Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Eschatology of Flagellation During Epidemics

Following the example of the Benedictine monk Peter Damian in the 11th century, flagellation became a form of penance in the Catholic Church and its monastic orders. The 11th-century zealot Dominicus Loricatus repeated the entire Psalter twenty times in one week, accompanying each psalm with a hundred lash-strokes to his back. The distinction of the Flagellants was to take this self-mortification into the cities and other public spaces as a demonstration of piety. In the 19th century Herman Haupt connected the flagellant processions with eschatological prophecies and maintained that "the flagellants felt called upon to prepare the way for the kingdom of God."

The first recorded cases of mass popular flagellation occurred in Central Italy in Perugia, in 1259. The prime cause of the Perugia episode is unclear, but it followed an outbreak of an epidemic and chroniclers report how mania spread throughout almost all the people of the city. Thousands of citizens gathered in great processions, singing, and with crosses and banners they marched throughout the city whipping themselves. It is reported that surprising acts of charity and repentance accompanied the marchers. However, one chronicler noted that anyone who did not join in the flagellation was accused of being in league with the devil. They also killed Jews and priests who opposed them. Some scholars link them to the chiliastic preaching of Gioacchino da Fiore, who prophesied of the coming Antichrist and Last Judgment.

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 leather straps till the blood ran, chanting hymns and canticles of the Passion of Christ, entering the churches and prostrating themselves before the altars. 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.

The practice peaked during the Black Death in 1349. 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 borne before them. They walked slowly, three or four abreast, bearing their knotted scourges and chanting their melancholy hymns. As the number grew, the pretences 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 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 Paris, the pope, after careful inquiry, condemned the movement and prohibited the processions, by letters dated 20 October, 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 stricken, the Flagellant tendency was by no means eradicated. 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 "Stabat Mater". At the end of the fourteenth century, too, the great Dominican, St. Vincent Ferrer, spread this penitential devotion throughout the north of Spain, and crowds of devotees followed him on his missionary pilgrimages through France, Spain, and Northern Italy.

A Franciscan visionary named John of Rupescissa, held in a papal prison in Avignon for his attacks on the Franciscan hierarchy, predicted in 1345 the Antichrist would reign three and a half years before 1370, and before that there would be famine and plague in 1347, the piling up of cadavers in 1348, followed by earthquakes and other disasters till the reign of Antichrist. Christ would then slay the Antichrist in 1370 and bring on the Millennium. The Black Death for him was God punishing humanity, and preparing the way for the Antichrist. It is believed he was influenced by Gioacchino da Fiore and in turn influenced many other Flagellants as they saw his alleged "prophecies" coming true. John of Bassigny also "prophesied" in 1343 that a devastating plague will soon usher in a time of terrible trials for the world, carrying off more than half of its population. His prophecy circulated quickly, and may have played a role in the Flagellant movement, but it came too soon, as the Black Death would take a few years to arrive.

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 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, prisoners 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.

The Inquisition was active against any revival of the movement in the 15th century, but action against the flagellants was often taken by the local princes. In 1414, 80–90 followers of Konrad Schmid were burned in Thuringia, in Germany, even though they had recanted. Three hundred were burnt in one day in 1416, also in Thuringia. Other trials where the accused were condemned as Flagellants were recorded as late as the 1480s. The practice of flagellation within the bounds of the Catholic Church continued as an accepted form of penance. Rulers like Catherine de' Medici and France's King Henry III supported Flagellants but Henry IV banned them. Flagellant orders like Hermanos Penitentes (Spanish, 'Penitential Brothers') also appeared in colonial Spanish America, even against the specific orders of Church authorities.