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Flagellants

A fanatical and heretical sect that flourished in the thirteenth and succeeding centuries

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* Published by Encyclopedia Press, 1913.


Flagellants, a fanatical and heretical sect that flourished in the thirteenth and succeeding centuries. Their origin was at one time attributed to the missionary efforts of St. Anthony of Padua, in the cities of Northern Italy, early in the thirteenth century; but Lempp (Zeitschrift fur Kirchengeschichte, XII, 435) has shown this to be unwarranted. Every important movement, however, has its forerunners, both in the idea out of which it grows and in specific acts of which it is a culmination. And, undoubtedly, the practice of self-flagellation, familiar to the folk as the ascetic custom of the more severe orders (such as the Camaldolese, the Cluniacs, the Dominicans), had but to be connected in idea with the equally familiar penitential processions popularized by the Mendicants about 1233, to prepare the way for the great outburst of the latter half of the thirteenth century. It is in 1260 that we first hear of the Flagellants at Perugia. The terrible plague of 1259, the long-continued tyranny and anarchy throughout the Italian States, the prophecies concerning Antichrist and the end of the world by Joachim of Flora and his like, had created a mingled state of despair and expectation among the devout lay-folk of the middle and lower classes. Then there appeared a famous hermit of Umbria, Raniero Fasani, who organized a brotherhood of "Disciplinati di Gesu Cristo", which spread rapidly throughout Central and Northern Italy. The brotherhoods were known by various names in various localities (Battuti, Scopatori, Verberatori, etc.), but their practices were very similar everywhere. All ages and conditions were alike subject to this mental epidemic. Clergy and laity, men and women, even children of tender years, scourged themselves in reparation for the sins of the whole world. Great processions, amounting sometimes to 10,000 souls, passed through the cities, beating themselves, and calling the faithful to repentance. With crosses and banners borne before them by the clergy, they marched slowly through the towns. Stripped to the waist and with covered faces, they scourged themselves with leathern thongs till the blood ran, chanting hymns and canticles of the Passion of Christ, entering the churches and prostrating themselves before the altars. For thirty-three days and a half this penance was continued by all who undertook it, in honor of the years of Christ's life on earth. Neither mud nor snow, cold nor heat, was any obstacle. The processions continued in Italy throughout 1260, and by the end of that year had spread beyond the Alps to Alsace, Bavaria, Bohemia, and Poland. In 1261, however, the ecclesiastical and civil authorities awoke to the danger of such an epidemic, although its undesirable tendencies, on this occasion, were rather political than theological. In January the pope forbade the processions, and the laity realized suddenly that behind the movement was no sort of ecclesiastical sanction. It ceased almost as quickly as it had started, and for some time seemed to have died out. Wandering flagellants are heard of in Germany in 1296. In Northern Italy, Venturino of Bergamo, a Dominican, afterwards beatified, attempted to revive the processions of flagellants in 1334, and led about 10,000 men, styled the "Doves", as far as Rome. But he was received with laughter by the Romans, and his followers deserted him. He went to Avignon to see the pope, by whom he was promptly relegated to his monastery, and the movement collapsed.

In 1347 the Black Death swept across Europe and devastated the Continent for the next two years. In 1348 terrible earthquakes occurred in Italy. The scandals prevalent in the Church and State intensified in the popular mind the feeling that the end of all things was come. With extraordinary suddenness the companies of Flagellants appeared again, and rapidly spread across the Alps, through Hungary and Switzerland. In 1349 they had reached Flanders, Holland, Bohemia, Poland, and Denmark. By September of that year they had arrived in England, where, however, they met with but little success. The English people watched the fanatics with quiet interest, even expressing pity and sometimes admiration for their devotion; but no one could be induced to join them, and the attempt at proselytism failed utterly. Meanwhile in Italy the movement, in accordance with the temperament of the people, so thorough, so ecstatic, yet so matter-of-fact and practical in religious matters, spread rapidly through all classes of the community. Its diffusion was marked and aided by the popular laudi, folksongs of the Passion of Christ and the Sorrows of Our Lady, while in its wake there sprang up numberless brotherhoods devoted to penance and the corporal works of mercy Thus the "Battuti" of Siena, Bologna, Gubbio, all founded Case di Dio, which were at once centers at which they could meet for devotional and penitential exercises, and hospices in which the sick and destitute were relieved. Though tendencies towards heresy soon became apparent, the sane Italian faith was unfavorable to its growth. The confraternities adapted themselves to the permanent ecclesiastical organization, and not a few of them have continued, at least as charitable associations, until the present day. It is noticeable that the songs of the Laudesi during their processions tended more and more to take on a dramatic character. From them developed in time the popular mystery-play, whence came the beginnings of the Italian drama.

