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Flagellantism was a 13th and 14th centuries movement, consisting of radicals in the Catholic Church. It began as a militant pilgrimage and was later condemned by the Catholic Church as heretical. The followers were noted for including public flagellation in their rituals.
Flagellation (from Latin flagellare, to whip) was quite a common practice amongst the more fervently religious. Various religions, like the cult of Isis in Egypt and the Dionysian cult of Greece, practiced their own forms of flagellation. In ancient Rome, eunuch priests of the Phrygian goddess Cybele, the Galli, flogged themselves until they bled during the annual festival called Dies sanguinis (Day of Blood). Women were flogged during the Roman Lupercalia to ensure fertility.
At first, flagellation became a form of penance in the Catholic 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. It was also said that when singing a hymn and upon reaching the part about the passion of the Christ, one must drop to the ground, no matter how dirty or painful the area may seem. Also one mustn't move if the ground has something on it that may cause an inconvenience.
The movement did not have a central doctrine or overall leaders, but a popular passion for the movement occurred all over Europe in separate outbreaks. The first recorded incident was in Perugia in 1259, the year after severe crop damage and famine throughout Europe. 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 dissatisfaction with the Church's control.
The prime cause of the Perugia episode is unclear, but it followed an outbreak of an epidemic 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. Marvin Harris links them to the Messianic preaching of Gioacchino da Fiore.
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. When they preached that mere participation in their processions cleaned sins, 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 occurred.
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 (each day referred to a year of Jesus's earthly life) of penance, only stopping in any one place for no more than a day. 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 hands to indicate their sin and striking themselves rhythmically to songs, known as Geisslerlieder, 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 from their spouses and to prove that they could pay for their food. However, some towns began to notice that sometimes Flagellants brought plague to towns where it had not yet surfaced. Therefore later they were denied entry. They responded with 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 them in a bull of October 20, 1349 and instructed Church leaders to 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, who would bring an age of social justice. Konrad Schmidt claimed to be Frederick and baptised himself in the blood of his followers. His Thuringian rebels left their worldly occupations and prayed preparing the Judgment Day for 1369. The Inquisition burnt him before he could go on with his plans.
A similar movement arose again in 1399, again in Northern Italy in the form of the White Penitents or Bianchi movement. This rising is said to have been started by a peasant who saw a vision. 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 and marched to Rome, but the movement rapidly faded when one of its leaders was burned at the stake by order of Boniface IX.
The Inquisition was active against any revival of the movement in the 15th century. In 1414, two groups, one of them followers of Karl Schmidt, totaling over a hundred members, were burned in Germany. Three hundred in Thuringia were burnt in one day of 1416. 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.
Modern processions of hooded Flagellants are still a feature of various Mediterranean Catholic countries, mainly in Spain, Italy and some former colonies, usually every year during Lent. They also occur in the Philippines during Holy Week. For example in the commune of Guardia Sanframondi in Campania, Italy, such parades are organized once every seven years.
In English, "the penitent brothers." This is a semi-secret society of flagellants among the Hispanic Roman Catholics of Colorado and New Mexico.
In Italy, members of the Flagellant movement were called disciplinati, while laudesi never practiced flagellation, but met together in their own chapel to sing laudi (canticles) in honour of the Blessed Virgin, but which gradually assumed a dramatic form and grew into a theatrical form known as rappresentazioni sacre. A play in the Roman dialect of the 14th century, edited by Vattasso (Studi e Testi, no. 4, p. 53), explicitly bears the title lauda.
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