Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 34: the Flagellants


Stoicism taught that one should endure suffering; Judeo-Christianity taught one to love it. From punishment as proof of divine love to the love of punishment was only a step. Did not the markets in dereliction, death and fear count among the most profitable for the Church?

The appearance in Perugia around 1250 of the movement of the Flagellants was part of a conjuration of events – the famine of 1250, the plague of 1259, the bloody struggle between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines – that was propitious for the nourishment of the sentiment that the displeasure of losing oneself carried the consolation of involving the whole world in that loss. The Joachimite expiration date of 1260 once more catalyzed the tumult of passions that an impossible life easily turned towards the outlet of death.

At first encouraged by the Church, hysterical and collective self-punishment – due to its pretensions to exclusivity – rapidly came to threaten the privileges of afflicting and consoling that were reserved by the clergy. The existence of hell on earth removed all credit from the merchants of the beyond. Propagating, indeed, surrendering oneself to outrages and torments of the flesh identified one with Christ and released one from all duties to the Church.

For a long time, flagellation counted among the self-punitive practices admitted by the Church. It expressed the ordinary scorn for terrestrial life and pleasure that was inherent in all religions, without (for all that) curtailing an existence denuded of attractions by the quest for a sanctifying ordeal, as in the New Prophecy or the Cathars’ endura.

“It was in the crowded Italian towns that organised flagellant processions appeared for the first time. The movement was launched in 1260 by a hermit of Perugia and spread southwards to Rome and northwards to the Lombard cities with such rapidity that to contemporaries it appeared a sudden epidemic of remorse. Led usually by priests, masses of men, youths and boys marched day and night, with banners and burning candles, from town to town. And each time they came to a town they would arrange themselves in groups before the church and flog themselves for hours on end. The impact which this public penance made upon the general population was great. Criminals confessed, robbers returned their loot and usurers the interest on their loans, enemies were reconciled and feuds forgotten. Even the two warring parties which were dividing Italy, the Guelphs or supporters of the Pope and the Ghibellines or the supporters of the Emperor, for a moment lost some of their intransigence. Whole towns became involved in the movement – at Reggio the chief magistrate, the bishop and all the guilds took part. As the processions moved along they constantly increased in size, until they were many thousand strong. But if at times people of all classes would join in, it was the poor who persevered; so that in the latter stages of the movement they alone remained.

“The circumstances under which this first outbreak of mass self-flagellation occurred are significant. Even by medieval standards, conditions in Italy at that moment were exceptionally hard. In 1258 there had been famine, in 1259 a serious outbreak of plague. Above all, incessant warfare between Guelph and Ghibelline had reduced the country to a state of the utmost misery and insecurity. The situation of the Guelph towns was particularly desperate, for their cause had just suffered a heavy blow when the Florentines were defeated at Montaperto, with fearful slaughter, by the Tuscan Ghibellines. Frederick II’s son, Manfred, seemed well on the way to establishing his sway over the whole of Italy. It was not for nothing that the flagellant movement started in a Guelph city and flourished amongst Guelphs. Yet all these afflictions were felt to be but a prelude to a final and overwhelming catastrophe. A chronicler remarked that during the flagellant processions people behaved as though they feared that as a punishment for their sins God was about to destroy them all by earthquake and by fire from on high. It was in a world which seemed poised on the brink of the abyss that these penitents cried out, as they beat themselves and threw themselves upon their faces: ‘Holy Virgin take pity on us! Beg Jesus Christ to spare us!’ and ‘Mercy, mercy! Peace, peace!’ – calling ceaselessly, we are told, until the fields and mountains seemed to echo with their prayers and musical instruments fell silent and love-songs died away.”[1]

Through the sentiment that this was an intolerable existence, from which so often came the obscure desire for universal annihilation, the principle of hope also fought its way through: the phoenix reborn from its cinders. Thus the most diverse traits [and people] were mixed together in the flagellant movement: the refusal of the Church and the clergy; the divine freedom to which the most disinherited (thus those who suffered the most) acceded by right; and those who – like the Beghards of Cologne, the Beguines of Świdnica and the former Messalians – overcame the ordeal of sorrow and entered into the promised land of Edenic happiness; but also the resentment of the oppressed people who turned this way and that way against the powerful and who, in the ordinary discharges [l’ordinaire sanie] of cowardice and sadism, most often tortured and massacred Jewish men, women and children.

