To “run the gauntlet” once meant to endure a form of corporal punishment in which the party judged as guilty was forced to run between two rows of soldiers, who struck at him. Today, the phrase is used to mean going through a series of criticisms or harsh treatments at the hands of one’s detractors.
The word originates from the Swedish gatlop, or gatu-lop, and appeared in English in the 1600s, perhaps from English and Swedish soldiers fighting in Protestant armies during the Thirty Years’ War. The word in English was originally spelled “gantelope” or “gantlope,” but it didn’t take long for “gantlope” to migrate into “gauntlet” — possibly because the words sounded similar or because of the association with the use of gauntlets as weapons and with the antagonism implicit in “throwing down the gauntlet.” That phrase is first recorded in Hall’s Chronicles of Richard III, 1548.
Such punishment was used in Ancient Greek and Roman armies, and in later armies and navies. In Sweden, running the gauntlet was also a civilian punishment for certain crimes until the 1700s. The practice persisted in parts of Germany (mainly Prussia) and Austria, and also in Russia, until the 1800s.
The condemned soldier was stripped to the waist and had to pass between a double row of comrades who struck him. A subaltern walked in front of him with a blade to prevent him from running. The punishment was not necessarily continued until death and might, or might not, be followed by execution. Running the gauntlet was considered far less of a dishonor than a beating on the pillory or stocks.
In the Royal Navy, running the gauntlet was a punishment for minor offences. The condemned had to make a prescribed number of circuits around the ship’s deck, while his shipmates struck him with improvised versions of the cat o’ nine tails. This punishment was abolished by Admiralty Order in 1806. An example of the Royal Navy’s version can be seen in the Hornblower film The Examination for Lieutenant.
A number of Native American tribes of the Eastern Woodlands culture area forced prisoners to run the gauntlet. The Jesuit Isaac Jogues was subject to this treatment while a prisoner of the Iroquois in 1641.
Today, gauntlets are familiar as the stout leather gloves used for gardening and the like. Medieval gauntlets, or gantlettes, gauntelotes, and so on, formed part of suits of armor. They were usually covered with plates of steel and were as useful for attack as for defence.
The earliest known record of the gantlet form of the phrase is in Joseph Glanvill’s The Vanity of Dogmatizing, 1661: “To print, is to run the gantlet, and to expose ones self to the tongues strapado.”
The first use of the current “gauntlet” spelling comes from Increase Mather, in The History of King Philip’s War, 1676: “They stripped them naked, and caused them to run the Gauntlet.”
The expression has been used for various less severe punishments or tests, often by colleagues such as roommates or fraternity brothers, where they are considered hazing rituals. Informally, the phrase also expresses the idea of a public ritual humiliation such as the walk of shame.
I’d prefer the modern punishment of being lashed with a wet noodle.