His­tor­i­cal Trea­sures

Plague is pun­ish­ment and suf­fer­ing is The cure EUROPE, MID-14TH CEN­TURY

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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

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