The March of the Flagellants,
The Black Plague was the worst disaster of the Middle Ages, and one of the worst pandemics in human history. Wiping out 30%-50% of Europe’s population, The Plague shook Medieval society to its roots and casting a bleak shadow over a once prosperous people. With little knowledge in health and science, people blamed the cause of the plague on a wide variety of things such as cats, dogs, foul vapors, demons, witches, Jews, foreigners, and other non-Christians. To many, The Plague was God’s punishment on humanity, a rectification for sin. One such group took this philosophy to heart and resorted to desperate measures to save themselves from God’s wrath.
Considered a heretical sect by the Catholic Church, the Flagellants believed that The Plague was a punishment for a sinful world. They believed that because of humanity’s sinful, prideful, and disobedient ways mankind must pay a debt to God in blood and suffering. Like how Jesus suffered for mankind on the cross, the Flagellants too thought that they must make a sacrifice in suffering. Thus to pay for their sins and avoid God’s wrath, the Flagellants conducted public acts of self torture, often by whipping themselves with a multi-tailed whip called a “flagellum”. They processed down city streets by the hundreds or even thousands, chanting and praying as they marched, all the while whipping themselves or others until their skin was covered in blood and bruises. Many groups of Flagellants appointed special flagellant masters, officers who would lead chants, maintain cadence, and ensure the group would self-harm in the most efficient ways possible. Sir Robert of Avesbury witnessed one groups of Flagellants unique cadence,
“In that same year of 1349, about Michaelmas (September, 29) over six hundred men came to London from Flanders, mostly of Zeeland and Holland origin. Sometimes at St Paul’s and sometimes at other points in the city they made two daily public appearances wearing cloths from the thighs to the ankles, but otherwise stripped bare. Each wore a cap marked with a red cross in front and behind. Each had in his right hand a scourge with three tails. Each tail had a knot and through the middle of it there were sometimes sharp nails fixed. They marched naked in a file one behind the other and whipped themselves with these scourges on their naked and bleeding bodies.”
Four of them would chant in their native tongue and, another four would chant in response like a litany. Thrice they would all cast themselves on the ground in this sort of procession, stretching out their hands like the arms of a cross. The singing would go on and, the one who was in the rear of those thus prostrate acting first, each of them in turn would step over the others and give one stroke with his scourge to the man lying under him.
This went on from the first to the last until each of them had observed the ritual to the full tale of those on the ground. Then each put on his customary garments and always wearing their caps and carrying their whips in their hands they retired to their lodgings. It is said that every night they performed the same penance.”
Sometimes the Flagellants would make pilgrimages to holy sites, all the while practicing their methods of self abuse while traveling hundreds of miles. Many died in the effort to be absolved of sin. One of the largest groups of Flagellants occurred in Northern Italy in 1399. Over 15,000 Flagellants gathered in Modena and marched to Rome, a distance of over 100 miles.