The Flagellants

In the course of the High Middle Ages, in towns and cities across western Europe, lay men, and sometimes women, from all walks of life organized themselves into religious confraternities, or brotherhoods. In some ways these echoed the earlier Crusaders' combining of the secular life with religious duties and purpose. By the later fourteenth century confraternities tended to be associated with specific parishes or churches, and had chaplains drawn from the local clergy. They tended to be of one of three types: the charitable, who helped the poor, or during the Plague buried the dead; the lauds-singers, who gathered regularly to sing and pray; and the disciplinati, named for the whip they used to beat themselves and each other as a form of individual and collective penance for sin. In each case the lay "brothers" established and followed their own constitution that dictated proper behavior. This generally included regular participation in the sacraments and following the Church's teachings about living the good life. Members marched together in religious processions, and often attended Sunday Mass together as a group. Participation in these groups was voluntary and did not replace the religious duties expected of one, but augmented them, making the "brothers" participants in and not merely observers or supporters of the life of the Church.

Those who chose to be disciplinati, or flagellants (flagellum = whip), took the practice of penal flagellation and made it both an individual and group exercise. Jesus had been whipped by Roman soldiers before his crucifixion, and the early Church used whipping as punishment for disobedient monks and clergy. Monks themselves often chose self-flagellation as a form of penance that mortified the body, demonstrated sorrow for sin, and joined one with Christ in his Passion. In Perugia, Italy, in 1260 a group of laymen adopted the practice and performed it publicly, their heads covered for anonymity. A group would travel from town to town, disseminating the call for personal and communal penitence. This spread in Italy and into central and eastern Europe before Church authorities, who had little or no control over participants, stopped and disbanded the traveling groups. In northern Italy, southern France, and Germany they became associated with parishes and were absorbed by the religious landscape. In Orvieto, Italy, the Franciscan disciplinati confraternity gained about six or seven new members per year before the Black Death. In 1348 they accepted 106; by the end of the year 109 had died.7

With the advent of the Black Death people flocked to the confraternities, which offered organized prayer, camaraderie, and guaranteed burial. Because of the culture's emphasis on sin and the need for repentance to alleviate the pestilence, numerous new disciplinati groups were formed in cities and towns, and most were under clerical direction: even the pope participated in one procession in Avignon in 1348. Others were not. Some scholars trace the origins of the itinerant flagellant move ment—as distinct from the confraternities—to Sicily, in the months following the introduction of the pestilence. They detect the unorganized groups moving northward in waves through Venice in August 1348, and across the Alps into Carinthia and Styria (Austria) by September.8 Most scholars, however, place the origins of the 1348-49 movement in Austria itself, specifically Zwettl, about fifty miles from Vienna, on September 29, 1348. There had been communal fasting, Mass, and a procession, and then "twenty went from church to church naked all the way to the waist, whipping themselves, throwing themselves to the ground and singing a hymn."9

Known in German-speaking lands as the Brethren of the Cross, imitators of these men, in groups ranging from twenty to two hundred, moved through central Europe and Poland, spawning new groups at each stop. Any given town on their route might be visited as many as five times by five groups. They wore white robes, and sometimes white capes, both decorated with crosses, and hats or hoods, also with crosses on them. Their personal journeys were to last thirty-three and a third days, one day for each year of Jesus' life. They would not wash, shave, change their clothes, or sleep in a bed. One member carried a cross or banner as they traveled or processed into a town, and the movement developed a number of vernacular songs or hymns. Having entered a town they would proceed to the central square, strip to the waist, and begin the ritual. Henry of Herford, who provides the most complete witness account of the ritual, called them "a race without a head," openly alluding to a lack of both leadership and sense. But they were canny performers and people responded enthusiastically, sometimes hysterically, at least to the first few waves.