As soon, however, as the Flagellant movement crossed the Alps into Teutonic countries, its whole nature changed. The idea was welcomed with enthusiasm; a ceremonial was rapidly developed, and almost as rapidly a specialized doctrine, that soon 'degenerated into heresy. The Flagellants became an organized sect, with severe discipline and extravagant claims. They wore a white habit and mantle, on each of which was a red cross, whence in some parts they were called the "Brotherhood of the Cross". Whosoever desired to join this brotherhood was bound to remain in it for thirty-three and a half days, to swear obedience to the "Masters" of the organization, to possess at least four pence a day for his support, to be reconciled to all men, and, if married, to have the sanction of his wife. The ceremonial of the Flagellants seems to have been much the same in all the northern cities. Twice a day, proceeding slowly to the public square or to the principal church, they put off their shoes, stripped themselves to the waist and prostrated themselves in a large circle. By their posture they indicated the nature of the sins they intended to expiate, the murderer lying on his back, the adulterer on his face, the perjurer on one side holding up three fingers, etc. First they were beaten by the "Master", then, bidden solemnly in a prescribed form to rise, they stood in a circle and scourged themselves severely, crying out that their blood was mingled with the Blood of Christ and that their penance was preserving the whole world from perishing. At the end the "Master" read a letter which was supposed to have been brought by an angel from heaven to the church of St. Peter in Rome. This stated that Christ, angry at the grievous sins of mankind, had threatened to destroy the world, yet, at the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, had ordained that all who should join the brotherhood for thirty-three and a half days should be saved. The reading of this "letter", following the shock to the emotions caused by the public penance of the Flagellants, aroused much excitement among the populace. In spite of the protests and criticism of the educated, thousands enrolled themselves in the brotherhood. Great processions marched from town to town, with crosses, lights, and banners before them. They walked slowly, three or four abreast, bearing their knotted scourges and chanting their melancholy hymns. As the number grew, the pretenses of the leaders developed. They professed a ridiculous horror of even accidental contact with women, and insisted that it was of obligation to fast rigidly on Fridays. They cast doubts on the necessity or even desirability of the sacraments and even pretended to absolve one another, to cast out evil spirits, and to work miracles. They asserted that the ordinary ecclesiastical jurisdiction was suspended and that their pilgrimages would be continued for thirty-three and a half years. Doubtless not a few of them hoped to establish a lasting rival to the Catholic Church, but very soon the authorities took action and endeavored to suppress the whole movement. For, while it was thus growing in Germany and the Netherlands, it had also entered France.

At first this fatuus novus rites was well received. As early as 1348, Pope Clement VI had permitted a similar procession in Avignon in entreaty against the plague. Soon, however, the rapid spread and heretical tendencies of the Flagellants, especially among the turbulent peoples of Southern France, alarmed the authorities. At the entreaty of the University of fourteenth century, too, the great Dominican, St. Vincent Ferrer, spread this penitential devotion through-out the north of Spain, and crowds of devotees followed him on his missionary pilgrimages through France, Spain, and Northern Italy.

