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History of the Christian Church, Volume V: The Middle Ages. A.D. 1049-1294.
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§ 135. The Flagellants.


Literature: The Chronicles of Salimbene, Villani, etc.: Gerson: Contra sectam flagellantium, 1417, Du Pin’s ed., Antwerp, 1706. Gerson’s letter to Ferrer and his address to the council of Constance concerning the Flagellants are given by Van der Hardt: Constant. concilium, Frankf., 1700, III. 92–104.—J. Boileau: Hist. Flagel., Paris, 1700, new ed., 1770.—*E. G. Förstemann: D. christl. Geisslergesellschaften, Halle, 1828.—W. M. Cooper: Flagellation and the Flagellants, A Hist. of the Rod in all Countries, Lond., 1877; new ed., 1896.—Fredericq, in Corpus doc. inquis., etc. gives reports of their trials in Holland, I. 190 sqq., etc.—*F. Neukirch: D. Leben d. P. Damiani, Gött., 1875.—Lea: Hist. of Inq., I. 72 sqq., II. 381 sqq.—Artt. Geissler and Geisselung in Wetzer-Welte by Knöpfler, IV. 1532 sqq. and in Herzog by Haupt, VI. 432 sqq. For the older lit., see Förstemann, pp. 291–325.


A genuine indication of popular interest in religion within orthodox circles was the strange movement represented by the Flagellants. Gregorovius has gone so far as to pronounce their appearance "one of the most striking phenomena of the Middle Ages."21172117    Hist. of City of Rome, V. 333. They were called flagellarii, flagellantes, crucifratres, verberantes, cruciferi, acephali, or independents, from the charge that they had broken with the heretics.though they started within the Church and are not to be classed with the mediaeval sectaries, the Flagellants in a later age came to be regarded with suspicion, were formally condemned by the council of Constance, and were even the object of ecclesiastical prosecution. They appeared first in 1259, then in 1333, 1349, 1399, and last at the time the council of Constance was sitting. The most notable appearance was in 1349, at the time the Black Death was raging in Europe.

The movement had no compact organization, as is shown from its spasmodic character. It grew out of discontent with the Church and a longing for true penitence and amendment of life. The prophecies of Joachim, who set 1260 as the time for the appearance of anti-christ, probably had something to do with stirring up unrest; perhaps also the famine in Italy, of 1258, which was followed by a strange physical malady, characterized by numbness of the bodily organs. Salimbene reports that the bells were left untolled for funerals, lest the sick should be terrified. The enthusiasm took the form of processions, scourgings, and some novel and strange ceremonies. It was a species of evangelism, and attempted a campaign against physical and other sins, as the Crusades did against the Saracens of the East. It sought to make popular the discipline of flagellation, which was practised in the convent, and to secure penitential results, such as the monk was supposed to reach.

The most notable adept of this conventual flagellation was Dominicus Loricatus (d. 1060), who got his name from the iron coat he wore next to his skin. He accompanied the repetition of every psalm with a hundred strokes with a lash on his naked back. Three thousand strokes were equivalent to a year’s penance. But Loricatus beat all records and accomplished the exercise of the entire Psalter no less than twenty times in six days, the equivalent of a hundred years of penance. Peter Damiani, to whom we are indebted for our account, relates that the zealous ascetic, after saying nine Psalters in a single day, accompanying them with the required number of lashes, went to his cell to make sure the count was right. Then removing his iron jacket and taking a scourge in each hand, he kept on repeating the Psalter the whole night through till he had finished it the twelfth time and was well into the thirteenth when he stopped.

What is your body, exclaimed Damiani, who contented himself with prescribing forty psalms a day for his monks,—"what is your body? Is it not carrion, a mass of corruption, dust, and ashes, and what thanks will the worms give for taking good care of it?"21182118    Migne, 144. 1017. Damiani says of Loricatus, lorica ferrea vestitur ad carnem, Migne, 145. 747. He compared the body to a timbrel which is to be struck in praise to God.

Under the appeals of preachers like Fulke of Neuilly and Anthony of Padua, there were abnormal physical manifestations, and hearers set to work flagellating themselves.

The flagellant outbreak of 1259 started at Perugia and spread like an epidemic. All classes, young and old, were seized. With bodies bared to the waist, carrying crosses and banners and singing hymns, newly composed and old, they marched to and fro in the streets, scourging themselves. Priests and monks joined the ranks of the penitents. Remarkable scenes of moral reform took place. Usurers gave up their ill-gotten gains; murderers confessed, and, with swords pointed to their throats, offered themselves up to justice; enemies were reconciled. And as the chatty chronicler, Salimbene, goes on to say, if any would not scourge himself, he was held to be a limb of Satan. And what is more, such persons were soon overtaken with sickness or premature death.21192119    Coulton, From St. Francis to Dante, pp. 192 sq.d marched from Modena to Bologna. At Reggio, Parma, and other cities, the chief officials joined them. But all were not so favorable, and the Cremona authorities and Manfred forbade their entering their territories.

The ardor cooled off quickly in Italy, but it spread beyond the Alps. Twelve hundred Flagellants appeared in Strassburg and the impulse was felt as far as Poland and Bohemia. The German penitents continued their penance thirty-three days in memory of the number of the years of Christ’s life. They chastised themselves and also sang hymns. Here also the enthusiasm subsided as suddenly as it was enkindled. The repetitions of the movement belong to the next period.



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