Henry says that they entered the town's main church, stripped, and came out one by one, clearly hoping to associate themselves with the official Church in some way. They threw themselves to the ground in a pose that reflected their own main sin: on their side meant adultery, on their back meant murder. A leader would strike each in turn with his flagellum—a whip of three thongs, each tipped with a bent nail— and wish him the mercy of God. One by one the group rose and formed a procession that sang a hymn, but at the mention of Christ's Passion all fell to the ground "like logs," stretched their arms out like a cross, and prayed. After two repetitions they returned to the church and accepted any offerings, but asked for nothing.10 Other accounts of their ritual highlight the whipping, and one mentions that their blood was collected and revered as a holy relic.

And herein lay the problem: they were not saints, and the popular adulation made certain among them arrogant. Some leaders went so far as to preach, hear confessions, and impose penances, all prerogatives of the clergy. Some groups became violently anticlerical, even stoning priests in public. Some interrupted church services, openly denying the presence of Christ in the Eucharist; others claimed direct revelation from God. As they moved westward into the Rhineland they appear to have lost the social leaders—nobles and upper bourgeoisie—they had had earlier, and found themselves led by renegade friars and monks. In the eyes of many, they became a dangerous rabble. Historian Richard Kieck-hefer concluded that they were most radical and strongest in their effect on communities that were fearfully awaiting the pestilence, and far less so when visiting Plague-stricken areas.11 Either way, they took on a messianic fervor: their spilled blood could save the world, as Christ's blood had.12

By the summer of 1349 their behavior was at least arguably heretical, and local Church and secular leaders began to condemn them and/or forbid them entry into their territories or cities. In western Germany flagellants were said to have spawned anti-Semitic riots. Come autumn, the University of Paris' Theology Faculty sent to the pope the Benedictine monk Jean de Fayt, who had witnessed the flagellants' behavior in Flanders. Under additional pressure from Emperor Charles IV, Clement almost immediately condemned the movement in a bull of October 20, 1349.13 He cited their independence in choosing clothing, prayers, and ritual and their disobedience of authority. He denounced those who "cruelly extending their hands to works of impiety under the color of piety, seem not in the least afraid to shed the blood of Jews, whom Christian piety accepts and sustains."14 He recognized that the majority were simple folk who were misled by vile heretics, but nonetheless insisted that bishops and secular rulers alike shut down the processions. Many did, including the king of France, who issued a royal interdict on February 15, 1350, according to which all flagellants would be arrested. Charles IV banned them from the empire, and Manfred of Sicily forbade their activities on pain of death.15 Those who defied these authorities were automatically excommunicated from the Church, and brutal reprisals were conducted by secular rulers, such as public beheadings in

Westphalia. Many of the impulses bound up in the flagellant movement—such as the itch for novelty and travel, the desire to do penance and gain spiritual indulgences—were cleverly harnessed by the pope in his declaration of the Jubilee or Holy Year of 1350. Those who visited Rome as pilgrims during the year and followed a strict itinerary would have the penalty for their sins removed. Many went in fulfillment of vows they had made during the Plague ("If I survive I will. . .") and others in thanksgiving for their own survival or that of loved ones.

The flagellant movement appeared again and again in fifteenth-century Germany. In 1414, between eighty and ninety were burned to death; two years later in Sangershausen, 300 were executed on one day. In Nordhausen in 1446 even those flagellants who recanted or renounced their previous practices were burned, and in the 1480s the last trials and executions took place.16 The failure of the Catholic Church to harness these spiritual energies testifies both to its own disarray within the empire and to the deep-seated nature of the social and spiritual anxiety that drove people to participate either as flagellants or as witnesses in the rapt crowds that attended them. The pestilence itself both undermined people's faith in the Church and gave form to the fears and frustrations with which people lived on a daily basis even in normal times. The apparent suffering and sacrifice of the flagellants were interpreted as positive repentance, and thus in those towns not yet touched by pestilence, it was hoped that the flagellants would provide a powerful spiritual prophylaxis. By practicing—in an extreme and public way— what the Church itself preached, the flagellants gave themselves legitimacy and angered the clergy who had lost control of penance and thus of the means of salvation itself. In pre-Reformation Germany this was intolerable.

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