Possibly because they weren’t welcome in England and were deported almost as soon as they arrived here, I don’t come across the Flagellants very often in my reading. It’s only because I’m reading a book that looks at the effect of the Black Death across Europe that I know a bit more about them than I did last month.
The Brotherhood of the Flagellants, or the Brethren of the Cross as they were more properly known, was a group of lay people. I’d always thought they were monks, so that was one misapprehension removed. The other was that there were no women in the movement. There were and they walked behind the men as they travelled from village to village.
The movement began long before it, but came into its own during the Black Death. By that time the Flagellants had come to be accepted by ordinary people as saint-like and able to work miracles. As the dreadful reality of the Black Death became clear and the church was shown to be as powerless as everyone else, anti-clerical movements such as this became popular.
In earlier times the church had encouraged private mortification of the flesh for one’s own sin, but the Black Death required desperate measures and even the Pope took part in a Flagellants’ procession in Avignon just before the plague arrived in an effort to avert it.
The Flagellants moved from village to village, probably taking the plague with them. They walked silently, apart from the occasional hymn. When they arrived they would, if permitted to do so, enter the church and go through their litany. Then they would go outside, stand in a circle and strip off their outer clothing, so that they were covered only from their waist to their ankles in linen. Then they would lie down on the ground and some would be whipped by the master of the group for specific sins. Then they would stand and whip themselves. The whips were vicious having three or four leather thongs with a piece of metal at the end of each thong.
It’s a wonder any of them survived, for each of them was supposed to do this thirty-three days in a row without bathing, changing their clothes or, obviously, engaging in sexual intercourse. It was said (and the squeamish amongst you should look away now) that sometimes a metal stud would get stuck in the flagellant’s flesh and require more than one pull to remove it.
In the early days of the movement the Flagellants were fairly upper middle class (had such a thing existed then), as membership required an entry fee and a demonstration that the members could support themselves whilst they were on the road. Originally clergy were not allowed to join. Later there was a change and the leaders became more undiscerning. The Flagellants gradually became more closely aligned with other heretical movements. They also accepted as members men who were little better than criminals. They became more aggressive as they travelled around and much less welcome, hence the deportation from England.
The movement itself was always associated with apocalyptic events that were thought to signal the arrival of the end times. There was a change during the Black Death, however, and the movement also took on messianic overtones. No messiah within or without the movement was ever identified, however, so that aspect of it disappeared.
One very unattractive aspect of the movement was its anti-Semitism. Most people were very quick to blame the Jews for causing the Black Death, ignoring the fact that Jews as well as Christians were dying. In many towns the Flagellants led the massacres that cost many thousands of Jews their lives. So prominent in the persecution of the Jews were they that it was one of the things listed in the papal bull that declared them heretics in October 1349. After that they didn’t survive very long, as towns and villages barred them from entry. Many of them met with violent deaths as a result.
The flowering of such a movement was just one of many signs of the way in which the Black Death caused confusion and despair in Europe.
Are there other groups that you’re aware of that flourished briefly in the Middle Ages and then disappeared?