used as human food, or for its hide or fur. This is more commonly called skinning.
Flaying of humans is used as a method of torture or execution, depending on how much of the skin is removed. This is often referred to as flaying alive. There are also records of people flayed after death, generally as a means of debasing the corpse of a prominent enemy or criminal, sometimes related to religious beliefs (e.g. to deny an afterlife); sometimes the skin is used, again for deterrence, esoteric/ritualistic purposes, etc. (e.g. scalping).
Dermatologist Ernst G. Jung notes that the typical causes of death due to flaying are shock, critical loss of blood or other body fluids, hypothermia, or infections, and that the actual death is estimated to occur from a few hours up to a few days after the flaying. Hypothermia is possible, as skin provides natural insulation and is essential for maintaining body temperature.
Ernst G. Jung, in his Kleine Kulturgeschichte der Haut ("A short cultural history of the skin"), provides an essay in which he outlines the Neo-Assyrian tradition of flaying human beings. Already from the times of Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883–859 BC), the practice is displayed and commemorated in both carvings and official royal edicts. The carvings show that the actual flaying process might begin at various places on the body, such as at the crus (lower leg), the thighs, or the buttocks.
In their royal edicts, the Neo-Assyrian kings seem to gloat over the terrible fate they imposed upon their captives, and that flaying seems, in particular, to be the fate meted out to rebel leaders. Jung provides some examples of this triumphant rhetoric. From Ashurnasirpal II:
I have made a pillar facing the city gate, and have flayed all the rebel leaders; I have clad the pillar in the flayed skins. I let the leaders of the conquered cities be flayed, and clad the city walls with their skins. The captives I have killed by the sword and flung on the dung heap.
The Rassam cylinder in the British Museum describes this:
Their corpses they hung on stakes, they took off their skins and covered the city wall with them.
Searing or cutting the flesh from the body was sometimes used as part of the public execution of traitors in medieval Europe. A similar mode of execution was used as late as the early 18th century in France; one such episode is graphically recounted in the opening chapter of Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish (1979).
In 1303, the treasury of Westminster Abbey was robbed while holding a large sum of money belonging to King Edward I. After the arrest and interrogation of 48 monks, three of them, including the subprior and sacrist, were found guilty of the robbery and flayed. Their skin was attached to three doors as a warning against robbers of church and state. At St Michael & All Angels' Church in Copford in Essex, England, it is claimed that human skin was found attached to an old door, though evidence seems elusive.
In Chinese history, Sun Hao, Fu Sheng and Gao Heng were known for removing skin from people's faces. The Hongwu Emperor flayed many servants, officials and rebels. Hai Rui suggested that his emperor flay corrupt officials. The Zhengde Emperor flayed six rebels, and Zhang Xianzhong also flayed many people. Lu Xun said the Ming dynasty was begun and ended by flaying.
His body was given over to the surgeons for dissection. He was skinned to supply such souvenirs as purses, his flesh made into grease, and his bones divided as trophies to be handed down as heirlooms. It is said that there still lives a Virginian who has a piece of his skin which was tanned, that another Virginian possesses one of his ears and that the skull graces the collection of a physician in the city of Norfolk.