Plague is punishment and suffering is The cure EUROPE, MID-14TH CENTURY
A flagellant’s scourge
The act of self-mortification, or flagellation, had been common practice for holy men since the earliest decades of Christianity. As the Black Death ravaged Europe across the mid14th century it erupted into a mass movement, powered by hysteria and the belief that this vile epidemic was a divine punishment.
The first outbreaks of public flagellation occurred in Northern Italy in 1260 and the practice was soon carried to the rest of Europe, particularly Central Europe and the Low Countries, where communities cowering under the shadow of pestilence adopted it as a desperate act of public contrition.
The most common tool of cleansing was the scourge, a whip with three tails that was often knotted or barbed with iron to inflict maximum pain, and worn on the waist.
The flagellants or penitents would march in a line two-by-two from town to town, robed and hooded in red crosses.
Those at the front of the procession carried crucifixes and banners aloft, and they sung hymns begging for forgiveness. Twice a day the flagellants would stop in a town square in front of the church, form a circle, strip to the waist, remove their shoes and flay themselves until they bled.
The Dominican friar Heinrich von Herford (1300-1370), recalled, “Using these whips they beat and whipped their bare skin until their bodies were bruised and swollen and blood rained down, spattering the walls nearby. I have seen, when they whipped themselves, how sometimes those bits of metal penetrated the skin so deeply that it took more than two attempts to pull them out.”
Finally, they would pray. The routine would be repeated a third time in the evening.
For townsfolk frustrated by the impotence of their priests and prayers, flagellation offered visceral answers, eye-catching spectacle, and even supernatural healing.
The French chronicler Jean Froissart (1337-1405) wrote of their audience that, “Some foolish women had cloths ready to catch the blood and smear it on their eyes, saying it was miraculous blood.”
The practice soon peaked and quickly declined as papal bulls made flagellation heresy and secular authorities moved to restore public order following a series of grisly massacres of Jews by flagellants.
However the belief underpinning flagellation – that sickness was a punishment for sin – endured well into the Renaissance.
“Twice a day The flagellants would… flay Themselves until They bled
STING IN THE TAIL Knots or metal barbs tore at the flesh to create wicked, jagged wounds which repeated lashes would open further. These would then be washed in a mixture of wine and vinegar to help prevent infection. CONSTANT COMPANION Hung from the belt, the scourge was used at least three times a day for 33 days (one day for each year of Christ’s life) of suffering, with additional penance meted out for breaking the order’s rules, such as talking out of turn or communicating with the opposite sex. A SCOURGE FOR ALL Though flagellants were penitent pilgrims, selfmortification was adopted by the faithful from across all social strata, and scourges could be as simple as knotted rope or as elaborate as leather whips with iron barbs.This one, found at Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire is made from plaited copper alloy wire, ensuring its survival against the centuries. WHAT WOULD JESUS DO? Flagellation as an act of penance has its root in the Bible. Under Roman law those non-citizens condemned to crucifixion were scourged with whips barbed with small pieces of metal or bone, and in undergoing the experience the flagellants are following in Christ’s footsteps. A rare surviving copper scourge found at Rievaulx Abbey and used by the monks for flagellation, it’s now on display at the English Heritage visitors centre on the site.Find out more at english-heritage.org.uk.
A 14th century miniature shows a procession of flagellants whipping themselves with scourges as penance