The Flagellants

"Blood rained down, spattering the walls"

Flagellants depicted in a fifteenth century woodcut.

Above: Flagellants depicted in a fifteenth century woodcut.

Introduction

The Flagellants were religious followers who would whip themselves, believing that by punishing themselves they would invite God to show mercy toward them. The Flaggelants would arrive in a town and head straight for the church, where bells would ring to announce to the townsfolk that they had arrived.

Having recited their liturgies the Brethren would move to an open space and form a circle, stripping to the waist and then walking around the circle until called to stop by the Master. They would then fall to the ground, adopting a crucifix position, or holding three fingers in the air (perjurors) or lying face down (adulterers).

Having been thrashed by the Master, the Brethren would stand and begin to flagellate themselves. After some period of this self-torture, the Flaggelants would throw themselves to the ground once more, and the process would begin again.

The Dance of Death, by Hans Holbein.

1348 - the year that the Flagellant movement appeared, first in Eastern Europe, around Hungary and Poland, before spreading to Germany, modern-day Belgium, and the Netherlands.

200–300 - the typical size of the Flagellant groups (although they sometimes numbered upward of a thousand), who travelled from town to town, where they would form large circles and whip themselves.


Each whip consisted of a stick with three knotted thongs hanging from the end. Two pieces of needle-sharp metal were run through the centre of the knots from both sides, forming a cross, the end of which extended beyond the knots for the length of a grain of wheat or less. 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.

- Heinrich von Herford (c. 1300-1370), Chronicon Henrici de Hervordia


Rules

Flagellants were expected to follow a number of very strict rules –

7 - the age from which sins were considered accountable and must be confessed.

3 - the number of times flagellation would take place each day (twice in the daytime and once in the evening).

33 - the number of days over which whipping had to occur (this number was chosen to represent Christ's age at the time of his crucifixion).

8 - the total number of hours during this period the whipping had to have occurred.

4 pence - the amount Flaggelants were expected to pay toward their food each day.

Flagellants also had to avoid speaking, have no contact with the opposite sex, avoid shaving, bathing or changing their clothes, and to sleep on straw.

3 - the number of members of the Brethren who would sing hymns was the flagellation took place, effectively acting as cheerleaders.


Some foolish women had clothes ready to catch the blood and smear it on their eyes, saying it was miraculous blood.

- Jean Froissart (c.1337-c.1405).


2,500 - the number of travelling Flagellants that one monastery accommodated during one six-month period.

October 1349 - the month that Pope Clement VI proclaimed that the Flagellants were not following the rules of the Church, excommunicating many. By the following year the movement disappeared (although flagellation can still be found in some religions today, such as Shi'a Islam).


However the flagellants ignored and scorned the sentence of excommunication pronounced against them by bishops. They took no notice of the papal order against them - until princes, nobles and the more powerful citizens started to keep them at a distance [...] they disappeared as suddenly as they had come, as apparitions or ghosts are routed by mockery.

- Heinrich von Herford (c. 1300-1370), Chronicon Henrici de Hervordia


Did You Know?

Flaggelants existed prior to the Black Death, notable examples being in the period leading up to the year 1000 (a time marked by much millennial fervour) and in Italy in 1260, during the revival movement known as the 'Great Alleluia'.


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