In 1349, the Pope rejected the Flagellants: “Most of them or their followers, beneath an appearance of piety, set their hands to cruel and impious works, shedding the blood of Jews whom Christian piety accepts and sustains.”[2]

In 1261 and 1262, the movement crossed the Alps, went up the Rhine and entered southern Germany, where it took a turn that was more popular, more anti-clerical and more faithful to Joachimite eschatology. The appeals to purity of soul and faith didn’t fail to revive the anti-Semitic basis that had been cultivated by Emicho of Leiningen, the Master of Hungary, and an anonymous clergyman from Passau, who authored a chronicle in the second half of the Thirteenth Century that attributed all the world’s misfortunes to the Jews and heretics.

If one participated in a procession of flagellants, the duration of which was thirty-three-and-a-half days (in memory of Christ’s age), this was deemed enough to assure one of the impeccability of whatever one did and, obviously, to exempt one from the Church and its sacraments. After 1262, the on-going threat to clerical profitability justified the prohibition that was pronounced against the hysterical hordes who exhibited their bloody wounds and pled Christ-like sorrows in the countryside and the towns in order to be able to devote themselves, without committing any sins, to couplings, libations, rape and pillage.

The Black Plague of 1348-1349 revived the propensity to merciful suffering, on which the Church of the Fifteenth Century based its lucrative market in death. Possessed by a holy fury, groups of fifty to five hundred people paraded in successive waves in Germany, the Netherlands and Hungary, exorcising through an exemplary expiation the just anger with which God overwhelmed his creatures. England, little concerned with a redemption obtained by a cynical overbidding in misfortune, rejected the flagellant movement.

Repressed in Strasbourg in 1296, Bergamo in 1334, and Cremona in 1346, the Flagellants still managed to invade Bruges, Ghent, Tournai and Dordrecht. The bishops sometimes tolerated them and tried in vain to temper their devastating zeal.

As the excess of horrors accumulating in the 1350s elevated suffering to the dignity of a supreme good, millenarianism reappeared: it was the logical extension of the project of annihilation conducted by God with a great power of conviction. A mysterious Heavenly Letter, which no doubt issued from Segarellism, announced the decision of the Lord – as dictated to a prophet – to exterminate mankind. Angered by the unworthy conduct of his creatures and, in particular, by the rich, God would only spare humanity in exchange for general repentance and contrition embellished by the whip. One still had to receive clemency through the intercession of Mary. The egalitarianism of the adepts of voluntary poverty alienated the nobility from the movement, though the nobles sometimes gave in to penitential solicitations. Did not Clement VI prescribe the virtues of flagellation? He retracted his support and, in 1349, he condemned the movement, with the result that the messianism of the artisans and peasants turned to confront the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie and the clergy, the hedonism of which – judged to be contrary to the wishes of God – had aroused heavenly anger.

Anti-clericalism most often gave way to anti-Semitism. The pogroms made good use of the unleashing of pent-up frustrations upon the marginal people who had been condemned to disgrace by the Church, which made the Jews scapegoats when they ceased to fill up the coffers of the bishops and princes. The Jewish communities of Frankfurt, Mainz, Cologne and Brussels were exterminated. (Note that, in 1146, Peter the Venerable, the abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Cluny, had already remarked, “What good does it do to go to the end of the world (...) to combat the Saracens when we let live among us other infidels who are guiltier with respect to Christ than the Mohammedans?”[3]

In Thuringia, Konrad Schmid led the millenarian flagellants. He revived the legend of the return of Frederic, the Emperor of the Last Days, to which Dolcino had imprudently given political credit.

