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The Flagellants were a 13th and 14th century Christian movement. It begun as a militant pilgrimage and was later condemned as heretical. The followers were noted for including public flagellation in their rituals.
Flagellation (from latin flagellare, to whip) was not uncommon practice amongst the more fervently religious. Various pre-Christian religions like cult of Isis in Egypt and Dionysian cult of Greece practices their own forms of flagellation. Women were flogged during the Roman Lupercalia to ensure fertility. Jews also practiced self-whipping during large temple ceremonies.
At first, flagellation became a form of penance in Christian church, especially in ascetic monastic orders. For example the 11th century zealot Dominicus Loricatus once 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. As well as flagellation the rituals were built around processions, hymns, distinct gestures, uniforms, and discipline.
The movement did not have a central doctrine or overall leaders but the popular passion for the movement occurred all over Europe in separate outbreaks. The first recorded incident was in Perugia in 1259. It spread from there across northern Italy and thence into Austria. Other incidents are recorded in 1296, 1333-34 (the Doves), notably at the time of the Black Death (1349), and 1399. The nature of the movement grew from a popular interest in religion combined with the dissatisfaction with the Church's control.
The prime cause of the Perugia episode is unclear, but it followed on from an outbreak of the Plague and chroniclers report how the 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.
The movement spread across northern Italy, up to 10,000 strong groups processing in Modena, Bologna, Reggio and Parma although certain city authorities refused the Flagellant processions entry. However enthusiasm for the movement diminished as suddenly as it arose and the Pope banned the movement in January 1261. As the movement lost momentum in Italy it crossed into Austria and then Germany where the same pattern happened.
The peak of the activity was during the Black Death, then called the Great Death, which began around 1347. Spontaneously Flagellant groups arose across northern and central Europe in 1349, except in England. The German and Low Countries movement, the Brothers of the Cross, is particularly well documented - they wore white robes and marched across Germany in 33.5 day campaigns of penance, stopping in any one place for no more than a day. 33 days referred for one day for each year of Jesus' earthly life. They established their camps in fields near towns and held their rituals twice a day. The ritual began with the reading of a letter, claimed to have been delivered by an angel and justifying the Flagellants activities. Next the followers would fall to their knees and scourge themselves, gesturing with their free hand to indicate their sin and striking themselves rhythmically to hymns until blood flowed. Sometimes the blood was soaked up in rags and treated as a holy relic.
Originally members were required to receive permission to join fromtheir spouses and prove they can pay for their food. However, some towns begun to notice that sometimes flagellants brought plague to towns where it has not yet surfaced. Therefore later they were denied entry. They responded by increased physical penance.
Initially the Catholic Church tolerated the Flagellants and individual monks and priests joined in the early movements. By the 14th century the Church was less tolerant and the rapid spread of the movement was alarming. Clement VI officially condemned then in a bull of October 20, 1349 and instructed Church leaders in suppress the Flagellants. This position was reinforced in 1372 by Gregory XI who associated the Flagellants with other heretical groups, notably the Beghards. They were accused of heresies including doubting the need for the sacraments, denying ordinary ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and claiming to work miracles. In Germany they claimed they could resurrect emperor Frederick II.
Strongly put down, the concept did not arise again until 1399, again in northern Italy in the form of Bianchi movement. This rising it said to have been started by a peasant who saw a vision and the movement became known as the laudesi from their constant hymn singing. At its peak a group of over 15,000 adherents gathered in Modena but the movement rapidly faded when one of its leaders was burned in Rome.
The Inquisition was active against any revival of the movement in the 15th century, two groups, one of them followers of Karl Schmidt, totaling over a hundred were burned in Germany in 1414. 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.
Rules like Catherine de Medici and Henry III of France supported flagellants but Henry IV of France banned them. Flagellant orders like Hermanos Penitentes also appeared in colonial South America, even against the specific orders of church authorities.
In modern times, it has been speculated that the more extreme practices of mortification of the flesh may have been used to obtain altered states of consciousness for the goal of experiencing religious experiences or visions.
Some Christians in Philippines practice flagellation as a form of devout worship, in addition to self-crucifixion.