In fact, the great outburst of 1349, while, perhaps, more widespread and more formidable than similar fanaticisms, was but one of a series of popular upheavals at irregular intervals from 1260 until the end of the fifteenth century. The generating cause of these movements was always an obscure amalgam of horror of corruption, of desire to imitate the heroic expiations of the great penitents, of apocalyptic vision, of despair at the prevailing corruption in Church and State. All these things are smouldering in the minds of the much-tried populace of Central Europe. It needed but a sufficient occasion, such as the accumulated Paris, the pope, after careful inquiry, condemned the movement and prohibited the processions, by letters dated October 20, 1349, which were sent to all the bishops of France, Germany, Poland, Sweden, and England. This condemnation coincided with a natural reaction of public opinion, and the Flagellants, from being a powerful menace to all settled public order, found themselves a hunted and rapidly dwindling sect. But, though severely strickee Flagellant tendency was-by no means eradicate Throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there were recrudescences of this and similar heresies. In Germany, about 1360, there appeared one Konrad Schmid, who called himself Enoch, and pretended that all ecclesiastical authority was abrogated, or rather, transferred to himself. Thousands of young men joined him, and he was able to continue his propaganda till 1369, when the vigorous measures of the Inquisition resulted in his suppression. Yet we still hear of trials and condemnations of Flagellants in 1414 at Erfurt, in 1446 at Nordhausen, in 1453 at Sangerhausen, even so late as 1481 at Halberstadt. Again the "Albati" or "Bianchi" are heard of in Provence about 1399, with their processions of nine days, during which they beat themselves and chanted the "Sabat Mater". At the end of the tyranny of some petty ruler, the horror of a great plague, or the ardent preaching of some saintly ascetic, to set the whole of Christendom in a blaze. Like fire the impulse ran through the people, and like fire it died down, only to break out here and there anew. At the beginning of each outbreak, the effects were generally good. Enemies were reconciled, debts were paid, risoners were released, ill-gotten goods were restored. But it was the merest revivalism, and, as always, the reaction was worse than the former stagnation. Sometimes the movement was more than suspected of being abused for political ends, more often it exemplified the fatal tendency of emotional pietism to degenerate into heresy. The Flagellant movement was but one of the manias that afflicted the end of the Middle Ages; others were the dancing-mania, the Jew-baiting rages, which the Flagellant processions encouraged in 1349, the child-crusades, and the like. And, according to the temperament of the peoples among whom it spread, the movement became a revolt and a fantastic heresy, a rush of devotion settling soon into pious practices and good works, or a mere spectacle that aroused the curiosity or the pity of the onlookers.

Although as a dangerous heresy the Flagellants are not heard of after the fifteenth century, their practices were revived again and again as a means of quite orthodox public penance. In France, during the sixteenth century, we hear of White, Black, Grey, and Blue Brotherhoods. At Avignon, in 1574, Catherine de' Medici herself led a procession of Black Penitents. In Paris, in 1583, King Henry III became patron of the "Blanes Battus de l'Annonciation". On Holy Thursday of that year he organized a great procession from the Augustinians to Notre-Dame, in which all the great dignitaries of the realm were obliged to take part in company with himself. The laughter of the Parisians, however, who treated the whole thing as a jest, obliged the king to withdraw his patronage. Early in the seventeenth century, the scandals arising among these brotherhoods caused the Parliament of Paris to suppress them, and under the combined assaults of the law, the Gallicans, and the sceptics, the practice soon died out. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Flagellant processions and self-flagellation were encouraged by the Jesuits in Austria and the Netherlands, as well as in the far countries which they evangelized. India, Persia, Japan, the Philippines, Mexico, and the States of South America, all had their Flagellant processions; in Central and South America they continue even to the present day, and were regulated and restrained by Pope Leo XIII. In Italy generally and in the Tyrol similar processions survived until the early years of the nineteenth century; in Rome itself they took place in the Jesuit churches as late as 1870, while even later they occurred in parts of Tuscany and Sicily. Always, however, these later Flagellant processions have taken place under the control of ecclesiastical authority, and must by no means be connected with the heretical epidemic of the later Middle Ages.


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