Renewing the tradition of the itinerant Christ, Schmid demanded an absolute submission to his person. He decreed that self-flagellation was the prelude to the birth of an Edenic age to come in 1369. The Inquisition hastened to seize Schmid and burn him in Nordhausen in 1368, one year in advance of the due date.

By reinforcing its repression, Rome tried, as it was it custom, to recuperate the movement to its profit. The Spaniard Vincent Ferrier took control of the penitents, who were severely boxed in and controlled; he won his sanctification by giving an orthodox coloration to the welts made by the whip.[4] He was only partially successful in this. Seeing himself overwhelmed on all sides, [the anti-flagellant] Gerson adjured in 1417 by renouncing his stinging apostolate.

From then on, the Inquisition took the initiative. The pyres (principally in Germany) reduced to cinders some ninety flagellants in 1414; three hundred of them in 1416; and a dozen in Nordhausen in 1446 and Sondershausen in 1454. The last victims succumbed around 1480.

The Flagellants’ doctrine hardly bothered with theological subtleties. Konrad Schmid advocated a second baptism, a baptism of blood, which conferred [personal] salvation and doomed the Church, the clergy and the sacraments to uselessness. The refusal to pay tithes and the denunciation of the trade in indulgences belonged to all the popular movements that the Church did not cease to arouse against it and its clerical bureaucracy. The rejection of the cult of the saints and purgatory would form [Martin] Luther’s heritage, as would anti-Semitism, all things considered.

Domenico Savi, also called Meco del Sacco, was burned in 1344 in Ascoli; his doctrines attested to the penetration of free spirit ideas even in the destructive fury of the Flagellants. In fact, he taught the following theses, here transcribed in the spirit of the inquisitors who sent him to death.

“Their impudent caresses that went as far as pleasure were not a sin; men and women praying together in the obscurity of the night do not commit sin, whatever else they might be doing at the time; it was permitted for women to flagellate themselves for their sins, nude and publicly; lay people also had the power to absolve all sins.”[5]

Nevertheless, the Church discovered in collective self-flagellation a way of exercising over the populations a form of control, the power of which the official history has always exaggerated. Catholicism only inspired a true devotion in the Fifteenth Century, on the eve of the schism that amputated half of its empire. Using the fear of death and the horror of a beyond that perpetuated the atrocities of terrestrial destiny, Rome readjusted its control over subjects reduced to the state of sinners.

The Dance of Death, deploying an avenging and egalitarian imagery (since death spins all the social classes in its sinister round), celebrated the interminable festival of dead life, and the only recourse was to pay the parish priest (lying in ambush for the last breath) for the “last rights” that gave a life-saving meaning to sorrow. There would be great pardons for those who suffered greatly if they resigned themselves to honor the bills that the Church deducted from every moment of an existence that it subjugated, from the cries of birth to the death rattles of the final agony. Ironically, from the Fifteenth Century onward, the Church imposed itself under the traits of a mother, while death, in its half-emaciated skeleton, took on the figure of Woman according to the patriarchy: an enemy in life, a friend in putrefaction.


[1] N. Cohn, Les fanatiques de l’Apocalpyse, Paris 1983, pp. 134 and 135. [Translator: here Vaneigem refers to the French translation of Norman Cohn’s In Pursuit of the Millennium (New York, 1957), pp. 125-126. Rather than translate Cohn back into English, we have quoted directly from the original.]

[2] Ibid., p. 147. [Translator: In Pursuit of the Millennium, p. 139.]

[3] Cited by Delumeau, La peur en Occident, Paris, 1978, p. 313.

[4] Translator: called “the Angel of the Last Judgment,” and a ferocious anti-Semite, Ferrier was canonized by Calixtus III in 1455.

[5] R. Guarnieri, Il morimento del liberto spiritio, Rome, 1965, p. 427.


(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! May 2013. All footnotes by the author, except where noted.)



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